Essay by Alice Pung

When I first read Melina Marchetta’s much-loved book, Looking for Alibrandi, I was around the same age as Josephine Alibrandi. It was the first Australian book I discovered that did not ‘try hard’ to depict youth, class or ethnicity. When you are a young adult, you innately have what Hemingway considers crucial for every serious writer: a built-in bovine-excrement detector, to put it euphemistically. You know how to recognise an earnest voice, and sift it from disingenuous voices that might be more technically sophisticated.

Yet that ability often weakens with each school year, diluted by all the essays about more ‘important’ themes: life and death as depicted in Shakespeare, or language analysis of Andrew Bolt columns. Additionally, encountering the more confident and refined adult voices of Wharton, Austen, Fitzgerald and Dickens made me realise that writing was hard work, that it wasn’t about putting speech to paper, but visions to paper. This is the blessing and curse of reading really good writing: we think that our own voices are inchoate. Our own thoughts seem pedestrian and suburban, ever revolving around school and home. We feel we have nothing interesting to say so we resort to trying to sound more ‘sophisticated.’ We do not allow ourselves to sound like teenagers because we feel that teenage experience amounts to not very much at all. This sort of thinking was not uncommon because many young adult books of the time dealing with ‘our lives’ never quite got the voice right. They sounded like adults ‘trying hard’ to focus on ‘teenage themes.’

But in Looking for Alibrandi, we found a heroine who lived in the suburbs with her single mother and her meddling grandmother, who went to school, obsessed about boys and worked at McDonalds. Finally, this was the voice of a teenage Australian girl. This is why the book is iconic – here is a protagonist who does not conform to ethnic stereotypes of demure oppression or unbridled Italian emoting. There are no wailing victims of patriarchy, no big familial feasts featuring big bowls of pasta. No charges of chauvinism or cringing self-indulgent woe-is-me stories of being teased for school lunchbox pastrami sandwiches.

Looking for Alibrandi, I realised as a young adult, was not a ‘try-hard’ book about identity and belonging. It is the real deal and it is still extraordinary, twenty years after first publication. Melina Marchetta understood teenagers. She knew they were more stoic than popular culture and Dolly magazine gave them credit. She wrote about a strong young woman’s epiphanies in the span of a year: her burgeoning awareness of class identity, her integrity in deciding whether and when she wanted to give herself away, her centred sense of self in relation to the men in her life, her loyalty to her friends, and her reaction towards death. These are deep philosophical musings on life, and they take place in the most ordinary of settings: a school locker room, a grandmother’s sitting room, a car park, a street cafe. They take place in spaces all young adults inhabit. It is a book that, in the tradition of J.D. Salinger and Vera Brittain, speaks about the vicissitudes of moody teenagers:

Sometimes I feel like a junkie. One minute something happens in my life and I’m flying. Next minute I take a nose-dive and just as I’m about to hit the ground with full force something else will have me flying again. (p. 240)

Josephine Alibrandi was someone I knew. She could have been me in my adolescent moodiness. Her reaction to her friend John Barton’s life ‘choice’ was similar to mine when I heard that one of my mates was going to ‘deal’ in St Albans, or that a beautiful high school friend had left school to work in her uncle’s garage sewing clothes. Josie’s grandmother, with her oppressive concern about ‘what others thought’ could have been my mother lamenting about gossipers in Footscray, or could have been my Elwood friend’s smothering mother who fretted over creases on her daughter’s Laura Ashley clothes.

Back when this book was published, the shelves of libraries and bookstores still had the category ‘Ethnic Literature.’ The term ‘New Australian’ was used – un-ironically – to refer to recently arrived migrants, usually by people whose own ‘Australian’ ancestry dated back less than two hundred years. Like Asians, Mediterraneans appeared on commercial television only if they made fun of themselves. So we had Con the Fruiterer, Effie, and later, the multicultural cast of Fat Pizza (which included the first mail-order bride boat person); and we called this our self-depreciating, larrikin sense of humour. You were accepted if you realised your ‘woggy’ or ‘chinky’ ways, and could make fun of your ‘ethnicity.’

