Born in to This, Adam Thompson

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

A number of bloggers have got before me to this short story collection by new (43 year old) Indigenous writer Adam Thompson, a Pakana man from northern Tasmania. Not helped by me leaving it at home on my last trip and so missing Lisa’s ANZLL Indig. Lit. Week.

Brona/This Reading Life aka Brona’s Books writes (here): there are powerful and promising things going on here. Some of his stories pack a serious punch, others creep in quietly under your skin. Either way, it is the diversity of characters, settings and tone that is truly impressive.

Kimbofo/Reading Matters’ take is similar (here): Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it… But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos.

And what does Sue/Whispering Gums, who thought to send me this book, say? (here): … these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian.

I, as Sue knows, am not a short story person. Was giving me this book punishment for something I said or did? Am I going to like all or some of these stories? Am I going to be able to say something different? Great questions. Well done Bill. (That’s an Angus Taylor joke. Angus Taylor is an Angus Taylor joke.).

Ok, the first story, The Old Tin Mine was good. An older Indigenous man taking a group of townie Indigenous boys on a survival camp in country he knows, or thinks he knows, comes unstuck.

The second story is better. What’s going on here? A white guy with a Black employee boasts to him about destroying Aboriginal stone implements, “Hope I’m not offending ya.” And he comes unstuck.

The third is more like it, female protagonist/male author, I’m sure not to like it. Kara is a receptionist with a shitty boss and a shitty job. She goes for a quiet walk in the bush on her afternoon off. Both the people she encounters, and the bush are closely observed

The strangers passed, oblivious to her presence. A middle-aged couple, slim and fit. The man had an odd-shaped but well-clipped beard. The woman wore a designer hiking outfit in retro pastel colours. Kara could tell they weren’t from round here. They held themselves – as did all white mainlanders – with that peculiar, assured air. It made them seem taller and more upright than the locals.

Interestingly, the story harks back to the previous story’s stone tools. As a girl she would go out with her uncle, looking for stone tools, photographing them and recording their location.

The walk turns out to have a destination and a purpose. To take a small revenge on the forestry companies replacing native bush with plantation pines. Oh well, perhaps I’ll dislike the next one.

And I did. Well, I thought it – Invasion Day – an awkward evocation of what it is like to be up the front at a protest march.

We go on .. A man alone on an island off the north coast. His uncle who was staying with him, no longer is. A flash cruiser with five police on board brings him a letter. Which he burns. That’s it.

A very good story, a young couple going camping. Is he her trophy Black boyfriend? He certainly thinks she’s his trophy summer girlfriend

‘I’m so sorry’, you blurt out before I can react…
‘For what?’ …
‘For what my people did to yours.’ Your eyes well up again. ‘You owned all this land and now you have to struggle – like now, just to get a camp on the beach.’ Breaking into a sob, you collapse into me…
If you could see my eyes right now, it would kill you to witness them roll in irritation…
‘It’s not your fault,’ I say.
‘You’re so kind,’ you whisper.

A curate’s egg of a story, Mean Girls, aided by teachers, picking on smart Black girl. An awkward story of a white guy at his black mate’s funeral. Another awkward story, awkward in that the writing is stilted, a man waiting on an island for his mate at sea in a tinny in a storm. A not very convincing story about a man and a gun. A silly story about a doctor being shamed into signing his posh house over to a young Aboriginal woman.

“What’s with these acknowledgement of country speeches that kick off every public event these days? It’s all just words! Where is the action? If you acknowledge that this is Aboriginal land, then bloody well give it back, Don’t just say it, do it!”

Then a clever story about a new (Conservative) government policy – every (white) taxpayer gets a letter from one (Black) person on the dole whom they are “sponsoring”. A touching story about … climate change, fathers and sons, a dead child.

A story that points to a missed opportunity – in my eyes only probably – a Black guy at the beach on Invasion Day, flying an Aboriginal flag kite amongst all the whities in their Australia flag picnic chairs, when the Invasion Day story above has already caused a stir.

And finally, “It all started when I discovered my brother was sleeping with my wife …”

How would I describe Born to This? Not so bitsy as some collections. But still a missed opportunity to write something more cohesive, stories which point back to each other, which are connected not just by a shared geography but by recurring characters and families. With a bit more effort Thompson may have turned out, if not Olive Kitteridge, which revolves around one person, then at least The Turning, which involves an extended community seen from multiple viewpoints (and times).

My other problem is my problem – I don’t like authors who step outside their own POV. But, for all you (strange) readers who don’t mind that, who actually like short stories, what can I say? What they said, ” punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia.

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Adam Thompson, Born in to This, UQP, Brisbane, 2021. 206pp, Cover painting and artwork between stories, Judith-Rose Thomas

Tell Me Why, Archie Roach

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

Archie Roach (1956- ) is a much loved Australian Indigenous singer-songwriter. This is his memoir, read by himself in the kitchen of his home in Port Fairy – a fishing and now tourist/sea-changer village in Western Victoria – with his guitar in his hands. Port Fairy for him is home country, his mother was from nearby Framlingham Mission – his father was an Indigenous (Bandjalung) man from the NSW North Coast – and as he researches his life he slowly becomes closer to the people there, the Gunditjmara. A number of clans were aggregated at Framlingham, though Archie doesn’t look back that far, and many of them were then further concentrated at Lake Tyers, in eastern Victoria. Archie mentions that the World Champion boxer and country singer, Lionel Rose, famously from Lake Tyers, is his cousin.

One dark day on Framlingham/Come and don’t give a damn/My mother cried go get their dad/He came running, fighting mad

Mother’s tears were falling down/Dad shaped up and stood his ground/He said, “You touch my kids and you fight me”/And they took us from our family

Took us away/They took us away/Snatched from our mother’s breast/Said this was for the best/Took us away

Archie Roach, They Took the Children Away

Archie was about five. He was first fostered to an abusive family, whom he refuses to describe and then to the Coxes, Scottish migrants in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs. The Coxes had children of their own and then two or three Aboriginal boys. Archie was happy there and shy and studious at school. The Coxes’ youngest daughter, Mabel I think, taught him to play the piano and Mr Cox bought him a Hammond organ and taught him to sing Highland ballads.

