Enclave, Claire G Coleman

Claire G Coleman routinely reposts reviews of her books on Twitter (as does Nathan Hobby of his). She even reposted my recent review of her Lies, Damned Lies (via a Liz Dexter post). I think they’re both brave to read them in the first place!

But, CGC, don’t repost this one, I don’t think it’s your best work.

Not that I think anyone should be deterred from reading it. I loved Terra Nullius (2017) and I loved The Old Lie (2019). Indigenous.Lit and especially the current wave of women’s Indig.Lit, to which Coleman belongs, seems to me to be both innovative and full of life.

Like her first two, Enclave, which was released just last month, is Science Fiction, though falling easily within ‘Dystopian’ which all you regard as safe, not-really SF. But for me, this one did not flow as easily – the descriptions felt forced and there is a concentration on just one character – a privileged young white woman, Christine – where the other two had a wider cast.

She stared, half-blind,at the cold screen of her smartphone. Safetynet told her the news: updating her on the crime Safetynet and Security were protecting her from; informing her of the dangers outside, the bad people and dangerous criminals being kept outside the city Wall; of the terrorists threatening her life, buildings falling, people dying. Safetynet told her she had no emails…

Christine, a university student in the last year of a maths degree, lives at home with her parents and younger (year 12 ish) brother. Her father is on the committee which runs the walled city in which they live. Her mother, notionally a designer, is an alcoholic, one of the women who lunch, all plastic-surgeoned into near identical faces. The city is patrolled by black-uniformed security forces who live in their own walled compound outside the Wall. Servants, non-white of course, come in by train each day to do all the work. Outside the Wall is a wasteland of broken buildings and scrublands.

The news from outside is of wars, desperate populations, burning cities. No one travels.

Surveillance within the city is constant, by fixed cameras, inside and out, and drones.

A new year starts; her brother begins a Business course which will lead him into the ruling elite; Christine enrols to do her Masters. Her father buys her an apartment which she allows her mother to furnish. Her (platonic) best friend Jack has disappeared and she is lost without him; her mother encourages her to drink.

Coleman seems to have the trick of building the story up in one direction for a while, and then surprising us by taking it down another. This is more muted in Enclave but still, having spent the first part establishing Christine’s life of privilege, she then snatches it away.

Christine takes increasing notice of one of the servants, Sienna. They kiss.

Chill and heat chased each other up and down her skin, fought for the territory of her face.
The hand fell away from her neck. The mouth she would die for pulled away from hers and she chased it, almost caught it before it spoke.
‘Christine’, Sienna warned. ‘We can’t get caught.’

But they do, captured on cameras in Christine’s bedroom.

I currently have two other works of women’s SF on the go, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994). Piercy in a later Introduction discusses women’s SF at some length and I’m going to have to get hold of a written copy (mine is on Audible), before I write a review.

SF is quite often bursting with ideas, and that is true of Enclave, and the whole literary thing suffers at least a little. But Piercy and Ogawa both write smoothly, while developing the characters of their respective ‘heroines’ with some depth – often a strength of women’s SF compared with men’s. Coleman has interesting characters around Christine, but they are not fully developed and I don’t feel that she uses the resulting space to fill out Christine as much as she might have.

I’m also not sure what Coleman was trying to achieve by having a white heroine. Yes, she wanted, as she always does, to highlight racial inequality. But the depictions of Black-white relations are sketchy, and incidental to the main theme which is surveillance and authoritarianism. In my opinion her Indigenous heroines are more effective.

Enclave has two changes of direction, so is a novel in thirds rather than halves. The middle third is an adventure, a struggle to survive, and the last third is – well not a utopia as I’ve seen it described – but Coleman’s current home and my old home, Melbourne, as a model society (and CGC, I love the trains!).

A short review, but what can you do when any description of Christine’s progress must necessarily be full of spoilers. We’ve discussed before that books whose writing I found awkward (Lucashenko!) you found lively and real, so you’ll probably all enjoy this one too. You’ll certainly enjoy the ideas Coleman discusses. Ignore me and give it a try.

