Honeybee / Craig Silvey / April-May 2022  / 
Book Club 2 - There’s a lot going on in the book

story / Book Club / May 7, 2022

One thing we love about Gazella, is if we don’t meet a deadline or something doesn’t work out – hey it’s fine! At the end of the day this is meant to be fun. So hence April’s bookclub bleeding into May was bound to happen…

So we set out to read books by Australian Women, and with our second book we landed on a male author…another great start. But this book came highly recommended by Rosie and was voted by our Tribe, so if the Tribe has spoken…

A little snippet on Craig Silvey, of Jasper Jones fame (which I haven’t read or seen the movie). Silvey is an Aussie novelist, influenced apparently by Southern Gothic (think Truman Capote, Mark Twain etc). I get the sense of that regionalism apparent in Capote, that comes out in Honeybee, with off-the-earth characters and a dark undertow of the harder sides of life. Honeybee has already gone on to win the Fiction prize at the 2021 Indie Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Literary fiction book of the year in 2021 at the Australian Book Industry Awards.

Honeybee centres on Sam, a young person struggling to understand themselves a world that hasn’t been kind. A young adult trying to figure out who they are, through the characters that come into the life shared with his single mum and soon with Steve a terribly accurate cliche of Australian masculinity.

Spoiler alert, if you haven’t read the book, moving forward we are going to discuss key themes and plot points…

 

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Sam is transgender. The story and his confusion melds into focus slowly as the story unfolds. As Sam approaches adulthood his self-hate (and self harm) grows with his developing body and the acceptance he cannot find from his mother.

Here is the story of a transgender person, told by a non-transgender author, yet it appears to have been done with a lot of authentic voices filling the text behind it (I have read that Silvey did much research and spoke to many transgender people on finding an authentic voice for Sam).

The Guardian wrote, ‘Even still, there’s something about the way that Sam’s gender identity is treated as a reveal, as something startling or surprising, that sits uncomfortably with me. It feels othering, or almost exploitative, even as Sam is always portrayed with great compassion.’

There are loads of trauma and catastrophe in this book. Each chapter is a new hurdle for Sam to journey over. When reviewing the book last night, we kept uttering the phrase ‘Oh and then that happened…’ There was just so much going on in this book! Does it perhaps go so far as to link Sam’s continual trauma and pain with his struggle to find his gender identity. For me this was the part I found a little uncomfortable. Not all transgender people grow up with violence, insecurity, or ‘broken homes’. Not all transgender people need an Obi Wan Kenobi figure (Peter/Diane – who seemed like one character to me) to mentor and ‘save’ them.

Though the story is about Sam and being transgender, it is also about unconventional relationships and finding love and companionship in the throes of life. This is endearing. Especially the friendship/fathership with Vic and the partner-in-criminal-masterminding he has with Aggie. This is where he finds acceptance, not judgement.

This is what Craig Silvey said about the idea for the book:

Late one night a couple of years ago, my brother was driving home after picking his partner up from the airport. As they drove across an overpass, he noticed somebody standing on the other side of the railing, looking down. He pulled over and called the police, while my sister-in-law got out and approached. My brother remained in the car and texted me. I was in my office, working at my desk. I continued to get updates from him. My sister-in-law’s strategy was to provide a distraction while the police were on their way. She spoke to this young person about a range of unrelated subjects, but eventually, they volunteered the reasons why they had been driven to attempt suicide. They were transgender. They had no network of support. They had been abandoned by their family. They saw no pathway that led beyond their anguish and pain. Police and an ambulance arrived. The officers grabbed the young person and pulled them back over the railing. They took a very brief statement from my sister-in-law while paramedics attended to the teenager. My sister-in-law drifted back to the car. The scene cleared. Over the following days, we tried in vain to reconnect with this person. However, they had a very common name and proved difficult to locate. So I found myself worried about a very real person in a very real predicament, who largely existed in my imagination. Honeybee began as an attempt to understand them, and to tell their story.

The links at the bottom of our dialogue head to The Guardian’s review and Oliver Reeson’s review for the Sydney Review of Books (Oliver is a non-binary person and they introduce themselves as a transmasculine person).

This is basically where we kicked off…

 

AUTHENTIC VOICES
Rosie: I wonder what the conversation was from transgender people who read the book. Whether they were offended, or whether they were ‘this is amazing?’ It’s such a popular book and stories like this are becoming more mainstream. You want these stories out there, but then is it an authentic story? Did he consult with the right people?