But. At age 14 or 15 Archie received a letter at school telling him he had sisters, then living in Sydney, and his mother who had coincidentally been living in a nearby eastern Melbourne suburb, had just died, his father having died some years earlier. This jibed with occasional memories he had of a different life, in the bush, surrounded by brothers and sisters. Unable to deal with his feelings he turned first to the Pentecostal church he had already been attending, separately from the Coxes, and then struck out on his own altogether. He never saw or contacted his adoptive mother and father again.

The ugly truth at the heart of this story is that many Aboriginal people form communities around the excessive consumption of alcohol. This was true for Archie, for all his family when he finally caught up with them, and for his life partner Ruby Hunter.

Archie sets off to locate the sister who had written the letter; is derailed for a couple of years when a ride in a (unbeknownst to him) stolen car leads to his first stint in jail and then two years probation; gets to the boarding house address on the letter only to find his sister has moved on; and finally has his name recognised in an inner Sydney pub and is introduced to three of his sisters. He learns the story of his and their forced removal into ‘care’, about his wider family including his brothers, and his childhood nickname, Butterboy.

You will have to read this yourselves to get all the dates and places, but he lives with his sisters, the older ones move back south, lives by begging and odd jobs, lives for the next flagon or beer, leaves his youngest sister to fend for herself and moves back south to Melbourne, lives in tiny housing commission flats with his sisters and their partners and children, sings occasionally, country standards, joins up with his brother two or three years older, drinks, lives rough in the (inner suburban) Fitzroy area, specifically ‘Charcoal Lane’ near the old briquette works where I was living too at that time, in a tiny terrace house on Alfred Cres., and never saw a Black face.

Side by side/We walk along/To the end of Gertrude Street/Then we topple in muster for a quart of wine

Thick or thin/Right or wrong/In the cold or in the heat/We cross over Smith Street to the end of the line

And we laugh and sing/And do anything/To take away the pain/Trying to keep it down as it first went round/In Charcoal Lane

Archie Roach, Charcoal Lane

I forget the order now, but there’s a stint in Sharman’s boxing troupe touring eastern Victoria, where his oldest brother and I think his father had fought before him, more jail, moves on to Adelaide, finds a room with the Salvos and, still a teenager, meets Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman, from the lower Murray, east of Adelaide. Slowly forms a relationship with her that was to last until her death more than 30 years later in 2010.

Eventually Archie is persuaded to sing in public, in a talent quest, is heard by Paul Kelly and the result is his first albumn, Charcoal Lane and the rest of course is history. Archie and Ruby have children. Ruby begins to write and perform too. They battle alcoholism. Finally dry out for good at Indigenous clinics in Melbourne.

This is wonderful story, told with heart and enormous honesty by a wonderful man. Read it.

Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home/Crawled out of the bushes early morn/Used newspapers to keep me warm, then I’d have to score a drink/Calm my nerves, help me to think

Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home/There was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb/In those days when I was young, drinking and fighting was no fun/It was daily living for me, I had no choice. It was meant to be

Ruby Hunter, Down City Streets

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Archie Roach, Tell Me Why, Simon & Schuster, 2019. 384pp. Audiobook, 2020, read by Archie Roach. 10 hours

see also: Archie Roach Tell Me Why tour (here)

Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

Dark Emu (2018) has been well reviewed over the past two or three years, and as Lisa/ANZLL sent me my copy more or less at the beginning of that period I have been remiss in not reviewing it earlier. Pascoe, a man of Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage, of course uses this book to argue that the Indigenous people of Australia were much more than ‘just’ hunter-gatherers, but were in fact custodians of the land who built houses, sowed grain and had a pan-continental system of governance that allowed the various language groups to live largely in harmony.

The advantage of my review being late is that I will be able to incorporate some recent papers which argue that Pascoe has overstated his case. At the base of these arguments is a new book by “eminent Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and respected field archaeologist Keryn Walshe”, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021). No, I’m not going to read it, but the book has led to spirited reviews in The Conversation and in the daily newspapers. Pascoe has responded that he welcomes this debate.

ANU senior lecturer Christine Nicholls in her review in The Conversation of 15 June 2021 says that Sutton & Walsh demonstrate that Pascoe was selective in the way he used sources – the journals of early explorers – to imply that “all along Aboriginal people were farmers and/or aquaculturalists”, and that he deliberately failed to interview the few remaining people who have led or are leading, traditional lives [see for instance Two Sisters]. Though the two books are sometimes in agreement –

[Sutton & Walsh] portray classical Australian Aboriginal people as highly successful hunter-gatherers and fishers. They strongly repudiate racist notions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers as living in a primitive state. In their book, they assert there was and is nothing “simple” or “primitive” about hunter-gatherer-fishers’ labour practices. This complexity was, and in many cases, still is, underpinned by high levels of spiritual/cultural belief.

Nicholls

Right at the beginning of Dark Emu, Pascoe makes clear that his concern is the system 18th and 19th century anthropologists used to rank societies – with hunter-gatherers at the bottom, then primitive agriculturalists, then traders and so on. By ranking them at the very lowest rung, the British were able to argue that Indigenous Australians had made no attempt to take possession of the land and therefore it was technically unoccupied, terra nullius. The concept of living in harmony with the land, which is the basis of Sutton & Walsh’s argument, was ignored, or to be kind, not understood. Pascoe, understandably perhaps, attempts to make his argument on his opponents’ terms, attempts to show that his people were above that lowest rung.

