Tag Archives: suicide

View from a bridge

The woman sees the man climb on to the bridge railing as she arcs down the sweeping bend towards the river. She pulls to the side of the road, calls 000.

She gets out of her car and approaches, carefully. Tells the man she wants to talk. More importantly, to listen to what he has to say.

The second car passing is driven by a ‘tradie’ on his way to work. He also halts mid-way across the bridge. Now two people entreat the man on the edge, trying desperately to connect with him.

Perhaps he is past listening. Bereft. Beyond hope of help or understanding. As the woman continues her heartfelt appeals he topples.

A third motorist, another tradesman, recognises his colleague’s ute and stops. He follows their gaze down from the bridge. Sees a person bob up from the dark green water below. No. No. No.

He’s not a confident swimmer but determines to sprint down to the water. Shed his work gear and plunge into the current. Do something, anything. The woman beseeches him not to, saying he will be dragged down and may also perish.

The man below bobs up again. Then, after an agonisingly long moment, a third time. The second tradesman runs to his car and returns with ropes to lower as a lifeline but they’re not long enough. The bridge is too high.

The man in the water doesn’t resurface.

Another car approaches. It jags to a halt and is abandoned in the middle of the tarmac. Minutes earlier, this distraught fourth driver found an envelope. He tore it open to find a statement of intent. A farewell from a friend.

The letter writer had an appointment with the Immigration Department on this day. A fortnight earlier his cousin’s application to remain in Australia was refused. The cousin was taken to the airport and put on a plane. Immediately, unwillingly, fearfully, forcefully returned to his country of origin.

The letter writer couldn’t, wouldn’t face that same possible fate.

The man’s death echoes through the lives of at least five families. Those who stopped on the bridge are left asking what might have been. Could they have said something different? What if the ropes were longer? What if they hadn’t lingered over a cuppa at breakfast? Seconds and centimetres might have made a difference.

And, leaking through the morass of unanswerable questions, comes a bilious realisation that sours with each hour. An awareness that the system failed this man and his loved ones.

The system that criminalises people for seeking sanctuary or refuge in a safe place.

The system that takes the desperate, despairing and traumatised and compounds their suffering, yet seemingly washes its hands of their welfare.

The system that incarcerates children.

The system that doesn’t specify time limits on detention (while in the justice system convicted killers and rapists get minimum sentences).

The system that is devastating the staff working within it.

The system administered by Australia. That means us.

The dark side of YA fiction

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about YA fiction with the headline It was, like, all dark and stormy.

Just quietly, I’m rapt that a media outlet as big-time as the WSJ is covering YA fiction. I’m not sure I agree with the thrust of the article but its publication possibly suggests that YA won’t continue to be hidden at the back of bookstores like some adult no-go zone.

If you’re tempted to read the article, and it’s certainly worth a squiz, be warned it contains spoilers on the plots of several books. All the titles discussed have been released in the US for a while now, which is probably why the writer had no qualms about divulging story outcomes. Nonetheless, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Spoilers suck.

That caveat aside, the thesis of the article is basically that YA readers are turning to the dark side of life, voraciously consuming stories about topics such as suicide, mental illness, death, eating disorders and disaster.

My thoughts are that:
1. I don’t think this is a new trend. There are plenty of decades-old dark novels that would be retrospectively classified as YA fiction; and
2. The teen years can be dark anyway – a time of loneliness, change and altered awareness of the world.

I’ve posted previously on this latter point, informed by workshops I do with students and a secondary school short story competition I have judged for several years. As an author of YA fiction containing dark matter, I’d argue that young adults are watching and sharing the same world as the rest of us. Hopefully reading stories can help them comprehend and come to terms with a universe that no longer seems as shiny as it did during their early childhoods.

The edge has moved (but it’s still sharp)

Back when Game as Ned was being pitched to various publishers, there was feedback that a particular scene in the story, a vicious and violent assault, might be considered “too edgy”. This feedback didn’t come from the editorial wings of companies. It came from the marketing divisions who thought it might limit their potential sales.

I’d already come under fire for my writing of the scene and had reworked it extensively. The moment isn’t graphic and I maintained it was integral to the story. Sometimes it takes a major incident such as this assault to be the catalyst for character action and growth.

I do wonder what rock the marketing folks are living under. In my visits to schools this year I have had extensive contact with teen readers, teachers and librarians. Some schools have been a tad squeamish about bad language in (other) YA fiction but none have raised the assault scene with me.

I can confidently say that teens are way more worldly than when I was in secondary school – more hardened to the “edgier” aspects of life. Whether this is a good thing is a debate for another time but check out the bleak-but-brilliant UK TV series Skins if you want a sense of where some YA kids are at today.

Some of the best YA titles published cover the big issues, fearlessly and without marketing spin. Here are just a few that pull no punches:
Before I Die
How I Live Now
Kill the Possum
So Much to Tell You

And there are plenty more.

I can offer further insight into the teen mind to let the marketing folks out there know that “edgy” isn’t what it used to be. For the past five years I have judged the secondary school short story competition for a rural show (that’s a country fair for any US readers). Here is the list of topics tackled by the year 8, 9 and 10 entrants for 2008:

  • Loneliness/abandonment (x 3)
  • Poverty/homelessness (x 4)
  • Domestic violence (x 2)
  • Disability
  • Bullying (x 4)
  • Fatal illness
  • Suicide
  • Eating disorders
  • Heartbreak (x 2)
  • We also had plane crash carnage, Viking pillagers, truancy, fantasy and a rare but joyous hint of humour.

In the years I’ve been reading these stories, domestic violence, suicide and bullying have featured prominently. The teen years can be a dark place.