“It felt good being with other confused beings. We were all caught up in the middle of two societies.” (Marchetta, Looking for Alibrandi, p7)
Forging an identity is a difficult process. There are a million different influences – our families and friends, our experiences and histories, our hopes, dreams and aspirations. All of these things come together at some point – the building blocks of an identity, making us who we are.
But how does this process differ when you are different from the people around you? When something – your appearance, or your family, or the things you believe – set you apart from everyone else? When you don't fit the mold, no matter how hard you try.
Here I'm going to look at three Australian young adult girls books that deal with this issue. Two of them – Pastures of the Blue Crane by H. F. Brinsmead, and Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, are old favourites of mine. The other book, Does My Head Look Big in This by Randa Abdel-Fattah is a new find. These books all deal with race and culture, as well as a number of other aspects of forging an identity in 'multicultural' Australia.
Pastures of the Blue Crane
“ . . . in that moment Ryl noticed his hair. Hair? No, it was wool. The crinkle black wool of the South Sea Islander . . .” (Brinsmead, p48)
Ryl Merewether was abandoned by her father at the age of three, left in the care of his solicitor, with enough money to send her to 'good schools' until she grew up. As she progressed through these schools, she grew cold and hard, trusting no one but herself.
Everything changes for Ryl as she finished her years of schooling. Suddenly she learns that her father has died, leaving her and her new found grandfather, a house in Northern New South Wales. They decide to go together, to leave their old lives behind them, to see what might lie ahead.
“'Dusty – gee, I'm glad you're here. Are you – are you glad I'm here?'” (Brinsmead, p134)
At this point, Ryl's main concern is learning to live with other people – to give part of herself to others. She now has not only a grandfather, but a large group of friends, including helpful neighbours, the Bradley's and surfing friends – the dapper Glen, and Perry of the crinkle hair. Slowly these people get under her skin, thawing out her heart and teaching her that it is possible to love.
“She was thinking about Ki and Perry. She had come to this district full of snobbery and prejudice. But she had been forced to see that Perry at least was the superior of many a white boy.” (Brinsmead, p147)
Perry Davis plays a large part in the forging of Ryl's identity. He is the great grandson of the last of the 'blackbirds' (an Australian experiment with slavery that was stopped by the introduction of the White Australian policy) – set apart from Ryl and the rest of their surfer friends because of his crinkle wool hair and darker skin. At first Ryl is wary of him; shocked that someone with his background could be so 'decent'. But as their friendship grows, she realises that Perry and his great-grandfather Ki are as good as any other people she knows – that she needs to look beyond initial appearances before judging people.
“I'm still me, just as Perry's Perry! I'm just descended from a Samoan, instead of from some Cockney convict! And I'm Australian!” (Brinsmead, p246)
The final pieces fall into place for Ryl, when she learns that the mother she never knew was Ki's grand daughter – Perry's mother. Earlier, Perry had asked her what she would do if she found she was of mixed blood:
“'I'd try to be like you,' she said. 'I'd just try to be a fine citizen of the world – or to narrow it down, of Australia.” (Brinsmead, p210)
She has, she realised, moved beyond her snobbish understanding of the world. Things are no longer black and white to her, she can see and appreciate the shades of grey. The discovery of her ancestry does not shock her as it once might have – instead she is happy to have found a brother. As far as she's concerned, the discovery that she can love is more important in the forging of her identity – in the end, she's still herself.
Looking for Alibrandi
“I'll run one day. Run for my life. To be free and think for myself. Not as an Australian and not as an Italian and not as an in-between. I'll run to be emancipated.” (Marchetta, p40)
Unlike Ryl, Josie Alibrandi thinks she knows exactly where she comes from. She is an Italian, living in Australia. She's a scholarship student at an exclusive Sydney private school. And she's an illegitimate child.
Josie slips between being proud and embarrassed of her Italian heritage. She hates some of the traditions, such as Tomato Day, but she believes that she will keep these traditions going for as long as she can. She wants to date boys from different backgrounds, but gets frustrated when they don't understand her cultural background. She's still trying to work out how her 'Italian-ness' fits into her life, but when a classmate goes on about wogs, (and comments on her illegitimacy) she deals out the only possible punishment.
“God knows what possessed me, but having that science book in my hand propelled me to immediate action. So I hit her with it.” (Marchetta, p82)
Despite her concerns about her cultural heritage, Josie's life really changes when she meets her father for the first time.
“There is nothing terribly romantic about my mother's supposed fall from grace. She slept with the boy next door when they were sixteen and before anything could be decided his family moved to Adelaide.” (Marchetta, p7)
When Josie was born, she and her mother were considered outcasts, estranged from the rest of the family until her grandfather died. Even then they were talked about, with other children kept from visiting Josie's house as she was growing up. Still she likes the comfortable life she and her mother have created together. As far as Josie is concerned, her father can only mess that up.
But once they get to know each other, Josie discovers that she likes having a father, with all the history he brings with him. She finds that they look alike and share the same character traits, that he has shaped her identity even in his absence.
“Katia Alibrandi, Christina Alibrandi, Joephine Alibrandi. Our whole lives, just like our names, are lies.” (Marchetta, p219)
Josie's life is further shaken up as she learns the truth about two things. First she finds out the truth about her family – that the man she thought was her grandfather, was unable to have children. Her real grandfather was an Australian, a policemen and army officer who'd had an affair with her grandmother in the 1950's. An affair that had led to the birth of her mother, and the eventual estrangement of Josie and her mother.