Hunter-gatherer and farmer are both settler/colonial labels, and the long prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (as a justification for terra nullius)

Pascoe, The Age, 12 June 2021

Michael Westaway, an archeologist, also in The Conversation (18 June 2021), is open to Pascoe’s views and is testing them at the site of known village and Indigenous stone quarry in the Channel Country in central Australia

We have been working in a landscape that provides an important test of the Dark Emu hypothesis. In partnership with the Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation, who occupy the Channel Country in Central Australia, we have begun investigating Aboriginal settlement sites, pit dwelling huts (known as gunyahs) and quarries.

Our landscape study, published in the journal Antiquity, has found over 140 quarry sites, where rock was excavated to produce seed grinding stones. We have also developed a method to locate traces of long-lost village sites.

Were First Australians farmers or hunter-gatherers? Contemporary archaeological research suggests it’s not such a simple dichotomy. Understanding the Mithaka food production system may well tell us whether such terms are a good fit for defining socio-economic networks in Aboriginal Australia.

Westaway

Stuart Rintoul in The Age, in a “review” which illustrates perfectly why I can’t be bothered with mainstream media’s focus on personalities over books and ideas, discusses the background to the Sutton & Walsh book, and also the racist response of the right to Dark Emu.

And that is as far as I got before I left Perth last week to come to Melbourne. Now, the following Thursday night I’m sitting have tea waiting till it’s time to leave (due to boring logbook stuff) to go back home. If I don’t post this tonight then my next opportunity will be next Wednesday. I’m a big fan of Lisa’s Indig. Lit. Week and I’d be sorry not to contribute. I’m already sorry about not commenting, not to Lisa’s daily posts, nor to BIP’s prolific #ReadIndigenous series. I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do. Yes, I know we all do what we can, but I’m still sorry (sad).

As it happens, my current audiobook is Archie Roach’s memoir Tell Me Why. If you don’t know, Archie Roach is one of the great singer songwriters – I last saw him at Perth’s Quarry Amphitheatre, a wonderful venue and a great night – Indigenous, and of course, one of the Stolen Generation (here’s They took the Children Away). I’ll try and remember enough to review it when I get home.

So, back to Bruce. Dark Emu concludes with

The start of that journey [to equality] is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Stirring words. My impression is that Pascoe has put the advocate’s case, his people’s case, and has done it well, though probably with some understandable hype. He has certainly made the impression he wished and has in particular had some influence on how Aboriginal history is now taught. More power to his elbow.

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Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala, Broome, first pub. 2014. New edition 2018. 229pp.
Christine Nicholls, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, The Conversation, 15 June 2021 (here)
Michael Westaway, How our archeological research investigates Dark Emu’s idea of Aboriginal ‘Agriculture’ and Villages, The Conversation, 18 June 2021 (here)
Stuart Rintoul, Has Dark Emu been debunked?, The Age, 12 June 2021 (here)
Mark McKenna, Bruce Pascoe has welcomed the Dark Emu debate, The Guardian, 25 June 2021 (here)

Guwayu – For All Times

Magabala is the Broome, WA based publisher of Indigenous books, so when I picked this up at my local indie bookshop it was in expectation that this was Indigenous Western Australian poetry, but of course Magabala is Australian not just Western Australian and so Guwayu – For All Times (2020) is a compilation from all around. In fact the commissioning body, Red Room Poetry is located “on Gadigal country of the Eora Nation” which I guess makes it in or near Sydney.

Editor, Dr Jeanine Leane, begins her Foreword with:

Guwayu – a Wiradjuri word – means still and yet and for all times. Guwayu means all times are inseparable; no time is ever over; and all times are unfinished.

[Wiradjuri – central southern NSW (here)]

Red Room Poetry is a national not-for-profit which “has commissioned, published and provided platforms for First Nations poets, artists, students, Elders and communities to celebrate, strengthen and share our culture.”

The Australian literary landscape needs this bold, brave intervention to wake it up from the 232-year slumber and the dream of the settler mythscape. Guwayu breaks the silence-feel the beauty-hear our words. Feel the texture of the sublime vessels woven within this living, breathing archive of us crafted from the living literature of our words.

Dr Jeanine Leane

Let me start from the middle of the collection with a favourite author, Western Australian Wirlomin/Noongar woman Clair G Coleman who has an Aboriginal flag tattoo to make up she says for her skin being ‘you could pass’ pale

I wear a flag
I have it needle-stuck and inked
Up in my skin
My skin is a flag
Without the ink
Not flagged enough

Forever, Flag

Not all the poets are famous or even poets, Red Room have writing programmes for ordinary Indigenous people and for (ordinary Indigenous people who are) prisoners. There are no bios (there are bios, they’re up the back), so I don’t mean to imply the writers who follow are either ordinary or in prison. Many of the poems are written in Language with interpretations to English included or following.

Dyarrbabangunbuni ngimay
We will never grow weary or let our fire burn out
Burawangunla, naminmawawingun dara
Let’s move upward and show our teeth

The Wounded Brave, Joel Davidson, writing in Gadigal

The next piece, Bigger than School Stuff, is longish, six or seven pages plus three pages of “Author’s note” which begins: “I’m still not 100% sure if this is the proper way to publish this. It is not really a poem. It is a piece of oral history. And right now it is incomplete… I first told this story at Mparntwe (Alice Springs) in 2018. I told it sitting beneath a very old and sacred tree in what is known as Todd Mall.” Near the end the author says disarmingly: “I am pretty sure the spelling of some of these Central Arrente words are wrong; and the translation needs editing with my Aunty Ali Furber and perhaps others, but it feels like a good start.”

Everyone’s sitting on the carpet
except Latoiya, who’s sitting under a desk
holding her hair over her face

Ampe mape arle-le aneme
Latoiya anyinte
aneme desk-le akwene
ingerre artelemele artele

The story is that Latoiya speaks Arrente in class and Tyrone, a town kid, speaks gibberish back at her, shaming her, and ends with the author giving Tyrone a ticking off

Bruss, you not in trouble. Not like school trouble
This is bigger than school stuff
You got … we got responsibilities here
We gotta look after that language. Best we can. Ok?

