Benang is a great, swirling, discursive voyage of discovery; of a young man brought up White uniting the documentary evidence collated by his White grandfather with the family histories revealed to him over the course of the novel by his Black uncles; of a family raped and pillaged, figuratively and literally, by white settlers, by racism institutionalised by the 1905 Aborigines Act*, and by the infamous Western Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville.
Kim Scott (1957- ) is an Indigenous Australian, of mixed Black and White heritage, which this novel explores; a Nyoongar, which is to say, of those people whose country is the south-western portion of Western Australia (from south of Geraldton to west of Esperance); and of the Wirlomin, the south-easternmost of 14 language groups making up the Nyoongar.
The towns at the centre of Benang – Wirlup Haven on the coast and Gebalup 50 km inland – correspond to the towns of Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe in the heart of Wirlomin country. Other towns mentioned, Kylie Bay and Frederickstown, seem to correspond to Bremer Bay and Albany. The land, these days largely cleared for cropping, is sandy, semi-arid and the native vegetation is mostly low scrub. As you go west, towards Albany and the Stirling Range, the climate is wetter and the country more heavily treed.
As ‘I’ – the protagonist’s name, Harley, is only mentioned two or three times through all the 500 pages – explores and has related to him the stories of his family’s ancestry, we range back in time to the middle of the 1800s, not long after first white settlement, when Sandy One Mason, a near-drowned survivor from a capsized sealing boat is cast ashore near Kylie Bay and is taken up by a young Aboriginal woman, given the name Fanny, but whom we learn towards the end of this epic tale has the name amongst her own people of Benang (Sandy and Benang appear again, as Jak Tar and Binyan, in Scott’s later work That Deadman Dance). And although ‘I’ is the conductor of this story and in some ways all that we learn is mediated through him, the heart of the novel is Fanny, the matriarch of her people.
We, the readers, are given the material in the order that ‘I’ receives it and as a lot of what he learns is out of order, doesn’t make sense till later in the book, not all of it is retained, not even by a reviewer taking notes. I’m sure that when I re-read it in the future, as I certainly will, much more will be revealed to me.
As the first-born-successfully-white-man-in-the-family-line I awoke to a terrible pressure, particularly on my nose and forehead, and thought I was blind.
So we learn two things: that ‘I’ is born out of of A.O. Neville’s terrible determination to breed the ‘Black’ out the Aborigines; and that he is, as we learn, effectively weightless – his face is pressed against the ceiling – and possibly crippled, following an accident in which he is instrumental in the death of his father.
When I was seven years old my father gave me to his own father to raise.
My grandfather owned and managed a gentleman’s boarding house.
Granddad – Ernest Solomon Scat – had come out from Scotland and found employment with his ‘cousin’ A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines from 1915-1940, with complete control over the Indigenous population – where they lived, who they could work for and who they could live with. Neville was excessively (obsessively!) concerned with degrees of blackness, believing and writing that the child of an ‘octoroon’ and a white person might be regarded as white. Over and over in this novel Scott’s characters face the dilemma that if they are to be regarded as white, or nearly white – and Neville has the power to issue them with, or deny them permits – then they must stop associating with their darker relatives.
In the course of his work Scat finds his way to Gebalup, an isolated mining town, more than 100 km from the nearest point on the rail network connecting farming communities in WA’s south west, but with its own ‘orphan’ line to the port at Wirlup Haven, and there he decides to stay. Benang commences near the end of Scat’s life. He has had a stroke and is dependent on ‘I’ who is being introduced to his Aboriginal heritage by his uncles Will and Jack and is in turn incorporating this with the material accumulated by Scat, extracts from the 1905 Aborigines Act and from the writings of A.O. Neville, into a family history from which he reads as we go along.
