Songs That Sound Like Blood, Jared Thomas (2016)

Note: We don’t give star-ratings. We review in order to encourage the development of AusQueerYA, by deconstructing the good and the bad bits, to learn and grow as writers.

*mega spoilers*

The Blurb:

‘Roxy May Redding’s got music in her soul and songs in her blood. She lives in a small, hot, dusty town and she’s dreaming big. When she gets the chance to study music in the big city, she takes it.

In Roxy’s new life, her friends and her music collide in ways she could never have imagined. Being a poor student sucks… singing for her dinner is soul destroying… but nothing prepares Roxy for her biggest challenge. Her crush on Ana, the local music journo, forces Roxy to steer through emotions alien to this small-town girl. Family and friends watch closely as Roxy takes a confronting journey to find out who she is.’

The Goods:

I’ve put off writing about this book for a long time, because I couldn’t quite get my thoughts straight (ha). This is an important book in a sense. As far as I know, this is the first out Aboriginal lesbian main character in an Australian YA book. Jared Thomas is a Nukunu person, writing from the perspective of a Nukunu person. In this sense the story is an #OwnVoices, but it is not a Queer Own Voices narrative and here is where this analysis get tricky.

There are SO MANY ISSUES in this book. Thomas has a fearless approach to tackling the hard stuff. Representation of both outright and casual racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia are strewn through-out. Issues of race and education were handled skilfully by Thomas, which makes sense with his background working in universities. Roxy’s is a new perspective in the OzYA landscape and that was cool to see. The intersectionality of race/sexuality and trying to find pride in both those things was interesting. Roxy finds her voice as an Aboriginal woman through her music and through (albeit a mostly forced) leadership of the group protesting the cancellation of the specialist music program. Roxy’s voice was strong and didn’t play into racial stereotypes. The problem is that this site is primarily concerned with Queer representation and from that perspective, this book has problems.

To Be Improved:

There are three major problems with this novel when viewed from the Queer perspective. These are:

  1. Roxy’s coming out narrative.
  2. Roxy and Ana’s relationship.
  3. The misogynistic representation of pretty much ALL the female characters.

We’ll start with Roxy’s coming out narrative. What a whirlwind. Basically she goes from having ZERO insight into her sexuality, to sleeping with Ana on straight away, to chatting to the councillor Nancy about being gay and then there’s some low-key family drama about being gay and then apparently we all just forget about that and go back to worrying about music. There are just so many parts of this that made no sense.

Perfectly reasonable to come out after high-school. If you haven’t been exposed to Queer culture and have been lucky enough to avoid a hard-core crush on a straight girl in high school, then one could be oblivious to it all. What didn’t make sense was that she literally didn’t Google anything, or do anything at all about it until after she’d slept with Ana and then she was just like ‘Alrighty, better let Nancy in on this’ and read a pamphlet. Then she comes out to Justin, but it’s written in such a way that Roxy actually APOLOGISES to him for being gay. No. No. NO. Aunt Linny has a go and I thought there was going to be a sub-plot into the Lorna Jane thing, but that all blew over pretty quick and we’re left with Roxy deciding she’s totally cool with her Queer place in the world, while simultaneously actively fighting for Aboriginal rights. Why not fight for both? Why not try and figure out your Queer culture as well?

Roxy and Ana’s relationship was not healthy. Let’s address the whole sleeping with each other straight away thing. That in itself isn’t a problem. I’m all for sexual freedoms and not shaming the actions taken by two consenting adults. The problem is though that we the reader are given no insight into Roxy’s feelings about this event, there is no awkwardness at all (which is 100% not how my first time went, but maybe that was a ‘me’ thing) and HELEN DOES THE SAME THING AND IS SLUT SHAMED FOR IT. I cannot understand why Thomas thought it was alright to have Roxy and Ana’s experience be a non-issue, but then make a big deal about Helen sleeping with Stevo. Sure, Stevo was complete scum, but that was Stevo’s shame, not Helen’s. The only reason I can think of to explain this, is that there is this view that two women together is considered ‘beautiful’ and Helen’s experience was not. The male-gaze at it’s finest.

Ana also pushes Roxy to do and be and wear things she explicitly states she’s not comfortable with (like the ‘Starbright’ competition). This is all played off as being part of a supportive, loving relationship, but there is a massive difference between wanting your partner to succeed and pushing them in to things against their will. Ana is older, out and rich, which gives her power over Roxy that is never addressed within the text. Again, I believe this is written from the perspective that two women together couldn’t possibly be anything but sunshine and good times.

ALL THE WOMEN ARE PAINTED AS AWFUL PEOPLE. Aunt Linny, Roxy’s mum, Helen, Angie, Kelly, Lorna Jane, (literally every female character actually) was called a ‘bitch’ at some point by another woman, or body-shamed or slut-shamed or painted as terrible mothers, partners and friends, while the men (Roxy’s Dad, Uncle Johnny, Justin etc.) are all tip-top blokes. Not cool.

I want to reiterate that I have zero authority on what makes substantial, important or ‘good’ Aboriginal YA. I found I had no issues with the way Roxy was represented as a Nukunu woman, but that is likely because I have no idea what that is like. I am forced to assume Thomas’s portrayal is accurate, on account of having no insight of my own. What I do have insight in to however is what it is to be a young Queer woman in Australia, which Thomas does not. Therefore I feel within my authority when I speak of how problematic the Queer story line is within Songs That Sounds Like Blood.

Tiny Problems:

I think at this point it’s obvious I didn’t enjoy this story as a Queer woman reader and listing tiny typos and plot holes is probably pointless. I do want to note that once again we have a f/f relationship used as a teaser in a blurb, but a plot that barely resolves around this element.

Overall, this is an important novel, but I believe the Queer elements in this novel deserved more careful structuring in order to be less problematic from a critical perspective.

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