Storyland (2017) as you might expect, is about stories, about the stories that make up this land, this nation. How they are made, how they are told, when they are told, why they are told, what they tell. Is itself a linked series of stories ranging in time from White Settlement into the future and back again. And rightly, McKinnon restricts herself to those stories that are hers to tell. White stories, settler stories, and above all, the story of the land itself.
In 1796 Bass and Flinders and young Will Martin take a small boat south from Sydney Cove to explore the coast. They are afraid to make landfall because the ‘Indians’ might be cannibals (see Behrendt). To pass the time Will orates the story of a sea-battle, a story he learned to tell ‘back home’, of a battle that Flinders as a young midshipman took part in. We book readers are reminded of the power of oral traditions.
A quarter of a century later, land is being cleared for farming. Labour is mostly convicts overseen by ex-convicts, ticket-of-leave men, though in this case the overseer is the NSW-born half brother of Will Martin. Hawker, the teller of this story, and Lambskin are the workers. McKinnon interrogates the myths of mateship – what happens if your mate doesn’t pull his weight? The ‘natives’ are no longer cannibals, but they threaten the crops. Yet:
When we were building the hut it was the chief’s nephew who showed us the paths through the forest to the cedar trees. He taught us how to strip the bark of the Couramyn to make a fishing line, showed us what berries not to eat. Once, when our traps had caught nothing, the nephew gave us kangaroo tail. He thought he could take corn in return… “That corn does not belong to me,” I explained. The nephew went away and the chief, with complete understanding of men’s desires, sent her back.
1900 and still in the lush farming country between the mountains and the sea south of Sydney, the Illawarra, though the coal mines and smelters that become synonymous with Wollongong and Port Kembla have started their inexorable spread. Lola with her brother and sister Mary and Abe are dairy farming on the shore of a lake . Jewell, their friend and neighbour, has been told by her father she “can’t work with no ignorant bastard girl like you, Lola, and with no half-castes like Mary and Abe.” Jewell draws pictures, another form of storytelling. “’I have to draw you like you is,’ Jewell says … ‘I got to draw the truth.’” Jewell goes missing. Their aunt takes them to the camp of the local Aboriginals to get help. Abe is attacked by Jewell’s father.
Almost another century, and where the farms were is now housing and the lake’s a “cesspit”, clear water but the shores are black sludge. Bel is a 10 year-old whose vocation is to tell stories.
Uncle Ray says the lake was once full of fish and it was a refrigerator for everyone who camped on the banks in the olden Aborigine days before refrigerators.
Bel’s dad Jonathon is doing his PhD “on people in stories who tell stories you don’t believe”. Bel and her friends Tarak and Isha come across an older girl, Kristie sleeping rough in Swamp Park. She says she is descended from Mary who “met my great-grandfather and he was like the son of this fierce Aboriginal warrior and they had a pile of kids together and one was my grandmother.” And so the stories link one to another, although probably place alone would have been enough. Ned, Kristie’s boyfriend can ‘spin a yarn’, another story-teller, no-one says bull-shit artist but Kristie teaches them to lie to him, “Some people you can love, but never trust. Ned is one of those people.”
We go off into the future, the near future and the far future at the same time, before making our way back again.
Nada, I want to publicly membank what we say to each other today for our Storyland project.
If you don’t wish to be publicly membanked you have that right. If you choose not to participate your treatment here will not be affected. Nada, may I membank?
Nada nods her head.
Nada, I can’t go ahead until you say yes. You must verbally agree. This is a contract.
Nada’s story is that her community up on the escarpment above Lake Illawarra, her house sheltering under the 1,000 year old fig tree, has been destroyed in cyclone Frank. When she finally makes her way back to the city she descends into a dystopia of food and fuel shortages, flooding and fighting. Kristie appears briefly, at the evac centre, and is shot. Back home, under the guidance of their neighbour Steve, the first Koori to command the Australian Army, they prepare to defend themselves.
Nada is a child knocked down by a car. Bel, Tarak, Isha, their ‘wolf’ dog Zeus rescue Kristie from Ned’s violence. A skeleton is dug up near the beach, the skeleton of a Kuradji, a ‘clever man’. His axe is missing, but we have seen it, in other stories.
Jewell is found.
Hawker kills the woman he has lain with, in the most horrible way imaginable.
Will Martin, Bass and Flinders eat a meal with the ‘Indians’.
Gulls circle above, and the fire spits. The fish is cooked. We sit and eat, pulling the flesh from the bones. We invite our friends to join us. They eat the same way we do. This is proof that they are not cannibals.
Though they continue to have their doubts. The three young men return from their adventures, preparing their stories for telling.
So what has McKinnon been saying with all these stories. That there were people on this land when we got here, they are still here, they never went away, and, I think, that we must learn how to be with them. And, maybe, slowly, we must learn to tell stories, earn the right to tell stories, to live stories, where the first people are Us or part of Us, and not Other.
Catherine McKinnon, Storyland, 4th Estate (Harper Collins), Sydney, 2017. My copy received from the publisher for review.
See also Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here)