Yet what this book tells us is that twenty years ago, we weren’t ready to make fun of such matters because people were still laughing at us, and not with us. So making fun of ourselves was often tinged with some degree of self-loathing. Josephine Alibrandi doesn’t put herself down in order to fit in with the girls at school. She is self aware – she makes fun of herself and her family, but it is a gentle and self-contained humour. She makes fun of Nonna Katia’s vanity, but she will wear the dress her grandmother makes her. Her true anger is directed towards those who deserve it – the ignorant and racist, those who use ‘ethnic’ as a term of insult:

‘I’m not an ethnic,’ I spat out furiously. ‘I’m an Australian and my grandparents were Italian. They’re called Europeans, not ethnics. Ethnic is a word that you people use to put us all in a category.’ (p. 166)

Using the term ‘ethnic’ as a label presupposes that the person using it to describe others is so prevailingly ‘normal’ that they themselves have no ethnicity. This is ridiculous, because everyone has an ethnicity. To think that you are not ethnic is to believe that you belong, and others don’t. It also erases our first peoples. My friend, the writer Anita Heiss, recalls overhearing two people on a plane trip discussing their ancestry. ‘I’m fifth-generation Australian,’ one person told another, ‘My great-great-great-great grandfather came here about two hundred years ago’. ‘Woah,’ exclaimed his mate, ‘Two hundred years! You don’t get any more Australian than that!’. ‘How about four hundred thousand years?’ Anita wanted to retort, thinking about her own indigenous ancestry.

When this book came out, it was ground-breaking. It was a book that made it possible for a generation of young adults to identify as Italian-Australians. It showed them that they did not have to choose between one or the other. And it became popular and loved largely because librarians and English teachers all over Australia believed students should not shy away from stories about themselves, dealing with issues they faced day-to-day. They decided not to focus on how ‘exotic’ Josie was, but how pertinent her story was to our national narrative. To read and teach this book focusing solely on ‘ethnicity’ would do the work a great disservice. Her Italian heritage is only one of many parts of Josephine Alibrandi’s character. And her character is strung together by the stories her mother Christina and Nonna Katia tell her about strong, stoic women who do not conform to stereotypes.

Josie Alibrandi is an illegitimate child, at a time when being a ‘bastarda’ was considered a real source of shame. Marguerite Duras wrote ‘I have the honour of being dishonoured’, and it is this same sassy acceptance of her birth circumstances that makes it possible for Josie to feel that her single parent household is a complete family unit. When her father comes back into her life, she and her mother do not feel dependent on him. Nonna Katia was dependent on her husband, and while her mother has a job as a medical receptionist, Josie wants a career and not just a job. She wants to be a barrister to show up the stifling scuttlebutts in her Italian community: ‘I want to flaunt my status in front of those people and say, “See, look who I can become”’ (p. 138). But her mother advises differently:

Mama says that satisfaction isn’t what I should search for. Respect is. Respect? I detest that word. Probably because in this world you have to respect the wrong people for the wrong reasons. (p. 138)

One of the most important, but overlooked themes of this book is class. It is testament to Marchetta’s vivid and kindly portrayal of suburban life that the classes interact as unselfconsciously as they do. Today, such a narrative would be covered by a sheen of self-awareness and perhaps even a mean streak of ironic humour. In today’s frame of reference, Jacob would be considered ‘bogan’, but back in the early 1990s in Sydney, Josie describes both of them as middle-class.

This book details Josie’s burgeoning awareness of how class determines one’s future prospects. The contrast between Poison Ivy and John Barton’s lives, and the lives of Josie and Jacob sometimes seems as great a chasm as the moneyed characters and the poor in an Edith Wharton novel. Much of Josie’s initial desire to be a barrister is to be not constantly stuck with underdogs like Jacob. Yet she learns that although the actions and decisions of her parents and ancestors might shape who she is, they do not determine who she will be. And deep inside, she respects the underdog more than the privileged.

Women like her mother and grandmother made important life decisions in their teenage years. They crossed continents and had children, they found work and fought tradition. Josie’s grandmother was a ‘seventeen-year-old, boy crazy gypsy named Katia Torello’ (p. 79) when she followed her husband to a new land. When she arrived, she suddenly found herself a muted woman. In Italy she would have been considered a brave pioneer leaving the familiar, but in Australia she was the insular ‘ethnic’ woman who was rarely seen publicly without her husband, uncle or brother.

