Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Indigenous Authors’ Category

The Swan Book by Alexis WrightWell! What to say about Alexis Wright’s teeming The Swan Book? How about some history? While reading a little (more) about Sydney’s early colonial history recently, I learned black swans lived in and around Sydney waterways, including Sydney Harbour, when the English landed in 1788. Journals written at that time spoke of twenty to thirty black swans flying regularly over Sydney Cove until, presumably, they were shot for food or, in some cases, sent back to England as natural curiosities. Swans were also seen in numbers in both coastal and inland lagoons, as well as along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River at foot of the Blue Mountains.

Sadly, you won’t see them in these places today; you need to go west of the ranges to find any. It is a reminder that the natural imbalance for Aboriginal people is no future dystopia at all—things have been out of whack for over two hundred years already, since the first settlement at Sydney Cove. Driven out of their natural habitats, it was the Sydney Cove swans I pictured when reading about the giant flock that follows the protagonist Oblivia around in wildly imaginative The Swan Book.

And what a wild ride itis! The ‘story’, such as it is, is centred on Oblivia, a mute young woman pulled out of the hollow of a tree after being gang-raped by a group of Aboriginal ‘boys’ who are high on the sniffing of petrol and glue. It is no coincidence she cannot speak; she is another Aboriginal voice silenced. It is Bella Donna of the Champions, the European climate-change refugee (‘invader’), who finds her. Together they live on a rusty old hulk located in the swamp that was once a lake in the far north of Australia. The army has control, and Aborigines have been rounded up and moved in.

This post climate change dystopia is a disturbing future world in which weather events are wild and about-face. Cities are prone to flooding; cyclones regularly occur at southern latitudes; in short, the old balance has been thrown out, and there’s no doubt who is at fault:

Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.

Bella Donna brings to Oblivia stories of European swans, and soon a flock of black swans arrive at the swamp and become Oblivia’s totem. They follow her south when she is taken by the flashy Warren Finch, the half-caste Aboriginal ‘saviour’ who has risen to become the vice-President of the Republic of Australia, and who needs a wife to take the step up to President. He grew up in the nearby Brolga Nation, and Oblivia is his promised wife. As soon as they depart south, he has her homeland swamp demolished.

Bella Donna also brought the story of her voyage from European wastelands, comparing it to Icarus’s flight. Icarus’s feathers melted because he did not heed the warnings of his father. And this ‘dreaming’ is a forewarning of what is to come in The Swan Book, the sense of people not listening to their elders. In describing myna birds, Wright laments:

From a safe distance, you could hear these birds swearing at the grass in throwback words of the traditional language for the country that was no longer spoken by any living human being on the Earth. … You had to hear these sooth-saying creatures creating glimpses of a new internationally dimensional language about global warming and changing climates for this land. Really listen hard to what they were saying.

The myna birds spew up some English that ‘you would have heard used to try to defeat lies in this part of the world. Just short words like Not true.

There is a loose electricity in Wright’s story-telling, fusing styles, tenses, high and low registers, first and third-person points-of-view with varying degrees of ‘closeness’, left-field similes/metaphors, and numerous references to swans from other works. And it’s all underpinned by the Aboriginal belief system. Here’s an example:

Somebody had eye-witnessed the lake bubbling from tug boats mix-mastering the water with their propellers, whisking it like a spritzer and putrefying all the dead ancient things rising to the surface, spraying it around like the smell of eternity. No wonder the local people, the traditional owners and all that, were too frightened to go back to the lake anymore. They had heard stories – bad stories about what happened to anyone who went back there.

For the most part this energy is infectious, although I was occasionally somewhat bemused/lost, particularly in the overly long opening chapter (70-odd pages), in which I sometimes felt like a mouse spinning in the loop of Wright’s wheel but not going anywhere. Maybe this was maybe intentional on her part; maybe faced with the so-called greatest moral challenge of our time we are all, at the moment, spinning our wheels. In any event, after this chapter, when Warren Finch appears on the scene, the prose gains traction, repetition dissolves, and the bight of Wright’s razor-sharp teeth digs in.