Declan Furber Gillick

Australian singers Stiff Gins are in there, one short poem which wasn’t my favourite but here’s a sample

Long, Wanting
My edge, a blade
Slice through air, slice through air
No breath, no rain
Stay in wait and wait to fade away

Longing, Wanting

Another ‘famous’ author is Ellen van Neerven, who is I think the current Red Room Fellow. They have a couple of poems in this collection. I’ll skip over them but Brona has reviewed their poetry (here and here). Ok, there’s also Bruce Pascoe.

Let me finish with some (non-contiguous) excerpts from an anti-government rant, because that was always going to grab my attention

Big house, big lies, gubbna, white gubbament
Contorted melaleuca
Conveniently furnished with second-hand decadence

I have retained my identity, of that I am sure
Inheritance; dispossession, pain and poverty
Against the calls of a mixed-race progeny
While you were left to inherit the bounty of the colony

Architects of this great nation, nothing but glorified thieves
Terra nullius – no one here so we can do what we please
Genocide, massacre, they all hide behind the wall

Your monument to a foreign power and foreign queen
Built on land that was never yours and never will be
Peaceful settlement an even bigger lie to hide their crimes
How many dead, how many more sacrificed?

Dripping with Decadence (Big House, Big White Lies), Lorna Munro

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Jeanine Leane ed., Guwayu – For All Times, Magabala, Broome, 2020. 166pp.

see also:
Alison Whittaker, BlakWork (here)
Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella, False Claims of Colonial Thieves (here)
my Aboriginal Australia page (here). Book reviews are down the bottom
Lisa’s ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List (here)
Sue/Whispering Gums, Red Room Poetry Object competition 2014 (here)
Sue/Whispering Gums, Recovering Australia’s Indigenous Languages (here)

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, Anita Heiss ed.

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (online) (1).jpg

Late to the (ILW) party! Growing up Aboriginal got lots of rave reviews a year or so ago when it came out. I seem to remember I put my hand up for a giveaway and so received my copy, autographed by the author!, from Lisa. So a belated thank you Lisa and thank you too for Indig.Lit.Week which doesn’t seem to be replicated anywhere else in the blogosphere.

There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible. [Anita Heiss]

 The anthology consists of 50 autobiographical pieces, each about 5 pages, by people including some writers and sports people that I recognise and lots that I don’t. I enjoyed reading them but I struggled reading them, struggled with the lack of continuity. The standard was good, not uniformly good of course, but ranging from strings of ‘I did .. and I did’s to quite beautiful prose (and poetry).

My favourite piece might be the first, “Two tiddas” by sisters Susie and Alice Anderson who interview each other – on the difficulty of being Aboriginal and pale skinned, which a lot of the contributors discuss – and then start reviewing what they’ve written

S. Hey, I actually think this is a really strong arc but that could be because I’m tired as.

A. Well, I’m reading it back and I got really emotional. maybe I’m just really tired too. I feel like this is a conversation that could go on forever. This is literally a conversation that will go on forever.

But then there’s the rush of Evelyn Araluen’s writing in ‘Finding ways home’

In high school, Aboriginal didn’t mean time immemorial as much as it meant the boys calling me shit-skin and abo. Aboriginal meant I was always angry in History class, and fridge magnets and beaded bracelets at NAIDOC, and the digging stick in the study and nangarra above our door.

These two stuck with me over the ten days or so as I made my way through the rest. The standard by which all the others were judged. Dom Bemrose writes a letter to Australia –

Please forgive me for being unsuccessful with my suicide attempt at the age of twenty-three ..
Please forgive me for identifying as gay ..
Please forgive me for not being lazy: I know how you want your natives to want nothing but a free handout ..
Please forgive me for being a success! ..

The saddest, to contemplate if not to read, is Yúya Karrabúrra by Alice Eather who committed suicide between writing and publication. On the completion of her schooling in the city she returned to her mother’s community in Maningrida –

A lot of my friends I grew up with had had babies. There were so many different stories. The stories you don’t tell kids. The stories you hear when you’re an adult. That really shook me up. All I did was write … Why are all of our families in this state? What has happened? … Why was my brother in jail?

Eather trains as a teacher. She has put depression, suicide attempts behind her. “I can actually help. I can sit with kids and family members and say ‘I can feel your pain.'”

That’s a tough one to follow, but I read on. Adam Goodes, an absolute champion Australian rules footballer who was booed into early retirement by racist supporters writes a straightforward account of his childhood. I think he wishes he’d chosen soccer.

Most of these stories are by young people, in their twenties or thirties, so Doreen Nelson’s story, ‘Different Times’ is important for the contrast it provides and for the link back to the old days. Dooreen was born in the WA wheatbelt town of Kellerberrin (200 km east of Perth) in 1947 and she grew up on reserves outside Kellerberrin and the neighbouring township of Doodlakine. Limited schooling, her parents had none, a mother at 15, problems with alcohol, a child in care, slowly growing into responsibility and ordinary middle class prosperity.

Carol Pettersen is another older woman, though she doesn’t give her age, brought up in a mission and segregated from her siblings because her skin was paler, to protect her from the ‘natives’, like her bother, who were darker. Dragged away by the missionaries’ daughter from the fence keeping out her mother.

Western Australian writer Ambelin Kwaymullina provides the perfect summation –

People ask me sometimes if I experienced any racism when I was a kid. Questions like that always make me wonder where the other person was living. They seem to be speaking from some kind of magical Australia where it’s possible for an Indigenous person to escape the effects of racism in a colonised land..

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe.

