It’s hard to overstate the impact of Melina Marchetta’s 1992 young adult novel Looking for Alibrandi. For a generation of young girls with hyphenated identities in the suburbs of Australia, Marchetta’s protagonist, Josie, a spirited Italian-Australian teenager struggling to reconcile the demands of her background with the reality of growing up in ‘nineties Sydney (one that involved trips to Bondi and a crush on Jacob Coote, a school captain with a thing for Nick Cave T-Shirts) was the first time they’d glimpsed their messy inner selves in a culture that had largely ignored them.
Over the years, Josie Alibrandi has become a touchstone for that endless tussle between where you come from and where you’re going. She’s one of the few characters in Australian literature that genuinely feels like an old friend.
“My mother was a great reader who put books in my hand for as long as I could remember but during my teenage years, I was reading, reading, reading but could never find anything that was reflection of me or my community or my city — you weren’t on screen or in literature so it was almost like you didn’t exist,” laughs Marchetta, who grew up near Sydney’s Concord and has just released her seventh novel Tell The Truth, Shame the Devil, a whip-smart piece of crime fiction that uses genre’s conventions to expose truths about identity and race.
“I wrote it after I’d left school at sixteen and although it had quite a few rejections in my early twenties, Penguin took it on two years later. I always say that Josie Alibrandi wasn’t me, she was a strong reflection of my younger sister. It came from a very real place but it certainly wasn’t autobiography.”
"I could never find anything that was reflection of me or my community or my city — you weren’t on screen or in literature so it was almost like you didn’t exist."
The success of Alibrandi, which became one of the highest-selling debut novels by an Australian author and gave rise to an AFI-winning film starring Pia Miranda, could have stopped Marchetta in her tracks. But eleven years later, she wrote Saving Francesca, a much-loved book about Francesca Spinelli, a Year 11 girl dealing with the fallout from her mother’s breakdown, and has since experimented with fantasy (The Complete Lumatere Chronicles) and mystery (the acclaimed On the Jellicoe Road).
Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, which follows Chief Inspector Bish Ortley in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on a bus carrying British students in France, is the first time Marchetta has written from an adult perspective. In Tell the Truth, Marchetta uses characters such as Violette LeBrac, whose mother Noor is in prison for a terrorist attack as well as Ortley’s own upbringing (he’s a quarter Egyptian) to mine the ways in which racial profiling and anti-Muslim sentiment haunt the judgments we make.
That she’s able to maintain the pace of the narrative over the course of the novel is proof of her ability to tell stories that both grip us and speak to deeper ideas.
“When I was a teacher I taught a crime unit and most crime is a reflection of the society in which we live,” explains Marchetta, who loves to read the British author Kate Atkinson, who’s best known for her ambitious works of literary crime.
“Tell the Truth is really about the way we treat minorities. For example, my family’s story is that my grandfather was interred during World War II because of his Italian background – regardless of whether he was an Australian citizen. We still have systems that can put you away because of where you come from or something you said."
"When you’re a minority, you get treated slightly differently from the rest of the world, whether that’s by the law or your next-door neighbour. I didn’t want this novel to be about one-dimensional people. I wanted readers to feel like they are part of the problem. I want them to think: ‘I have those thoughts in my head.’”
Next year, Alibrandi will celebrate its 25th anniversary and Marchetta, who’s currently working on a screenplay for Saving Francesca, says that although her first book has never represented who she is as a writer, it’s heartening to know that it still resonates with readers after so many years.
"When you’re a minority, you get treated slightly differently from the rest of the world, whether that’s by the law or your next-door neighbour."
“It’s a joy to think that someone is still reading your novel 25 years after you wrote it but I cringe at some of the writing and think ‘oh my goodness, I had no idea what I was doing!’” she grins. “But I encourage people to read more than one of my novels. I always feel like with each book, I never take it for granted and I always feel a sense of pride. I don’t think books can change people. But sometimes you can change the way they see things and open their eyes to something they haven’t seen before.”
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