Long ago, I asked myself, ‘Who should be the reader of KUMAKANA?’ The question has proved vexatious because, in the writing, I have not focused on who is the reader. Instead, I wrote a book that I have come to enjoy as a reader myself, yet my reading shelf has books by writers who write nothing like KUMAKANA. My reading mostly comprises thrillers and crime fiction. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading writers in other genres, but I remember reading KUMAKANA after a long time away from it and actually enjoying it. I mean, really enjoying it.
So a question arises, ‘How can I tap into what I enjoyed, and raise that to the consciousness of others who might also enjoy it?’ And who are these ‘others’ anyway?
Genre is this pigeon-holing system that allows readers to find what suits their sensibilities. In order to tap into market choices, writers set out to satisfy those specific sensibilities. Over the years, genres have fractured into sub-genres; and sub-genres into even more sub-genres.
In today’s economy, the bonds between writers and readers transcend story itself, seeking to become culturally dominant forms of what might be called a ‘friendship economy’, where the reader ‘follows’ the author and the author feeds that ‘friending frenzy’ by claiming and feeding the system itself rather than the cultural pursuits from which it is built. The friendship economy assumes that the ‘friends’ will benefit from the kudos of the ‘friended’ as the ‘friended’ climbs the ladders of cultural popularity built from ‘friends’. That resulting friendship becomes a commodified economic good to be traded for a further economic benefit, leaving those unable to join that ladder to wallow by the wayside.
Dominating a genre space is the goal of the modern day publisher, therefore, it makes sense to narrow genre spaces and encourage readers to identify themselves through the visual and cultural similarities that mimic real friendships. Genre is the space in which we readers find ourselves and there is no escape.
Is it Young Adult?
KUMAKANA’S protagonist is thirteen years old: does that mean it’s a young adult (YA) novel?
I firmly believe that there is an underlying reader prejudice that, once a central character is identified as being of a certain ‘type’ — be that through age, gender, sexual preference, or any other means of stereotype — readers use the genre spaces they understand to categorise the work, bringing with them the training they have gained from either reading in that space or rejecting it.
This includes readers of the most sophisticated kind, such as editors in publishing houses and critics, through to those who, maybe, are less sophisticated but no less discriminatory. So powerful has the genre space become that it informs readers of the ‘type’ long before the reading is begun, let alone complete.
When one sophisticated reader recently got to the point in KUMAKANA where he learned the story has talking animals among its circuitry of characters, he closed the manuscript (or at least closed his mind to it) because he doesn’t believe in books with talking animals, even though he admitted to being well invested in the central character. This then colours any reading he might make, and the deeper themes such as issues of sustainability and the influences of colonisation on an indigenous landscape — both physical and spiritual — will slip by without critical consideration because a particular (if not stereotypical) genre expectation wasn’t met.
But the fact remains that, just because the protagonist is a young adult, that doesn’t make her story one. Young Adult is a genre space in which it is seriously difficult to quantify which books and which people should fit. A problem Nadia Wheatley says, ‘will never be solved.’
The idea of Young Adult fiction emerged in USA libraries in the late 1950s when the American Library Association developed a set of standards for services to young adults premised on the recognition that adolescents were no longer interested in children’s books and, in lieu of relatively limited life experience, they were looked upon as a ‘step on the way to real books’.
The dominant culture of American YA literature into the 1960s was that they were ‘real stories about real people’. It was in the 1970s where the YA novel began to explore alienation as an important theme, holding up a mirror to society and its problems with social reformation, politics, drugs, sex, and rock and roll. The ‘problem novel’ that became the genre lodestone of the time tended to focus on a ‘particular problem of teenage life’ showing the reader that they were not isolated in their predicament.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the YA novel became a genre for Australian writers and the emergence of romance as the central theme and, despite their formulaic stereotypes, they were argued to better depict the reality of the lives of teenage girls of the time than did the problem novel. In the late 1980s, YA books began to take on similar aesthetic values as adult literature and delve into the multicultural space, attempting to break down the barriers of language and culture.