It is a very political book. Wright skewers all sorts, such as the canaries repeating what they hear on talk-balk radio, and the many policies and practices aimed at ‘improving’ Aborigines. The ‘closing the gap’ mantra is given short-shrift, as is the policy of intervention in remote Aboriginal communities, and ‘moving forward’ as part of Aboriginal empowerment. The satire at times is very black, the rage seething. Although necessary, it is uncomfortable. Rich non-Indigenous Australians  learn ‘about poverty by not being poor themselves’, and are oppressors ‘capable of slipping down to the bottom of a fetid well to destroy whoever got in the way of their success.’

Wright also points to difficulty of singling out one Aboriginal person to speak for all Aboriginal peoples. This is what she says of Bella Donna’s arrival into the swamp land:

… she came to live out her last days among the poorest people in a rich land. … Another Eden. A place where hunger and death were commonplace to its elders, the landowners who knew that they were a social-science experiment with a very big cemetery. A small place where sometimes things got so bad when the swamp’s little gang of brain-damaged, toxic-fume-sniffing addicted kids ruled, that parents asked only for one moment of peace. … People were … gambling about the Messiah. … Messiahs come and go, usually in the form of academic researchers, or a few chosen blacks and one-hit wonders pretending to speak for Aboriginal people and sucking-dry government money bureaucrats.

I love the way Wright inserts traditional language words into the text when we’re in the swamp, but removes them when we get to the southern city, as if it has no place there. And how could it when buildings reach into the sky like giant fingers ‘that had come out of the ground to orchestrate the heavens’? Indeed, so out of place does Oblivia feel that when she sees people lay on the concrete paths with their ears to the ground, she assumes they are listening for the stories underneath, but they are actually listening for the tidal surges coming in through the sewer system below the city.

For all this, there are moments of great humour (the fitting of Oblivia’s wedding dress is a hoot), and great beauty, even in the swamp, where a crescent moon’s light ‘rode silver saddles on the backs of hundreds of black swans huddling around the hull with necks tucked under their wings…’

The sense of the magical is never far away. At one point Oblivia ‘thought that she was in the sky, flying, … she and the swans were caught in the winds of a ghost net dragged forward by the spirits of the country.’  Elsewhere, the ‘Harbour Master’, a larger-than-life guru of the swamp, comes and goes like a ghost. There is a lot of talk about ghosts in the novel, about spirits. Some people have used the term ‘Aboriginal Realism’ rather than ‘Magical Realism’ to describe Wright’s style, because they feel the former reflects the realism inherent in Aboriginal belief systems. While that is true, saying Magical Realism lacks grounding in reality misunderstands its use of magic in much the same way. Nevertheless, I quite like Aboriginal Realism as a term. It feels right (perhaps Wright?) to describe Wright’s story telling.

In statistics a ‘black swan event’ is something so outside our experience or comprehension it is impossible to believe (and therefore predict). The terms was coined for the surprise of finding black swans in New Holland (Australia) by the Dutch, an event depicted in the novel, because it was assumed prior to that that all swans must be white. (As a fan of the Sydney Swans AFL team, I’ve always found it curious the team’s swan is white rather than black. And yes, I know our colours are red and white, but this is an Australian team not an English one, and I’d very much like to see a black swan appear on the team’s outfits in future. It’s perhaps a measure of how European views persist. Maybe I should start a petition!)

Anyway, what is of no surprise, and in no way a black swan event, is The Swan Book. We shouldawwbadge_2014 have expected such a thing to spring from the mind of one of our very best story tellers. Possessing old wisdom, and rife with global resonance, it may well see Wright add a second Miles Franklin Award to her list of accolades. I just wish some of those old-soul black swans could once again fly over the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour (and maybe roost on the Swannies’ jersey!). Both would be a welcome sight.

Alexis Wright is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). The talk she is giving on The Swan Book is free, so I better get there early!

If you would like to read more erudite thoughts on The Swan Book than mine, see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers, and Jane Gleeson-White’s at the Sydney Review of Books.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

2013

Giramondo

334 pages

ISBN: 9781922146410

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

Read Full Post »

True Country by Kim ScottPart 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.

