A Young Adult (YA) novel on Aboriginal Art Directory? Well, there has to be a first for everything. And anyone who’s read my thoughts upon returning from Griffith’s Wiradjuri Festival in October will know that ‘The Mish’ was capable of becoming a significant factor in saving the 19th Century tribal people from wipe-out. In recognition of that today, memories are being fostered of the role that the now-derelict Warangesda Mission at Darlington Point played as a turning point in modern Wiradjuri history.
So I was keen to read Gary Lonesborough’s book, ‘The Boy from the Mish’ to learn more about contemporary associations with the Mish that features in his book on Yuin country. Not that 26 year old Gary was actually brought up at the Wallaga Lake Reserve just out of Bermagui. He’s a Bega boy “ should that be Biggah, as Yuin call it “ where he didn’t enjoy growing up in a private house, but got a good enough education for his teachers to nominate him at 19 for the Bega Valley Young Citizen Award on a the strength of a self-published novella.
They also involved him in a project involving visits to the Wallaga reserve during his last two years at school, and Gary discovered the benefits (and some downsides) of everyone knowing each other. There’s a real sense of community. He also discovered the regional Men’s Group that plays a key role in the book. For the teenage fictional Jackson, too young to buy alcohol but experienced in drinking it to excess, has a problem that only the elders in the Group seem able to solve. For he’s finding himself attracted to young Tomas, a wildish boy from Sydney down for the summer; but he’s always thought himself totally straight. Everyone’s straight in the Mish, aren’t they?
As he comes to accept that his sexual failures with girls and Tomas’s cuteness may be leading him somewhere else, its Uncle Charlie at the Men’s Group who quietly tells him he always knew, and that this little difference doesn’t disconnect you from your culture.
In real life, Gary was similarly affected by one of the first real cultural experiences I’d had with the Wallaga Men’s Group. We put our guards down, opened up and shared our troubles around the campfire. I guess it’s a lot easier in the country than in Sydney. But I’m now trying to convey the power of those groups, the sense of safety that they can offer to kids in Penrith, where I’m working currently. I know there are elders out there with the knowledge like Charlie; but they’re getting past it. And the kids are disconnected from their culture as a result.
So, our author is also a social worker, which raises the question as to whether his book has a social work aspect to it. Is it aimed exclusively at First Nations kids coming out, or would it be relevant for the non-Indigenous?
Hard to tell “ I guess I was reading it for the Indigenous experience “ the Mish, the Men’s Group, the Yuin aspects such as the mythical Doolagah “ ‘hairy men’ pretty much invented to keep kids close to the campfire at night, but appearing in the book as part of an Aboriginal superhero tale the Tomas is trying to incorporate into a graphic novel “ requiring Jackson’s artistry. And that’s their original reason for coming together. But their developing relationship has a universality, based on growing understanding and emotions rather than graphic sex.
I couldn’t shy away from it completely, Gary Lonesborough tells me, but I wanted to make sure that issues like communication and consent got through to readers. He hopes this will come across for all teens, who can all see elements of themselves in the characters; but especially Aboriginal readers. There weren’t books like this when I was at school “ which lead to a lot of drinking and partying, being a general idiot!.
And both Tomas and Jackson are general idiots at different stages in the book “ but their relationship is a positive, possibly redeeming experience for both of them. I needed to make it hopeful, Gary sums up, as well as admitting that it all started with a single scene in his head on the sacred Yuin mountain Gulaga (Mt Dromedary) where the boys have struggled through mud and up many steps to find the perfect place to make love for the first time…..
I’ll say no more.
‘The Boy from the Mish’ is published today by Allen & Unwin at $20