Like most of you I was brought up in an Australia that believed it didn’t have a race problem. Even now I am surrounded by people who are offended when it is pointed out, yes we do. Those people are probably beyond educating, but hopefully schoolkids everywhere are reading and discussing this book.

 

Anita Heiss ed., Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2018

see also:
Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu Yala: To Talk Straight (here)
ANZLitLovers Indigenous Lit. Read List (here)

Not Meeting Mr Right, Anita Heiss

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

notmeetingmrright.jpg

Anita Heiss (1968- ) is a Wiradjuri woman, an academic and an author. I have previously reviewed her Dhuuluu-yala: To Talk Straight (here) on who should write Aboriginal stories, and plan hope to review her Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia towards the end of this Week.

As well as her academic work, Heiss has published a number of novels in the genre she likes to call Choc.Lit, ie. Chick.Lit with strong Black women protagonists. From the reviews I have looked at these are all as didactic as they are romantic. Not Meeting Mr Right (2007) was her first.

My younger daughter has been telling me off about using the expression Chick.Lit but I will leave her and Dr Heiss to fight that out between them. To be fair, I think that Gee’s concern was that men were too liable to characterise women’s writing as Chick.Lit. instead of engaging with their valid concerns about personal development and relationships.

Heiss’s mother is a Wiradjuri woman from Cowra in central NSW and her father was born in Austria. Heiss was born in Sydney and went to an eastern suburbs Catholic girls school. Alice, Heiss’s heroine, lives in the eastern suburbs, has an Aboriginal mother and an Austrian father, and teaches history at a Catholic girls school. That is not to say that Not Meeting Mr Right is autobiographical, but rather that it draws on her lived experience. At the time of publication Heiss, “who lives in Sydney, believes in love at first sight and enjoys being single!”, was going on 40. Alice, who lives in a flat overlooking Bondi beach, is 28 and determined to be married before she’s 30.

There is one other issue to be dealt with before I go on. And that is is that I sometimes find fiction by Australian Indigenous writers awkward to read, the most recent example being Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. That is, that the flow of the words doesn’t feel right. In one of the many teaching moments spread through this book, Heiss addresses this:

I’d always thought the written and spoken word were very different in the white world. It’s so obvious in their literature. Aboriginal writing is closely aligned to the spoken word. We write like we speak, and reality is, that’s how our people read too.

What she leaves unsaid is that spoken Aboriginal English has significant differences, in its rhythms as well as vocabulary, from what we might call received English. I feel this sometimes just within ‘white’ English, moving from city to country and from lit.blogging to truck driving.

Two months after her twenty-eighth birthday Alice attends a ten-year school reunion

I’d been a self-conscious teenager who never really fit in – me being a Blackfella from La Perouse and the rest of the girls whitefellas from Vaucluse and Rose Bay. A triangular peg in a round hole, I used to say.

These days, Alice, probably shapelier and prettier than her former schoolmates, doing well as a senior teacher, is made to feel inadequate in another way. All the others are flashing engagement and wedding rings, the talk is all weddings and babies (It doesn’t help that Alice’s mother is applying the same pressure). Of course Alice “loves being single”, but by the end of the night she has decided that she will find and marry Mr Right before she turns 30.

She calls a meeting of her friendship group and they come around immediately to begin strategising – Dannie, happily married with children; Peta, a serial dater, who does something high-powered in Indigenous Education policy; and Liz a lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal Service. The upshot is that she will do what it takes – blind dates, classified ads, attend professional gatherings … to get a man who is ‘single, straight and wanting to be in a relationship’, financially secure, shows affection in public etc, etc. but she will not ‘put out on the first date’, date friends’ exes, or get picked up in a pub. There’s also stuff about star signs, which I ignored.

There follows, over the course of 20 months, a series of meetings with men who might fit the bill. Her friends line her up, her mother wishes to line her up with her best friend’s gay son, her garbo turns out to have a degree in something and to be an altogether nice guy; she dates white guys, Indigenous guys, a Samoan guy – who is just getting into bed when she mentions Wedding Island on the horizon and he disappears in a cloud of dust; she dates a lilywhite guy who is sure he is black – if by dating you mean drinking till you black out and waking up on the floor of a strange flat beside a man you’ve never seen before; early on she dates a friend of Dannie’s who might be perfect but rejects him because his face is pockmarked with chickenpox scars. Yes, Alice is a lookist.

The teaching moments deal with how to introduce your Black girlfriend; ‘significant moments for women in Australian history’ (interestingly she has Cathy Freeman’s gold medal at the Sydney Olympics but not Evonne Goolagong’s 14 Grand Slams); other stuff I forgot to write down; not reading Murdoch newspapers (duh!).

A couple of guys are nearly ok. An awful lot of makeup is applied and gin drunk to not much effect. More desperation comedy than romantic comedy. But enjoyable.

 

Anita Heiss, Not Meeting Mr Right, Bantam/Random House, Sydney, 2007

Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

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Miles Franklin Award: read the list of winners and weep. Too Much Lip is not a bad book. Once it got going somewhere after the halfway mark, it even had me interested. But the year’s “novel of the highest literary merit”? What a joke. I have no doubt it was given the award by ABC-quality middle of the road, politically correct judges for exactly the same reason as they awarded The Hand that Signed the Paper, to show how cool they were. They were hip with right wing East Europeans back then – and only back-tracked when the right winger turned out to be an Anglo – and they’re hip with lippy Black women now.

Did the judges who gave Lucashenko last year’s prize even read Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth?  Of course they didn’t. They were in too much of a hurry to get back to the latest Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver. The Miles Franklin sad to say has become a reward for story telling and mediocre writing. Look no further than 2014 when Evie Wyld’s All The Birds Singing won ahead of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book which may well be the great Australian novel of the century.

