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My Father's Shadow by Jannali Jones

JANNALI JONES is a Krowathunkoolong woman of the Gunai nation. In 2015, she won the ‘black&write!’ Indigenous Writing Fellowship, which lead to the publication of her first Young Adult novel My Father’s Shadow. It tells the story of teenage Kaya whose father disappears after testifying in a court case against dangerous criminals. Kaya and her mother flee to the Blue Mountains, where they must cut themselves off from the world in order to remain safe and hidden. But as time passes, mysteries multiply and forgotten memories slowly resurface. 

gr spoke to Jannali about writing her first YA thriller, her favourite books as a teen, and the importance of authentic Indigenous characters in fiction.


Have you always been a writer? What kinds of stories did you write when you were younger?

Writing is something I’ve enjoyed doing as a hobby for a long time. When I was in primary school I was really into horror and science fiction, so I wrote in those genres. Then in high school I started to get more into fantasy, so of course my writing followed my reading habits again. As a teenager I began writing an epic sea-faring fantasy saga that would stretch across several books. At least, I made plans for it to. I’d like to get back to that story one day. These days I make a conscious effort to read more widely, though, an d I think my writing benefits from that. 

You were the winner of the 2015 ‘black&write!’ Indigenous Writing Fellowship. How did receiving that honour impact your life and career?

I was over the moon when I got the call and was told I had won. It was great to get some early career recognition of all the work I’d been doing. I was able to meet people in the industry and it gave me more confidence as a writer. It led to the publication of My Father’s Shadow, so I think the full impact remains to be seen. It came with a cash prize too. When Ellen Van Neerven, then manager of the fellowship, asked what I was going to do with the money, I told her I’d probably pay off my credit card. She insisted I spend at least part of it on something fun, so I did use some of the prize to take my husband to Japan for his 30th. That was an amazing trip we never would have taken otherwise. 

You’ve said that the seed of My Father’s Shadow was an image that came to you of a teenage girl and her mother driving recklessly along windy mountain roads at night, the mother crying uncontrollably at the wheel. How did the remainder of the story unfold from there?

I was inspired by some real-life events to write Kaya’s father’s story. There have been a number of cases where witnesses have been shot or murdered in Australia and overseas, and I’d also heard about the murder of Brian Stidham. He was an ophthalmologist who was killed by a hit man hired by his boss. These kinds of events sound so bizarre, but they really do happen. 

There’s a lot that Kaya’s mother does to try to control her and keep her safe, like her draconian set of rules about not contacting anyone, and frequently reminding her of the danger they’re in. It made sense that as a teenager Kaya would be inclined to rebel against the rules, including making friends with Eric, and try to get herself out of that situation in any way she can, despite the danger. 

Your main character, Kaya, grapples with the trauma of her father’s death and her own repressed memories. Why do you think it is important to explore mental health challenges, particularly within YA fiction?

I believe that talking about mental health issues helps to destigmatise them, and learning more about different conditions helps us to understand them and the people who deal with them. Exploring them in a fictional setting also allows us to respond to them in ways that might not feel appropriate in a real-world setting. I suffer from a mild form of trauma which relates back to my early childhood and it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I finally understood what all my seemingly nonsensical reactions to certain situations was all about. Recognising that meant that I have been able to improve the way I handle my emotions and responses, but I do wish that I had understood it earlier. I think that building awareness may help people to identify mental health issues early, which can lead to better management. 

Most of the novel takes place in the highland regions of the Blue Mountains, where Kaya and her mother hide out and attempt to rebuild their lives. What is it about that location that made you want to place your characters there?

The Blue Mountains are so close to Sydney and yet when you’re there it feels like you’re in a faraway place. I’ve always felt relaxed by the mountains, maybe that goes back to when I lived in the Adelaide Hills as a child, a place I loved growing up. Whenever I visit the Blue Mountains it always reminds me of my old home in Greenhill. The Blue Mountains are so beautiful and yet there is a danger to them. That sense of danger hidden behind the calm seemed to suit the themes of the book. Even when Kaya is hanging out with her friend Eric and having a great time, there’s always darker things looming at the back of her mind. 

You’ve spoken about the importance of preserving and sharing Aboriginal Australian culture through stories. What do you think that the YA genre can offer in this regard?

I think the YA genre can offer early exposure and understanding through story. There are a lot of misconceptions about Aboriginal people and how we live, and I’m hoping that having different kinds of Indigenous stories in the YA space will mean the next generation won’t expect us all to be walking stereotypes. It’s important that we’re the authors of our own stories as there are some problematic portrayals of Aboriginal people in fiction. Even a work like Jasper Jones, which was really successful, had a somewhat clichéd portrayal in that the Aboriginal character was known as the bad boy in trouble with the police, who came from a broken family. These sorts of typecasts can be very damaging. 

What else is in the works for you?

I’m writing another young adult novel. This one is set in a remote community in the Northern Territory. It’s called Yenda and it mixes familiar fantasy fiction elements – a young girl chosen to protect her small town from forces of evil – with a contemporary Aboriginal twist. It was shortlisted earlier this year for the 2019 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. 

My Father’s Shadow by Jannali Jones is published by Magabala, rrp $14.99.