‘The Australians knew nuting about us. We were ignorant. They were ignorant. Jozzie, you wonder why some people my age cannot speak English well. It is because nobody would talk to them and worse still they did not want to talk to anyone.’ (p. 78)

Josie is the bridge between her two cultures. She will talk to everyone and anyone. She has friends from all walks of life. Although she is a school prefect with excellent marks, she also wags school and breaks another girl’s nose. She thinks she is attracted to the great private school debater, but rides on the back of the motorcycle of the public school boy who threw eggs at her as a kid. She is rude to her grandmother and father out of love and loyalty towards her mother. Respect, for her, is not to be automatically doled out to people with seniority or in authority. Respect has to be earned.

Josie’s high self-esteem is built upon her personal integrity. It is an integrity that has nothing to do with ‘what others think’ or ‘believe.’ She does not want to sleep with Jacob Coote just because everyone else does, and her explanation when Jacob tells her ‘But you’re almost eighteen. You’re old enough. Everyone else is doing it’ (p. 213) is almost prophetic twenty years after the publication of this book:

‘And next year someone is going to say to someone else “but you’re only sixteen, everyone else is doing it”. Or one day someone will tell your daughter that she’s only thirteen and everyone else is doing it. I don’t want to do it, Jacob, because everyone else is doing it.’ (p. 213)

A teenage girl in this current Internet age does not know how many people are doing it and with whom, and worries incessantly that they might be the ones who are left behind. After all, an allusion on Facebook is not as honest as a face-to-face claim. Josie may have mentioned that the Italians kept Telecom in business, but this book was written before the era of common mobile phone use. I wonder whether the Italian community’s policing of youth morality would have overcome the pervasiveness of porn culture. Josie knows that sexuality is very different from sex. She owns the former, and does not want the latter to be just a meaningless exercise.

Faith is a very important element of Josie’s character, because it is her faith that makes her choose life when different choices are being made around her:

‘. . . living is the challenge, Josie. Not dying. Dying is so easy. Sometimes it only takes ten seconds to die. But living? That can take you eighty years and you do something in that time.’ (p. 236)

This book is a gem because it is not filled with one enormous climactic epiphany that awakens one to becoming an adult. Melina Marchetta understood that life was cyclical, and human emotions and moods were the same.

She made it possible for me to write about growing up Asian in Australia, and have my books classified in the ‘Australian Literature’ section of bookstores and school booklists. It was her books, filled with love and generosity towards her Italian family and Australian students, that made it possible for my first book, Unpolished Gem to be read as a bildungsroman and not a refugee story. I was born in Australia just like Marchetta’s characters. I grew up with a grandmother who told me stories, and learned to live with people assuming that a face like mine must have come from somewhere exotic. So I understood that Looking for Alibrandi is not so much a story about finding yourself, but more about finding out how you relate to other people, and learning to see from their perspectives. And of course, Josie eventually realises this:

‘You can’t think for other people. Nor can you feel for them or be them. They have to do that for themselves.’ (p. 236)


Referenced works

Marchetta, M. Looking for Alibrandi. Penguin Australia, 1992.

Further reading
These books will help put Looking for Alibrandi in context. First of course are Melina Marchetta’s other wonderful related works:

Saving Francesca

On the Jellicoe Road

Also visit Melina Marchetta’s website.

Archimede Fusillo is another Italian-Australian writer for young adults, and his books discuss growing up in multicultural Melbourne.

For younger readers, Sally Rippin has written a beautiful book called Our Australian Girl: Meet Lina – a series of stories about Lina, an Italian-Australian girl growing up in the 1950s.

For a more academic and in-depth analysis, Jessica Rita Carniel’s thesis aptly titled ‘Who Josie became next’ examines the bildungsroman in relation to Italian-Australian writing. It also provides a helpful and extensive list of Italian-Australian literature. And, best of all, it can be accessed in its entirety, for free.

Citation: Carniel, J. “Who Josie became next: developing narratives of ethnic identity formation in Italian Australian literature and film.” PhD thesis. The Australian Centre and the Department of History (Gender Studies Program), The University of Melbourne (2006).

© Copyright Alice Pung 2013