ANZ Litlovers Indigenous Literature WeekTrue 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

1993

Fremantle Press

299 pages

ISBN: 9781921361524

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)

Read Full Post »

A muse on tonight’s talk at the State Library of NSW entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, featuring Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Presented in conjunction with the Stella Literary Prize, there was a lively discussion of several Australian women authors who deserve a wider audience for their work. There couldn’t be two better-placed people to discuss the topic than Jane, blogger at Bookish Girl and author of the very accessible Australian Classics (see my review here), and Geordie, chief literary critic at The Australian and author of the recently published The Burning Library.

Jane aptly started off proceedings by declaring 2012 the year of the woman writer in Australia, with so many awards won by the likes of Anna Funder and Gillian Mears (see my review of Foal’s Bread here). The subsequent discussion touched on the issues of the imbalance of women-to-men in publication and reviewing statistics, and how even some of the published women’s stories in the twentieth century were edited by men for a particular assumed audience, during which the essence or flow had been excised and the story sadly depleted. As a bit of an idealist, I just find this sort of bias mind-bending and terribly sad. Anyway, we soon dived into a discussion of the following authors and their works:

  • Barbara Baynton: short stories, particularly, as Jane noted, the ‘chilling’ The Broken Vessel.
  • Judith Wright: how her second intimate poetry collection ‘Woman to Man’ was not published because it was considered ‘too obstetric’.
  • M Barnard Eldershaw: this was one of Geordie’s picks… or should I say two? -for, as Geordie explained, MBE was actually two women: Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both highly intelligent, Geordie explained the cruel curtailing of Barnard’s dreams of taking up a place she won at Oxford by her father. She said, ‘Life is backed up in me for miles and miles’, such a heart-rending expression. Their novel A House is Built was discussed. Set in 1830s Sydney, it is the story of a successful early merchant – and sounds just up my street – expect a review of this soon(ish!). Other works include Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Geordie described how these women authors worked within the masculine rule book of publication, but did so with a very feminine focus as well as a subversive (and therefore much more interesting) streak. They were hugely influential on a certain Patrick White, too. And it wasn’t just their fiction, for they also wrote a lot of critical work, including reviews of the young Christina Stead. Marjorie Barnard went on to write solo; her works include The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories.
  • Henry Handel Richardson: Jane commented that HHR’s Maurice Guest is perhaps her favourite novel by an Australian author (to which she quickly added Voss and Carpentaria!). Her debut novel, it is, in Jane’s words, an ‘overblown, passionate, Wagnerian story. Set in Leipzig, it centres on a love triangle, with poor Maurice the hapless dupe who’s in love with the gifted music student, Louise Dufrayer. For Jane, it shines every bit if not more than HHR’s more recognised ‘Australian’ works The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
  • Christina Stead: Geordie said the neglect shown to HHR’s Maurice Guest applies to all of Christina Stead’s work – cue much nodding of knowledgeable heads in the audience! Jonathan Franzen is not the first to acknowledge Stead as one of the great twentieth century novelists, said Geordie. Many other critics and authors have said much the same thing. Yet still Stead sits in the shadows: she sold 199-odd books in 2008 and was only taught in one Australian University. Why? Is it because of her ‘intelligent ferocity’ an approach she had to life and to writing? Is it because ‘we like our modernism light and our Booker Prize novels well edited? Jane agreed that Stead can be difficult, admitting it had taken her a few attempts to get through The Man who Loved Children, but now adores her. Other titles of Stead’s mentioned included For Love Alone and The Salzburg Tales, a book of short stories.
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, and how the Indigenous voices are starting to pick up the stories written in our landscape, by writers such as Alexis Wright (see my review of Carpentaria here) and Kim Scott (see my review of That Deadman Dance here).
  • Amy Witting: the first Aussie to sell two stories to The New Yorker, a writer whom Barry Oakley called ‘the Australian Chekhov’, and yet she is not even mentioned in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian authors and her works are all out of print. Her works include I for Isobel, which Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers has reviewed here.
  • Exiles at Home by Drusilla Modjeska was also mentioned as a great way into this world of neglected Australian female authors.

An hour well spent!

It was a shame there weren’t more literature lovers in the audience this evening. I hope there’s a similar session at next year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, as the topic deserves as wide an audience as the female writers discussed.

