I bought Nona & Me by Clare Atkins after reading Danielle Binks’ excellent review of it on Killings. A novel set in Nhulunbuy and Yirrkala, in North East Arnhemland? I had to get to get it immediately. I have family in Nhulunbuy and it’s so remote (the closest town is Katherine, which is over 700km away via dirt roads) and so small (Yirrkala’s population is about 1000, and Nhulunbuy’s, till recently, has been about 4000 – it’s currently declining because the alumina refinery, one of the main employers, has just closed there) that the idea of reading a book set in the region seemed magical, tapping into an important part of Australia that many people have never even heard of, let alone read about in books.
I wasn’t disappointed. Nona & Me is the story of Rosie, a Ngapaki (white) girl, and her friendship with Nona, a Yolŋu girl. Rosie and Nona were best friends as kids, living together in Yirrkala and spending their days at the Nhulunbuy pool or Latram river, or out hunting wallaby with their families and searching for bush honey. When Nona moves away to Elcho Island, the girls drift apart. Years later, Nona returns to school – but Rosie is too caught up with her new boyfriend and her desire to be popular to reconnect with Nona. The story that follows details Rosie’s inner conflict – does she continue to disown her yapa (sister), or reconnect with her and risk losing her cool, new friends? The whole story takes place during the Howard government’s intervention, suffusing the story with unease and distress about the future.
At its heart, Nona & Me is a coming of age novel, and Atkins does a brilliant job of articulating Rosie’s teenage logic. It was like reading through my own high school diary at some points. Gems include:
We are sitting at our usual spot, on the benches near the basketball courts. Just close enough to see the boys playing, not so close that we seem desperate.
Anya is next to me, but she doesn’t fit on the narrow path. She has to walk with one shoe on the grass. I can tell this annoys her by the way she bangs each pole with her hand as she passes, as if she wants us to be aware that she is sacrificing her walking pleasure for the benefit of the group.
I was also really compelled by the relationship between Rosie and her mother; the content of their arguments and the way they always made up really rang true for me.
Atkins also does a fantastic and interesting job of engaging with Yolŋu culture. Atkins worked closely with a group of Yolŋu women with whom she’d lived in Yirrkala in order to ensure she wrote about the people, land and culture accurately, respectfully, and realistically. Aspects of the Yolŋu kinship system are intergrated into the story, as the way skin names work, the purpose of black/white, the way Ngapaki can be adopted into Yolŋu families. Bush knowledge is also described, such as finding bush honey, and hunting and eating wallaby. Yolŋu culture wasn’t over-romanticised, though – Atkins also also explored real issues such as teen pregnancy, suicide amongst young people, and alcohol abuse with sensitivity.
It’s important to note, though, that this primarily the story of Rosie. Nona is a side character who appears mostly in Rosie’s memories of childhood and occasionally in the present, even though her effect on Rosie is always profound. I found this okay, I suppose, since the book deals so respectfully with Yolŋu culture more generally, but sometimes it felt as though Nona were a litmus test for Rosie’s relationship with her Yolŋu family. I also wasn’t quite convinced by the story’s ending, which seemed to posit Nona and Rosie’s relationship as stronger than it was. However, I still cared a lot for Nona, and her character development was interesting and unpredictable.
Atkins does a great job of exposing how far Australia has to go in terms of eradicating systemic racial inequality and individual prejudice, through both examining the intervention policy and demonstrating how entrenched racism can become amongst white people. Occasionally, the story presented the political situation in quite black and white terms, ie, ‘right wing = bad’ and ‘left wing = good,’ and even though I lean left myself, the situation up north (and indeed, in all Australia) is hugely complicated, and can’t be ‘fixed’ by either end of white man’s political spectrum. Atkins doesn’t really suggest that it can – I suppose I’m just acknowledging the difficulty of writing about the future of reconciliation.
Despite these very minor points, I loved this book, and have been buying it as a present for everyone. It’s heartwarming, it reminded me of the best and worst things about being a teenager, and best of all, presented the Yolngu as an important, and yet normal, part of Australian society. It’s a great book for teenagers and adults alike.