Between Us, by Clare Atkins

In my pre and early teens I was already reading adult books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well those actually targeted towards my age group. But those books, both adult and children’s, were very tame compared to some things published today for a teen readership.

Between Us is an example of that contrast, with occasional coarse language and references to drug use and sexual desire. Is this change in publishing an acknowledgement of changing lived realities? Or is it merely reflecting realties that were also present in my own teen years (as they were), but within a society that preferred not to acknowledge it?

In this novel, Clare Atkins can’t afford to shy away from realities that, like it or not, do reflect a commonly lived teen experience; because the book deals with some issues far darker than potentially offensive language or teen drug use. Sanitising the depiction of common experience could potentially lessen the authenticity of those darker aspects of the story.

Even in normal circumstances teenage relationships have difficulties, complicated by the uncertainties and insecurities associated with pubescent change. Ana and Jono have the additional complications of significant cultural differences, widely different personal experience, as well as being on opposite sides of Government policy.

Ana is a teenage refugee imprisoned in an Australian “detention centre”, after escaping with her family from persecution in their homeland of Iran. Her only regular time away from the prison camp is to attend the local High School. On her first day she meets Jono, the son of one of the camp’s guards, Kenny, a man of Vietnamese heritage, and once a refugee himself. But that was during very different times when the Government didn’t whip up suspicion and fear of those seeking asylum, or use them as political pawns.

Jono’s aunt, Kenny’s sister, describes her own arrival in Australian waters on a refugee boat:

“The boat come into Darwin. Near Nightcliff beach. It early morning. Foggy. All white. Then we see a small boat. It come towards us, two men dressed in singlet and shorts. White stripes here”. She touches the bridge of her nose. “Zinc, you know? Sun hat too. And they stand up with beer in their hand and wave. And they come up close, very close and fast to our boat. And one of them hold up his beer and say, ‘G’day, mate! Welcome to Australia'”

It was a very different welcome to that given to Ana, her mother and small brother. After arriving as “illegals” by boat, they are transferred from one detention centre to another, from Christmas Island to Nauru, until Ana’s mum’s pregnancy develops problems and they are moved to a mainland camp in Darwin. They are separated from Ana’s mum’s  boyfriend Abdul, the father of Ana’s brother and the expected baby. He is left behind on Nauru*.

 

…the Nauruan immigration officials asking us question after question.

It goes for hours, until we’re so tired we can barely see.

Maman tells them we’ve already been through this twice on Christmas Island, but they insist on hearing everything again. She tells them about the whipping, and they request to see my back. I lift my T-shirt to show them the scars.

The Farsi interpreter seems to struggle to translate, as Maman explains about the morality police and the government and our constant fear ever since Baba was killed and left by the side of the road.

They ask how long Maman has been with Abdul.

Abdul says, “Many years. Our son is already three”

But the officials aren’t convinced. Maman and Abdul aren’t married…

 

… Abdul argues and justifies and rants, until he loses his temper and slams his fist into the wall. The impact of it is so strong that it leaves a hole in the plaster. Abdul backs away, saying “Sorry…sorry…” But it’s as if no-one hears.

Security rushes to restrain him, as Maman screams in protest…

Each chapter of the book is told from a different character’s perspective, alternating between the points of view of Ana, Jono and Kenny.

Each has their fears and hopes, but the ratio of each differs depending on the character’s situation.

Nightmares and nightmarish memories converge in Ana’s daily reality as an inmate within the detention centre. Fear of being returned to Nauru and the lack of hope for eventual freedom. Inmates are treated as criminals with regular room searches, denied basic dignities, always fearful of retribution for minor perceived misdemeanours. Treated as less than human, little better than they were by the repressive and violent regime they tried to flee.

Jono struggles to understand Ana’s situation and what she has been through. And he is unknowingly caught up in the conflict between his growing feelings for Ana and his dad’s suspicions, fears and regrets.

Kenny’s fears for his son; wanting to provide for Jono and yet seeing the gap between them widen.  Led to believe camp inmates will manipulate and take advantage of the vulnerable he takes a dark view of Jono’s friendship with Ana. His experience shows how the camps dehumanize the staff as well as the inmates.

At a time when the mandatory detention of refugees continues, the book couldn’t lead up to a traditional happy ending, however it doesn’t leave the reader in despair, but culminates with the hope of new beginnings…

 

[And then comes the author’s postscript in which she tells of the Australian government withdrawing support from asylum seekers allowed to live in the community (up to August 2017 ) so they would be required to return to camps in Nauru or Manus Island, or have six months to return to the countries from which they had fled.]

 

The author’s personal web site is here : http://clareatkins.com.au/

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Another book covering similar ground is The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon, briefly mentioned here:
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/opposite-ends-of-the-reading-spectrum/

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*https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/girl-at-extreme-risk-flown-to-australia-from-nauru-detention-centre-20180209-h0vv9t.html