In many ways, it is in this space that KUMAKANA was conceived. The initial story conceit occurred in the early 1990s, and when writing began later that decade, I became deeply interested in how I might write an Australian myth and legend that eschewed the colonial notions of that particular genre space permeating Australian writing for young adults at the time. Works that explored this area by Australian writers were not Australian stories and this concerned me enormously. Issues of authenticity and largely academic arguments of cultural appropriation were levelled at my work (and by extension at me) when I sought support funding or publishing interest. Australian authors were at some kind of strange crossroads, where they were criticised for not writing encounters with Indigenous culture into their work, and equally chastised were they to do so.
By the turn of the century, YA fiction had become more pervasive in both its reach and levels of controversy in its content, described as ‘gritty realism, integrity and hope’. During this period, possibly beginning with the advent of the Harry Potter novels, a phenomenon known as ‘crossover’ began to emerge in which novels written for young adult readers were being consumed as much by adult readers as young readers.
Bridging, crossing over, interloping genres
In some respects, it has always been my hope that KUMAKANA will sit comfortably in this crossover space, not essentially because, as is argued by some, it broadens the sales opportunities, but because its themes and ideas should have a universal appeal, and offer sufficient controversy to cause readers at all ages to raise questions about my motives, the motives of society at large, and their own.
Apart from simply spinning a good adventure yarn, I have always seen this novel as a socialising force — a work that is centrally focused on transmitting cultural values. It’s a journey that moves its protagonist, Lavender Jensen, from a sense of innocence to one of experience in a realisation-rite-of-passage adventure.
At the beginning of the novel, Lavender is isolated from her usual life, sent to holiday with her father in a remote place. But there is also a sense of psychological isolation which brings her powers of imagination into question. The isolation deepens when the Kumakana Forest consumes her, even though she has teamed up with Jerramunga, a laconic Aboriginal youth, who acts both as a herald and mentor — although his mentorship is usually presented through his dead grandfather’s presence. It is Jerramunga’s actions that draw Lavender into a series of encounters that test her beliefs and bring the magical powers of her imagination to the fore. Her return comes at a deep personal cost but leaves her enriched with a cultural understanding and an alternate view of how the world works. We are left with a feeling of hope that a bright future lies in wait.
KUMAKANA meets the expectations of a YA novel in these ways, and others. It focuses on the search for identity, particularly where life is caught in the crosshairs between childhood and the adult world. The central character is exposed to the stark, brutal, violent and unfortunate realities of life — fostering her opportunity to mature, acquire new values, and a deeper understanding of herself because of the difficulties of the adventure she endures.
So yes, I conclude that KUMAKANA is, in fact, a Young Adult Novel, albeit perhaps one of a different shape and culture than those many have read. It’s not fantasy and it’s not science fiction, but it does involve magic and talking animals.
It might appeal to the reader of Watership Down, or of Lord of The Rings. It might just as much appeal to the reader of Secret River or people who enjoy watching Disney movies. Indeed, though, talking animals didn’t put people off reading Animal Farm. And, because I cannot speak for Indigenous culture in Australia, I made my own and gave it to the animals.
But most importantly, Lavender Jensen’s situation is unique. Her situation is specific to her circumstances, not circumstances that are generalisations drawn from the life of a thirteen-year-old. Although she is — like most teenagers of her generation — a curious youth, ‘seeking, applying, remixing and tinkering with learning’ — self-expressing and negotiating value systems that help her define her identity. She is on a quest, right from the start of the novel, for empowerment. As such, she is receptive and vulnerable as much as she is creative and firm. She is the kind of character I’m sure every writer wants to spend quality time with. Perhaps readers too.
KUMAKANA is both an adventure and a story of magical realism, a subject that will be explored in YA literature in a forthcoming post.