So, Melissa Lucashenko is not literary in the way that Murnane, Wright or Kim Scott are, and she’s not satirical in the way that Marie Munkara is. But she tells a story. She is a Bundjalung woman of the NSW north coast, as is her protagonist Kerry Salter, and the patois in which the book is written is presumably the usual langauge of that people, though I’m guessing Lucashenko is an educated woman, as the patois sometimes feels a bit forced.

At the beginning of the novel, Kerry Salter, a 30ish Aboriginal woman, and her partner in crime and love, Allie have robbed a bank in Qld. Kerry escaped but Allie was arrested and gaoled. Allie feels abandoned and declares the relationship over. Kerry on a stolen Harley Davidson, with a backpack full of money, heads over the border to her family’s country in the hinterland of NSW’s north coast beaches.

Revving the throttle, she looked straight in front of her, down a long gravel driveway to the house that jack shit built. It huddled beneath the spreading arms of a large leopard tree. Same old fibro walls. Same old roof with rust creeping into a few more panels each wet season,

In the house are Kerry’s mother Pretty Mary, a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken, once a fine athlete, now an unemployed drunk, prone to unpredictable violence; his anorexic, teenage son Donny, who lives mostly in his computer games; Pop, her grandfather, dying now, a former Golden Gloves boxer and farm worker for the Nunnes, the original white settlers; and Elvis, their old dog. Kerry has other siblings, Black Superman a gay civil servant in Sydney, and Donna who went missing aged 16 20 years earlier and who has never been found. And there are various Uncles, Aunties and cousins in the surrounding towns.

There’s a silly plot: Jim Buckley the local real estate developer and mayor, sees the backpack on the back of Kerry’s bike and takes it for himself. Kerry stays on at her mother’s but despite being stoney broke makes very little attempt to get it back. There’s the central plot: Buckley has rezoned land he owns so that a prison can be built on it. The land for the prison is adjacent to a bend in the river and an island that has always been regarded by the Salters as their own. The race is on to get the surrounding land recognised under Native Title law or to get Buckley indicted for corruption before clearing commences. And there’s a parallel plot, Martina has been transferred from Sydney to work in Buckley’s real estate office. Martina was ambitious and successful in Sydney, but there’s another reason she’s unhappy to be transferred up north.

And of course there’s a love interest plot. Steve, a former shy, skinny schoolmate of Kerry’s now has the whole six-pack thing and is back in town to open a gym. Kerry, who forgets that she prefers women, and Martina, both get the hots for him.

This all takes a while to pull together, and there’s other stuff, a friendly local cop, the bogan white family next door, Pop’s funeral, Pretty Mary’s fortune telling. The novel gathers strength in the second half as the various plots come together, and as the effects of past traumas, White on Black, Black on Black, are seen to play out.

I have no doubt that the detail of Aboriginal lives lived on the outskirts of town, and the language used to express it, is authentic, but that doesn’t make it literary. In the end, Too Much Lip is not much more than just another middle of the road small town family drama.

 

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip, UQP, Brisbane, 2018

Other (more positive) Reviews:
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)

Every Secret Thing, Marie Munkara

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [NT]

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If ever you felt complacent about our decision as whites to live in this country, then read Munkara, who sweeps complacency away by telling familiar stories about ‘good’ settlers and shiftless Blacks from the Black point of view.

Yes we’re here now, but every decision we’ve made – from the early days, during all the Stolen Generations years, through the 1950s and 60s, when I think this linked collection of stories is set, right up to today with the Intervention, the ongoing denial of proper Land Rights, systemic racism in the Police Forces, the diversion of ‘Aboriginal’ monies to bureaucracy and white businesses, policies deliberately aimed at making it impossible for Indigenous communities to be maintained on Country – serves our interests and harms theirs.

Marie Munkara is of Rembarranga, Tiwi and Chinese descent. Born in central Arnhem Land she was sent to Nguiu on the Tiwi Islands at about eighteen months, then down south by Catholic missionaries when she was three. She now lives in Darwin, where she is doing a PhD. Every Secret Thing (2009), which is about a presumably fictional Catholic mission in Arnhem Land, was her first novel.

Munkara doesn’t appear to give out her age, and I haven’t yet read her biographical Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016). But it would be sad if she were the Marigold in these stories, stolen from loving parents, sent away as a baby to be bought up Catholic and trained for service, constantly beaten and raped by her employers, who finally returns to her family only to find she doesn’t fit in.

Over a series of linked and sequential stories we become familiar with the ‘Mission Mob’, the Catholic priests and nuns bringing civilisation and Christianity to ignorant savages; and the Bush Mob, the Indigenous Arnhem Land community who after millennia of relaxed, well fed lives, must be brought to eat flour and sugar instead of fresh meat and bush tucker, to wear clothes in the tropics, and of course to accept the Catholics’ strange pantheon of saints, virgins, spirits and gods instead of their own.

In an allegory for white settlement everywhere, over the lifetime of one generation, the Bush Mob goes from self-sufficiency to despair, disease and dependence. In the end, Pwomiga, one of the senior men, paints himself white and commits suicide to prove there is no life after death –

So began the slow downwards spiral of despair. It wasn’t long before Jerrengkerritirti with his unruly teeth joined Pwomiga because he didn’t want to be in that place any more. And young Seth not long after that. Then the grog came and the winding path of good intentions became a straight bitumen four-laned highway that led even deeper into a world of self-destruction and hopelessness that no-one knew how to fix.

But don’t get me wrong, this is at times a laugh out loud funny book. Munkara is at a loss to explain how these idiots, the Mission Mob, can plonk themselves down in the midst of a happy community, their assertions of superiority accepted or at least tolerated, using their authority to make everyone miserable. But she shows over and over just how ridiculous, how hypocritical they are.

Throughout, there is a surfeit of often good natured sex. The young men and women are at it all the time, two sisters seduce a priest, the priests put the hard word word on the nuns, priests of course take what they want, from girls and from boys, two boys wear their mothers’ dresses and take it wherever they can get it, there is an epidemic of overeating evidenced by the swelling of young womens’ tummies.