In the meantime, there’s so many Australian women authors demanding my attention, it’s hard to know where to start…

Happy reading…

Read Full Post »

Congratulations to Kim Scott for winning the Miles Franklin Award for That Deadman Dance.  See my review here.  It is an important novel, one that should be well and widely read. 

The D!

Read Full Post »

 

Not a bad spot for a literary festival!

Well, what a great – and packed – start to the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF).  Here’s the start of my summary of the sessions I managed to get to today. 

1: (session #18): ‘That Deadman Dance’: Kim Scott in Discussion with Geordie Williamson

I couldn’t think of a better way to start the heart of the SWF week than sitting down to listen to Kim Scott talk about his Miles Franklin and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-shortlisted That Deadman Dance.  I loved the book (read my review here) so it was great to hear Kim talk about some of the thinking behind it.  Asked about where the title came from he spoke about how it refers to an actual historical event in which the indigenous Noongar people appropriated a British soliders’ drill which they had seen and made it into a dance – how this signified both the way in which Noongar people shared stories and absorbed culture into their own, and also how it spoke of something that is essentially a show of force and rigour into something that became an altogether more poetic thing – a dance.  There were many such examples of cross-cultural pollination.  The novel seeks to do the same.  

Kim works spends time working on the revitalisation of the Noongar language.  He spoke about the reading of landscape, how the Noongar most probably believed at the time of colonisation that the white settlers could not steal the spirit inherent in the landscape and in their people.  This in part might explain why they were so willing to help the new comers, to lead them to good land and show them where to find water. 

Kim was asked to speak to a specific image in the later part of the book in which the heavy weight of the nation’s flag flies atop the bones of his people.  It was not just his people, but those of Dr Cross, one of the few white settlers in the book who attempted to recognise the Noongars’ right of ownership of the land.  It is something that is difficult to think about and talk about, said Scott, that heavy weight built on the bones of such people. 

He spoke of the Noongar literary records he has been researching and how the Noongar people appropriated words of English such as glass into their documents – this is another example of the possible grafting of languages, one into another.  Culture is not a static thing, it is dynamic. 

He said when asked about the black and white worlds in Australia, how he preferred to think of it as one world, though he made the point that this is very simplistic.  He went onto make a very telling point about how western thinking is one way of thinking: empirical, linear, and so on – whereas Noongar and indigenous thinking is different, is centred on place.  He spoke that we have perhaps made the mistake of trying to make one way of thinking (black) fit into the other (white) way, whereas we should be trying to fit the white way into the black – that is to say we should make more of an effort to think in terms of place.  Geordie made the point that this is not just an Australian-centric issue, that all countries are faced with trying to make this shift too, to look after the scarce resources, to take care of the world in which we live. 

He spoke about how difficult it was to write about the inter-tribal relationships in the book, how some non-Noongar tribes acted in consort with white settlers against Noongar, but it was part of the richness of relationships that needed to be part of the novel. 

He spoke too about the character name of Bobby Wabalanginy – how his surname is a combination of noongar words which means ‘all of us playing together’, and yet Bobby was a name routinely given to black ambassadors in colonial records, something derogatory and demeaning to turn these helpful people into ‘Bobby’, (possibly based on the English Bobby as the local policeman).  So the character name is a combination of these things: the ambassador, the ‘cruel’ name of Bobby, and the positive surname. 

The richness of the Noongar language, said Scott, is ‘mindblowing’.  The word for kiss – which sounded like ‘Muun’ (forgive my spelling, I figure it is incorrect) – is wonderful as the act of saying that word with the lips makes the act of kissing.  Saying the word makes the word.  There is a richness in indigenous language which he sees as something we should all be protecting and also as something which can empower indigenous peoples. 

A great book.  A great session. 

My only gripe?  Some of those windows letting in the glorious Sydney sun behind the stage need to be covered up to improve attendees’ viewing comfort.  There’s plenty of natural light coming in through the sides. 

(More to come from day one…)

The D!

