I came to Here Where We Live via Sue’s review at Whispering Gums a couple of months ago and bought it straight away. My dilemma then was that although I saw it, and bought it, as part of the project that quite a few of us are undertaking, to better understand the representation of Indigenous people in Aust. Lit, I didn’t want my review to come out on top of (be overshadowed by!) Sue’s. Still, I’ve read it now, and thoroughly enjoyed it, so here goes.
Willanski says, and yes I’m one of those people who reads the Foreword, or in this case the Author’s Note first, that her project was to “reflect some of the attitudes I discovered in my research”, for her MA, into changing representations of Indigenous people by white authors. Interestingly, to my mind that’s not quite what she has written. And this is presented as a book of short stories, and I’m not quite sure that is what she has written either.
To start with, Willanski is, says she is, a white woman, probably in her 30s (I did google a biographical piece but I found it distracting). Towards the end of the Author’s note she writes that the first story derives from a trip she took “out west”. The story begins: “This is my daughter’s country./That mallee sea with the undulating dunes and the rockholes where we take her back to camp.”
My immediate thought is that she’s in Kim Scott country, on the south coast of WA, but she’s not, and it slowly becomes clear, she’s in South Australia and ‘west’ for her is west of Port Augusta, or in this case more probably, west of Ceduna, where the mallee forests on the edge of the Nularbor meet the Southern Ocean.
I’ve lived in SA, and worked there off and on most of my life, and it’s different. Adelaide is not as cosmopolitan as Melbourne or Sydney, nor even Perth, and not as redneck as Queensland. It is a little pocket of homogeneity that keeps itself to itself. And so when Willanski describes the world, the world she is describing is South Australia.
In that first story, My Good Thing she imagines having a child with an Indigenous husband and visiting his, and her daughter’s, country. In Stuff White People Like the pov is that of a guy, Oliver, a white teacher who decides to work with Aboriginal kids in Ceduna. He and his wife, Clay attend a corroboree and his and white people in general’s awkwardness mixing with Indigenous people is closely and hilariously observed. Stuff White People Like, a satire on white liberal attitudes, is also the name of the book they are reading and they use it to good effect to poke fun at each other:
‘I think that book’s kind of offensive’, Oliver said after a five minute silence.
‘You’re only meant to be offended on other people’s behalf, not your own. Proper white people hate themselves.’
They laughed again, but the laugh was tired.
Importantly, Willanski describes the husband’s pov but I don’t think she ever stops imagining the woman’s. Obviously, this is not a book of polished ‘gems’, self-contained, each with a beginning and an end. Neither is it like, say Henry Lawson, a collection of yarns, sufficient unto themselves. It’s more the journal of a woman imagining herself in different situations and from different perspectives, but in the end always the same, underlying, thirtyish, South Australian woman.
In other stories, she imagines a divorce, from the pov of a mother with children and then from the pov a young girl whose father leaves. She imagines an 8 yo boy, Oliver, a ‘difficult student’ who may be the Oliver, the teacher, in Stuff White People Like, on a school excursion. She takes up Oliver and Clay again, but from Clay’s pov. Clay would like to get pregnant but she’s stuck on the fact that she has previously had an abortion. Until she accepts that a life has been lost, and begins to grieve, she can’t find her way forward.
She becomes an old white woman, whose husband was involved in the British atom bomb tests on Aboriginal country at Maralinga, in a delegation with two Indigenous women to a conference in the US desert of women against the storage of nuclear waste on Indigenous land; she’s ‘herself’, rejoining conservation activists on a trip north to blockade a uranium mine; and finally in a tour de force, she writes a story from two povs at once – an old woman living in a shack in the dunes behind the beach whose (female) partner has recently died, and a 17 yo girl trying to be a woman tagging along with her boyfriend who wants to snorkel on a wreck, a story interrogating the way that relationships begin or don’t begin, work or don’t work.
All the while we’re working with the fact, or facts, that this is someone else’s land, and that we are destroying it. Over the years, the water level of the Murray at Hindmarsh Island drops [as it is stolen by the Barnaby Joyces*]; we look again at the unresolved scandal of the tests at Maralinga; and in passing, the enormous amount of ground water sucked up by the uranium mine at Roxby Downs. Oliver’s school excursion is to Aboriginal sites, one of which they damage; the divorced woman moves to the (greener) south east, driven out of Adelaide by years of drought, and finds herself in a house with Aboriginal neighbours and with Aboriginal ghosts; the boyfriend in the final story is researching a thesis on the survivors of a wreck, who swam to shore only to be captured and eaten. And yet survivors of an earlier wreck had been aided by locals and escorted along the coast to Victor Harbour. One more quote:
We will drive right out the top of South Australia onto Aboriginal land. There will be the old activist faces from across the country, transforming the grief and outrage into smirks of shared intent. There will be our hosts, the humour and dignity of the Traditional Owners strategising with the big-shot campaigners against the blank grey faces, the plastic simulations, the grey site hidden from the highway so as not to appear real. We will camp every night with fifty others. Our campfires will make patterns, maps of our families. People weren’t meant to live separately in houses.
The kids will be baptised in red earth. (Her Thoughts Heading North)
This is a stunning, beautifully written and original work and I advise everyone to read it.
Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here Where We Live, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2016
* Barnaby Joyce, the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, is from and still effectively represents St George in Qld, the home of Cubby Station which is licensed to take 460,000 megalitres of water per year from the upper Murray-Darling system, the equivalent of all irrigation entitlements downstream in north-western NSW.