LIFE

It Has Been 25 Years Since We First Read And Loved 'Looking For Alibrandi'

Melina Marchetta's debut bestseller struck a chord with a generation of young Aussies.

23/05/2017 8:31 PM AEST | Updated 23/05/2017 9:35 PM AEST
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Who could forget the young, intelligent and ever outspoken Josie Alibrandi?

When acclaimed author Melina Marchetta was growing up in Sydney's inner west, her experience as a "young girl caught up between two cultures" wasn't one she had read about in books.

A trip to Sicily aged 19 changed things. And not in the way she had expected.

"I was growing up with this feeling of not belonging in the Italian world and not belonging to the Anglo world. And I remember people saying to me, 'the moment you arrive on Italian soil, you'll know exactly where you're meant to be'. That didn't happen," Marchetta told HuffPost Australia.

"What did come out of that trip were stories from my great aunts who had seen our family leave Italy in the 1950s and had felt their grief of saying goodbye. I remember thinking, 'I want to write about this.'"

When Marchetta arrived home, she began writing Looking For Alibrandi, her debut novel.

That was 25 years ago -- a milestone that Marchetta, actor and star of the novel's film adaptation Pia Miranda together with writers Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Mark di Stefano, Gen Fricker, Brodie Lancaster and Rajith Savanadasa are celebrating at the Sydney Writer's Festival on May 28.

It was very much written from the heart. I'm fortunate that something that was so raw and flawed has been able to stand the test of time, more than anything. Melina Marchetta

Looking for Alibrandi is a classic coming of age novel that has found its place in the minds of a generation of Australians thanks to Marchetta's raw characterisation of Josie -- a 17-year-old living with her single mother and attending a private school in Sydney who navigates her Sicilian heritage, her outspokenness and the tribulations of a first love.

And as is the case for many debut novels, it is one that has been shaped by Marchetta's own life experience.

"It was more a matter of not planning to write about an Italian girl growing up in the inner west who hadn't been seen in books before, but not knowing who else to write about other than her," she said.

Back then, life was a bit different. I would have been less brave at times, and more brave at others.

While she started writing at the ripe age of 20, Looking for Alibrandi was published about seven years later, in 1992.

"With Josie's story, because I was so young when I started it, I felt that she got caught up in the changes in my life and in the time it took me to write the novel -- which is weird in a way.

"I had that very young belief that you end up with the first person who you fall in love with. That's how I remember in some early drafts that Josie does end up with her love interest, Jacob Coote. But as I became older, I realised that life doesn't always work out like that."

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Marchetta's portfolio has moved far beyond Looking for Alibrandi. But the connection is rampant.

On the back of her inexperience as a writer, she hails the novel her most flawed work.

"I had no idea what I was doing with Alibrandi. It was very much written from the heart. I'm fortunate that something that was so raw has been able to stand the test of time, more than anything," Marchetta said.

To this day, the novel's success was something she could never have predicted.

I won't discredit the power of that character. But it was also the right book for the right time. I think that has a lot to do with the success of it."

"As I've said over the years, I gave my manuscript to my family once I had finished and they loved it. But they said only people like us will relate. I had calcuated the number of people I knew living in Australia -- or the world, really -- so I had in my head that about 200 people would read this story," Marchetta said.

"For me, it is my most flawed work. I won't discredit the power of that character. But it was also the right book for the right time. I think that has a lot to do with the success of it."

On life after Alibrandi

Over the years, Marchetta's work has certainly evolved and diversified. After scripting a screenplay version of Looking for Alibrandi in 2000, she went on to write and publish works such as Saving Francesca, The Piper's Son and On The Jellicoe Road, before turning to crime with Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil.

But her connection to Alibrandi is rampant.

I have to be happy with the success the novel has brought me. It has opened so many doors.

"I've always had a strong readership who have gone with me with every book. But there are some who have only read that one work. I think I've done enough to step out of a stereotype, but I can't do anything to challenge that," Marchetta said.

"I have to be happy with the success the novel has brought me. It has opened so many doors."

Marchetta is currently working on a screenplay to turn Saving Francesca into a feature film.

"We made a conscious decision that I would stick to 2003, because that's when it was set. I think it would have been difficult to explain Francesca's (the protagonist) situation and the alienation she felt if it included our current social networking," Marchetta said.

And she applies the same logic to looking back on Alibrandi.

"The one thing I would find the hardest if I was to write it today would be social media. When you are writing about alienation and identity, it interferes. I wonder how much I would have left out of the writing."

Melina Marchetta will be taking part in a panel, '25 Years Of Looking For Alibrandi: Have A Say Day' at the Sydney Writer's Festival on May 28.

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