Nona & Me
Black Inc Books
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Rosie and Nona have grown up as close as sisters – they are sisters despite the fact that Nona is Aboriginal and Rosie is not. Nona’s family members have been adopting Rosie’s family members for generations now and the two families are as one. As children, Rosie and Nona laugh, learn and play together. They are inseparable until they are nine when Nona moves away.
When she returns at age 15, things are different. Despite the fact that Rosie still lives in the remote Aboriginal community with her mother, she no longer goes to the school there. Instead she goes to the high school in the nearby mining ‘town’ and has moved on to other friendships. Rosie’s social life revolves around the popular and confident Selena as well as Selena’s good looking older brother Nick, neither of whom have good opinions about the local indigenous population.
It is 2007 and the year that John Howard announces his infamous and controversial “Intervention” policy which puts the mining town population at odds with the Aboriginal communities. Rosie has been struggling to fit in because of her upbringing – she’s been brought up to think differently about the Aboriginal people and their lifestyles. Now she finds herself in the unenviable position of having to choose where her loyalty lies: with her best friend, her sister, the one who is supposed to be her family forever or her new first love.
In a word, this book is powerful.
It begins in 2007 when Nona returns to the area she left 6 years ago and Rosie sees her at the high school. At 15, Rosie is on the cusp of many things and she’s struggling with her place. She’s been raised on a remote Aboriginal community with parents who respect and cherish their way of life. She learned smatterings of the local dialect, had her own Aboriginal name given to her and spent much of her time playing with Nona, her Aboriginal yapa (sister) or spending time with her extended family. However since Nona left and Rosie moved to the high school in the nearby mining town, things became different. There’s not the same sort of tolerance, understanding and respect for the indigenous community that she was raised with. At times there is judgement, stereotyping and blatant racism.
Rosie is torn between a desire to be ‘normal’ like the other kids – to be able to live in town and go to the pool, or the shops for a coffee whenever she wants. To go to a party and wear a normal dress bought from a store instead of something her mother made for her by reusing some other household cloth item. She wants to have friends, maybe a boyfriend in the handsome and older Nick. At the same time, she can’t bear to hear the sentiments that these town people often express. She is half ashamed of where she lives in front of them, but at the same time feels the need to passionately defend both the community and its population when they are disparaged.
I could really understand Rosie’s conflict, I think that desire to fit in and be accepted is present in all of us in some way or another, most definitely when we’re in the awkward teenage part of our lives. She’s already on the outer not living in the mining town and being limited when she can get in and out to social events and she knows that voicing some of her real opinions and even some truths will get her seen as an outcast. When she begins seeing Nick, the older brother of her friend Selena, it’s very clear that they have different ideas and that Nick will never really be able to understand Rosie’s upbringing and relationship with the Aboriginal community. You always want the people you care about to understand you, or to at least be able to accept your differences and it becomes obvious that Nick and Rosie are going to really struggle to find this harmony.
As well as showing the close relationship between Rosie and Nona and the similarity of their childhoods, this book also shows the divide that their lives have taken. Rosie has stayed in school and is already thinking of the College of Fine Arts in Sydney when she graduates in a couple of years. By contrast, despite wanting to become a nurse after a stint in hospital as a child, Nona has missed a lot of school and will need much in the way of help and support if she is to be able to graduate and complete the training that she will need. Despite being only 15, she lives pretty much an adult lifestyle, just another difference in the two cultures and this is something Rosie does struggle with. She doesn’t see how this can or should happen to a girl who is the same age as her, despite having grown up within the culture and probably having seen it before. It also takes time to highlight the other problems that Aboriginals in remote communities face, such as drinking and “sniffing” (petrol or glue) and the ways in which some are attempting to help them, rather than jailing them or punishing them.
Nona & Me highlights really just how far we still have to go. I know it was only 7 or 8 years ago but I’d actually totally forgotten about the “intervention” policy until it appeared in this book. It showed me just how far removed I am from the communities in the Northern Territory and other outback areas and how little I know about what it’s like there. This book gave me a glimpse into that: the oppressive heat, the remoteness, the hunting and fishing they do for both fun and food and the bonds that can develop between two very different families. I would have loved Nona’s side of the story as well as Rosie’s, I find myself wondering about her long after I’ve finished the book.
Highly, highly recommend this one….to everyone.
Book #206 of 2014
Nona & Me is the 77th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
You can check out author Clare Atkins’s guest post, The mother who writes and the writer who mothers here