To make a linear summary of a very non-linear narrative, Sandy One and Fanny have 3 children, Sandy Two, Harriette and Dinah. Sandy One makes his living as a teamster, delivering supplies brought in by sea to Wirlup Haven, to as far afield as the Kalgoorlie goldfields, dependent on Fanny’s ability to locate water, edible plants and game. Harriette and Dinah partner (white) twins Daniel and Pat Coolamon. Harriette and Daniel settle in Gebalup where they have children Will and a number of girls who are all, eventually, married off to white men. Pat and Dinah have Kathleen and Jack Chatalong. Pat doesn’t hang around. Dinah is raped by sealers, left for dead on the beach and found by Sandy One and Fanny. Kathleen and Jack Chatalong are brought up in Daniel and Harriette’s compound in Gebalup – Noongars are tolerated in town if they keep out of sight – but Dinah is sent off to the reservation at Mogumber (Moore River), north of Perth, so hundreds of kilometres away.
White settlers rape and massacre a large part of the indigenous population in the Gebalup, Wirlup Haven, Kylie Bay area. Most of the remainder are confined to a ‘camp’ between the Gebalup tip and night soil pits.
Ernest Scat takes Kathleen as his wife but also has indigenous girls as servants who are periodically moved along as they get pregnant. The story of Tommy, ‘I’s father, comes out in bits and pieces only slowly through the course of the novel.
The first strength of Scott’s writing is its poetry (Sandy Two is driving a sulky):
Sandy was alone. The clouds in the sky.
He felt it was almost like sailing. He sailed on a breath of trust toward new country. But the land was not like the sea in that it slowed you, dragged you down to it. It was slow moving.
He read the road. Hooves, wheels, snake.
The gentle jingle jangle of draw bars in their steel rings, clinking of chains, creaking of wagon timbers; the murmuring of iron tyres along a sandy track.
A horse can follow the way and it swings along easily.
Clouds. Sand. Disturbed stones.
It is hard to stay awake.
The footprint of a bird.
And the second strength is the deadpan description of the indignities, the crimes inflicted on Fanny/Benang, her people and her descendants. All the power, all the reader’s indignation, comes from the contrast between the language used, white man’s language, and the actual, often only implied, consequences. So, for instance, a ‘spree’ is for white men a bit of fun after drinking, but for the People whose stories we are hearing these same ‘sprees’ generally involve their rape or murder.
In the end we circle back to the beginning, to Fanny.
Fanny Benang Mason saw her people fall; saw them trembling, nervous, darting glances all about them. Some became swollen, felt themselves burning up. Their skin – too hot to touch – erupted in various forms of sores. People itched, and scratched the skin away, and writhed on the ground with their arses sore from so much shitting, until eventually that ceased and there was only an ooze of mucus and blood.
And always, again and again, even in Granddad’s sources, but never underlined. They shot a lot.
Children, becoming white, gathering at the woodheap, learned to work for indifferent and earnest fathers.
There is much, much more in this novel than I have even touched on. It is a difficult, magical, scarifying work and should be read by every literate Australian. Read it for yourself and see.
Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, N.Fremantle, 1999
*”The sixty years from 1881 to the 1940s can be divided into two by the passage of the 1905 Aboriginal Act, which resulted in institutionalised racism and created what amounted to Aboriginal “concentration camps” in which the Aboriginal people were to be confined until the race became extinct.” (Wiki)
Western Australia Aborigines Act 1905 (pdf)
* Noongar account of the impacts of 1905 Act (here). Note: Scott uses the spelling “Nyoongar” and others use other phonetic spellings.
Lisa at ANZLL posted her impressions on first reading Benang (here)
If you have come to me from ANZ LitLover’s Indigenous Literature Week, coinciding with NAIDOC Week, 3-10 July 2016, then you might want to see other posts I have done in the area of Australian Indigenous Literature over the past year: –
Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, Pictures From My Memory (here) – Autobiography
Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala (here) – Who should write Indigenous stories?
Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light (here) – Short stories
and from Michelle at Adventures in Biography –
Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza (here) – How histories of White/Black interaction are framed to reinforce White privilege.