“'How dare he kill himself when he's never had any worries! He's not a wog. People don't get offended when they see him and his friends. He had wealth and breeding. No one ever spoke about his family . . .'” (Marchetta, p234)
Josie's second realisation comes when a close friend – someone who 'had it all' – commits suicide. It is then that she understands that she wants to live – that her Italian culture and her illegitimacy are not the things she should be ashamed about. She understands that they are part of her, that they have shaped her.
“I've figured out that it doesn't matter whether I'm Josephine Andretti who was never an Alibrandi, who should have been a Sandford and who may never be a Coote. It matters who I feel like I am – and I feel like Michael and Christina's daughter and Katia's granddaughter; Sera, Anna and Lee's friends and Robert's cousin.” (Marchetta, 261)
Does My Head Look Big In This?
“I was ready to wear the hijab.
That's right, Rachel from Friends inspired me. The sheikhs will be holding emergency conferences.” (Abdel-Fattah, p2)
Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim also knows where she comes from. She's an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian, and like Josie, she's a student at an exclusive private school. She has a great relationship with her family, and a group of friends who are Muslim, Christian, Jewish and not religious at all. Amal's not embarrassed by her culture or religion, however. She also has a pretty good idea of who she is and what she believes. Instead, her worries are about confirming her identity as she shares it with the rest of the world – as she makes the decision to wear the hijab full time.
“I'm experiencing a new identity, a new expression of who I am on the inside, but I know that I'm not alone. I'm not breaking new ground. I'm sharing something with millions of other women around the world and it feels so exciting.” (Abdel-Fattah, p25)
Amal's first challenge is walking through the gates of McCleans Grammer School. The school principal can't believe that Amal has made this decision herself, accusing her parents of forcing her to wear the veil. Her classmates stare as if she's “showed up to school wrapped in toilet paper” (Abdel-Fattah, p38), and the 'mean girls' snigger whenever Amal walks past. But there are instances that teach Amal not to judge too quickly – not to jump to the conclusion that everyone will be against her once she starts wearing the hijab. Her English teacher organises a quiet place for her to pray during lunchtime; her non-Muslim best friends are proud of her decision; and once her classmates get past their initial shock, they are curious and friendly.
“'There's no formula to love! If I got with ten guys, each time will be different and each time I'll be thinking this is a risk. And when I finally meet someone I'm still going to be facing the biggest risk of my life but ten other experiences aren't going to tell me if this guy is the right one.” (Abdel-Fattah, p230)
Despite the fact Amal has a crush on Adam (one of those guys who seems to have it all), she has firm beliefs on how she will behave when it comes to a romantic relationship. She is determined that she will not 'indulge' in the physical stuff of a casual relationship, that she will wait for the one right person, even if it means losing one of her best friends.
“But then something happens. Something that doesn't come within ten solar planets of what I expect. A group of lunatics rip bombs through a nightclub district in Bali on Saturday.” (Abdel-Fattah p235)
Amal's biggest challenge is wearing the hijab in a time and place when the words 'Islam' and 'Muslim' are constantly spoken in the same breath as the word 'terrorist'. The story is set in 2002, one year after the terrorist attacks in the United States; the year of the first Bali bombing in which a number of Australian tourists were killed.
“I wince every time Ms Walsh says the word 'massacre' with the word 'Islamic', as though these barbarities somehow belong to my Muslim community.” (Abdel-Fattah, p237)
In the aftermath of the Bali bombing, Amal fells that she can't even grieve as other people do, like everyone is watching her to see how she'll react. She sits though the venom her classmates spew at her community without a word. She wonders if she'll ever find her place in Australia:
“I have nowhere else to go and nowhere else I want to go. Once again I don't know where I stand in the country in which I took my first breath of life.” (Abdel-Fattah, p237-8)
Amal is comfortable in herself, in the identity she has forged for herself. It is her identity as an Australian that is confusing her. She wonders how she will be able to combine different cultures successfully – how she will be able to get a job when people are scared of a piece of material on her head; how she can convince a friend's mother that her daughter won't turn bad if she goes out for a birthday dinner; and how she can convince her cranky next door neighbour to contact her long estranged son.
In the end, Amal decides she is bigger than an 'identity', that it's much more important to work at being herself.
“Some people might find this ironic, but when I think about it, it's mainly been the migrants in my life who have inspired me to understand what it means to be an Aussie. To be a hyphenated Australian.
“It's been the 'wogs', the 'nappy heads', the 'foreigners', the 'persons of Middle Eastern appearance', the Asians, the 'oppressed' women, the Greek Orthodox pensioner chain-smoker, the 'salami eaters', the 'ethnics', the pm-turned-curry-munchers, the narrow-minded and the educated, the fair-dinkum wannabes, the principal with hairy ears who showed me that I am a colourful adjective . . .” (Abdel-Fattah, p339)
Abdel-Fattah, Randa (2005) Does My Head Look Big In This?
Brinsmead, H. F (196?) Pastures of the Blue Crane
Marchetta, Melina (1992) Looking for Alibrandi