SPIRITUALITY AND COMING-OF-AGE IN THE TRUTH ABOUT PEACOCK BLUE
Defined in terms of a character’s growing identity, increased personal agency, and an acceptance of their own mortality, “maturation narratives” shape practically all YA fictions. It is somewhat surprising, then, that spirituality is such an uncommon theme in Australian contemporary young adult (YA) literature. Questions of spiritual reality and belief are more often skirted around, deflected to other realms, or simply ignored. Yet the vital YA themes of identity, personal agency and mortality are infused with spiritual significance, connected as they are with questions of ultimate value. Add to that the increasingly diverse ethnic and cultural population of Australian society, and you might think the time was ripe for more literary explorations of spiritual experience in contemporary YA.
One author who has never shied from exploring the spiritual in her work is South Australian writer Rosanne Hawke, whose YA novel The Truth about Peacock Blue (2015, Allen & Unwin) courageously includes spirituality and faith alongside themes of maturation and social identity. Issues of religion and spirituality are entwined with the maturation journey of the story’s young protagonist, Aster. In this realistic story, Aster’s character development is not only triggered by her faith but is also powerfully shaped by it. Her identity as a Christian becomes a personal conviction rather than merely a community association. She develops increased personal agency through her beliefs, despite the external limitations and verdicts placed upon her. And she comes face to face with her own mortality, accepting it through the lens of her growing relationship with Yesu Masih (Jesus Christ).
Growing into Identity
Inspired by the “heart-wrenching true story” of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy, Hawke’s realistic YA novel tells the story of fifteen-year-old Aster Suleiman Masih – otherwise known as Peacock Blue - who is similarly arrested and imprisoned for blasphemy. The work is deeply imagined and highlights adolescent struggles for identity and growth within the context of targeted religious discrimination.
Under Hawke’s expert storytelling, Aster’s spirituality and Christian faith are not only triggers for plot movement but also prove to be the central axis around which Aster’s maturation turns.
She must decide what to believe and why it matters so much. How much of her identity as a Christian is because of her parents and community, and how much is her own personal relationship with Yesu?
At the start of the novel, Aster’s identity rests in her family’s religious community. When she is enrolled in school, against cultural expectations for a young woman, her father introduces her by saying, “We are a Masihi family”; that is, “we are Christians”. Aster quickly learns that being a Masihi at an overwhelmingly Moslem school, isn’t easy. She is bullied by peers and mocked by staff. When accused of blasphemy due to an error on an exam paper, she is arrested and thrown in prison. She wonders, “Was my faith only something I believed in my happy life in the village?” Separated from her friends and family, Aster has to grapple with the importance she places on her identity as a Christian. Including her beliefs and very personal struggle with faith and doubt at the centre of the novel, allows Aster’s growth in identity a level of relevance and depth that may not have otherwise been possible. Personal Agency and Purpose
While many YA novels brush over spiritual development when considering character growth, The Truth about Peacock Blue places Aster’s spiritual agency and purpose at the centre of her maturation. According to Janice Templeton and Jaquelynne Eccles:
...spiritual development is often triggered when “traditional religious beliefs and images from childhood no longer offer comfort from suffering or provide adequate reasons for injustices in the world”.
This is the process we see at work in Hawke’s powerful novel. Rather than depicting Aster’s experiences of suffering as unrelated to her negotiation of spiritual ideas and identity, the novel uses them as necessary triggers for her deepening spiritual experience.
One example of this is the way Aster’s dreams are included in her account of time in prison. She dreams of being in a boat during a wild storm. She is terrified for her life and screams. “Suddenly someone was in the boat with me,” Aster recalls. “He used a pole and the boat didn’t capsize … It was Yesu Masih. I was not alone”. From here on, Yesu Masih (Jesus Christ) becomes increasingly a character of influence and comfort for Aster. He grows beyond being a childhood story or an abstract idea in her family’s belief system. He is part of Aster’s experience and spiritual imagination, defying the ongoing persecution she endures and directly impacting her spiritual life. Over the course of the novel, Aster begins to identify with Yesu Masih, and takes on an agency for her personal beliefs and consequences that may not have been possible otherwise. Her faith allows her to grow up: into strength, confidence and peace, despite the confines of her imprisonment.
Accepting our Mortality
YA scholar Roberta Trites has identified “accepting one’s mortality” as a “powerful rite of passage” in coming-of-age narratives. For Aster, coming to terms with her mortality requires incredible courage and character growth, both of which are impacted by her experience of spirituality. At the start of the novel, when Aster is bullied because of her religion, one of her friends suggests she convert to Islam to make things easier for her. Aster timidly says she can’t. She is a Christian; her family is Christian. But her decision lacks the confidence that comes from a developed identity. Later in the novel, after her lawyer is shot for defending Aster’s case and Aster is assaulted by a prison guard, she is again advised to convert.
This time, the spiritual wrestling Aster has done while unjustly imprisoned bears fruit. She discovers confidence in her relationship with Yesu and her spiritual identity that she did not previously have. This newfound strength in personal and spiritual identity is clearly seen when Aster’s case is finally heard in court. The judge pronounces her “wilful and guilty”, and Aster is sentenced to death. Although devastated, she does not use this as a reason to discard her beliefs. Rather they become the centre point around which her story culminates. The timidity that characterised her earlier expressions of faith is now replaced with confidence, and she claims with certainty: “…if I live for Yesu Masih, death will be my gain and… I am not afraid”. Aster’s spirituality enables her to courageously accept her own mortality and in doing so, contributes to the maturation of her character.
Spirituality and YA Fiction: an Opportunity for Writers
In stark contrast to many books on the shelves of YA literature, The Truth About Peacock Blue demonstrates the powerful impact spirituality can have on the development of identity and characterisation in YA narratives.
In this novel, Aster wrestles with doubt, faith and questions of belief. These are the themes that push her story forwards, shape plot tension, and develop her character. Aster is shown to be growing in her spiritual identity. Her move towards adulthood and independence are influenced by her spirituality as she accepts her own mortality and the personal agency she has, through faith, over her life. The novel is an excellent coming-of-age text and brilliant example of the impact such themes can have on maturation journeys in YA literature.
In this engrossing piece of YA fiction, Rosanne Hawke deftly shows that spirituality, religion and faith do not need to be themes writers shy away from. They can offer valuable insights into character dimension and development, as well as contributing to plot and thematic enhancement. In the contemporary Australian cultural landscape, spirituality is a very real aspect of many people’s day to day experience, including that of adolescents. Because of this, we need to create and share stories that include characters’ spiritual reckonings. We need YA novels that can allow empathic engagement with notions of religion and faith, and to show how spirituality can contribute to our narratives about growing up. Perhaps, it is finally time for YA literature itself to “come-of-age”, and for more writers to be like Hawke; courageously breaking the silence around spirituality and showing that faith really can change the course of our lives.
Penny Reeve (also writing as Penny Jaye and Ella Shine) is the award winning, Australian author of more than 20 books for children. She writes picture books, junior fiction, children’s non-fiction and topical young adult fiction. Penny has a Master of Arts in writing and literature, is a 2022 ADM Fellow and a PhD candidate at Deakin University. Her research interests include Christian spirituality, spiritual questioning, and young adult literature. You can learn more about Penny at www.pennyjaye.com and www.pennyreeve.com