SWF 2021: Protect Them At All Costs

This piece was originally performed at Sydney Writers’ Festival (‘YA Gala: Protect Them at All Costs’) on May 1, 2021, alongside original pieces by Garth Nix, Leanne Hall, Gary Lonesborough, Jenna Guillaume, Zana Fraillon and Michael Pryor. We were encouraged to speak about the characters who have left their marks on us, those we might want to protect for a host of reasons. It could be because we see ourselves in them, or because they taught us something we needed to learn at the exact moment we needed to learn it … or because we’re furious at an author who keeps doing them wrong. Enjoy.

It’s All About YOU, Calma!

You haven’t heard of Calma Harrison. If I’m wrong, and she’s a mutual friend, then you and I are now friends too. I came across Calma – spelt C A L M A – because Natalie Portman shaved her head to star in V For Vendetta and at a premiere soon after, posed in front of a sea of paparazzi cameras.

The year was 2005. I was sitting in my school library during a free period. I wasn’t there to read. I wasn’t a reader. I was in Year 11. I was quote unquote too busy to be a reader, but I was killing time, sneaking glances at my brick of a mobile phone, when the back of Natalie Portman’s shaved head on a book cover across the room caught my attention.

You’re probably thinking, that’s weird. Like, how could Will tell the back of Natalie Portman’s head apart from the backs of all other shaved heads that have ever been photographed? And to that I say, it’s the mid-2000s, and I am tragically obsessed with the Star Wars prequels. How tragically? A few months earlier, Natalie’s line reading of, ‘Anakin, you’re breaking my heart, you’re going down a path I can’t follow,’ caused me to burst out in tears in the movie theatre, something my friends still taunt me about to this day.

Anyway, I cleared the distance between me and this book and plucked it off the shelves. Not too eagerly, obviously. I was quote unquote too busy to be a reader. It was bright yellow, titled It’s Not All About You, Calma! and written by Barry Jonsberg. Despite the cover, it had nothing to do with Natalie Portman. Back in the day, publishers would slap any random image they could get the rights to on YA covers and hope nobody noticed. In this instance, a designer probably logged into Getty Images, searched “woman shaved head”, and clicked their favourite or the cheapest.

I returned to my seat and cracked the book open without a passing glance at the blurb. If it was good enough for Natalie Portman’s likeness, it was good enough for me … Nothing could have prepared me for Calma Harrison though. From the first sentence, I could hear her in my head. As somebody who consumed a grand total of zero Australian stories, it was a shock to encounter a narrator who sounded like me, abbreviated words like me, balanced casual snark with overpowering sarcasm like me … I was reading an Australian teenager, who kept mentioning Australian stuff. I immediately took a liking to her.

And then I got to know her. She had a complicated relationship with her father who up and left years before – I had a complicated relationship with my father who up and left years before. A teacher took an interest in her writing and pushed her to express herself creatively – a teacher took an interest in my writing and pushed me to express myself creatively. She was reeling from the sudden death of a very, very close friend – I was … well, you get where I’m going with this. Calma wasn’t simply somebody I recognised, she was Will Kostakis fan fiction. I’d never experienced anything like it, and I was mesmerised. So much so that halfway through the book, I realised I was reading a sequel without having read the first book, and I pushed on regardless. The moment I was finished, I hunted that first book down, The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull. And I met Calma before the dad stuff, before exploring herself through poetry, before the grief – all the experiences that united us. She and a friend suspected that their English teacher was a drug dealer and they were trying to frame her for murder. I mean, Calma’s life couldn’t have been further from mine in that first book, but I was in awe of her, the way she spoke, the way she joked. She was willing to do absolutely anything for her friend, and I was willing to do the same for her.

Across two books, I think what endeared me most to her is the way she threw herself into every situation, usually emotions-first and with catastrophic results. I mean, she might be a two-time narrator, but often what she saw, and what she told me, wasn’t what actually happened. She was entertaining but unreliable, flawed … She taught me that it was okay to make mistakes – and I mean, really, REALLY big mistakes. Like, crack the case of your drug dealing English teacher, and you’re bound to confidently make some pretty serious allegations about other people that turn out to be wildly wrong and cause a world of hurt. But she also taught me that no matter how big my stuff ups, I had the power to make them right.

