Between Us by Clare Atkins

Inside the CBCA Shortlist

Why and how is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres?

Clare Atkins tackles significant social and political issues in her books. Her second novel, Between Us (Black Inc) is set in the Northern Territory between a Darwin school and the notorious Wickham Point Detention Centre. The author writes by weaving real life stories into fiction. This book took three years of research. Many interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it compromised their jobs or visa applications. The author has spent time inside Villawood detention centre (Sydney) as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. She also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor.

The novel shows 15-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Anahita’s experiences on mainland Australia after periods on Christmas Island and Nauru.  She is only allowed out of the detention centre to attend school.

At first her voice is curious, passionate and determined. She seems equanimous but wears a headscarf to hide the patches of bald scalp where she has torn out her hair. Her tender yet brittle new friendship with Jono (16-year-old half-Vietnamese, half-Australian) worries his father Kenny, who was a Vietnamese “boat person” and is now an “officer” at the detention centre.

The novel is told from each of these three characters’ perspectives.

The title Between Us is significant. Ana and Jono try to “hover in the corridor, a safe in-between place”. The titlealso suggests the spaces between people, particularly between the three major characters, where barriers of ignorance, fear and imprisonment shut down interaction and understanding. Acceptance and empathy could better fill these gaps.

Between Us is an insightful, thought-provoking and uncomfortable work that uses the powerful novel-form to awaken readers to the plight of migrants, refugees and those at risk in detention.

Clare Atkins’ website is

Using the book with students:

Detention Centre Read descriptions of Wickham Point detention centre in the novel and sketch it to consolidate a sense of place.

Prisoner/Detainee Emoji Ana has posted an emoji on Facebook described as “the outline of a cartoon person weeping tears behind black prison bars”, page 99.  Students draw their interpretation of this emoji.

Changing Voice Jono has a history of being abandoned by females; even his mother left him. At the beginning of the story he reveals his observations and emotions through verse, but anger and depression stifle his voice.

Despite her growing fluency in English, Ana’s words become more spare and poetic as her circumstances worsen. Students find examples of their changing voices in the text, e.g. Jono’s first words beginning on page 4; Ana’s poem on page 239.

Writing Writing as a television scriptwriter has taught the author much about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. Each section or chapter is a scene to move the story forward. She believes that she may use more dialogue than other novelists. Read Jono’s version of his exchange about music with Ana on pages 85-6. Keep reading Ana’s words on pages 86 and further noting dialogue, character building and flow.

Intertextuality: Books & Music The author incorporates literary texts such as The Outsiders, The Rabbits, The Simple Gift and Home in the Sky in Between Us. She explains that they are all books and authors she loves and admires. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging. In pairs or small groups, students read one of these other books to identify and link the themes mentioned.

The author incorporates Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hood into Between Us. She explains that she spoke to some young Iranian people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. She looked for an Australian equivalent – Hilltop Hoods, who are sometimes political and are also playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have. Students listen to Hilltop Hoods’ song Live and Let Go and read the lyrics (available online). Explain how experiences in the novel are shared in the song and what comfort can be found in both.

Read other CBCA shortlisted books, The Mediterranean, Cicada and Waves, which I have also blogged about. Read Clare Atkins’ first novel Nona and Me.

Cover The cover of Between Us is based on photos the author took in Darwin during the wet season. “The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer.” The author liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance (one of the ways Ana and Jono are able to connect is on the phone). They also here suggest fence wire. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.

After viewing the cover, students interpret it in verse. To acknowledge Ana’s Iranian background, use a Persian poetry form. Scroll down to ‘poetry’ in the following Encyclopaedia Britannica link about Persian literature and select a form to use as a poetry model.

The author thinks the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. She hopes her novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change.

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