Melanie Basta and the Philosopher’s Book

Friday, 20 March, 2015

Behold, fellow Farragoers, a place in the literary landscape many of us try to avoid: the vomit-inducing, faraway land where we deserted our fourteen-year-old selves long ago. I present to you, Young Adult (YA) fiction. Cue booing and unparalleled displays of confusion and anger.

This year, I will show you the one little spot on the ravaged road of YA fiction where a select few blades of grass grow ever so fervently. As we meander down the road you will hopefully find yourselves questioning the inherent notoriety of the very landscape itself. But don’t think you’re off the hook entirely: your tween obsession with Twilight will never be okay.

The first blade of grass I want to share with you is Laurinda by Alice Pung, which is her debut into YA fiction. Although it really doesn’t need to be pigeonholed: it’s a wake-up call to class divisions, racial stereotyping and feminist issues in Australia today.

The protagonist Lucy Lam is withdrawn as she observes the conniving power plays from ‘the Cabinet’ – a group of the three most influential, bratty students at her school, Laurinda. A serious classroom incident puts Lucy in a compromised position: should she act on her conscience and dismantle the unfair power structure or become another bystander?

Being a YA book, there has to be a love interest, right? Well, yes and no. Lucy develops a crush in the novel, but Pung decides not to focus on the possibility of boyfriends in Laurinda. The boy drifts into Lucy’s life, floats in the background and then drifts away. For once, a female protagonist can breathe without the incessant worry of “does he like me?” Or, “if I don’t shave my legs will I be too gross to be loved?” And, “how much should I douse myself in chemically laden Impulse body spray?” Pung steps up on the literary ladder and shows the reader that an intimate relationship is not a prerequisite for a good story.

Lucy is a highly believable leading lady. Laurinda shows that a girl can be quiet and withdrawn sometimes and not have anything wrong with her. How many times have you seen or read a Babysitters’ Sisterhood of the Travelling BFF Pants? They’re not as realistic as Laurinda. Lucy is often aloof, standoffish, and gives a somewhat tacky speech at the Year Ten valedictory dinner, but she still manages to kick some figurative arse and dismantle the Cabinet by telling them to fuck off, amongst other decorous remarks. Pung shows us that a strong, female protagonist does not need to fight to death in an arena to have merit.

Laurinda is a work of fiction that lays the foundation for more books of its kind to come. It does not belittle teenagers; it speaks to everyone and showcases a dynamic female protagonist. As Pung aptly quotes Kurt Vonnegut before the prologue: “life is nothing but high school”. No matter your gender, no matter your private bits, Laurinda is for you.