By Pip HarryYoung Adult UQP
Because of You
Meet Tiny and Nola. Two very different girls with two very different stories who are just trying to find a place to belong. A powerful and compelling novel about friendship, love and acceptance.
Tiny is an 18-year-old girl living on the streets in Sydney, running from her small-town past. She finds short-term accommodation at Hope Lane – a shelter for the homeless – where she meets Nola, a high school student on volunteer placement. Both girls share their love of words through the Hope Lane writing group. Can they share their secrets, too?
Because of You is based on the author’s personal experiences volunteering in a homeless shelter in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. Pip worked with a creative writing group, Word Association, who visited a shelter for a few hours each week to lead writing exercises with homeless and marginalised people.
Because of You is a dual-perspective novel featuring characters with very different life experiences. Tiny is an 18-year-old who’s sleeping rough and struggling to survive. Nola is busy finishing Year 12, which at her private school means also completing 20 hours of community service. When Nola is directed to assist at a writing group for the homeless, Nola and Tiny’s two worlds collide.
Such a premise risks a story that is at best twee, and at worst a harmful reinforcement of stereotypes and toxic binaries. Author Pip Harry, however, gives readers characters with depth and complexity, ensuring Because of You is not a book about issues, but a book about friendship.
Because of You does include serious issues – homelessness, teenage pregnancy, mental health, and alcohol and drug addiction. It offers the world a taste of stories that aren’t often heard but absolutely need to be. Youth homelessness is a national crisis, with the latest research revealing that 44,000 young people in Australia do not have a safe place to sleep.
The magic of Because of You lies in how Pip Harry uses these themes not as didactic plot points, but to inform an authentic, contemporary setting to Tiny and Nola’s respective struggles to find their own place in the world. The struggles and joys of this quest to belong will resonate with audiences of all ages.
The cast of secondary characters is diverse and delightful, and Pip Harry seduces readers with sharp insights and poetic phrases. Teen readers will be particularly enchanted with the power given to words and stories within this narrative. Stories have value, and the respect and compassion for being young, for making mistakes, for being human, that Pip Harry shares in Because of You is affirming and powerful.
Tiny and I share a seat back to the shelter. Everyone is grumpy as we head back home, but there’s something good between us. Maybe we’re becoming friends.
‘I have something for you,’ I say.
I reach into my bag and give her a rose-scented candle. ‘I had it at home. I thought, because of your story, you might like it.’
Tiny sniffs the candle, and smiles at me. ‘But I don’t have anything for you.’
‘No, that’s okay. I don’t need anything.’
Tiny cradles the candle in her palms and I lie my head back against the seat and listen to thrashing guitars and thumping drums. The music gives me an idea for a poem, so I get out my pen and notepad and start to write. I write like crazy, all the way home.
After the trip, I impulsively hug Tiny, probably breaking every rule of volunteering about not getting too close. I don’t care. She’s so thin, I can feel her bones.
‘See you at writing group?’ I ask. I’ve decided to finish my Hope Lane placement. Do something this year I can be proud of, even if I do fail my HSC.
‘Yeah. See ya there.’
‘Here, read this,’ I say, giving her a piece of paper, folded up. ‘It’s for you. No, it’s about you.’
‘Alright, thanks. I guess I’d better go in now.’
Tiny’s face falls as she walks back to the shelter. Sometimes being with her is like seeing a stranger crying in the car next to you in traffic. She’s in so much pain, but there’s nothing I can do to make it better. Thick glass separates us. She’s in her car and I’m in mine.
Eddie parks his bike outside the shelter. I’m waiting for him.
‘Hey, I’m glad you came back,’ he says.
‘You have a good day? I mean apart from the torrential rain and near-fatal lightning strikes.’
I take out my community service log book.
‘Can you fill this in for me, please?’
Eddie gives me his helmet.
‘Sure. Hold this.’
He rests the logbook on the seat of his bike, signs it and hands it back – he’s given me two hours for my first volunteering day, too. Seven in total. Only thirteen left and I’ll be finished.
‘Does this mean you’re coming back to writing group?’ Eddie asks me.
‘Yes. Is that okay?’
‘Of course. You were great today. Well, not on the cricket pitch, but everywhere else, you nailed it. Especially with Tiny. It’s good she has someone her age she can relate to.’
‘It’s good for me, too. I like her.’
‘So you’re doing the HSC this year, right? I’m guessing you’re looking forward to being out on parole.’
‘If I pass … ’
‘You’ll pass. Know what you’re doing next year?’
Usually when people ask about my future it makes me irritated and edgy, but not with Eddie. He doesn’t have an agenda.
‘No idea. All my friends have their preferences sorted out. I can’t decide.’
‘I had no idea either. Spent my first year out of school doing a part-time course in graphic design that I really didn’t like and working in an arthouse cinema, which I liked a lot. This year I switched to UTS to study film. I still don’t know if I got it right. Everyone goes on and on about their ATAR score, but then nobody can even remember them after a few months.’
‘Everyone makes out like it’s the most important test result we’ll ever get,’ I admit. ‘Like it’s life or death.’
Eddie laughs. ‘Your HSC has nothing to do with what you become after school. That’s up to you. Do whatever makes you happy.’
‘Okay, happy. That’s good advice.’
‘I’ve got a shift in the kitchen now. I think I’ll find Tiny and see if she’ll help again. She can cook, did you know that?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘They’re full of surprises, these guys. See you next week. Bring something, a story starter, okay?’
‘I will. Bye.’
I get on the bus back to my house, my hair still wet and my dress damp.
‘Nice day, luv?’ the driver asks as I swipe my card.
‘Yes, it was,’ I say, feeling brighter than I have in weeks. ‘I went to the beach.’
‘Day like today? You’re mad.’
I take a seat and keep listening to Tiny’s music. It’s tough, loud and raw.
It’s so good I almost miss my stop.
Climbing the stairs to my room, I feel brown snakes wrapping around my neck and dripping venom down my throat. There’s too much traffic here. Too many people. The streets are dirty and broken. Cracked houses press against each other with no light in between. It surprises me, but I miss the bush and the open, empty fields around my house. I miss the quiet and the slow pace.
Salt lingers on my skin. In my hair. On my lips. A reminder of my day of feeling free.
In the shower I wash half the beach from my body – sand and seaweed swirling down the drain. I rinse out my bathers, hang them up on a hook in my room and think that when they’re dry I’d like to put them on again. Maybe go to a local pool. Maybe ask Nola to come with me.
On my bed, I take out her paper. It’s a poem. She was writing the whole way home on the bus.
Tiny Swims, by Nola Piper
In the cold,
In the wild,
She lets go.
Free of pain
Free of sadness.
For a moment
with tired eyes
In the cold,
life can be like this
I hold her
I read the poem again, fold it up and spread it on my pillow. I rest my face on her words, like last time, and remember the ocean taking over me, and Nola’s hand gripping mine, both of us trying to hold onto the light.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist