MICK CUMMINS is a screenwriter and playwright whose works include, Window Without a View and Perfect Madness. His debut novel, So Close to Home, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and is a moving and gritty novel that explores homelessness, addiction and trauma.
AKINA HANSEN writes.
Right now Australia is experiencing an unprecedented housing crisis. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported that there are more than 45 000 people under the age of 25 currently homeless in Australia. And as the cost of living rises, more and more people are being pushed into homelessness each month.
In So Close to Home, debut novelist and winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, Mick Cummins, has drawn from his 40-year career as a social worker to explore and illuminate issues surrounding homelessness, trauma and addiction with incredible insight and empathy.
‘Housing is a right; we should all have a place to live in. And not having a place to call home, which is a bit of a cliche, but not having that in your life is terribly destructive. It has an impact on all of us,’ Mick says.
Set in South Melbourne, So Close to Home, follows 18-year-old Aaron who is a heroin addict and homeless. We learn early in the novel that Aaron is a child sexual abuse survivor who uses heroin as a means to escape his trauma. When his addiction begins to take an all-consuming hold over his life, his mother, in a desperate attempt to get him clean, kicks him out of her house.
Mick’s work within the housing sector, and his previous work helping young people who have become estranged from their families due to abuse, inspired him to tell this story.
‘That’s what drew me to the idea of telling the story. The outcome of that abuse, and how it affects young people … most of the people that I saw through social work were estranged from their families. And I think that that’s a sad thing. It makes it difficult for people to make something of their life, really.’
Through Mick’s novel we see the painful reality of homelessness and how it can further expose individuals to violence and victimisation. When Aaron attempts to find a room for the night through Social Services. We see how inundated the system is and just how limited his options are despite his seriously dire situation.
‘There is nothing you can offer somebody sitting across the desk from you apart from a rooming house. Which is so, so chaotic, and can be such violent places. I mean, they really are only one step from living on the streets … and that’s going to cost them up to 45 to 50 per cent of their Centrelink payment. And so it’s extremely frustrating,’ says Mick.
So Close to Home emphasises the importance of positive support systems and how when we become alienated from family or friends, we fall into cycles that become incredibly difficult to break out of.
‘It’s so important that we all have good family ties and good positive relationships with the community we live in. And if you break that tie, people are left floundering, and then they search for something to replace it. And often in that milieu of housing and homelessness, people develop pseudo families. They can be supportive for a while, but more often than not, they have a negative impact on people. Because you’re dealing with people in the same situation as you. You know, drinking, taking drugs, living in squalor, all of those things don’t help you with moving forward in your life,’ Mick shares.
Alienated from his family and any real support system, the novel follows Aaron as he sleeps rough and chases his next high. We see how Aaron goes to incredibly dangerous lengths to fund his addiction – from stealing to finally soliciting. For Aaron, drugs help dull the painful memories of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his own grandfather. We learn that when Aaron was eight, he bravely spoke out about his abuse. The impacts of this abuse however extended even further. Resulting in the breakdown of his immediate family with his mother believing him and his father abandoning him. The damage this causes Aaron is irreparable.
While Mick’s character, Aaron, is a work of fiction, he’s an amalgam of the many young people that Mick has worked with and met. Aaron is a gifted musician who finds solace in music. And despite the incredible trauma and rage that Aaron carries with him, we see his limitless potential and what he could achieve if he had the opportunities and support.
‘He’s a reflection of some of the young people I’ve met, particularly working in a community centre, where you’d hear people singing, you’d hear them playing music, you’d see them drawing. Those creative outlets they were really good at, and never really had a chance to realise them fully.’
Storytelling is so important to who we are, it’s something we’ve been doing for thousands of years.
With no money or means, Aaron is left with no other option but to solicit to fund his addiction. One evening he meets ‘The Man’, a wealthy, older man, who pays him for sex. This ultimately proves to be severely traumatising and sinister.
These chapters with ‘The Man’ and memories of his childhood abuse, are at times incredibly detailed and explicit and can be quite confronting to read. For Mick however, it was important to be truthful and to not censor himself.
‘It was quite painful, really. Finding the right words and painful in the sense that you’re feeling those emotions, while you’re writing it.’
Storytelling is so important to who we are, it’s something we’ve been doing for thousands of years. And it’s really important to examine who we are and how we behave. What sort of society we have, and the characters in that society,’ he says.
So Close to Home is a story that Mick has carried with him for a long time. In fact, he first thought of the idea over 10 years ago. Initially, he wrote the story as a treatment for a screenplay but failed to get any real interest for it. And while the feedback was positive, and people said they connected with the story, Mick shares that they ultimately didn’t think it could sell as a film.
‘So, at the beginning of COVID my partner said to me, “Why don’t you go write a novel?”. So I did. Two years later, I had a draft.’
Mick went on to submit his manuscript to the prestigious Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards the day before deadline, and what followed was the incredible news that he had won the VLPA for an Unpublished Manuscript.
‘It was a huge surprise. And it’s made a huge difference to me,’ he says.
So Close to Home is a compelling and harrowing story that sheds light on the destructive nature of abuse, and the enduring emotional, physical and financial impacts of it.
Mick ultimately gives us insight into the various factors that can lead to homelessness. As well as the systems and people who fail to help those most vulnerable. Importantly, he hopes readers understand just how systemic these issues are.
‘At the end of the day, I’d like people to have some empathy. Not sympathy, empathy for people that find themselves in that situation, and not to judge them the way that they are often judged.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tasmanian-born Mick Cummins is a playwright, screenwriter and documentary-maker now living in Melbourne. He has also spent many years as a social worker in South Melbourne. The same location where his first novel, So Close to Home, is based.