In a central series of stories, Caleb seeks a wife. A couple in a nearby mob have an unruly daughter, Juta, pregnant to the boss’s daughter’s fiance. Caleb marries Juta and his family adore their light skinned daughter, Tapalinga.

The mission have responded to the rash of mixed race births by seizing all the babies and sending them to an island mission, the Garden of Eden, to be ‘educated’. Tapalinga, too is taken, reappearing some years later as Marigold, in service since she was seven, flogged and unpaid, “lucky to have the boss fuck her because she was a diseased piece of rubbish that no-one else would want”. The Bishop had told her her mother was “on the streets” and couldn’t support her, but another girl recognizes her and tells her how to find her family. That girl falls into prostitution and dies but Marigold makes her way home only to find that Juta has closed that part of heart to cauterise the pain.

Munkara brings up one or two characters at a time and tells a funny story about them, until you feel you know them all well. But all the time, the Bush Mob is declining, accepting cast off clothes, surrendering their kids to the mission, giving up old ways. It’s a funny book and a sad book, but above all, an essential book.

 

Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing, UQP, Brisbane, 2009

see also:
My review of Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (here)

On Monday (19/11/2019) Jess White wrote that her work on the Wardandi Massacre (my review) has been included in the updated ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia 1788-1930’ map (here). Research for the map “reveals that at least around 8400 people were killed during 311 massacres that took place between 1788 and 1930. About 97 per cent of those killed were First Nations men, women and children. Stage 3 of the digital map project added 41 massacre sites in WA and 9 more in the NT.”

The Old Lie, Claire G Coleman

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If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*. [Wilfred Owen]

The Old Lie is a war story, framed by Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, of Australian soldiers, Indigenous Australian soldiers it turns out, part of a larger force fighting in the mud and ruined habitations of distant lands. Strange territory for Western Australian Wirlomin/Noongar woman Claire Coleman, but as we are learning, she is full of surprises.

Corporal Shane Daniels was lost, the grey uniformity of the sky and dirt, the rain, the muck, had rendered the flat, bomb-wracked plain featureless … Tangled barbed wire was a constant obstacle, tangling, tearing , hidden, trampled into the soupy mud …

A familiar opening for Australian war stories for a hundred years now. But in Coleman’s sure hands it becomes something else, becomes more. Yes, the treatment the protagonists, best friends Daniels in the infantry and fighter pilot Romeo endure bear out the justifiable bitterness of Wilfred Owen’s poem. But the story is also a metaphor for Aboriginal dispossession; for White settlement on Aboriginal lands; for Australia’s lickspittle subservience to Empire which led to the Maralinga atom bomb tests on Aboriginal-occupied desert land; for the stolen generations – the seizing and selling into institutional slavery of mixed race children; for the imprisonment of refugees.

No, I won’t discuss how the metaphor works, though that would be a pleasure with others who had read the book. And I won’t discuss this as a genre novel, which I could, and which I think Coleman does well. The Old Lie is clearly presented as literary fiction and that therefore is how it must be judged.

The underlying story is that Daniels and Romeo fill out the old trope of brave, anti-authority soldiers; fight their way out of impossibly tight situations; Daniels has family back home, Romeo finds a (saccharine) love interest. In another part of the war zone, a young man and a girl separately escape slavery and join forces with a foreign monk; find themselves herded in with refugees from the various fields of conflict; do their best to head for a near-forgotten home. William, a medic, wakes up in prison; is forced to assist his captors in their experiments. A strange illness follows the bombing of a remote city.

Unlike fellow Wirlomin/Noongar writer Kim Scott [and I assume there is a connection. The Coleman boys married Fanny/Benang’s daughters (here)] Claire Coleman is not particularly literary, but she is a great story teller. And she uses her stories to emphasize Aboriginal themes, in this case, particularly connection to country.

The red scrub, it didn’t even reach her knees, the red sand, that was home. She could feel it, hear the voices of her ancestors. Maybe it was Walker’s lessons … maybe it was her proximity to death, but she felt more in contact with her people, with her Country, than she had ever felt in her life. [Or ..]

He waited to die, he could not breathe, he smiled, he waited to die. His soul, what was left of it, would escape his body and return to his Country. There he would join his old people. His wife and kids would be there one day too.

The Old Lie is an old-fashioned adventure story, but also a story with a purpose, with an underlying theme. On the basis of her two novels I think it is fair to say there is always more to Claire Coleman than first meets the eye.

This is a very short review but Coleman’s story telling depends for its oomph on the reader coming upon the elements of the story in the order which the author presents them and saying more would put that at risk. Yes I liked it and I would recommend that everyone read it and discuss the issues it raises.

It ends without a resolution. Perhaps Coleman is planning a series.

 

Claire G Coleman, The Old Lie, Hachette, Sydney, 2019

see also: Terra Nullius (my review)


*It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, Horace (Ode III.2.13)

When the Pelican Laughed, Alice Nannup

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

When the Pelican Laughed

Sue/Whispering Gums mentioned recently that she was thinking about writing about “As told to’s” and whether that is/was/might once have been an appropriate way to publish Indigenous stories. It certainly works for non-writing sports people.

Readers my age might recall from their schooldays I, the Aboriginal by Douglas Lockwood, as told to him by Alawa (Roper River, NT) man, Waipuldanya, aka Phillip Roberts. When I reviewed it (here) four years ago I expected to find it surrounded by a great deal of dismissive commentary, but in fact it seems to be regarded as a quite faithful account, although expressed in Lockwood’s fluent journalese.

The story around When the Pelican Laughed is slightly different in that it is more recent, 1992 rather than 1962, Marsh and Kinnane were working on an oral history project about Aboriginal women forced to work as servants, and Alice Nannup knew Kinnane’s (Indigenous) grandmother. But there is another, much greater difference, and that is that the words are all Alice’s.

