Teenage territories, Barbara Else

Make a Hard Fist
Tina Shaw
One Tree House, $20.00,
ISBN 9780473421878

Ocean’s Kiss
Lani Wendt Young
One Tree House, $29.00,
ISBN 9780995106741

Legacy
Whiti Hereaka
Huia, $25.00,
ISBN 9781775503347

To state the obvious, one problem with writing young adult fiction, unless the author is a teenager, is that one no longer belongs to the demographic. The first YA novel, The Outsiders, was written by S E Hinton when she was only 16, observer and participant. It feels timeless, undated, as fresh and authentic now as when first published in 1967. It still illuminates the way teenagers must find their own way to adulthood across territory that is a combination of the world around them and their own explosive emotions.

Alongside the usual challenges of creating fiction, adult YA authors face a dual question: how to revisit their own teenage state and use it for today’s adolescents, entertaining while also guiding, reassuring, encouraging, illuminating and making them feel they are unique, yet not alone. The balance of those intentions changes with the requirements and expectations of more specific genres, the three New Zealand-published novels reviewed here being excellent examples. 

Tina Shaw has written for adults, children and teenagers. She has held the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers’ Residency and the University of Waikato Writing Fellowship. She works as an editor and manuscript assessor. So, a significant background. And it shows. In Make a Hard Fist, the teenage readership is treated with warmth and respect in a story that increasingly tightens its grip. It’s a realistic contemporary novel about high school student Lizzie Quinn, who begins receiving unsettling letters. She’s being watched – stalked – and has no idea why. If it’s meant as a joke, it’s not funny. Eventually, she walks home through a local park and is attacked. A dog walker intervenes in time, but the would-be rapist escapes. 

Lizzie had thought she was pretty strong. But the event leaves her feeling vulnerable. Eventually, she asks her favourite teacher, Mr Witter, for help. He understands what she means. Within days, he sets up a self-defence class for any student who might be interested. To Lizzie’s surprise, some of the toughest-seeming girls in school join, as does a younger boy. The tutor is Junior, a 20-year-old with a criminal background, turning his life around with the help of mentoring from Mr Witter. He is easy for the others to relate to and gives excellent practical advice. Lizzie and he begin a tentative, sweet romance. His instruction helps Lizzie beat off a later attack. But they end their friendship, each knowing it’s the wrong time and may always be the wrong time for them. 

The narrative begins with some of the expected tropes of YA, but with a school setting they can’t be avoided. The atmosphere quickly becomes gripping. It is broken by flashes of humour, darkened again with frightening and upsetting moments. The characters are strong. Lizzie herself is a mix of tough, vulnerable and sensible. Her parents are more believable than usual with parents in YA fiction. Her older sister and friends are also well-drawn. Mr Witter, the English teacher, is very good. There are warmly-drawn police personnel, particularly the female officer. I felt Junior, the Pasifika boy, was very believable, and it was with him that I fully saw how the author understands and respects her young audience. She understands that they’re not necessarily swung wildly about by emotion and erupting passion. They are perfectly able to be clear-headed at difficult moments.

Shaw uses setting and detail to imply social comment: the library, sports grounds, the various houses, and the park where Lizzie was attacked. There are excellent action scenes, a good feel for the teenage “space”.  

Best of all is the useful and readable information for teenagers about what to do in an attack, how you might feel, how you must fight. Vulnerable teenagers – girls or boys – can learn the physical moves and gain the confidence to defend themselves.

I didn’t feel the novel needed the epilogue, but also see that teenage readers would find it satisfying. I  wondered, too, if the novel needed the hint that Lizzie’s attacker had psychological problems. Was that being too nice to him? However, I daresay the reader is left with that question to ponder. 

Ocean’s Kiss takes the reader to the genre of Pacific Island fantasy. Samoan and New Zealand Māori writer Lani Wendt Young is the 2018 ACP Pacific Laureate. She self-published the Telesã trilogy focusing on teenager Leila Folger, incarnation of the Pasifika ocean goddess Telesã Vasa Loloa. Ocean’s Kiss is published commercially by new local publisher One Tree House. It is the second of a new set, the Telesã World novels, with emphasis on Daniel Tahi, now husband of the young Leila. After the mysteries, struggles and quests of the earlier books, Daniel has lost his own Telesã gifts. Deeply in love, all the couple want is to live a normal life. But Daniel’s Pākehā father returns to the scene, and his mother reappears as well. Confusion and emotions rise again, and the married pair, with equally delightful fa’afafine friend Simone, are carried off into a new battle between elemental figures from Samoan mythology.  

