Friday Faves: Butterfly Song by Terri Janke

…In which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and why it’s so special to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from writer Anita Heiss:

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My Friday Fave is Terri Janke’s Butterfly Song because this novel was the first time that I saw in Australian literature Indigenous women in an urban setting in contemporary Australia; women with career aspirations and love lives and commitment to community. I saw myself in Terri’s work, and all the women I’d been to university with together. I realise now that Terri was a huge inspiration to me to get more stories like those of her narrator Tarena Shaw on the page, although of course this novel is ‘literary’ and my novels are categorised in ‘chick lit’ or ‘choc lit’.

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I personally think Butterfly Song is the great Australian novel, because it encompasses so much of this country’s spirit and will touch so many Australian hearts that it couldn’t be anything but. The book is a love story, a legal lesson, a comment on the contemporary lifestyles and responsibilities of young, educated Indigenous people today, and a treasure-trove of eloquent and elegant writing.

Narrated by Tarena Shaw, soon to be graduate of law, Butterfly Song as a romance novel tells the love story of Tarena’s grandparents guitarman Kit and Francesca his frangipani princess, and how their eternal love is symbolised in the butterfly brooch carved by Kit for his lady.

Butterfly Song is also a crime novel as the brooch was stolen at one point, which leads Tarena to research and defend her first case, without yet receiving her uni marks. In terms of learning about aspects of the law, Butterfly Song is a gem of a text, as we also get a simple understanding of native title and the Mabo decision, while learning of the angst of Indigenous law students dealing with prejudice and ignorance in the university environment.

The novel also covers some of the best geography Australia has to offer. From Thursday Island in the 1940s to the up-market streets of Woollahra in the 1990s, with Cairns and Canberra in between.

Tarena, as a character, is a fantastic role model for young Australian women, black and white, so it’s a pity this book is now out-of-print.

Some of my favourite scenes in the novel are following Tarena in her part-time job as a waitress at Serge’s Madonna’s Mirror restaurant, and the endless questions from patrons wanting to know where she is from – that is, what breeding has lead to her being brown and was she from Sri Lanka or Bali or is she a Maori. Her stock response is that she is from Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. She says this without thinking, assuming every question is about her heritage, once she is asked however, ‘Are you married?’ to which she responds… ‘I’m from Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander!’ I love it!

Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, social commentary and travel articles. Her memoir  Am I Black Enough for You? was a finalist in the 2012 Human Rights Awards while her novels Not Meeting Mr Right, Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming all won Deadly Awards. Anita is an Indigenous Literacy Day Ambassador and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales.

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