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Entertainment 'Comedy equals tragedy plus time': Matt Okine finds humour in grief

03:00  24 september  2019
03:00  24 september  2019 Source:   smh.com.au

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Comedian Matt Okine 's debut novel looks back on his own experience losing his mum to breast cancer when he was 12. Credit:James Brickwood. "They say comedy equals tragedy plus time ," says Okine , 34, hunched over a table at his local cafe in Sydney's Glebe. "For something that was a pretty

94-year-old finds an unexpected moving buddy. When Sergeant Jeff Turney got a call about an elderly man determined to drive to Florida, he did something no one expected. Comedian Matt Okine 's debut novel looks back on his own experience losing his mum to breast cancer when he was 12.

a person sitting on a table: Comedian Matt Okine.© James Brickwood Comedian Matt Okine.

In comedian Matt Okine's debut novel, a nurse – reacting to a young boy collapsing in despair in a hospital corridor after learning of the loss of a loved one – steals the words likely to conjure in the reader's mind: "Young people don't deserve suffering."

Being Black 'N Chicken, & Chips, a roman à clef in the guise of young adult fiction, finds Okine delving into his pubescent years, and the loss of his mother Roslyn to breast cancer when he was just 12.

"They say comedy equals tragedy plus time," says Okine, 34, hunched over a table at his local cafe in Sydney's Glebe. "For something that was a pretty tragic part of my life personally, I felt like there's enough time passed to try and look at the humorous side of that."

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A coming-of-age tale filled with late-'90s nostalgia, the book's emotional heft comes from Okine's tender recollections of his mother: indulging her trust in astrology, hearing her voice echo down the hallway as she bickered on the phone with relatives, holidaying with her to Tasmania.

Matt Okine smiling for the camera: Comedian Matt Okine's debut novel looks back on his own experience losing his mum to breast cancer when he was 12.© James Brickwood Comedian Matt Okine's debut novel looks back on his own experience losing his mum to breast cancer when he was 12.

He also interrogates his pre-teen shame and confusion: his furious reaction after learning she'd withheld the discovery of a lump on her breast for months, or wanting to skip a Saturday night visit to her bedside so he could play Street Fighter with friends instead. The pain in recalling such memories was significant, says Okine, but outweighed by an understanding he was describing universal grief.

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The comedian 's debut novel looks back on his own experience losing his mum to breast cancer when he was 12.

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"There have been moments when you end up crying thinking back to those things – but that's when you know there's a raw, emotional pain you have to chip away at to get to the good stuff, you know? That's when you know you're on to something," he says.

"When you're doing laps around the hospital day in and day out, trying to find a parking spot so you can go and see someone who's deteriorated to the point they barely know you anymore... That's not just my problem and that's not a 12-year-old's problem, that's literally everyone who's ever lost someone who knows what that feels like. To get that honesty, I did have to look within myself and not be afraid to let those emotions come out again."

The novel – which Okine says took about two years to write, from initial meetings with agents to filing the finished manuscript with publisher Hachette (a movie adaptation is already being considered) – had its roots in his breakthrough stand-up show Being Black N Chicken N Shit, which won him the Best Newcomer prize at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2012.

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The comedian 's debut novel looks back on his own experience losing his mum to breast cancer when he was 12.

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Like that set, the book humorously riffs on the first-generation Australian experience, of navigating his father Mack's Ghanaian customs while trying to fit in with his Brisbane schoolmates. But it's imbued with a new understanding of his parents' plight, brought on by the birth of first child Sofia, with partner Belinda, six months ago.

"I feel sad when I look at my daughter and she won't ever get to meet her grandmother, but more than that I can't even comprehend what it must feel like to realise you're going to die and have to explain that to your kid. That gets me upset right now just thinking about it," says Okine.

Matt Okine holding a camera: Okine in Stan's The Other Guy.© Stan Okine in Stan's The Other Guy. "And my character [in the book] is so mean to his dad, and I feel so awful about that when I look back, how I didn't understand the gravity of what he did to even move to Australia, to get a government scholarship and set up a life, just to have his 12-year-old son make fun of his accent!"

Barbing his own shortcomings to the point of discomfort, even during such a turbulent period of his childhood, was essential to the novel, says Okine, whose Stan* sitcom The Other Guy displays the same soul-bearing approach.

"That's where the best stuff is for me... It's like standing in front of a swimming pool and you know it's ice cold, but you know you're going to feel better once you jump in," he says.

"One of the difficult things about writing a book, or a show, that's so closely linked to your life is you want to make your character win all the time – you want him to be likeable, cool, to get the girl – but that's not life. People are selfish, we do annoying things, we're ungrateful, we’re deflective in hard times and crack jokes inappropriately. That's real!

"I want to put up my faults and say, 'Don't worry! Whatever you're ashamed about that you think is so unique, whatever you think is too difficult to talk about, just know we're all f---ups', everyone."

Being Black 'N Chicken, & Chips is released on Tuesday.

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