Every now and again, along comes a book that really deserves a wider audience than it might be getting. Songs That Sound Like Blood by Nukunu man Dr Jared Thomas is just such a book, marketed for YA but well worth reading by readers of any age.
This week we have seen our politicians in an unedifying stoush over the Fair Work’s Commission decision to cut penalty rates for weekend workers in hospitality and retail. We have also seen a chorus of small business owners telling the media that they might put on extra staff as a results of this decision. Unlike the uncritical journos interviewing them, these business owners can do the maths: cutting a workers pay by between $4000 and $6000 a year doesn’t give an employer enough to create a real new job. They will pocket the difference, thank you very much, and you and I won’t get served any quicker by the worker taking home his/her much reduced pay.
No, this decision is a squeeze on the wages of young people to improve profitability – because young people are the ones who staff our cafés, and who do the weekend shift at pharmacies and the like. As one who has been self-supporting since the age of seventeen, I reject the assumption that young people don’t need real jobs that pay enough for independent living. But it is this generation of 18-24 year-olds that is bearing the brunt of our increasingly mean economy, and they are finding life difficult. Housing and rental affordability is an issue; job security no longer exists; unemployment benefits are #understatement inadequate but governments aren’t doing much to create jobs (especially in rural areas); and cuts to TAFE and universities just go on and on, making it even more difficult for young people to earn qualifications to better themselves.
Was it just a day or two ago that I expressed a yearning for books that tackle the issues of our time? Songs That Sound Like Blood is the story of Roxy from Port Augusta in South Australia, who is at the sharp end of this contraction in opportunities for young people. The blurb tells only half the story:
Roxy May Redding’s got music in her soul and songs in her blood. She lives in a small, hot, dusty town and she’s dreaming big. When she gets the chance to study music in the big city, she takes it. In Roxy’s new life, her friends and her music collide in ways she could never have imagined. Being a poor student sucks… singing for her dinner is soul destroying… but nothing prepares Roxy for her biggest challenge. Her crush on Ana, the local music journo, forces Roxy to steer through emotions alien to this small-town girl. Family and friends watch closely as Roxy takes a confronting journey to find out who she is.
The book is marketed as an insight into LGBTI young people coming to terms with same-sex relationships, and it is terrific from that angle. Written from Roxy’s first-person perspective, the reader sees her doubts and uncertainties about the relationship itself, and about how to break the news to her family and community. Ana’s parents Jordan and Naomi, and her sister Em are fine with Ana’s sexuality but Roxy is right to be not so sure about the reception she’ll get. She gets counselling about how to handle it, but it doesn’t stop her forthright Aunty Linny from getting a tongue-lashing from Nanna:
Nanna looked at me like she was going to blow a fuse. ‘ Now listen here, Linny. You know the thing I hate more than anything? It’s people with no business being judge-bloody-mental. And you know how people are in this town. They’re all ra-ra-ra and who are they to judge? Her voice was almost breaking she was so angry. ‘And you know where that judgement got our people? It got your old people in missions, your great-grandmother charged with murder when her first child died in childbirth, and thank god someone had better judgement or we wouldn’t be here.’ Nanna calmed down a bit and then asked, ‘Who are we to judge, Linny?’ Nanna started crying and then she said, ‘She’s my Roxy and I love her just the same.’ (p.222)
I loved the moment when Aunty Linny demands to know how Roxy can have children, and Dad’s new girlfriend Angie retorts with ‘Oh, that is so bloody backward’ !
I also liked the way the book inverts the usual success story. Roxy finds the future she wants but her BFF Helen doesn’t because she doesn’t take the initiative like the indigenous young woman does. Helen loses her virginity in a disappointing way – too drunk to remember whether she used protection or not, with a bloke who barely acknowledges her the next day – whereas for Roxy it’s a magical moment in her life.
But there is more to this novel than coming out as gay. Roxy is a young Nunga woman, and her pathway out of limited horizons begins with a trip to the big city of Adelaide. Helen has done well at school too, but she’s expecting just to get a job in admin or retail because her parents don’t want her to leave town. But Roxy has seen a glimpse of something more than that:
I’m not sure if Helen knew that I went to the city at the beginning of the year to look at course and career options with other Nunga kids. I probably pretended I was sick or something so she wouldn’t know where I was. She’s my best friend but I’m so used to hearing what white people think that sometimes I don’t tell her things.
Kids at school talk about us Nunga kids getting special treatment because once in a while we get to do something with our own people. I mean they got to learn about their culture in class, from their own people, in their own language. (p.16)
With their teacher and their Aboriginal Education workers, Roxy and the other Nunga kids travel three hours to what seems like a world away to hear Aboriginal bands making music:
I had to hold back really hard from crying. I was just so happy to know that something like that existed. That night, in my sleeping bag at the caravan park, I felt so proud of those musicians and imagined I was one of them.
The next morning we checked out the university and this place there called the Department of Aboriginal Music. Oh man it was deadly. Some of the musicians we watched the night before, that’s where they went. I saw some of them in their classes.
That trip was the best thing that had ever happened to me in my life. The uni was as big as a city, and that’s where I decided I wanted to go. I just had no idea how to make it happen. I mean I knew I had to get good exam results, write an application and then do an audition but even if I was accepted, how would I get there? (p.17)
Well, it’s not a spoiler to share that Roxy gets help to find accommodation from Jill and Charlton, the support workers at the university, but she uses her own initiative to take the plunge into the city music scene because she needs the money to be able to cover transport, food and rent. It was fascinating to see how she adapted her material to suit different audiences – playing originals, some of [her] favourites, and then a few edgy alternative and country numbers – and how she learns not just the ropes for cutting a demo USB, but also how to do research and structure an essay so that she starts to see the possibility of further study.
The book is full of references to Roxy’s eclectic choice of music. Some, like ‘My Island Home’ by Neil Murray and performed by the Warumpi Band are very familiar, but as I found when I went exploring with You Tube, the book is also an education in the rich field of indigenous music.
This is the haunting music of Frank Yamma:
And this is surely a great clip of the group ‘Wildflower’, from the remote Arnhem Land Outstation of Mamadawerre, to represent what Roxy stands for:
(And when you watch Wildflower in action, be aware that these young people can’t see it like you can because (as I discovered from this interview) in their remote home, they don’t have internet or even a shop that sells magazines that feature their story.)
It was a revelation to me some years ago to learn that exports of contemporary Australian music was a huge money-spinner for Australia so there’s good reason for taxpayers to support young musicians. There’s a huge international market for Aboriginal art, so why not in Aboriginal music too?
It’s only going to happen if there’s effective support. Songs That Sound Like Blood moves into political territory when Roxy – who’s had enough support to transition into mainstream music courses – realises that some of her fellow students aren’t ready for that yet. Their opportunities will be compromised if budget cuts at the university reduce their access to courses and to education support services. Of course music is a big part of their protest!
The book is also reviewed at Kill Your Darlings, in the context of books being pitched at a slightly older age group than traditional YA, and there’s also a review at the NSW Writers’ Centre. But it should be getting more attention that that, so get a copy and spread the word!
Author: Jared Thomas
Title: Songs That Sound Like Blood
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books