Read Full Post »

Do you like a good brouhaha?  I do.  Even if it’s just so I can use that word: brouhaha.  And that’s certainly what we’ve had in the last week since the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced.  Of course, last year it was all the ‘genre’ debate when Peter Temple won for Truth.  Not satisfied, this year we’ve doubled up with two debates!  The first of these is on the prize’s requirement that books portray ‘Australian life in any of its phases’.  Does this shut out some novels, some themes?  The other is the gender debate.  Three shortlisted novels and no female authors.  Feathers have flown!  These are important debates and need an airing.  The number of female winners (13 by my count) of the MF is small compared to male winners (40, soon to be 41) – roughly 24%.  That seems low, but it’s just a statistic.  I’d love to join the cut and thrust, but I’ve felt compelled to sit on the sidelines.  The reason?  Pure and simple: I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, let alone the long-list.  How can I point to any bias when I can’t support my arguments?  All I can do is quote statistics and we all know what they say about them.  Numbers give us a headline, and perhaps part of a story, but the whole story deserves more intellectual firepower than the Dilettante has at his disposal.  (And look – it’s got me talking about myself in the third person, that can’t be a good thing!) 

The only downside to a brouhaha is that it creates noise.  Books that have been shortlisted, like Kim Scott’s novel, are at risk of being drowned out.  And that would be a shame, for That Deadman Dance is a fine novel. 

It tells the story of first contact between ‘the pale horizon people’ and the indigenous Noongar people in the area ofAlbany and King George Sound on the southern West Australian coastline. 

The story is layered, multi-stranded and non-linear.  There is a large and wonderful set of characters.  There are shifts between Noongar and settler points of views and ways of seeing.  The different time frames have caused some readers difficulty.  I found a couple of small sections a little hard to follow at first, but overall I didn’t find the shifts too difficult.  I think a second reading would illuminate them even more.  There is certainly no way of missing where the story is and where it is heading in a larger sense.  What they sometimes produce is a bit of repetition which I found, in some cases at least, a little ponderous.  It hope to learn more about these shifts when Scott talks about the novel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

For the most part, Scott’s writing has a lovely rhythm to it.  This is no surprise given his Noongar heritage, for the Noongar are a very musical people.  Noongar language is often used which adds a depth and a sense of music to the prose.  The environment is wonderfully drawn too.  There are touches of Melville’s Moby-Dick in the whaling scenes – the peeling of whale blubber “like rind from an orange” is a notable echo [p242]. 

I enjoyed the way Scott weaves in the aboriginal customs and culture into the story, how he explains things.  There are some nice ironic inversions too.  For example, [p13] we have Menak, one the elders of the Noongar, thinking about the newcomers: “… if nothing else, they might be useful allies against others who, to Menak’s mind, were little more than savages.”  [my emphasis]

Relationships between Noongar and settlers occur on several levels.  There is sharing, mutual benefit and friendship.  There is love.  There is misunderstanding, theft, betrayal and whitewashing.  There is murder and loss. 

Among the first colonists is Dr Cross who lets the Noongar sleep in his house and share his food.  He understands the land has been seized from them.  “He is our friend,” says Wooral, another elder, [p24].  But already Menat, the sole female elder, is seeing what Wooral cannot, that [p24] the white men more generally are “Devils!  Smile to your face but turn around and he is your enemy.  These people chase us from our own country.  They kill our animals and if we eat one of their sheep … they shoot us.”  Menak, growing into his role as one of the few elders after sickness takes the lives of many Noongar, listens closely to her argument.  It shapes him, the story, and in the end it shapes us. 

Dr Cross looks out for one of the Noongar in particular: Bobby Wabalanginy, whose name means [p39], “all of us playing together”.  This is the story’s theme in a nutshell.  He is a young Noongar boy when the story starts.  We see him dancing on a ship’s deck.  He is a leader.  It is obvious in his dancing, for when he first danced he broke out of the ‘chorus’ line, if I can use that term, and comes centre stage, joining the elder leading the dance even though he is the youngest amongst them.  Bobby is playful, comic, a performer.  His stories come with a smile and ready wink.  When he recounts his story he says of himself, [p67], “Bobby … never learned fear; not until he was pretty well a grown man did he ever even know it.”  For Bobby, that deadman dance “was a dance of life”.  Bobby is the fulcrum around which the large cast of characters swings.  He is the binding between peoples, growing up in both camps, just like Kim Scott himself. 

