Part of the joy of discovering authors later in their career is the ability to go back and read their earliest work. In doing so you get a different perspective on the writer-to-be, what intrigues them, drives them; what tools they like to use in framing their narratives; their ethos. After greatly admiring Kim Scott’s Miles Franklin-winning That Deadman Dance (my review) I had this opportunity with his evocative debut True Country, read for Indigenous Literature Week (hosted by Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers — a list of all the reviews submitted by readers for ILW can be found here.)
Scott’s themes include Aboriginal culture, landscape, displacement, belonging, home. His tone mixes despair and hope. We see the narrative traits of later works here too, such as fragmented structuring, and shifting voices and perspectives. Though fictional, True Country is very autobiographical, as is common with many debut novels. It commences with Billy arriving into Karnama, a (fictional) remote Kimberly Aboriginal community, by airplane with his wife Liz. He’s coming to teach at the local school. He’s also searching for something in himself, though we’re not sure of what this is until near the end of the novel’s first section (at one-third distance).
This first chapter, of only two pages, is written in an intriguing second person. Here’s the opening lines:
You might stay that way, maybe forever, with no world to belong to and belong to you. You in your many high places, looking over looking over, waiting for a sign. You’re nearly ready, nearly there.
You’re trying to read a flat pattern, like the sea, the land from high above. Or you might see your shadow falling upon this page. And maybe that’s all you’ll see and understand.
Or you might drift in. Fall or dive in. Enter.
Wind drift, rain fall, river rush. The air, the sea all around. And the storming.
You alight on higher ground, gather, sing. It may be.
You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.
The narrator here is the collective voice of the landscape and its people, speaking to Billy as he arrives into this place on his plane. Note the delightful duality in the words ‘your many high places’, how they cover both the manner of his arrival and the notion that, as a man from the big smoke, he might carry an elevated view of himself, as perhaps do we, us readers who are also entering this landscape as outsiders. And there is also the lovely sense of us diving beyond our shadows on the page and into the story alongside Billy, a notion that books can change us, a forerunner of the lovely passage in That Deadman Dance that highlights the same sense of diving into a book and coming up out of it changed.
After the beautiful use of the single-word sentence ‘Enter’, we get a sense of what might happen to Billy if he does dive in, if he enters fully into the landscape. He will be subjected to elemental forces of a unique and lasting landscape, one that (‘it may be’) changes him, giving him a sense of the belonging he seeks.
Apart from the occasional use of what I’ll call the communal voice, much of the novel’s first section is told by Billy in first person. It reinforces the notion of him as an outsider, separate from the people he finds himself living amongst.
And what of this place? This, too, from the opening page:
And it is a beautiful place, this place. Call it our country, our country all ‘round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall. We got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle … every kind. Sweet mango and coconut too.
As he lands, the chapter ends on another short sentence: ‘Welcome to you.’ What we have is an invitation, to Billy, to us as well in a way.
But although it’s a beautiful landscape, Karnama is not a perfect community, oh no. It’s not long before Billy and Liz hear and witness some of its many intractable problems, such as alcohol abuse, gambling, petrol sniffing, lack of parental care, violence (particularly against women, but also women against other women), as well as a general malaise, loss of culture and fading observance of Law. Each morning Billy has to round up the children for school.
Faced with all the problems, Billy wants to do something. Fatima, one of the older Aboriginal women, offers to tell him stories about the ‘old ways’, to record them so he can transcribe them for permanent record. He also wants to tell them to the children in class, so their culture is not lost.
Fatima was the first born on the Mission. She and another girl were later tricked by the Missionaries into getting on a boat that took them to a school far away from home. They didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to their families, and only returned as grownups. By that stage ‘we didn’t know how to speak the language. … We talk in English.’
Fatima also speaks of breakdowns in the cultural norms of the community, such as which women are allowed to be with which men.
It’s only in looking back on the events he is narrating that Billy sees how inept he was at being a listener. He and Fatima talk about the community’s history as set down by the Missionaries. In the Mission’s journals is an account of Fatima’s birth, how it was troublesome for her mother, how her mother applied some ‘old way’ care to get her through. The journal entry makes Fatima weep. She’d not heard it before.
There is a lovely truth there, but elsewhere the journals can’t be trusted. When Fatima begins to tell him another story, about the shooting of an Aborigine, he is so bound up in finding the original account in the Missionary’s journal he doesn’t listen to Fatima’s version of the story, which, troublingly, diverges from the official one. It’s only much later, when he listens back to the tape that he realises his error. He writes, ‘It’s a bad recording. They all were. There’s a loud rumbling in the background in all of them.’
This is lovely writing. The rumbling is more than a poor recording. It’s the thundering of a people wanting to be heard. All the more reason, we think, to get the true stories recorded. So they can indeed be heard. But even here, as the summer wet season’s downpours commence, Billy is struggling to find the time to transcribe the recordings. Throughout this first part of the book there are hints about Billy’s own background, with his slightly darker shade of skin, the way he can dance like the elders. Is he part Aboriginal himself, we wonder.
He tapes some of the old men too. These stories are inserted within the narrative, without introduction. Some readers might feel jolted by this, maybe even a little lost. This is a criticism of Scott’s later writing too, but one I don’t share myself. I think he shows us how in matching the narrative form to the story, a writer elevates their work, shows their craft. The elder voices want to be heard. They are thrust into the rest of the narrative and we must listen. The sense of dislocation is important.
And what great stories men like Sebastian tell Billy! About the old black magic. Of men who can fly, make themselves invisible. However, the magic has been lost. He laments, ‘Some of the young people start not believing. Then they do anything, have nothing.’