‘You, Wari, you’re lucky to be with us, because you nearly got drowned one time.’ This is a story my mother told me about when I was very young. She told it to me in language.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that it is important that oral histories be collected, but the author credited should be the teller not the writer. In this case all three are credited.

This book also brings up another much more important issue and one that Australians have nearly always swept under the carpet and that is, whether Aborigines were slaves. In The Great Australian Loneliness (1940) Ernestine Hill writes of pearling at Cossack (near Roebourne, south of Port Hedland and 1500 km north of Perth WA):

Nearly all the pearlers employed aboriginal divers… A bag of flour and a stick of tobacco bought a human life… From hundreds of miles inland the blacks were brought, men who had never seen the sea and now were to live and die in it. A dark sentence of history tells that when they refused to come voluntarily they were lassoed from horse-back, and dragged.

There was a form of agreement to be signed in Cossack… With a clumsy cross the natives signed their death warrants. Few of them lived longer than two years.

Alice Nannup, who was born in 1911, tells of her own position as a 19 year old on Ida Valley station 7 hours drive (maybe 200 km) from Leonora, itself a remote desert town 240 km north of Kalgoorlie in WA’s eastern goldfields (map).

Thinking back, I’d say Beeginup and Ida Valley were the two places where I was the most flat out. It was really terrible. All of us – Jess, Mary and myself – were just worked and worked. I was supposed to get five shillings a week there but they never paid me. They never paid any of us [and wherever she worked she almost never had days off].

This was on a ‘society’ property. “People would come from stations all around there, and the Bunning girls and Nellie Manford used to come up from Perth to have these big parties and play tennis.” Those were big names when I first came to Perth. Whether they still are I don’t know, though the companies bearing those names have been subsumed into others.

Alice was born on a station in WA’s north west, “Abydos Station, out from Port Hedland”. Her father was a small-scale cattleman, Tom Bassett though Alice didn’t find this out until after she had been removed to Perth as an 11 year old. Alice’s mother mostly worked for Bassett, though she moved around a bit.

My mother’s name was Ngulyi, that’s her Aborigine name… She was born on Pilbara Station, which is between Roebourne and Marble Bar and she belonged to the Yindjibarndi tribe. My mother spoke five languages as well as English – Nyamal, Palyku, Kariyarra, Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi. I spoke Kariyarra and Ngarluma the most, and, of course, English.

These languages belong to the Ngayarda group, around and inland of Roebourne, bordered to the south by the Yamaji, and to the east by the Martu, the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples (I learn as I go, so I hope I have this right. See a previous post (here)).

Wari (Alice) lived a quite happy life, an ordinary bush life with lots of cousins, at a time when all her people were station hands, until her mother was tricked into allowing a White family to take her south “to be educated” where they delivered her into the hands of the Chief Protector and she was held at Moore River, not educated at all, but made to work until she could be sent out into ‘service’.

Bassett came down and attempted to recover her, but he was soon thwarted from even visiting, and she never saw him or her mother again. This is where the question of slavery comes in. Of course Aborigines under the 1905 Act were not owned by individuals and so could not be bought and sold, but they were effectively ‘owned’ by the State. They had no freedom of movement; they had to work where they were told; if they were paid, it was a derisory amount, half of which was paid into an account held by the Chief Protector and which they could sometimes beg to be allowed to spend (on necessaries); and by Alice’s account they worked tremendously long hours, seven days a week. Late in her life, Alice discovers she had been the sole beneficiary of Basset’s will – £400 – but the money had been paid into an Aboriginal Affairs account, was lost, and they had made no attempt to tell of his death or of the earlier deaths of her mother and sister.

Alice mostly worked as a servant on farms, which involved both inside and outside work. The farms of course were all down south. The Chief Protector made sure that northerners only worked in the south and southerners only worked up north, to reduce the possibility of abscondment. Alice did in fact walk off Ida Valley and once picked up was able to resist any attempt to return her.

[A policeman] told us that Mr Neville had said we should go back to the station, and we should never have run away because it was dangerous. So we told the policeman how we were treated and that, and he said, ‘Well, I can’t force you, so you’ll have to come into Leonora.’

Here they found work until they were able to return to Perth. Alice knew Neville from having been a maid in his house, so she got him to give her a pass to go and work with a previous employer, but after only a few months, Neville wrote to her saying that Will, her boyfriend had the chance of a married position so she should return to Moore River, which was the only place he would allow Aborigines to be officially married.

They found work around Meekatharra but eventually settled at Geraldton, on the coast and began raising a large family through the Depression and WWII in a series of camps, shanties, reserves, and all too infrequently, reasonable houses, experiencing all the while both casual and official racism. Eventually she and Will split, I think Alice was a pretty forthright woman, and although she continues to live and eventually retire in Geraldton she is contacted by relatives in Roebourne and is able to reconnect and make peace with her past.

Towards the end of the book she is able to say,

… I had thirteen kids, they had forty children between them, and their kids have had forty six. So altogether that makes ninety nine. I have another great grandchild due in 1992 which will make it one hundred – and maybe I’ll get a telegram from the Queen.

Alice Nannup was a sober and abstemious woman. Originally C of E, she moved on when a South African vicar began discriminating against the Blacks in his congregation, and found a home with the Seventh Day Adventists. And if she didn’t get the material rewards she deserved for her tremendous hard work, she ended up secure in her culture and with an enviable network of family and friends.

 

Alice Nannup, Lauren Marsh, Stephen Kinnane, When the Pelican Laughed, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1992. Cover painting by Michael Francas (taken from a photo of Alice but with a background clearly of the country inland of Roebourne).

see also: My review of The Fringe Dwellers by Nene Gare (here), which is set in Geraldton. Gare’s husband worked in Aboriginal Housing, so Nannup knew him and was friends also with another Aboriginal woman working with Nene Gare on the book.