Guest Post: Felicity Castagna

Felicity Castagna is a multi-creative artist with a life rich in expression. Her first novel for Young Adults, The Incredible Here and Now, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award and the IBBY Honour Book for Australia.

Her last book, No More Boats, was a finalist for the Miles Franklin and The Voss Award. 

Her latest book, Girls in Boys’ Cars will be available early August 2021.

Felicity talks to us about this powerful exploration of teenage relationships, and finding one’s place in the world.

You were previously a teacher. When did you choose to make the transition to writer?
I’ve actually always been a teacher and a writer and the two kind of go hand in hand for me. I was a high school teacher for several years before transitioning to teaching at university and teaching workshops all over the place from schools to community centres and correctional facilities. Teaching gives me a really powerfully opportunity to still be in the lives of young people in a meaningful way and to hear about the kind of stories that matter in their world and I think that keeps my writing for young adults more honest and responsive to the world we live in.

How did you decide a non-linear style for your novel?
I love experimenting with form and structure, particularly when writing for young adults because I think it’s not as common in this genre as it is in others. Girls In Boys’ Cars essentially has a framing narrative which is the present time where Rosa is in jail and working out all the things that have led her there, and the past story of the summer she stole a car with Asheeka. I love the idea of having the past and the present sit side by side in the story in alternating chapters – I think it mirrors life where your past is always tangled up with who you are in the present.

Girls in Boys’ Cars has a cast of interesting and individual characters. Rosa and Asheeka are opposites. One vibrant and outgoing; the other uncomfortable in her skin. Please tell us about them.
I wanted to explore a really complicated friendship as most friendships are. They love and care for each other deeply but also can’t stand each other at the same time. They have different levels of privilege, different relationships with their families, boys and their own status as girls but they also come from the same place. I wanted to show how different we can be even within our own geographical communities and I also wanted to show that struggle-and failure-to completely understand someone else even when the intention is genuine.

Both girls live insulated lives. Their escape to freedom is an opportunity to find their place in the world by experiencing things themselves.
I never wanted to write the kind of novel where two girls step out into the world and bam! They find themselves. I think this story is all about the exploration of ourselves and the fact that we keep exploring for the rest of our lives and maybe that is a process that starts most profoundly in our teenage years. Part of the difficulty in working oneself is that we all, in our own ways, live very guarded and insular lives but particularly teenagers whose lives are governed by adult expectations and, of course there’s another layer on top of that when you think about the societal and community expectations that are also placed on girls. I wanted to watch two girls try to free themselves of all that.

You have illuminated the differentiation between male and female sexuality. This was just one of the many issues built upon. What was your main objective?
I wanted all the talk around sex in this book to be about how awkward and strange it can be. A lot of writing around sex that I find, particularly in girl-focused young adult novels, is centred around girls owning, exploring and desiring sex or the opposite – sex as something that can be violent or violating. 

I completely support both depictions of sex and think they are vital and important for young women to read, but I also feel like there is this middle ground full of questions that could be explored more. Girls who are wondering- how come sex is so strange and weird and not like the movies? Why is it meant to be so interesting? How is my body meant to feel in sex? How do I ask for what I want and need and how come boys don’t ask that question first? And, of course, how come boys derive power and status from sex in a way that girls have never been able to?

There is a powerful energy in your writing. How much of what you have used in your characters is drawn from your life experiences?
I certainly remember that endless sense of waiting for my life to really begin as a teenage girl and the incredible frustration it is to try and find your own space to figure things out away from all of the noise of family and life and society’s expectations. I never stole a car but I certainly did a lot of far too risky things that I can only talk about when hiding them on the pages of fiction.

You are also involved in cross-artform collaboration. Can you explain what that is?
I’m really interested in collaborating with other writers and artists and in creating work that is responsive to local place and communities. I always wanted to be in a band but I can’t clap my hands to a beat so instead I’ve been lucky enough to work on lots of projects which involve me writing text and stories with artists in other mediums.

For example, I recently worked on a large-scale work for The Sydney Festival in which I worked with an orchestra, dancers and musicians to create a live work about Parramatta, where the work was set and where I live. I wrote a bunch of monologues about the place and the dancers performed works that elaborated the ideas in the monologues while a performance poet read the works out loud. Sounds weird I know, but it was so much fun and the audience had a great time.

The Finishing School – will you share some information about this other area of your creative life?
I have worked on a lot of storytelling, mentoring and art projects in western Sydney. One of the latest projects I’ve been working on is The Finishing School. It began as a mentoring program for women writers in western Sydney and has helped to produce a lot of great writers and books from this region. We now work as a collective of women writers who create a lot of collaborative work with artists in other fields for art galleries, festivals and publications.

August 10, 2021 at 12:34PM Anastasia Gonis