By Christie NiemanYoung AdultPan Macmillan Australia

Where We Begin

Seventeen-year-old Anna is running into the night. Fleeing her boyfriend, her mother, and everything she has known.

She is travelling into the country, to the land and the grandparents she has never met, looking for answers to questions that have never been asked.

For every family has secrets.

But some secrets – once laid bare – can never be forgiven.

A dark, deeply compelling, coming-of-age YA novel from the author of As Stars Fall.

Portrait of Christie Nieman

Christie Nieman

Christie Nieman is best known for her work as an author, as an essayist, and as one of the editors in the feminist collective responsible for the anthologies Just Between UsMothers and Others, and #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement.

Her debut novel, As Stars Fall, a CBCA Notable Book, was described by one reviewer as 'Australian Gothic for young adults'. She has taught creative writing at universities and to the public, and early in her career she won an Asialink residency to be a Research Fellow at Nanzan University in Japan, where she immersed herself in Kaidan stories, traditional Japanese folk tales of the strange and supernatural.

Christie's essays concern themselves with women, storytelling, evolution, the environment, and the way that human exceptionalism plays out in fiction and in our lives, and the impact it makes on our planet. She has minor qualifications in environmental science and major qualifications in literature and ecocriticism. Find out more about Christie's books, essays, and short fiction at christienieman.com.

Christie is a parent and a librarian, and she lives and works on Dja Dja Wurrung country. Where We Begin, published by Pan Macmillan in September, is her second novel.

Judges’ report

Pregnancy was never part of the plan for Anna, but neither was everything that followed. In Anna, Christie Nieman has crafted a character who immediately gains your sympathies with her no-nonsense practicality and unspoken vulnerability. Quiet but powerful, Where We Begin packs an enormous punch in its sensitive portrayal of teen pregnancy, alcoholism/addiction, domestic violence, generational trauma, poverty and the treatment of First Nations peoples through dual narratives and timelines. Nieman shows how, with consultation, it is possible to  illuminate past atrocities visited upon our First Nations peoples and the ways in which those injustices reverberate into the future. She also manages to present a pregnancy narrative while remaining sex positive.

With clean and evocative prose Where We Begin deals with 'a few fucked-up things' with sensitivity, impact and grace, not to mention a real sense of menace and tension. A superb example of Australian YA, as well as a thought-provoking, and moving, starting point for some in-depth discussions with young adult readers in homes and classrooms.

Extract

Hi Mum,

As you can see, I’m not here.

I hope this isn’t a big shock to you – it shouldn’t be, if you’re honest.

It seemed like the best idea to go now, while you were both still out of the country. Easiest for everybody.

Nintendo is next door, and Anthony’s collecting the mail. 

When you speak to Dad, you can tell him I’ll let him know where I am in a week or two.

I’m sorry, I guess. 

I do wish things could have been different. 

I wish you could have been different.

Anna

1

The windows on the coach were fogged up on the inside and beaded with rain on the outside. Not that it mattered. When I used the long edge of my hand to wipe away the condensation there was nothing there but night and my own fluorescent-lit reflection looking back at me, all double-eyed and shadowy with the second thickness of glass. Behind me, no other bodies protruded into the aisle of the bus, no other legs or arms: the last of the other passengers had stepped off at the previous town, a half hour gone. It was only my shiny red suitcase that now slid about on the shelf above, a big crimson beetle, with its iridescent carapace, scuttling back and forth over my head. My large framed memento mori – a possession too precious to risk a drop to the floor – sat propped on my feet, pressed uncomfortably against my knees by the angle of the seat in front.

The coach moved oddly, sitting so far above its wheels that even though I was in one of the lowest seats – only two seats behind the driver – it felt as though I was being waved about at the end of a stick. It was not helping my nausea. Not at all. I adjusted my earphones and turned up Adele singing ‘When We Were Young’, and leaned out into the aisle so I could look through the windscreen in an attempt to calm my queasiness.

The driver caught my eye in the large rear-view mirror and motioned to me. I took out one earphone.

‘Coming up in five minutes,’ he said.

‘Okay.’ I replaced the earphone.

