Books

‘Growing Up in Australia’ is the book you wished you had read… when growing up in Australia

Growing Up in Australia is an urgent, emotional set of stories that reframe what it means to come of age in Australian society.

With contributions from acclaimed, award-winning writers such as Christos Tsiolkas, Tim Winton, Tara June Winch, Anna Goldsworthy, and more, Growing Up in Australia (Black Inc.) explores stories of family, heritage, and country. Framing the experience of coming-of-age through the lens of immigration, Indigenous heritage, sexuality, disability, and class, the anthology is refreshingly diverse in its retelling of what it means to “grow up in Australia.”

Throughout history, writers have been long enamoured by the unsteady, turbulent years of adolescence. Writers like Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club), amongst many, many others, have made their mark in both fiction and non-fiction, by exploring that precipice before shifting into a new stage of life. Strikingly, Growing Up in Australia focuses on an Australian journey of coming of age — a reading experience that elevates it amongst local readership, as compared to the iconic, but perhaps relatively unrelatable, American narratives.

alice pung
Writer Alice Pung, who writes the Introduction to ‘Growing Up in Australia’ (ABC RN: Jody Haines)

It raises the question that editor Alice Pung establishes in the introduction of the anthology: “what is it that makes us dive again and again into this period of our lives?” The thirty-two essays that comprise the anthology attempt to provide some illumination to this question — an astonishing series of explorations that span several continents and cultures, but are tied together in their examinations of the profound revelations that launched them from adolescence to adulthood.

The opening essay Talking To My Country, written by Australian journalist and writer Stan Grant, integrates historical and contemporary Indigenous experience into the author’s account of growing up in Australia. Detailing the “myths of his childhood,” which involved “Australia’s lie: that no blood had stained the conquest of the wattle,” Grant interposes the generational impact of growing up under such turbulence; “the daunting, sometimes insurmountable challenge of finding our place in a white world that we [knew] [could] so brutally reject us.”  

A powerful meditation on race, identity, and cultural heritage, Talking To My Country taps into a shared experience that penetrates almost every essay in the anthology: the feeling of being alienated, ignored; a “footnote” within Australian culture. Interestingly enough, what many of these authors seem to turn to — in the emphatic grips of their isolation — were family (Nyadol Nyuon’s rediscovery of her mother in Her Mother’s Daughter, or Sara El Sayed’s humourous familial dynamics Don’t Touch Alcohol), writing (Andy Jackson’s liberation in poetry in Question Marks and A Theory of A Vision), and the small, human joys in life (Anna Goldsworthy’s experience of learning music in Piano Lessons).

While every individual essay is tied to its author’s deeply personal experience, what emerges from reading them successively in the anthology, Growing Up in Australia, is a sense of collective celebration. As the writers expose some of the devastating, and some of the most beautiful, memories of growing up in Australia, the anthology provides comfort to those who never saw themselves or their experiences — myself, included — as worthy of being written about.

In short, Growing Up in Australia was the book I wish I had when growing up in Australia. The anthology is masterfully written (as expected, from some of the most acclaimed writers in the country) and constructs a world in which our differences, are not so strange after all. Our pain, our joy, our love, and our differences — they are our shared, collective strength.

Growing Up in Australia tells us that regardless of our struggles, or where we come from, or who we have become, the experiences that brought us here are, and will always remain, truly Australian.

growing up in Australia cover
Photo: Black Inc. Books

As part of Black Inc.’s Growing Up series, Growing Up in Australia is available here.