Reality bites back
Ahead of the next instalment in the Wheeler Centre’s Telling Tales series, writers Kelly Gardiner, Alice Pung, Will Kostakis and Jes Layton reflect on transformative moments in their own coming of age stories.
When I was young, I never read a book with anyone queer in it.
Tomboys like me, though, were everywhere – on the page and on the screen. On Sunday nights, my brother and I sat in our pyjamas to eat fish and chips and watch Disneyland on the TV. I’d pray that the week’s feature would be a Hayley Mills film and not some lame wildlife documentary.
Hayley Mills, with her little upturned nose, perfect British accent, and wide smile, made a most excellent screen tomboy. She was always getting into scrapes, although everyone forgave her because she was so adorable (that never happened to me), and she had exciting adventures (that never happened to me, either). She could sail boats and climb trees and solve mysteries like Trixie Belden, Girl Detective.
But the problem with Hayley Mills, or Jo March in Little Women, was that eventually they stopped being tomboys. One minute, Hayley Mills was a carefree daredevil, and the next she was married off to some random millionaire or became a nun or fell out of a tree.
Jo March married the Professor and got all saintly. Even Jodie Foster ended up with that sap Boris in Freaky Friday.
So, to me, the best of all the imaginary tomboys was George in Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five.
She was smart and brave. She could row a boat and climb cliffs and rescue people. She had a dog of her very own. And she was angry. If anyone called her Georgina or said she was girly, she shouted them down. She wasn’t shy, like me.
Unlike every other tomboy I read about or saw on screen, George was never tamed.
All I wanted in life was a dog like Timmy and a heart like George’s.
By the time I was sixteen, I had changed high schools four times. This meant that from year eight onwards, I don’t think I harboured any dreams of popularity – at each new school I was content if I made one or two good friends. This also meant that I was relatively socially inconspicuous, never an outcast but never the centre of much attention, which suited me fine.
Being at so many different high schools – State, Catholic, selective and private – really helped my future writing career, as I learned to sit back, stay contentedly quiet and observe people and politics around me. Kurt Vonnegut said ‘All life is high school’ and I have found this especially true as I get older!
Author, illustrator, performer and arts worker
Since I grew up essentially online, I have been able to see my childhood almost entirely fossilised. I can go back and see the first time I messaged a friend ‘I think I’m gay’ and see the moment I changed my ‘interested in’ status on Facebook to “women”. I can read in Insta DM’s my complicated feelings towards people’s varying reactions to my coming out at twelve and relive how tight I’d feel all over. A lucka band ball fit to bursting in my chest.
Growing up online I get to see a me whose high school life was dominated by ‘that’s so gay’, Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl and demands for marriage equality. I’d forgotten until scrolling back, the effects of these moments and how they shaped me. Before and after my “coming out”.
As a queer person, coming of age and coming out are usually intricately linked as, when you’re a cis-het-allo person, you don’t have to publicly announce that you’re a sexual being when you’re twelve– ushered unsurely into perceived ‘adulthood’. The first time you come out is an uncomfortable experience no matter where on the queer spectrum you fall.
In my experience, my moments of ‘coming of age’ have been less whimsical or cutesy and more ‘I’ve bent the bars of my birdcage, smashed my chains and come out bloody and bruised.’ There’s a beauty in that I think, the accessibility I have to a younger me proves that for me there was no ‘of age’, there was no clear loss of innocence, no clear delineation between childhood and maturity, no automatic flipped switch that suddenly announces to the world I have stopped “becoming”.
Between years ten and eleven, one of my closest friends passed away suddenly. I took it about as well as any teenage boy could, weeping, writing some of the worst poems in history, and intermittently shrieking, “You don’t know what I’m going through!” at friends, family and random passersby.
I made the mistake of shrieking that at Mum once, and I remember it clear as day. She didn’t flinch. Instead, a deep breath and a measured, “Yeah, you’re right. My brother died when I was just a little older than you, there’s no way I could possibly know what you’re going through.” She turned on her heel and left, and it was this perspective-shifting moment for me. Mum wasn’t just the woman who cooked and nagged me to clean my room, she had lived a whole life before me, and carried wounds I never considered. That really changed how I saw her, and how I walked in the world.
Hear from these authors and teen emerging storytellers on June 2 as they take to the stage to share fictional works inspired by the everyday realities of growing up in the next instalment of the Wheeler Centre’s Telling Tales: Reality Bites.
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