Danielle: I wouldn’t know how I would feel. I’m sure all transgender experience is very different, but I think some criticism for the book is that Sam has it all – a broken home, an alcoholic mother, an abusive step-partner, it’s like this kid can’t get a break. Did this kid need all this catastrophe? Or could it have just been a story about a transgender person finding their authentic self – did it need all the other things thrown in? It’s like it equated being transgender with trauma, which I’m not sure is authentic – not every transgender person has that harm.

Tori: I think it’s a translation though, when you have a bad relationship with yourself, often the relationships around you are bad, and maybe that’s the perception that was carried out in the book.

Lize: If you come from an unsupportive family, maybe you have no help when you are getting close to the bridge. As opposed to someone who comes from a more privileged family where you have the support and help and maybe you aren’t pushed to the bridge?

Tegan: I’m only maybe 65% of the way through the book, but obviously he is on a bit of a journey, but it’s been quite clear from the start with the cross-dressing and things he likes that are quite clear to him. Maybe it would have been a clearer path for him, if he did have support for things like that.

Danielle: I think all he wants at the end of the day is his Mum’s acceptance. And I don’t even know if he gets it at the end? Do you feel like he really gets it?

Nancy: They rush the end I found. They quickly shut it up, like hey I’m done with the word limit. I’m done, onto the next book.

 

CHARACTERS

Danielle: It comes to a neat ending. How do you feel about Aggie?

Nancy: I think that she is that bit of hope. Where it’s not just doom and gloom. There are still people in your life that are that shining light, that will always be there, whatever else happens.

Danielle: I agree, I really liked the character. I think it was tokenistic, but I liked her.

Lize: She was more of his age bracket and a lot more trusting and happy to stand up for him and be supportive without judgement.

Nancy: Which is true, because he was so scared at first and she took what he said and loved her regardless.

Danielle: And what about the character of Peter? I found him harder to like. Like he is Obi Wan Kenobi – like every transgender person needs their master sponsor, to be apprenticed. I thought it was sweet and that clearly Peter had been helped by this Diane character, but I was like does every transgender person have someone to swoop in and ‘teach them the ways…’

Lize: He hammed it up a lot, but I think in life people have mentors, even on site I remember one of my supervisors took me under wing, it’s nice to have that supportive guidance. Very much dramatised for this.

Nancy: What about Vic guys?

All: I loved Vic.

Nancy: He made me cry, when he was dying and his love for his wife…

Tori: And the meals that they shared with Sam’s cooking…

Danielle: Did anyone know who Julia Childs was…?

Nancy: No!

Tori: There’s a show on Netflix at the moment. But she was actually very racist. It’s interesting the Netflix series has one of her assistant producers that was a black woman, and I’m like that wouldn’t have happened. I know we are creating diversity, but she wasn’t great. But she really appealed to the American market, who were sitting down to foiled TV dinner meals. She actually encouraged people to cook. She was massive.

Danielle: The references were lost on me.

Rosie: I didn’t know much about her, but isn’t that movie Julia & Julia about her, right? Something about cooking…

Danielle: How Vic leaves everything to Sam is again a bit far…

Rosie: Wrapped up in a neat bow right?

Tori: But the whole thing is like that. I mean the fact that two people are committing suicide on the same bridge, at the same time. Like the chances are quite small.

Danielle: And then there is a Vietnam redemption story in there…

Tori: Yeah yeah yeah…

Danielle: Like how does that get in there…

Nancy: Oh my god, I forgot about that. Plot twist. There’s a lot going on in the book.

Lize: The bank robbery…

Nancy: Oh my god, the bank robbery!

Tori: Then he tries to use sex to connect with Vic, which I found interesting. I’m like, does he not know that that relationship can just be a friendship…

Danielle: At fourteen

Tori: Yeah at fourteen. But the way Vic handles it with a solid ‘no’ is so lovely. It’s clear Sam is just trying to please someone and it just happens to be sexually in this case, but whilst it’s a little awkward they immediately get over it, because I think Vic sees the good in him, knowing that wasn’t his intention.

Danielle: I think the relationship between Sam/Victoria and Vic is nicely done. I think it points out there can be platonic relationships between older men and young boys, which always in a story is a bad relationship plot device.

Lize: Maybe he just makes an assumption

Danielle: mmm like a learned behaviour

Tori: I had friends that did webcam stuff in high school. But that was their thing. It’s like your entry into the world of whatever you’re into. I guess because of what is out there on the internet, it’s looked at badly. But if that’s your thing, that’s your thing. If that’s your way of coming into the world, then I don’t see an issue with it and it’s at reduced risk. You can close the laptop.

