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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

'Calypso Summer' by Jared Thomas

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Calypso Summer is a story told by Calypso, a young Nukunu man, fresh out of high school in Rastafarian guise. After failing to secure employment in sports retail, his dream occupation, Calypso finds work at the Henley Beach Health Food shop where his boss pressures him to gather native plants for natural remedies. This leads him to his Nukunu family in southern Flinders Ranges and the discovery of a world steeped in cultural knowledge. The support of a sassy, smart, young Ngadjuri girl, with a passion for cricket rivalling his own, helps Calypso to reconsider his Rastafarian façade and understand how to take charge of his future.

Calypso is fresh out of high school and working at Henley Beach Health Food shop where his boss likes him to really put on the Rastafari and do a Bob Marley impersonation (good for sales, he says). One day his boss asks if any of Calypso’s people have secret Aborigine remedies they could sell in the Health Food shop, for a price.

Wanting to please his boss, Calypso goes to his mother who sends him to Nukunu auntie in the Flinders Ranges, to learn healing remedies that he can maybe bring home to sell. But while there Calypso finds that the family are in the middle of land-owning discussions, he meets a Ngadjuri girl called Clare and starts to feel a connection to his past …

Calypso Summer’ is the debut young adult novel from Jared Thomas, and winner of the black&write! Award from the State Library of Queensland.

‘Calypso Summer’ starts out slow – we meet Calyspo and his cousin, Run, whose mooching on Calypso’s couch after heartache leaves him lazy. Calypso recently finished high school and had dreams of working in a sports store (being a Usain Bolt and Michael Jordan fan, Calypso knows all there is to know about Puma and Nike sportswear) but nobody would employ him, a half-white half-Nukunu man with dreadlocks and a penchant for Rastafari culture. For a little while it looked as though no one in Adelaide would give Calypso a job, until he stumbled into work at a video rental store which owner Gary then turned into a Health Food store – where Calypso’s exotic looks helped sell everything from potent corn to healing crystals.

Calyspo sets the stage for readers and while it does read as slow-burn, the set-up is important for the transformation Calypso undergoes throughout the book. Knowing about his employment history, we learn how hard it was for Calypso and how depressed he felt having to turn to Centrelink, even though he knew he was a capable and willing employee. So when his Health Food boss, Gary, suggests Calyspo asks ‘his people’ for healing Aborigine bush medicines to sell in the shop, we understand why Calypso goes above and beyond and reaches out to his estranged Nukunu to learn about these recipes.

Except Calypso ends up learning a whole lot more, about his family and the land they call home, about his mother and why she lost touch with his Aunty Janet … but above all, Calypso learns about himself.

When Calypso arrives in Port Germein, one of his uncles notes that; “you’re here but you don’t understand what being here means yet.” And the whole book becomes about Calypso and his family addressing this issue, teaching Calypso what being here means. It’s a really beautiful thought, especially because Calypso has been so disconnected from his past and his mob for so long. At one point early on, he remembers a school excursion to Tandanya, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.

I knew Tandanya, I’d been there on a school excursion. In the gallery there were all of these surfboards that an artist had put his designs on, patterns from his mob. I could tell that even some of the white kids thought they were deadly. And then this fella taught us things about Aboriginal Australia, pointing to a map of the continent and explaining how there are hundreds of different language groups with different cultures. Then he explained how the didgeridoo comes from just one small part of the country in Arnhem Land. Then he played the didg. He was deadly and I felt good to be a Nunga that day until we were riding back to school on the bus and Kelly Simkin said, ‘Well that was different, I was expecting to just see drunk Aborigines.’ Everyone laughed. Some of them looked straight at me when they laughed too and I was so angry I felt like flogging ‘em.

That’s such a heartbreaking scene, but it’s one that I’m sure many Aboriginal children can relate to when their culture collides with current stereotypes and ingrained racism. It goes to show what Calypso is up against, why he’s taken on the Rastafarian identity instead of his Aboriginal one.

There is a romance in the book, when Calypso meets Clare – a young hairdresser with a love for cricket and her Ngadjuri background, who also helps Calypso find his true identity. The love interest is a nice balance to a quite intense story, and is likewise a good remedy for Calypso’s somewhat lonely life.

This is a really great book for anyone to read who would like to know more about Aboriginal culture. Jared Thomas covers a lot of history for Calypso and readers – from learning about ‘The Dreaming’, to discussing native land titles and the exploitation of the First People’s histories (in the book it’s called, “taking away” which is a hard but true summary).

The earth, the moon and the stars are round and time goes round in a circle. Our past, present and future are all connected to each other. What we did yesterday affects today, and what we do today affects tomorrow.

Jared Thomas has so perfectly captured the voice of young Calypso – a young man torn between cultures but blind to his own identity. It’s a book about family, above all else, and coming to the realisation that to go forward you have to first look back.


P.S. - I wrote about the wonderful publishing house Magabala Books back in April, for Kill Your Darlings 

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