By Marlee Jane WardYoung Adult Xoum Publishing
Welcome to Orphancorp
A sharp-edged semi-futuristic riff about a rebellious teenager’s last week at an industrial orphanage. If she can just keep outta trouble, Mirii Mahoney is going to taste freedom for the first time, but she's fighting against the system, against the other kids, and against herself. A heartfelt, brutal, funny, and diverse story about when corporate interests overwhelm human rights, and what happens to children when they bloom in the darkest of places.
From the moment we are jolted in to a claustrophobic and oppressive future, this brawl of a novella set amongst darkness and violence holds us tightly in its short, sharp grip. Set over one week in a futuristic institution somewhere between an orphanage and a prison, Welcome to Orphancorp manages to hold you in a perpetual state of innards-churning anxiety and alarm, yet also inspire an instinctual sense of solidarity and expansiveness. Love her or hate her, Mirii's reaching for warmth and freedom will feel like yours.
Tightly plotted, full of inventive, playful language and youthful voice, there is no shying away from depictions of the violence we do to ourselves, to each other, to language and to the interactions that make us people. It is also a brittle meditation on the consequences of this violence, neatly packaged to deliver gut punches to the reader. The judging gaze on dehumanisation in large-scale organisational systems and interrogation of their use borrows from the best dystopian stories, but still manages to feel raw and necessary.
Young adults will recognise themselves and their world in the characters railing against rules and systems, but also the numbing fear of the world beyond it. The characters themselves will stay with you for their matter-of-fact being – young, smart, angry, sexually curious, culturally and gender-diverse – and the way the author allows these characters a fluidity and multiplicity of identity that is normalised and integral to the text. Like the imagined subjects of its dedication, everything about this novella feels like too much: for the form, too much that is unknown for the reader, too much for the characters to transcend. Turn the last page though, and you realise it was both just enough and the start of something much bigger.
I twist my hand at a weird angle to get to the itch on my wrist below the shackle. I mean, they call them ‘the Consequences of movement violations’, but shackles is what they are. When I forget to refer to them as such I get ‘the Consequences of speech violations’, which is pretty much just a gag. No one cares what I call that because everything sounds the same with a mouthful of rubber, doesn’t it? The bus is ancient and jammed with kids, skinny bums squeezed onto the bench seats. The bus is far noisier than the kids, the whole thing filled with a riot of squeaks and rattles and the odd bang from somewhere inside the engine, while us kids keep our mouths shut and our eyes wide, staring straight ahead. Sweat makes a thin layer between my thighs and the cracked vinyl and my bum aches, pressed into the unpadded bench seat. I bounce hard on my arse bones with every pothole jolt.
No one makes eye contact with me. I’m not the only one shackled … sorry, facing Consequences, but I am the only one gagged. Sometimes my mouth just starts going and even though in my head I’m all like, shut up, oh just shut up, I can’t help myself. We slow and the bus drags itself up to the curb, backfires and dies with a rumble-thud. Everyone kinda cranes their eyes slightly to the left. The Uncle up front glares, on a hawk-eye lookout for any minor infraction of the head-turning variety. They put the thickest, stupidest ones on transport duties, usually as a punishment. They like to make us pay for that. I’ve been enjoying this one’s company for fifteen hours of this broiling hell-trip back to Sydney and when he motions for us to stand and file off, I make sure to catch his arm with one of the strings of drool that have spilled out the sides of my gagged mouth.
‘It’s been a pleasure,’ I say, but it comes out all garbled. ‘No talking,’ he barks, looking like he wishes he could gag me a second time. We line up on the footpath beside the bus. The sun is going down and everyone’s always tired and grumpy as hell after a transfer, but they’ve got to stick to procedure, don’t they? We all wind out our wrists and ankles as they scan our armband codes and make sure no one’s pissed off or died during the trip. It happens.
I take a moment to look over the facility, though I’m not sure why I bother. Every Verity House is the same – a big grey box straddling an entire city block. It’s like they knock them together off-site and heli them in or something. Maybe they do, I don’t know. Broome or Blacktown, Albury, Cairns or that one they say is on that island down in Tassie, it doesn’t matter. The dining hall is always to the right of the dorms; the watch quarters have those thick, double-brick walls that mean they’re easy to sneak past if the door’s closed; the bathrooms are sweet little Kidcam blind spots where I can read a non-reg book on my tab, have a cry or a quick-and-dirty interlude up against the wall without facing any of the related Consequences. In their hurry to manufacture heartless functionality, they’ve made me a home. I breathe in, scanning the familiar rise and fall of the walls. I take every tiny victory I can, because eventually they add up.
Small victories are all you get in an Orphancorp.
'Miri … Mirya … Miriiyanan Mahoney?’
I hold up my shackled hands and wave them a bit. The Auntie, a red-headed woman wider than she is tall, comes over to remove the Consequences piece by piece. I wriggle my wrists and hinge my mouth open and closed to work out the ache in my jaw.
‘That’s a mouthful of a name, isn’t it?’
‘It means star. Shooting star,’ I tell her, like she’ll care, and I wipe the twin spills of spit off my chin with the hem of my shirt.
‘So, you’re some kinda big shot, are ya? A shooting bloody star?’ the Auntie asks, shaking her head and paging through her tab.
‘Nah. People just call me Mirii.’
‘You’re due for Age Release in a week, yeah?’
‘So, why’d they bother with the transfer?’ she asks.
‘I don’t know. Why do you guys do anything?’ The Auntie laughs at that.
‘You’ve got a pretty colourful file, little star. We’re desperate for Nannies, but the notes say you can’t be trusted with kids. You don’t like kids?’
‘Nah, me neither. You should come work for us when you age out.’ She cackles at that, like she made a super clever joke or something but it’s not even funny, right? It’s true. Aunties and Uncles must hate kids. Kids. Shiz. Way to make my blood run cold. They cry and cough and tug my pants, seeking comfort I’ve got no idea how to give them. It’s not their fault, those poor dumb jerks. I did the same when I was their age.
She moves on to the shy cluster of toddlers next in line. The snotnose little bastards are all sobbing and piddling themselves because half of them have probably just been rounded up off the streets. Even if they were born into an Orphancorp, they’re still too little to know what’s going on. They let them cry. They let them cry up until they’re about six, then after that, crying’s an infraction. The Auntie huffs and puffs until she’s crouched down over her huge gut, giant bosom all mashing up into her chin, and she holds up the tab so that the little tykes can see. They stare, saucer-eyed, and a colourful cartoon starts playing. ‘Hey kids! Welcome to Verity House!’
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist