Bibliophile | ‘Honeybee’ is a trans coming-of-age story with a local perspective

by Craig Silvey
Allen & Unwin

When fourteen year-old Sam Watson climbs over the rail of the traffic overpass late at night, Sam wonders if it is going to do will hurt or if death would be instant. Having a slight pang of sympathy for whoever would find what remained, Sam notices an old man smoking a cigarette who is also on the other side of the rail.

The old man is Vic, a widower who, instead of finishing his last cigarette, walks over to Sam and an unlikely friendship begins. Narrated by Sam, Honeybee takes the reader through the complex and tragic tangle of life events that have lead both Vic and Sam to want to end their lives – as they try to save each other. The genre is heart-in-mouth-tissue-in-hand.

Set in Western Australia, Fremantle writer Craig Silvey felt compelled to write this story after a real-life experience made him wonder why someone so young would even consider such a drastic action. Eleven years after Jasper Jones became a modern Australian classic; his latest coming-of-age novel looks at what it is like for someone to have to be invisible because they didn’t like to do what other boys like to do.

Sam and Vic bond because they are both suffering and can find no way to deal with the terrible secrets that haunt them. Vietnam veteran Vic is has been grieving the death of his wife for years and he is haunted by his wartime experiences. Sam’s life is simply horrendous and there’s the repetitive nightmare of being stuck on a train going in the wrong direction.

“I’m on a train and I realise that it’s going the wrong way. I stand up, and I’m panicking, but none of the other passengers will listen to me and the buttons won’t work and there’s no way I can get off. The train just goes faster and faster and gets further and further away from where I need to be.”

Enriched by a host of supportive characters, each chapter is a revelation. There’s Peter, a nurse who is ferocious and loyal and dedicated to healing himself and others, and whose alter-ego is the drag queen Fella Bitzgerald. Vic’s neighbour Aggie uses Dungeons and Dragons to get on top of her issues and sees the “chaotic good” in Sam. Psychologist Dianne reveals that sometimes we don’t know what is wrong and shows Sam how to rebuild a life.

Despite being full of familiar Perth landmarks, unfortunately this story is one that is repeated throughout the world time and time again. Every time the narrative turns in a positive direction, the foreboding remains that the universe (or at least the nasty ignorant people in Sam’s small universe) is conspiring to put every barrier possible in front of Sam.

Silvey explains that Sam, assigned male at birth, is transgender. “She is isolated, without anybody who knows or would understand her struggles with gender identity and dysphoria. Her domestic life is fraught, volatile and complicated; and it contributes to her feelings of hopelessness and dread.”

Silvey is also aware that Sam’s story is not his lived experience so in order to be respectful and authentic, he connected with support networks like TransFolk of WA and interviewed a number of trans people of various ages and backgrounds … as well as speaking to the Queens of The Court to find out about being a drag queen for Fella’s character.

Believing that diversity is vital for our culture, Silvey hopes that Sam’s story will deepen people’s understanding of the challenges faced by young trans people in Australia. “And if trans readers, particularly those in their teens, can read Honeybee and identify with Sam’s story and feel represented and visible and recognised and respected, then I will have fulfilled my mandate.”

Lezly Herbert

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