The younger generation don’t have it easy, and Scott deftly has Billy note the reaction to Sebastian’s worries from one of the younger women, Gabriella. She has been to Melbourne to attend university, and is back in the community on holidays. She is lifting herself up as we non-Indigenous might say, as she herself might say. Her jaw clenches at Sebastian’s comments. Does she have nothing? Like Billy she is now part outsider.
Poor Gabriella! She feels her displacement keenly:
…each time she came back to Karnama after a time away she was happy, because she missed the people and the country so much. But she was sad too. … it was like going backwards sometimes, and even further backwards each time she met up with old friends. The bridging courses she did at uni didn’t connect these two worlds. So it seemed. So she said.
This is one of the pitfalls current Aborigines face. I have heard experiences of Aboriginal people who have left country communities as the first to go to university, and have been ostracised because of it. They are getting too big for their boots, is the criticism levelled at them when they return. (Of course, this problem is not confined to Aborigines.)
We hear Sebastian, but we also see Gabriella. A few pages later we see why she might clench her jaw, for she is one of the ones who does see the magic. She helps in the school, teaching painting, and talks about her love of it to Billy and Liz thus:
‘I like it… At uni too, I can do painting. It’s like this. I get sucked in, and I forget time and where I am. You know, one day I might paint me a little island, a little place for me to live in there. Fly down into it, just go off the end of my brush, and stay there, eh?’
It’s a wonderful echo of Billy’s own challenge of not seeing the community from above, of getting beyond his shadow on the page and diving into it.
And Gabriella is one of the success stories. What’s particularly troubling are the children who neither believe the old magic nor want to become educated like her. If only their inability to write their own names was the sole problem. They are sniffing petrol, wearing ‘bracelets made from the rubber sealing rings of opened fuel drums’. They are tellingly said to be not drinking, ‘yet’. They are the ones who observe their father’s violence toward his wives and say he is teaching her a good lesson. ‘Tiny children threw rocks through windows, and knives at teachers who follow them home hurling feeble reprimands.’ What hope is there for them?
In discussing the Mission’s old journals Gabriella asks Billy why he has come to Karnama. His spluttering response tells us what we have suspected, that he is seeking to find part of his own Aboriginality, trying to discover what it means to him. (Like Scott, Billy is Noongar (spelt Nyungar in this 1993 novel)). He replies:
‘Because I wanted to. I think I wanted, I’m of… my grandmother… My great grandmother must have been Aboriginal, like you, dark. My grandmother is part … my father told me, but no one…’ … ‘So, maybe that’s a part. But I don’t feel Aboriginal, I can’t say that. I don’t understand. Does it mean you feel lost, displaced? But doesn’t everyone? And I just wanted to come to a place like this, where some things that happened a long time ago, where I come from, that I have only heard of or read of, are still happening here, maybe.’
The first section of the novel ends with Billy receiving the terrible news that his part-Aboriginal grandmother has died. There’s no chance to ask her all the questions he’d been building towards. Now all he can do is help Gabriella, who suggests they try to rediscover the old ways, ‘Put the little bits together. … there’s something there, that’s what I reckon. Should we try to put it all together and believe in it?’
The first section ends in the communal voice thus:
So Billy is doing it with us now, and Gabriella too. We might be all writing together, really.
This signals a shift. Entering the second section, we lose the first person narration and have both a third-person omniscient communal narrator and occasional first-person elder stories. The shift is significant. We lose some things here, which I’ll come to later, but again it’s Scott marrying form to story. Billy has admitted his Aboriginal roots, and is now part of something. It’s appropriate to relinquish the first-person narration and move into a more encompassing voice. The move also allows Scott to include discussions between characters when Billy is not in present, such as when Liz talks to another white woman about the community’s problems.
The challenge for Billy after acknowledging his roots, is that although he finds himself more and more part of things, he still is searching for the secret of what it means to be part Aboriginal. And faced with so many social problems, can he find the old magic? How can he when even the supposed accomplishment of the community in performing corroboree dances to tourists ends mostly in disarray and disaster? How can he when one of the children he teaches is murdered by a white man who escapes punishment under the white man’s law? It’s tempting to say Scott offers no solutions, but perhaps in Billy’s search for the old ways there is an answer, or an approach to try at least.
It is a measure of Scott’s even-handedness that Billy sees all the horrors but also experiences many joys, like swimming in rushing rivers with the kids, seeing manta rays leaping out of the water when fishing, and a hundred other things. There is despair here, but also great joy, great life. This is the wet season:
We’d sit inside, looking out the windows at the afternoon rain, the red mud and the intense green, the thin bodies of semi-naked children skimming and spraying through the puddles and sheets of water, their black skins glistening and their cries thin in the thunder. The coconut palms and mango trees in our yard writhed against a great sky split by lightning. And the solid rain, and the clearing of the air just before darkness. …
What perhaps is lacking somewhat is an exploration between Billy and Liz of what it all means to him, and what effect, if any, finding himself has upon them. In moving from the first person to omniscient, we lose a little of the close connection to Billy’s view of things, and the potential to explore the relationship with his wife in this way.
True Country is twenty years old. But it feels fresh, both in the story sense, with the disturbing lack of progress in Aboriginal health and the loss of culture and Law to mention just a couple of problems, and also in a stylistic sense, with the edgy use of various and shifting narrative voices. There’s a timelessness in the Kimberley, and the same thing is present in Scott’s voice. The ideas and themes and style that characterise his later work are there from the start. (There’s even a little hint of whaling.) Long may he speak for himself, his people, and all Australians.
True Country by Kim Scott
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)