Here I am telling you how much I like her, when she is perfectly capable of speaking for herself. Just listen to her describe meeting the love of her life at, of all places, a supermarket checkout.

In Sicily, they call it the Thunderbolt. I read about it somewhere. It’s when you see someone and all these hormonal reactions kick in. Your heart thumps, you sweat profusely, your stomach dips to your shoelaces and bits and pieces you didn’t know you possessed start tingling like you’ve been plugged into the mains electricity. Well, that’s what happened to me when I saw … him.

I don’t want you to think I am a shallow, superficial person, so I won’t start with his physical appearance.

Stuff it. Of course I will.

He was tall and rangy. As I watched him scan a tin of Spam (and he did it so effortlessly, with such grace and ease of movement, like a balletic sequence) I caught the hint of lean muscles flexing beneath the uniform. I could picture him on a beach, the sun reflecting off defined biceps and pectorals you could graze your knuckles on. His face was classically sculpted, high cheekbones framing a pert and flawless nose. His eyes were deep brown, liquid with sensitivity and hidden passion; his skin olive and gleaming beneath the overhead fluorescent lights. During a particularly tricky scanning manoeuvre, involving shrink-wrapped bok choy, he parted his full lips to reveal faultless, even teeth that flashed one brilliant shimmering star. Glossy black hair fell in a perfect curtain over his left eye.

Basically, he was all right, if you like that kind of thing.

I wish I could tell you, though, that in the 15 years since, I’ve caught up with Calma regularly. I mean, I pop open her books occasionally, to read a passage or two to reluctant readers and aspiring writers, hoping that her voice inspires them as much as it did me, but I’m scared. It always happens with favourites, the hesitation to revisit them in case more mature eyes are more unkind, and they spoil how I think of her. That isn’t fair, I’ve grown, as has the world, and she’s stayed still. But even if I do revisit The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull, or It’s Not All About You, Calma! and it’s not the same, and Calma and I don’t click like we used to, I will always be thankful for her. It’s because of her I went on to meet Melina Marchetta’s Francesca, Markus Zusak’s Ed, Jaclyn Moriarty’s Bindy, Shivaun Plozza’s Frankie, Claire Zorn’s Lucy, Lili Wilkinson’s Pru … Characters who haven’t reflected my experience quite like Calma, but who have certainly made my life richer.

It breaks my heart a little that Calma is trapped in the beforetimes. The odds are, this is the first time you’ve heard somebody talking about her, and you’ll have difficulty finding the books she’s in, but if you do snag a copy and read her, there’ll be distance between you, because her life is similar to yours yet different in marked ways because she exists in the analogue era of payphones just before smartphones existed, the era of waiting in line at the supermarket instead of scurrying towards the self-checkout to avoid the human interaction. My heart breaks a little more when I realise how close I came to missing out on meeting Calma entirely, when her experiences reflected mine almost one to one. Had a designer not chosen a photo of Natalie Portman, and failed to disguise the fact that it was Natalie Portman, I would not have met Calma, would not have fallen back in love with reading, not discovered Australian YA in that moment, and seen a pathway towards being the author I am tonight. And I wonder how many Calmas I’m missing now, how many Calmas we’re all missing now, because a book is older, because it’s fallen out of print, or because Senator Amidala isn’t on the cover. And if nobody reads them, the odds of them falling in front of the teen who needs them most shrink, and there isn’t somebody who’ll talk about them at Sydney Writers Festival 16 years later, life completely shaped by them.

So if you’ve caught yourself falling out of love with reading, or talking less about the stories you love than you used to – make an effort to change that. Because these characters we love, these stories we love, this local industry we love, they need our protection or they vanish. And it’s our job to keep them alive, not just for what they give to us, but what they give to the next generation and the next.

It’s Not All About You, Calma! is now available via print on demand, so it might take a couple of weeks to get to you, but it’s definitely worth the wait. If reading series in order is (shockingly) more your thing, The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull is readily available. So order them both, Kiffo will arrive first, and by the time you’re done, Calma! will show up.