I’ve had a long relationship with telling stories. It hasn’t always been good.
Mum and Dad were storytellers. They would tell stories to me and my siblings when we were little, and I’ve loved telling my own stories ever since.
When I was six or seven, I was cutting pieces of blank A4 paper in half and stapling them together to make little books. When I was 12, a short story I wrote was published in the school yearbook and people began to know me as a “writer”.
I grew up in Bega, New South Wales, the eldest of five children as part of a large Aboriginal family that stretches all along the far south coast. In addition to writing, I loved making home movies. I would cast my reluctant brothers and sister as the characters and make up the stories as we went along. It felt storytelling was in my blood, part of my purpose.
But when I was 12, it began to dawn on me that I was queer. It was like a dark cloud following me every day; I was considered a role model to other kids, winning the “Aboriginal role model” award in high school, but I hated it because I felt like I was carrying this horrible secret with me. I became disinterested in my culture, and disinterested in writing and storytelling. I did everything I could to fit in instead.
I played for the local rugby league team, I went out with my mates, got drunk on weekends, walked the streets of Bega late at night when I was bored. I talked to girls, talked to my friends about girls, because that was what was expected of me – that was what normal looked like. I disregarded homophobic jokes and comments, made homophobic comments myself, because that’s what it took to be a normal teen boy in the country town I grew up in.
I hate that I stopped writing. I stopped reading books too, because I could never see myself in them. Aboriginal characters were always secondary, written by non-Indigenous authors and different from my reality. While I grew up loving the books of Paul Jennings, Andy Griffiths, Dav Pilkey and RL Stine, I also read Deadly Unna? by Phillip Gwynne in year 10 for school, a coming-of-age tale whose Indigenous characters were so clearly written by a non-Indigenous author that I still remember it.
When I was an older teen, I decided that I would live my life as a straight man. I wish, instead, I could have walked into my school library and picked up a book written by an Aboriginal author that featured a queer Aboriginal protagonist – a protagonist who was going through exactly what I was going through. I know it would have helped me then. Maybe I would have liked to read more if these kinds of books were accessible for me back then.
It is important for Aboriginal kids to be able to read and love books written by Aboriginal authors – books where they can see themselves in the pages. That’s why I wrote my own queer Indigenous YA novel, the Boy from the Mish.
Now in my 20s, I know of some great Aboriginal young adult books in the market, written by talented Aboriginal writers – more than I had access to as a teen. I hope many more will be published.
I’ll certainly continue writing stories about Aboriginal characters, because books can help you understand yourself better. Our stories deserve to be told. Everyone deserves the chance to read them.
• The Boy From the Mish is out now through Allen and Unwin. An audiobook version, narrated by Meyne Wyatt, is available through Audible