Author Jay Carmichael draws on his experiences growing up gay in a tiny rural town with a population of 70 in his debut novel 'Ironbark'. “No one wanted to talk about it or even acknowledge it,” he recalls. “I guess that was what I found more isolating than the actual location.”
Stephen A. Russell

3 May 2018 - 1:22 PM  UPDATED 3 May 2018 - 1:24 PM

Like many a queer kid, writer and editor Jay Carmichael’s first awareness that he might, in fact, be gay was predated by the vicious assaults inflicted on him from high school bullies.

“It made me deny it, even more,” he tells SBS Sexuality. “I didn’t even know what it was, so I thought, ‘I’m not going to acknowledge that you even said it,’ to the point were I even got a fake girlfriend just to try and prove to everyone that that’s not what I was.”

Living in the tiny rural town of Waaia, 228km north of Melbourne near the Murray River, the population of 70 was expanded to roughly 300 by surrounding farms. There was no queer community to speak of, and this was pre-smartphone, with painfully slow dial-up internet. Indeed, the first time he heard the word “gay” was fused with negative connotations.

Carmichael was in year six at a Catholic primary school when his class was taken on a day visit to a high school in nearby Numurkah. “I distinctly remember in the hallway, I don’t know what year this boy was, but he just yelled out the word ‘gay’ and it wasn’t even at me, but I got that kind of hot prickle and it was like a subconscious realisation that, ‘oh, I don’t want to be that’.”

What horrified Carmichael most was not the homophobic abuse he went on to receive at high school, but instead the complete silence that followed, the absence of anyone standing up for him. “No one wanted to talk about it or even acknowledge it,” he recalls. “I guess that was what I found more isolating than the actual location.”

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Though fictional, his debut novel Ironbark draws heavily on Carmichael’s years of internalised struggle with self-hatred and shame, pushing down the part of him that found other boys attractive, playing footy just to fit in. Ironbark’s protagonist Markus Bello shares many similarities, idolising his best friend Grayson without ever naming the true nature of that love or speaking it aloud.

“I definitely think this is why we need programs like Safe Schools,” Carmichael agrees when I bring up the anti-bullying program. “When I think back to when we were talking in sex ed class, it was only ever like straight sex. And it’s not just the sex side of stuff. We need to be talking about relationships and treating people with respect no matter who they are attracted to.”

Carmichael moved to Melbourne to study, feeling that there was very little opportunity to pursue writing and editing in Waaia, beyond joining the Shepparton News – where he did work experience – but journalism wasn’t for him. The relocation wasn’t easy, and his coming out didn’t happen overnight either. “It took me maybe a year and a half, and to tell my mum and my family,” he says. “I was still dealing with that stuff, denial and self-hatred and guilt, that plagued me for my whole high school years.”

Writing Ironbark became a sort of catharsis. “My editor at Scribe, rightly so, wanted me to fill out Markus more as a character, and I actually found that a bit confronting and painful. Those kind of emotions that I had felt very intensely, I had to revisit them at this stage when I was out and proud and, yeah, that was a bit exhausting.”

The novel draws deeply on the love of nature that once inspired Carmichael to pursue botanical science (apparently his maths game wasn’t strong enough). It is almost poetic in its descriptions of a slightly surreal landscape overcome by an oncoming storm that seems to mirror Markus’ silent struggles. The non-linear novel also sees him haunted by loss and its attendant anger and grief.

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“To a certain extent, Markus fills Grayson with more potential than he actually had, just because of his attraction to him,” Carmichael says. “But I was really interested in that presence becoming suddenly absent and what happens in that kind of vacuum, which goes right down to how the book is structured. I specifically started the story at a point where Grayson was absent. And through that internal, imaginative world that Marcus has as a kind of safe space, we are getting clues about what happened… With my own experiences of loss and sadness, I don’t necessarily remember those things in a chronological timeline.”

Heading back to the country and staying on his grandparents’ property always helps Carmichael centre himself again. “I love going back there to the enormousness of the skies and the horizons and all the plants,” he says. “I know it sounds very corny, but it makes me very excited to look at that, whereas in Melbourne you just see towering buildings. There’s always noise. In the country, there are subtler rhythms going on around you, and hopefully that comes through in the way I’ve written Ironbark.”

Does he think life is any easier there now for school kids grappling with coming out? “With the advent of the internet and smartphones, I think it is, probably. People can go onto Tumblrs and Reddits and chat groups and even access mental health services like Headspace, so while my private little world was writing, today it’s probably their smartphone. I mean, I don’t it’s 100 per cent totally ok but that access would make it a bit easier.”

Ironbark, by Jay Carmichael, is published by Scribe and available now. Click here for more info or to buy a copy.