‘Seems a strange spot . . .’

‘Pardon?’ I removed Adele again.

‘I said it seems a strange spot to set a young lady down.’

I always felt people who called me ‘young lady’ had mistaken me for someone else. Which suited me fine right at that moment. ‘It’s fine,’ I said.

‘You sure you don’t want me to take you into town? There’s a Best Western – I’m sure they’d have something, even this late. I got someone in there just before midnight a few weeks back, off this same bus. They’re not bad, those Best Westerns.’

‘No, it’s okay.’ I could tell he needed more. ‘I’m expected,’ I said.

I hadn’t told many lies in my life. I hadn’t needed to. It had all been straightforward until now. Which was lucky, because even small lies, even to strangers, even when they had no business asking, could set my mind off on a spin-cycle. I looked down. I hefted my heavily framed picture onto my lap. I had grabbed it as I walked out of the door. Ridiculous. I didn’t know why I’d done it. I had lifted it quietly from the wall, not waking the sleeping body in my bed, and walked out the door with it in the early dawn – barely thinking, only feeling everything I was feeling. I’d reached the end of the street with it before I even thought about the fact that I had it with me and how ridiculous that was. And then I saw the bus trundling towards me and suddenly had to make a choice: get on the bus and bring it with me all the way here, or not get on the bus. 

‘That’s a funny thing to be carrying around with you,’ the driver said. ‘I saw it earlier, what is it – a picture of a skull or something? You a Goth Girl?’

So, I was going to have to converse. ‘Um, no. It’s instructive, actually.’

‘Instructive?’

‘It’s skeletally correct. Front, back and side view.’ He still looked confused. ‘I’m going to be a doctor. It helps me study.’

‘Oh,’ he said, nodding like the world suddenly made sense. ‘My little boy wants to be a doctor. He’s only four though. And he actually wants to be a diving doctor, he was very clear about that.’ The driver’s eyes crinkled with warmth at the thought of his son. ‘But then on another day he said he wanted to be a space farmer, so maybe he’s changed his mind . . . Ha!’ I smiled at his story. Kids are great. Maybe I should become a paediatrician. The driver went on. ‘So, studying to be a doctor, eh? What uni you at?’

I flicked my glance away to look again through the side window. ‘Oh, actually not at uni yet. I will be though. Final year of school. I’m going to study medicine.’

‘Studying to study.’ The driver laughed. ‘That’s why I left school early. Too much studying just to study more. I felt like doing.’

‘I can understand that. The HSC is pretty nuts.’

‘HSC?’ the driver said. ‘New South Wales then?’

‘Oh, um, yes.’

‘You’re a long way from home.’

‘Hmm.’

I caught the coach driver frowning slightly as he drove on, looking back to the road. He wasn’t that old. Not as old as I’d first thought. Maybe thirties. I looked out at the road too. Through the front glass the headlights spotlit the hard bitumen as it stretched away into the dark, an artist’s canvas to the busy brushstrokes of falling water. The air on all sides of the coach cocooned the two of us in our sudden silence with a wet wool of driving droplets. 

And then the driver’s eyes were on me again in the mirror. There was thought going on behind those eyes. Concern, maybe. But all he said was, ‘Well go on then. Turn it around and give us a proper look.’

I manoeuvred the object around: a print from an old anatomy book, three skulls – the front and back views with a profile view below, numbers and labels and tags on each area. Printed large, heavily framed. The driver’s eyes moved back and forth from the straight road to the mirror as he studied the picture. 

‘Cool,’ he said. ‘Yeah, cool. I like it.’ He paused. ‘But then,’ he went on, ‘I’m seeing it in the mirror so maybe I’m not getting the whole anatomical correctness thing.’

‘No, skulls are perfectly symmetrical, most vertebrate bodies are, so you’re getting the full effect.’

‘Ha!’ He shook his head. ‘“Vertebrate.” “Symmetrical.” Yeah, you’ll be a doctor alright.’

I turned the picture back around and looked at it, and at the small handwritten inscription in the corner. Let’s touch now before it is too late. Let’s love now before the flesh leaves our bones. I touched it briefly with my fingertips.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist