Did YA exist when I was a teenager? Probably not as the genre it is today. The books that broke through my teen angst and spoke to me of other ways to be were by Donna Tartt, Douglas Coupland, Michael Chabon: adult novels I could decipher and from which I could imagine new pathways beyond the options presented by my peers. And then there were the gay writers whose work felt illicit or impenetrable and, writing with other adults in mind, did little to assuage my adolescent fears.
Today there’s an entire corner of literature for and about teens, and it’s as diverse and ambitious and ground-breaking as anything in the literary fiction aisle. I wish I was 16 again so I could immerse myself in this universe. More to the point, I wish my 16 year-old self could have found some of these unwritten books then. I can’t count the ways in which my life might have been different.
In The Boy From The Mish, Yuin author Gary Lonesboroough tells the uplifting story of a seventeen year-old Indigenous boy making sense of his desires, his beliefs and his future during one hot Australian summer.
It's almost Christmas, school's out, and Jackson’s looking forward to hanging with his mates. Just like every year, Jackson's Aunty and little cousins visit from the city - but this time they’re joined by another teen with whom Jackson has to share a room. Tomas is just out of Juvie, snores and would be annoying if he wasn’t so damn… cute.
What follows is the marvelous story of a queer awakening told in the simple but limpid voice of a mischievous boy who for the first time in his life, needs to make some serious choices.
An Aboriginal perspective on the coming out story is exactly what the world needs right now. Speaking from lived experience, the author tells a familiar tale but illuminates it with new insights. Well, new to this white reader anyway.
Lonesborough deftly captures the inner-monologue of a misfit youth wrestling with that particular brand of anxiety, the tug of war between fear and excitement, vulnerability in the face of self-doubt and the sense of invincibility common to young men of that age. Without positive models of gay life to refer to, Jackson wants to “get back to the way things were before I met him. Get back to me, to who I was, who I can still be.”
The stakes are high. Being different on The Mish is already perilous: Jackson and his friends have to contend with racism, both systemic and in their daily encounters with white kids and tourists. Rejection from his own community would break up the only real support system available to Jackson. The author makes subtle but very real references to the dead ends Aboriginal men too often face growing up in systemically racist system: juvie, jail, substance abuse, suicide.
Throw queerness in the mix and the environment becomes volatile indeed. “This is the Mish. No one does that here. I don’t do that.”
At the same time, Jackson discovers that connection to the land and to his community is also where he can locate the strength to be who he wants to be. In this respect, it’s particularly refreshing to see the rites of adolescent passage play out against a natural backdrop. Key moments in Jackson’s journey of self-discovery take place canoeing on a river, hiking up a mountain or during a smoking ceremony.
In an incredible conversation with an Elder, Jackson is told of the enduring suffocating shame of colonization, and its antidote: a pride in who we are, who we love and where we come from. Drawing that line between cultural revitalization and self-determination in the context of coming out is incredibly powerful. It’s a fleeting but defining moment in a book that rarely preaches, dispensing its lessons with a light touch.
When Tomas and Jackson discuss their collaborative graphic novel, an Aboriginal superhero origin story, it’s clear to the reader who the real superheroes are, and what they have to teach us. This book should be on the high school curriculum across the land.