Good Dr Cross dies and is buried next to his great friend Wunyeran.  It is Bobby who tells us of this earliest contact, the love between the two men, the sharing.  Bobby [p350] “imagined their bodies rolling toward another as the flesh fell away, bones touching, spirits fusing in the earth.”  But the graves are disturbed for progress’ sake and Cross is removed to another graveyard while Wunyeran’s bones are left exposed, stolen by dogs, crunched by thoughtless builders.  Bobby is dismayed, as are we: the division and ‘leaving behind’ metaphor is powerful.   

Cross is replaced by the mercantile Chaine.  He controls trade with the whalers and begins to hunt whales.  He employs Bobby who acts as a steerer on one of Chaine’s whaleboats.  For a time there is a shared pursuit.  There is ‘plenty’.  Bobby is happy, although he does not delight in the deaths of the whales and doesn’t eat them – he has a special affinity with them [p274]: “Bobby heard the whales singing.  They sang for him.”  Menak, older now, set in his ways, defiant, he sees the devastation of the whales for what it is.  He mourns the doleful music their bones make on the beaches.  He knows they will run out.  

In the early days the colonists are outnumbered by the blacks.  There is fear.  Over time the balance of power shifts.  By the end the whitefellas have the ascendency, the Noongar are the minority.  Food is scarce.  The whales are gone, hunted almost to extinction.  When the whites arrived the blacks shared their food with them.  Now their food is gone, they want to share the sheep of the white man but he is not willing.  Food was always a flashpoint in all first contact relationships, from the days of Sydney Cove on.  

In the second part (1826-30) we are thrown a little we go back in time but the narrator is Bobby looking back on these years from some future time.  He recounts his life for tourists, for scraps.  But even here he is a showman, not just because of a natural inclination, but out of necessity.  He needs that showmanship to earn a crust.  He says, [106]:

Me and my people … My people and I (he winked) are not so good traders as we thought.  We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours.  We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours… 

He is then forced to add directly after:

But yes, of course, you’re right, you’re right; my life is good, and I am happy to talk to everyone, and welcome you as friends.  The same God and the same good King looks over us all, does he not, my fellow subjects?

And what can we do for Bobby now, after all that has happened to him and the Noongar?  Bobby (and Scott) offers us this, [p128]:

All his friends and family kept that boy Bobby Wabalanginy alive, just by loving him, wanting him, and wanting him to stay where he was.  Stay is his place.

With the unravelling of relationships and the demise of the promise of the earliest friendships, we sense that things cannot end well.  Old Menak and Menat lose their status as proper elders.  Bobby begins to make trouble, railing against the injustices perpetrated by Chaine and the colonists. 

Bobby has this to say about the power of stories, how they can transform us, [p86]:

… you can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface, and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very sensitive skin.  As if you’re someone else altogether, some new self trying on the words. 

The end is poignant, powerful, memorable.  When I finished That Deadman Dance I just wanted to sit with its final images.  Turn them over in my mind.  Feel them resonate.  I wanted to go and find Bobby and say to him, ‘What can we do together?’  We should all be facing Bobby Wabalanginy, looking at his dance, embracing his offer of friendship, of family.  Our bones will all go down to the sea together and mix with the bones of whales and become something else.  In the meantime we should face him.  For all those wrapped up in other debates about missing books and themes and authors, take a seat and share Bobby’s story.  Those debates are important, but there is no more important theme than our country, our people, our family, how we might share the past and the future. 

That Deadman Dance is an important book.  

I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing Kim Scott at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few short weeks.  That Deadman Dance is shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the winner of which will be announced at the festival.  Can’t wait.      

Lisa over at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed That Deadman Dance, (as well as the other two MF shortlisted books). 

And Morag Fraser’s – one of the MF judges – loved it too.  See her SMH review.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Picador

2010

ISBN: 9781405040440

395 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

Read Full Post »

I came across both Marie Munkara and her little gem of a book, Every Secret Thing, at last week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF), where I went to a session with Marie in conversation with Irina Dunn.  I really enjoyed the session and the three-or-so readings that Marie did, all of which were very humorous, and so I bought the book.

Winner of the 2008 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous authors, Every Secret Thing explores the Catholic missionaries’ efforts to educate and ‘civilise’ a mob of aboriginals in the far north of Australia and the hilarious and devastating interaction of cultures and beliefs.

