When I sat down with Tami Sussman to talk about her new books, it wasn’t like I was sitting down with an old friend, I really was. I met Tami when we were fresh-faced kids starting year 7. It was around the time of our bat mitzvahs. Which is why, perhaps, I relate so much to the story she tells in So That Happened… But Maybe You Already Knew That. Sure, we didn’t have social media and no one in our year was publicly dealing with a sexual identity crisis (although I’m certain many people were doing so privately), but the bones of the story apply to any decade. Ours was the late 1990s. Nutty’s is 2022. Same, same but very different.
Tami and I sat together discussing the paths our lives have taken, our children, Jewish education and of course, writing.
I always remembered Tami as a performer. She was exceptionally creative at school and went on to study performing arts and acting.
But as Tami explained, that didn’t ever really feel right.
“I think I relied heavily on performing to compensate because I didn’t think I was a particularly talented writer. But when I look back, in primary school, I was really average, but the one thing that sparked joy was creative writing,” Tami said before recalling her fan fiction stories about Zac Hanson, which obviously as a ’90s kid also obsessed with Hanson, I very much appreciated.
“I chose performance poetry because I didn’t think I was a particularly good poet. So, I thought I’d just lean on my charisma. But I’m actually introverted. I want to be in bed by 9pm.”
It was when COVID-19 hit that Tami found the courage and the time to write. Tami is also a celebrant and suddenly, with all her weddings cancelled due to restrictions, and “a child who slept for three hours a day”, she was convinced by her husband to finally write the novel.
“I wanted to show that at the end of the day, being a mensch is the most important thing… just be a good person.”
While we both acknowledged that having a wedding cancelled was highly emotional, Tami said she kept thinking about all the bar and bat mitzvahs that were cancelled.
“I started thinking about how our bar and bat mitzvahs were THE event, and for so many of these kids their chance was cancelled,” Tami explained. “Then I started thinking about my own family, because at the same time, I have this daughter who, purely because she was a girl, was on the receiving end of so much compulsory gendering.”
Tami recalled joking around with her husband about their own bar and bat mitzvahs, saying while he received thousands of dollars in cash, she received Magen David necklaces and candlesticks.
She said while all of that information was swirling through her head, she received a call from a family of a non-binary child who wasn’t fitting into any bar or bat mitzvah mould.
“Because I offer alternative stuff through my celebrant business, we were in discussions about doing some kind of ceremony, which never happened because of COVID,” she recalled. “And all of these characters suddenly came to me.”
And So That Happened… But Maybe You Already Knew That was born.
While the book was originally written for adult audiences, Tami was advised to tweak the story for children, saying the adult market is oversaturated. Still, Tami hopes So That Happened is read by multiple generations.
It’s an important book for all parents to read along with their children – however they identify. Because that, in itself, is one of the themes of the book.
Natalie – the protagonist – is deep in the throes of bat mitzvah planning. She wants to host the best party ever. While she navigates everything that the teenage years throw her way, she’s also dealing with her family home being sold and her best friend, Avi, wanting to leave the bat mitzvah group because Avi no longer feels like a girl.
Diversity is important to Tami. As is Jewish representation. Tired of seeing films and television shows with the “token Jewish character”, Tami was determined that in her book, it would be the token non-Jew. And when she questioned whether she should tone the ‘Jewishness’ down, she was emphatically told to go hard. She was also told to move the book from 1998 with all of its nostalgic elements into contemporary times with all of the social media, 24/7 access messiness.
For Tami, there are a couple of key messages through the book. First and foremost, it’s about being a mensch.
“I wanted to show that at the end of the day, being a mensch is the most important thing, because I guess that’s the message I want to give to my own kids. Just be a good person.”
It’s why, Tami explains, the wealthiest family in the book is not only the religious family, but also the one that is the most generous. For that, she leaned on her own experiences throughout her schooling.
“It occurred to me when I went to university and was ‘the token Jew’ that people have a very narrow idea of what it means to be a Jew,” she said. “They had no idea that, especially in Sydney, we have the Russian Jews who are different to the South African Jews, and the Australian Jews who are different to the Hungarian or Polish Jews. And people are so quick to be critical of the wealth in our community, but I’ve only experienced generosity and support.”
While Tami acknowledges that there may be parts of the book that are controversial – it’s not every day that a book aimed at kids (and parents) discusses gender – she said it was important she didn’t exclude the queer Jewish experience. Yet, she said, “there will be people who will be disappointed that I didn’t go even harder. You can’t please everyone.”
Still, she acknowledged herself that she never shies away from controversy. Her next book, she explained, will focus on Avi’s perspective as Avi experiments with pronouns, and will include a female rabbi who is Sephardi.
She hopes that through the books, kids, especially those who’ve felt different, will feel seen. And that kids understand respect. Respect for others, for elders and for community. It’s why – spoiler alert – she was so insistent on Nutty attending the bat mitzvah of her friends, to show that she respects the group and is supportive of them becoming bat mitzvah’d. In terms of family, Tami simply hopes that her kids still have an interest in Jewish history, and that they remain thirsty and curious about their family heritage.
“I want them to talk to their grandparents,” she laughed. And really, So That Happened is the perfect book to kick off the conversation. Kids’ lives these days have changed drastically. Parents and grandparents need to know what’s going on. Nutty and her friends give us all a little glimpse into their lives – the messiness, the friendships, the heightened emotions and everything in between.
So That Happened… But Maybe You Already Knew That is published by Walker Books, $16.99 rrp.
Tradies in training
So That Happened… But Maybe You Already Knew That isn’t Tami’s only foray into the publishing world. She has also recently released Tiny Tradies, celebrating the busy and messy lives of preschoolers. And again, it draws on her own story.
Growing up with a builder for a father meant there were always tradies traipsing through Tami’s home. Often, her mother would complain about the mud all over the carpet. Then, she had her own kids. And all of a sudden, she realised how much in common toddlers have with tradies.
“Seeing them travelling around, always making a mess, always going to the bloody power switches,” she said, adding that there has never been a shortage of high-vis equipment in her home.
Tiny Tradies tells the story of the tiny tradies in our lives, waking up early – because of all the hard work they have to do throughout the day – clocking on for their shift and winding down for bedtime.
It’s a delightfully bright book that will keep the whole family giggling.
Tiny Tradies is published by Affirm Press, $19.99 rrp.