Lize: It would be quite empowering.

Nancy: Can we unpack Steve?

Danielle: I mean, he just represents Australian masculinity doesn’t he? Quintessential Australian male.

Tori: But like, withholding the drugs from the mum under lock and key? That’s abuse.

Nancy: And the house he tried to break into…his old mate.

Danielle: You know who I liked in a weird way? Dane.

Tori: The weights guy?

Danielle: There’s a quote that is like the best thing any adult has said to him up to that point in the book.

Rosie: It’s been a while since I read it, but is this the book where they go steal the dog?

All: yes!

Nancy: A lot happens in this book…

Danielle: Dane says “You’re a sensitive kid. You think your own thoughts. Don’t ever lose that. Don’t ever become a soldier. Don’t go hard inside. Don’t change who you are. I know you’ve been trying. But you don’t fit in here either, and you never will, mate. That’s a good thing. I know it seems like a long way off, but you’re going to make it out of this shithole, and you’re going to do better than any of us ever have.”

 

EXPRIENCE & IMPRESSIONS

Danielle: I thought he wrote quite well about Sam’s experiences. Like, if you were reading it at school, there are a lot of nice lines around how he talks about himself, how he hates himself, how he thinks he is a mistake. A lot of young adults may identify with that. That narrative is well done, you really get into his mind and his head of what has made him feel this way. Which can be quite hard to do in a book. Particularly when you’ve started at the start with the attempted suicide, but you don’t know what is happening in his mind.

Tori: When I first started reading the book, I’m not sure if it was some unconscious bias, but I thought I was reading about a girl.

Danielle: Did you?

Nancy: Same! He talks about long hair, short hair, I was not clear.

Tori: He never really uses pronouns, and I saw a woman on the cover, I didn’t see a ‘he’. So I thought it was a woman.

Danielle: That’s so interesting because I assumed it was a man.

Rosie: I listened to it, so I knew it was a boy.

Tori: That might be something in the back of my mind that I assumed it was a female.

Danielle: I mean I just assumed he was white and wearing RMs and Country Road, like all the people in my life…ha

Tori: I mean, but I found he was quite feminine. It took me quite a while to get there. And then it clicked.

Danielle: But you don’t really get a sense of him talking about feeling that they may be a woman until like page 60.

Rosie: Do you think you would recommend it to teenage Danielle?

Danielle: I was trying to think about that? What would I have thought of reading this book at 15? But I couldn’t picture reading this book as a 15 year old. It would be so far out of my wheel-house at 15. I just don’t think I was exposed to such subjects…maybe it was the times.

Lize: I definitely think that, back in the day, but if you think about what kids have access to these days, I have a fourteen year old niece and she watches Euphoria. What they see on TikTok…

Danielle: I think young kids these days are a lot more exposed and aware. And more open about their sexuality…maybe that’s a gross assumption…

Tori: True, that whole generation finds it easier to identify. There’s a kid I know in year 7 and 50% of his grade is bisexual. Like 50% – imagine having that gender fluidity. Where you don’t need to be like ‘I’m this…’ That’s the equation that we would have looked for to make sense of our sexuality and the younger generation – parents have done a really good fucking job at talking about gender and not making it an issue, you know, ‘Jane and Matilda have three children’…it’s all about the language kids hear growing up. As adults we separate bad and good emotions, but if you just call them ‘emotions’ …it’s the same concept. If you don’t talk about gender as bad and good, they don’t know the difference.

Conversation and how you parent yourself, is so related to what your parents did. And unless you change that language and re-parent yourself…everything speaks to the inner child. So unless you retrain the conversations that you have with your inner child, you don’t ever get better at dealing with trauma, and so whether you grow up as transgender, or gay, if your parents talk to you with acceptance, you never have that conflict growing up. As soon as your parents tell you ‘that’s not ok’ that then becomes an issue and it infiltrates the rest of your life. Unless you address that it’s always there.

Danielle: That very much plays out in the book with his mum. She just does not accept him. I feel like the story would have played out so differently if his mother was just ok with him, being they/her.

Nancy: But isn’t that also because she is just selfish overall, regardless…

Lize: I think the language is quite simple, because maybe the point is to be able to be read by a fifteen year old who can take a message away that it’s ok to be trans and to find a support network around you. As an adult you could read it and still find that message and pass it on. To stop someone getting to the point where they want to be on the bridge.

