Allayne Webster Interview:
Questions asked by Poppy Nwosu.
Your latest book, The Centre of My Everything, is a hard hitting YA novel that touches on a lot of heavy issues facing Australian teens today, particularly in regional areas of our country.
This novel can be quite shocking at times, definitely not flinching away from describing our Australian binge-drinking youth culture in realistic detail and openly discussing racism and sexual abuse.
I think the seeds for this novel were planted a long time ago, perhaps in my very early childhood. My step-father, Peter, a Ngarrindjeri man, raised me from age five. Our family was often subject to racist assumptions, eg, 'Your dad's an Abo, he must be a drunk.' 'Bet you get lots of free stuff from the government.' 'Isn't he more white than black?' The list goes on. It angered me that what I saw at home of my step-father - a hard working family man who played sport and volunteered in his community - was not what people chose to acknowledge. I wanted to write a story where I turned racist stereotypes on their head; where I depicted binge-drinking economically disadvantaged white people juxtaposed against a functional, community oriented, financially solvent Aboriginal family. I then fashioned much of the story around that.
The short answer is YES, absolutely. It always perplexed me to hear blatant disregard for Aboriginal remains (Oh, they're long since dead, what does it matter to dig them up?) and yet, walk into one of our graveyards and start desecrating graves without permission and people are duly horrified. The hypocrisy! In this story, I exhume a white woman (*her ethnicity isn't initially revealed) to highlight how angry and indignant we become over such an act.
Storytelling is about walking a mile in someone else's shoes and imagining how life must be for them. What drives them to make the decisions they do? Are they conscious decisions or are they impulsive ones? Is there a biological aspect influencing how we behave? Were there external influences blocking their path? Do we do things to impress others, to conform to social norms, to further or advance ourselves somehow? Why, why, why. Authors play amateur psychologist and examine motivations in-depth, but with the limited lens of our own experience.
It was stated in a review of The Centre of My Everythingthat with the advent of the worldwide #MeToo movement, this novel could not be better timed. Statistically it's thought one in three are the victim of some form of sexual assault. For many, this happens during their formative years. The legacy is one of silence and shame; an inability to speak openly for fear of judgement. Who wants to be seen as a victim? I view books as friends; a place to find a voice and representation, when the real world doesn't always provide that opportunity. I think it's essential stories like this exist and are accessible to teenagers. I was nervous about writing about rape because it's an unpleasant confronting subject and there's the potential for victim-blaming if the portrayal is insensitive. In the novel, when one of the girls is assaulted, I deliberately make reference to the fact she's dressed provocatively, to her prior consensual sexual behaviour, to her physical state (she's impaired by alcohol at the time) because they're all things our legal system uses to discredit women and blame them. I wanted the reader to grasp that all those things are irrelevant. Rape is a criminal act. The perpetrator is to blame, end of story.
Sensitive is my next YA novel due for release with UQP mid 2019. This story is part memoir, inspired by my childhood years surviving chronic illness. I'm also working on another YA novel, plus I have a few other manuscripts (junior fiction and middle grade) doing the rounds which will hopefully be picked up soon. Always working and always writing!
Thanks so much for your time and wonderful answers Allayne!