When she is four years old Amra Pajalić realises that her mother is different. Fatima is loving but sometimes hears strange voices that tell her to do bizarre things. She is frequently sent to hospital and Amra and her brother are passed around to family friends and foster homes, and for a time live with their grandparents in Bosnia.
At sixteen Amra ends up in the school counsellor's office for wagging school. She finally learns the name for the malady that has dogged her mother and affected her own life: bipolar disorder. Amra becomes her mother's confidante and learns the extraordinary story of her life: when she was fifteen years old Fatima visited family friends only to find herself in an arranged marriage. At sixteen she was a migrant, a mother, and mental patient.
Surprisingly funny, Things Nobody Knows But Me is a tender portrait of family and migration, beautifully told. It captures a wonderful sense of bicultural place and life as it weaves between St Albans in suburban Australia and Bosanska Gradiška in Bosnia. Ultimately it is the heartrending story of a mother and daughter bond fractured and forged by illness and experience. Fatima emerges as a remarkable but wounded woman who learns that her daughter really loves her.
Amra Pajalić is a Melbourne-based author of Bosnian background. Her debut novel The Good Daughter (Text Publishing, 2009) won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature's Civic Choice Award, and was a finalist in the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature Best Writing Award. Prior to publication it was shortlisted in the 2007 Victorian Premier's Awards for Best Unpublished Manuscript. She is also author of a novel for children Amir: Friend on Loan (Garratt Publishing, 2014) and the co-editor of the anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia (Allen and Unwin, 2018) that was shortlisted for the 2015 Children's Book Council of Australia Eve Pownall Award for Information Boo
Things Nobody Knows But Me
Author: Amra Pajalić
Question: What inspired you to write your biography?
Amra Pajalić: I was inspired to write Things Nobody Knows But Me because there was a need for a story about mental illness from the perspective of those from Non-English Speaking Background. Mental illness carries with it stigma and shame in any cultural context, however Bosnia which was once a part of Yugoslavia, was a communist country and people with mental illness were shunned and segregated. This led to a mistrust and misunderstandings about mental illness that affected my mother's access to treatment. For many years she called her illness nervous breakdowns and did not actually know the name of her disorder, Bi Polar, or understand the symptoms and treatment. It was only when she learnt about these things that she was able to take control of her illness and achieve a better quality of life.
Question: Was it difficult to relive certain experiences when writing Things Nobody Knows But Me?
Amra Pajalić: Writing this book was difficult because I had to relieve many experiences of being a child parented by a mother who suffered Bi Polar. There were times when she engaged in unsafe behaviour, like climbing up a shelf with her eyes closed to prove that god would protect her, while I would be watching and afraid of her falling and hurting herself. It was also difficult because I had write about my mother's experiences of being mistreated when she was ill including being admitted in a mental health ward in Bosnia where there were only cold showers available, no toilet paper, and no clean sheets.
Question: What did you learn about yourself whilst writing Things Nobody Knows But Me?
Amra Pajalić: While writing I learnt that I need to write challenging and complex stories. This was the hardest book to write and immersing myself back into trauma that both my mother and I experienced, separately and together, helped me to develop a lot of resilience. I also had to undertake a lot of research to write this book and as a result I learnt that I love conducting researching and using it to add layers and depth to my stories.
Question: What do you hope readers take from your book?
Amra Pajalić: I hope readers learn to have more empathy and understanding for those who suffer from Bi Polar. Bi Polar is an illness that is characterised by manic episodes where the sufferer loses their inhibitions and also loses touch with reality. When they are in this state suffers can do and say hurtful things and damage relationships with people around them. When they are recovering from the manic episode they go through depression and can develop suicidal thoughts. When you have a relationship with someone who suffers from a mental illness it is very hard to separate the illness from the person, or the behaviour from the individual. I don't even think you can. You need to find ways of showing empathy and understanding when they are at their worst, and you also need to ensure your own wellbeing and emotional equilibrium through the highs and lows.
Interview by Brooke Hunter
Things Nobody Knows But Me
Author: Amra Pajalić