The novel feels like a series of short and highly entertaining stories, but there are recurring characters and a narrative arc that traces a gradual decline in the health and welfare of the ‘bush mob’.  Each story has lavish helpings of energy and wit.  Right from the opening chapter, entitled The Bishop, we know we are in for a fun-filled ride.  The Bishop, having arrived by plane (just!), sits in on a religious instruction class in which Jeremiah asks: “But why did Eve eat the apple?  Wouldn’t the snake have tasted better?” Another chimes in: “And why aren’t there any black angels?  Why are they always white?”  Each of the baptised aboriginal children is given a biblical Christian name, which gives Munkara a lot of scope for further giggles.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John run off and play in the trees as the Sisters try to organise everyone for the Bishop’s arrival.  The Bishop is a fool who answers the question about the black angels thus: “ ‘I’ll leave that for Sister to answer,’ he snorted pompously as he recalled Sister’s humiliating rejection of him when she had been on retreat six months earlier. ‘She knows all about being an angel’.”(!)

But despite the giggles, there are serious themes at work here.  The aboriginal children are referred to as “inmates of the Mission” as if it is a prison, which of course for the bush mob it most certainly is.  We get plenty of scenes that deal with the clash of white and black.  One such instance is the arrival of an anthropologist to study the ways of the natives.  He is called ‘Rat’ by them on account of his mannerisms and physical appearance.  Pwomiga, one of the aboriginal men, tells the misguided Rat all the wrong names for things.  ‘Spear’ becomes ‘penis’ and so on.  Pwomiga and his mates wonder how this ‘learned’ man can be so stupid.  Soon we find Father Macredie inspired to use the many words Rat has translated in his Sunday sermons – much to the amusement of the natives!  Elsewhere, a missionary woman tries to teach the aboriginal women how to cook using the stove, but is aghast when she finds puppies in their unused cooker.

One feels Munkara could have rattled on with endless stories about the ills of religion for the sake of laughs, but despite the very breezy language and atmosphere she created in the first half of the book, she has bigger fish to fry in the second half.  We see a pregnant cat imported to the mission and become the mother to an ever-expanding family of cats which go off hunting in the bush and render species that had been happily living in the area for millennia extinct.

A French couple then arrive on a ship-wrecked yacht and bring marijuana into the camp.  Not only do the mob start to smoke, but soon they are all growing it in their homes.  Odile, the French woman, gives birth to a half-caste child.  Her French husband seems oblivious to the colour of his skin.  But it is not only him, for the Missionaries decide they can’t take this half-caste child from his parents because its mother is white.  The mob see the double standards clearly: “The more erudite had reasoned that if they had to hand over their coloured kids then why shouldn’t Odile.  No matter that the mother wasn’t black, the kid was still coloured, wasn’t he, and everybody knew what happened to them.”

The decline in the wellbeing of the mob continues when one of the Brothers finds a crate of rum washed ashore on a beach.  We witness the horror of what alcohol does to the mob: “by mid morning everyone was roaring drunk except for Dinah’s baby who was busy sucking on an empty bottle and Dinah who was comatose.”  Munkara’s writing is deceivingly breezy even when we are faced with such terrible truths.

Yet it gets worse when Father Voleur replaces the retired Fr Macredie who realises as he’s leaving that he should have “let the bush mob into his heart from the beginning and been their friend.”  Fr Voleur introduces movies to the bush mob which they marvel at, but wonder how it is that a man who dies in one movie can be alive in the next.  Meanwhile, Fr Voleur blackmails the mob by saying that they’ll only get to see the movies if they come to Mass.  Pwomiga and the other men are confused by the resurrection of the actors and begin to ponder whether they are like Jesus.  This sets up the final harrowing scene which I won’t divulge here, but it caps off a wonderful little book, full of laughs yet full of demise too – one that delves into the dark side of the Catholic Missionaries and the devastating effect they and all of the aliens – feline, French or otherwise – have had, bringing hell to the place that was heaven before they laid claim to it.

Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara

University of Queensland Press (UQP)

ISBN: 9780702237195

179 pages

Read Full Post »