Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven

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Heat and Light is a collection of stories. The main protagonists, and I guess van Neerven herself, are mostly young, female, Aboriginal, lesbian, all things that I’m not, but how else am I going to learn, and in any case there’s not all that much fiction about old, white guys and what there is I don’t find interesting.

The strongest stories are set in coastal Queensland and Northern NSW, van Neerven’s home country, and the descriptions of place are detailed, familiar. The weaker stories have a male protagonist – perhaps to give a view of the strong female from the ‘outside’ – or have a setting with which the author appears to be less at home. Of these, one, S & J, is set in Exmouth, WA, a remote fishing/government town, facing into Exmouth Gulf, 200 km from the nearest highway but van Neerven treats it as a generic east coast surf town plonked into the desert. The other WA story The Wheel is set in a community 400 km east of Broome (Nookanbah country maybe), but the location doesn’t matter in the way that it does in many of her stories, the desert setting, the abandoned ferris wheel, invoking the end of days in a JG Ballard sort of way which works quite well.

A third desert story, Currency, is placeless, in that a small family is on a road trip across an unnamed desert to ‘Boom’ where work is plentiful and wages are high. They overnight at a town with redgums and a sawmill – the only town that fits, on the edge of a desert, that I can think of, is Denniliquin, NSW – where their car is attacked, as they sleep inside, by camels or maybe by locals. The point is van Neerven uses this story directly, and many of the other stories, indirectly, to interrogate the myths of the Australian bush – mateship, independence, fair go – not as I attempt to do, and as van Neerven does elsewhere, through the Independent Woman, but by seeing through the eyes of the original inhabitants, the invisible other. In all the stories, even those in which the protagonist is middle class, a masters student, we feel the difference, of being looked at, of being not-white.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Heat, we get glimpses of one family, from various viewpoints over a number of generations. I liked particularly the first story, Pearl, swapping backwards and forwards without warning between two voices, a granddaughter learning about her grandmother from her grandmother’s friend.

The second section, Water, is one story, an SF-ish novella. It was years ago that I first encountered a sexually aware artefact in an SF story, Robert Sheckley’s Can You Feel it when I do that? where a housewife is seduced by an intelligent vacuum cleaner. It becomes clear that the ‘sandplants’ in Water, which the government is attempting to eradicate as it ‘develops’ their island habitat, are not artefacts, indeed what they actually are is the point of the story, but the seduction when it first occurs is if not shocking, at least a surprise.

Light, the third section, is a miscellany, but themed I guess around what it is to be Aboriginal and lesbian in this country. The final story Sound is a corker. A young women attempts to keep tabs on her mentally unsound brother as he falls apart. The ending will give you nightmares.

I have been attempting to say, over a series of posts, why I think white writers should avoid writing ‘black’ stories. One of the reasons is that often racial discrimination is made up of lots of little, maybe even unconscious, acts which a writer like van Neerven is able to make apparent precisely by not foregrounding them.

Another is that the undercurrents of the writing are different. I guess an Anglo writer could mimic “the blackfella fashion here is contagious. Kitty wears a flanno over a blackfella T-shirt with long floral red skirt and Dunlop volleys. I ain’t looking too flash like them mob here, even the little fellas with their basketball caps and mismatched sneakers.” (opening lines of Strike Another Match), but even when she is using ‘proper’ English, and she mostly does, van Neerven’s writing makes it clear these are stories by and about people of Aboriginal heritage: “[The baby] wasn’t painted up proper way, and there was no ceremony, the clapsticks had disappeared from the house, but Marie knew he’d grow up Kresinger; she knew how to do it right.” (ending of Skin)

This is a terrific book and I’m sorry I took so long to get round to reading it.

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, UQP, Brisbane, 2014

See also reviews by The Resident Judge of Port Phillip, Whispering Gums

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11 thoughts on “Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven

  1. I’ve got this one to read too. I’m not a fan of short stories, but this one sounded too good to miss. I’ll probably read it during Indigenous Literature Week if I run it again this year.

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  2. This is a great book, Bill. I particularly liked the first and second sections. The stories in the third were mostly good but a little more disjointed. Without going back to it, as I recollect, that last story is set in Sandgate, in a part of Brisbane where I spent most of my primary school years. I loved reading about that area as it’s quite distinctive with the bay and lagoons.

    I was interested in your comment regarding “why I think white writers should avoid writing ‘black’ stories.” I don’t think it’s a completely simple either-or situation. Your points are good, but, as writers have pointed out there are problems with white writers ignoring indigenous characters altogether. It can sometimes be a case of damned if they do, and damned if they don’t, but overall I think they should but be open to being taken to task!! (Did you read my post on this – on write writers writing black stories?)

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  3. Sue, I’ve read the Merilees essay – and I think I agree with every word she wrote – and your post and the comments, I’m only sorry I wasn’t around two years ago to join in.I certainly don’t agree with the commenter who wrote that freedom means being able to write whatever you want. White men have so constrained the freedoms of others, and that includes women, that they must give up some of their “freedoms” until we achieve something approaching equality.
    I’m afraid it’s a working day for me tomorrow, but I’ll think while I drive and see what else I can come up with. The problem is Merilees puts it so well I’m not sure there’s anything left to say. But just to reiterate: yes, white books should have black characters (and it is disgrace that Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly, for instance, does not) but whites should not tell black stories.
    Finally, don’t hesitate to ‘impose’ on me! I was seriously considering just today sending you an 18 page essay on Henrietta Drake-Brockman. (and on reflection, you might have to tell me how the Merilees pdf was linked to your post).

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    • Glad you liked it, Bill. It’s a while since I’ve read it but I remember thinking she argued it very clearly and logically – and with respect. I like Merrilees’ argument that as soon as you have a black character you have to tell their story – at least to some degree – but there’s a fine line isn’t there between that and telling an indigenous story.

      Re the pdf, it was a pdf with a URL. I can’t recollect now how I came across it but you can only link a pdf that is on the internet (i.e. has a URL), as far as I know.

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  4. […] As it happens, I’ve read/listened to some excellent  women’s SF over the past month, and although my original intention was just escapism, I thought I would knock up a review. Interestingly, some recent Australian women’s writing, even apart from Sue Parritt (here) who writes straight SF, has had an SF feel to it too. In the last year I’ve reviewed Jane Rawson’s  A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (here), Georgia Blain’s Special (here), Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (here) and Ellen van Neerven’s story Water (here). […]

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