Danielle:  I also don’t think it’s a bad thing…I mean it’s written from the perspective of a fourteen year old, the narrative should be simplistic. I don’t know about you, but there’s some books you read, right ,and it’s a young person narrating and it’s so inauthentic, because the narrator is so articulate. And you’re like ‘man when I was eighteen, I was not this articulate’

Nancy: I’m in my thirties and I’m not articulate, so…

Danielle: Ha! It feels more authentic in that way and I think a teenager would relate to it more for that language. With more complicated language, potentially the voice is lost.

Tori: It’s interesting how it kind of gives you three points of relationships. It opens with the family relationship, the second is like the friends, and the third is the people that stumble into your life at points in your life. And I think it’s interesting how this is done, because it’s how we learn all elements of love. So we open with the Mum, and the mum is obviously not supportive and therefore fucks the next jump which is close friends, and then you watch the relationships unfold without this element of trust, and then the next jump, say with Peter there is an element of ‘I’ve learned from that’ and it slowly gets better.

Nancy: I did feel really bad for him when he was running the streets. You could really bond with him during that time.

Danielle: What from all your street life Nancy?

Nancy: Ha, but you could really get a sense of him being isolated and scared.

Danielle: There’s a lot of catastrophe…

Rosie: But I mean it’s a book, it’s a story. If it was boring you wouldn’t want to read it. All the catastrophe engages you. It may not be real.

Nancy: There was a drama in each chapter. It’s like reading a series.

Danielle: Episodic.

Nancy: Of all the storylines, what resonated the most with you?

Rosie: I feel like I cried with the clash with the men on the street. I’m not saying that was the best part of the book, but I really felt it.

Tegan: I mean that’s where he first starts to find his place, and then the security guard throws him out and then he’s lost. I lived in Western Australia for a while and I know that area, so I could really picture it and see that happening. It’s not a rough area, but it’s where all the bars are and people come drunk out of the bars and roam around later at night. I think with Western Australia, I had an amazing experience over there, but I think there can be a lot of people with some more conservative views.

Nancy: I did love the end where he had the sessions with Diane. Actually talked about what he was feeling.

Danielle: I felt like Diane and Peter were one character. The saviour. Though story-wise I  thought it was really good that you got a lot of his thoughts and feelings out of the narrative with Diane.

 

OPINIONS

Rosie: Did anyone like the book, or not?

Danielle: I loved the book.

Rosie: What do you give it out of 5?

Danielle: A solid 4…a 4 and a bit.

Tori: I think it’s so lovely because it’s not so positive. And I think that it’s reality to not deal with everything with a happy ending. I think there is so much more of that in our lives. It made you feel everything, really. A good book can do that.

Danielle: Rosie, how about you?

Rosie: I loved it, I mean I made the bookclub read it even though it was written by a man. But honestly, if I had a teenager in my life I would make them read it. I think there’s a lot of value in it. Not all of us can relate to all the realities, but I think there is so much that you could take away from the parts in the book, even if it is glorified, or played up, there is a lot in there and each element will stick with a different person. Each drama may  hit someone differently. I think you can recommend it to your fifteen year old cousin, your twenty year old friend, your forty year old friend, or your seventy-five year old grandma. Give it to everyone. I’m sure there is controversy around authenticity and the conversation with the community, but I haven’t done any of my own research.

Tori: There aren’t enough resources working in the trans space across government or the private sector. What’s interesting is that the book puts pressure on us by saying ‘this is happening and this is real’ …more needs to be done to support trans people in our community.

Danielle: But that raises the issue across the board right? We talk a lot about gender diversity, but we focus on women, and we still haven’t got that right despite 50% of the population being female.

Tegan: It should be the easiest diversity to address.

Danielle: Any other diversity becomes a byline, and we don’t have any other processes other than supporting Pride March and the like, to support gender diverse people.

Tori: But women are the floodgates. Women are statistically more likely to employ someone that is transgender, or queer. Women are inclined to be less biassed. With construction, that’s what is crazy…even women, we aren’t in the room. We are not there. So how is anything going to change?

Lize: It’s sometimes seen as the latest fad. You want to tell people, there is a person behind what you are calling a ‘fad’. We need to find a way to get the message across that people are suffering.

Rosie: Site book club would be great. Just play the audiobook over lunch!

 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/25/honeybee-by-craig-silvey-review-a-tender-but-uncomfortable-coming-of-age-story

https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/silvey-honeybee/

 

 

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