I hadn’t read the earlier books, and the author clearly knew she’d have to work particularly hard to handle the massive backstory effectively. She did. Given the scope of the background, even fans of the previous books could well appreciate the deft reminders.

I was most struck by the way Wendt Young handles some of the teething problems of a love relationship. At one point, Daniel is extremely angry. Rather than using verbal or physical violence, or the emotional violence of melodramatic sulk, he takes himself away on a long walk. There is a fine scene with Leila in which he explains his actions. It works for the characters. It will also work as an example of strong male behaviour: what young man wouldn’t want to emulate the handsome, ripped, intelligent and tormented Daniel?     

There are some typos and one or two signs that a touch more editing would have been useful. But I recommend the Telesã books to any fan of fantasy. The elemental warrior goddesses are superb. Descriptions of the power of the ocean are extraordinary. The closing images of male and female Telesã finally coming together into a community are moving and exciting. Ocean brothers, ocean sisters. Wendt Young has brought powerful images into the limelight of the world stage.  

It’s worth noting that the author has suffered trolling on social media because she has written so frankly about young Pasifika sexuality. It’s a sad exhibition of ignorance about the purpose of fiction. 

With Legacy, by Whiti Hereaka, I expected something good. She’s an award-wining playwright and novelist for adults. Her first novel for young adults, Bugs, won the Honour Award in the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

But this book is in a new league. From the first page, a transcription of an interview in 1975 between grandfather and grandson, the text brims with the author’s confidence and respect for characters and situation. Hereaka doesn’t for a moment lose control in the complex narrative that follows, managing switches in settings and delivery of historical material easily and convincingly.

Eighteen-year-old Riki in Wellington, 2015, is considering joining the army. It’s a family tradition. His great grandfather, Te Ariki Mikaera volunteered for WWI and served in the Māori Contingent. In WWII, grandfather Jack enlisted in the Māori Battalion. His mother, Te Awhina, is writing a thesis on the “Great” War. Mind you, Riki knows she’ll hit the roof when she learns what he’s thinking. A more pressing problem is his girlfriend Gemma. She hasn’t contacted him for a week or so. At last, as he steps off the Lambton Quay curb, she texts him saying she might be pregnant. The next moment, Riki is hit by a bus. When he drifts back to consciousness, he’s no longer in central Wellington. He gradually realises that somehow he’s been transported back to Egypt in 1915, or at least he’s imagining that he’s his own great-grandfather in the aftermath of the “battle of the Wazzir”, a riot in Cairo before the Māori Contingent had seen any war action. 

The time transition is handled with sensitivity and intelligence. With not a moment’s condescension, Hereaka leaves just enough for teenage readers to figure out for themselves. She carries the reader with Riki during the following weeks in WWI, with flashes back – or forwards – to transcriptions of the 1975 interviews. Riki puzzles through the male responsibilities of teenage pregnancy – what will Gemma be doing, deciding? – while he also negotiates racism both against and by Māori, and has to confront attitudes to war.

“We are the best … the first sons, the high-born,” says Jack, a member of the Māori Contingent. So why would Pākehā dishonour them? “All they see are labourers and workhorses at best,” answers another member. “Dangerous and untrustworthy crooks at worst.” Then the Māori Contingent gives Māori the chance to change how they’re seen. It’s part of the price of citizenship, Riki adds, quoting his mother and her thesis. He also adds that she asked why it should be Māori who have to educate the unenlightened.  

Unfairness, cruelty, distortions of truth, are set out clearly, convincingly, organically (no forcing, no preaching) in the narrative during the shift from Cairo to Gallipoli, the horrors there, and the aftermath in Lemnos. Hereaka uses tactile detail and shades of characterisation that display her skill as a writer of fiction and her stage-writing experience. The weightier moments – “We shouldn’t have to fight for equality” – are balanced with reminders that Riki is a young man from our own time. For instance, in the marvellous scene of an impromptu soldiers’ concert, Riki can think of nothing to perform except “Bohemian Rhapsody”, his karaoke go-to. The other soldiers applaud. But on his way back to his seat, none of them catch his eye.

The narrative winds up with a last tape from Te Ariki. It’s moving, elegiac, thought-provoking. Legacy is everything that a novel should be. 

Barbara Else is a writer and editor whose latest book is Harsu and the Werestoat (Gecko Press).

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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