Melina Marchetta inspires 25 years on

We found Alibrandi in a hopeless place.

This piece is from our coverage of Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. To check out the rest, click here

Like most other Australian millennials, I first discovered Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi in a sweaty high-school English classroom somewhere in suburban Sydney. 16-year-old me was the quintessential Alibrandi reader: acned, mid-puberty, and caught in peak adolescence — all traits that facilitated a perfect intersection between our wanky woes and those of the eponymous Josie Alibrandi.

Josie was sharp. She was brusque and quick-witted — resilient in the face of a society that relegated her to its lowest rungs as an illegitimate child of immigrant parents. Despite our growing up in a community that was worlds and years away from hers, Alibrandi resonated with my classmates and I in what seemed like divine fortune.

Only later would we realise that our experience with Marchetta’s protagonist wasn’t unique. Our entire generation had mourned the death of John Barton with her (and then again when he was portrayed by the devilishly handsome Matthew Newton), we swooned with her when she crushed on rugged bad boy Jacob Coote, and we cried over her rocky paternal relationship. But Josie didn’t just encapsulate the condition of one fleeting temporal moment — 25 years after the novel’s first release, Looking for Alibrandi is still one of the most celebrated pieces of Australian literature. Talking with Melina Marchetta, it’s not hard to understand why.

“Identity is such an important part of the Australian landscape,” she muses about the inspiration behind her stories. “I’m always trying to work out what my place is.”

It’s this kind of permanent search for self that first drove her to include elements from her own Italian-Australian upbringing in Alibrandi, and perhaps what gives the novel its particular sense of authenticity. When I ask her whether she ever expected the readership she’s engaged, she responds with humour and humility.

“Gosh,” she laughs, “not at all! I remember my family spoke about the fact that only people like us would relate to it, so I calculated that I knew 200 ‘people like us’ in the world, and most of them were relatives. It was a big shock for it to go wide.”

To say it went ‘wide’ is almost an understatement for a book so ingrained in the very fibre of our national consciousness. While other texts have fallen to the wayside for being too outdated, too preachy or too trite, Alibrandi has retained its relevance — a phenomenon that Marchetta partially attributes to Australia’s lack of progression in its outlook towards minorities.

“I just think there’s always a different culture that gets the brunt of people’s ignorance,” she says, quick to point out that, although her own no longer faces the discrimination it once did, it’s only shifted towards other communities. “I get very dismayed when I hear Italians who are racist towards others…a lot of them forget that it was us 50 or 60 years ago put in camps, persecuted for what was going on overseas in a country we didn’t belong to anymore.”

Even so, she’s optimistic about Australia’s youth. “There was definitely a sentiment in the last chapter of Alibrandi of the power of young people to do good, that it was going to be their voice that would be the voice that changes,” she recalls, before reflecting on the delicate influence that literature at large wields to shape political opinions.

“When you go into writing with the intention to educate, it backfires on you — it should be to entertain, it should be to challenge,” she cautions, “but when someone reads your work and tells you they changed their views, what a bonus. That’s just one of the many pleasures of being either the writer or the reader.”

Perhaps this is the crux of Looking for Alibrandi’s legacy: it represents culture, and  alienation from culture in a more nuanced, more tender way than its predecessors. And it champions a faith in flawed youth, inspiring generation after angsty generation to claim their potential.