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Claire G Coleman, Enclave, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 307pp.

For a much more thoughtful review than mine try Alexander Te Pohe’s in Kill Your Darlings 14 July 2022 (here).

Lies Damned Lies, Claire G Coleman

ANZLitLovers First Nations Literature Week, 3-10 July 2022

I first really got to Indigenous Lit just seven years ago when WG persuaded me to read Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, which I would say now was an almost perfect introduction. Shortly after, a letter appeared in the West, our local newspaper – now a Murdochesque rag – which I reproduced and subsequently revised/expanded on as Pinjarra Massacre (1834). That began two important (belated!) streams in my blogging – reading Indig.Lit and documenting Western Australian massacres.

A year or so later when I got to Scott’s Benang, I wrote to him and he sent me some newspaper cuttings from which I was able to write up the Cocanarup Massacre. The central figure of that novel is the matriarch Fanny (Benang) of the Wirlomin-Noongar people. She marries a white sailor and they have a son and two daughters. Scott tells and retells this story over a number of books, each time with variations on the names, in one of which he discovers that Benang is his own great-grandmother.

Basically, Wirlomin country is on the WA south coast east of Albany , around the (small) towns Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun. Benang’s two daughters marry twin brothers, named Coolamon (in Benang) or Coleman. The Cocanarup Massacre, which is witnessed by Benang, occurs on the Dunn bother’s Cocanarup Station, west of Ravensthorpe, in the 1880s after John Dunn rapes a Wirlomin girl and is killed by her relatives by spearing.

Claire G Coleman appeared on the literary scene with the clever Terra Nullius in 2017. She is a Wirlomin-Noongar woman and a descendant of one of Benang’s daughters. She writes that “the Coleman name came from my dad’s grandfather, a free settler from Ireland via South Australia”, and later refers to her (paternal) grandfather’s mother Harriette, and grandmother Binian.

The place of my grandfather’s birth was said to be taboo. No blackfellas ever dared to go there these days, not for a long time, my dad used to tell me, too many ghosts, he said, too much death, too many bones in the ground … My dad told me that blackfellas drove through that town with their windows closed tight, not to breathe the air, not to get the bad stuff, the ghost stuff, on them.

For some reason, I had expected Lies Damned Lies to be a collection of facts about the settler project in Australia, but it begins at least as a passionate memoir: “I am furious about colonisation, that fury is perhaps all the qualification I need to write a book excoriating it.”

Coleman, born in the 1970s, grew up in Perth not knowing she was Wirlomin-Noongar, still not knowing when she left Perth in her twenties to move to Melbourne (Naarm). She was not/is not white – though she has written a lovely poem about ‘passing’, Forever, Flag – her father told her she was Fijian, a fiction begun by his father to prevent his children being taken away under the (WA) Aborigines Act, 1905. So her family weren’t Stolen Generations; she refers instead to ‘Hidden Generations’, people forced to deny their Aboriginality by the Aboriginal “Protection” laws.

My grandfather was so scared to lose his sons he hid us from the government by hiding us from ourselves; from our families; from our Country.

I see Coleman on Twitter. She is fierce, gets in lots of blues. Trolls for some reason respond to her by questioning her skin colour. She writes a chapter Not Quite Blak Enuff where she interrogates this: “There can be no doubt that all mixed-race Aboriginal people are a product of colonisation; and the attempt to define us as not Aboriginal enough is also part of colonisation.”

She writes else where that she automatically identifies with the underdog, but here are the three reasons she gives for identifying as Aboriginal
1. Who would you identify with? the bully/murderer or the victim
2. Pride in being able to identify with the first people, the ones who belong;
3. The colonisers were attempting genocide. “If I identified with my wadjela ancestry at the expense of my Aboriginality, the colonisers win.”

Colonisation, and to be precise, settler colonisation – the occupying of a land by settlers replacing the original inhabitants – is not an event, does not occur at one particular date, it is a process, a process which in Australia is ongoing. Coleman offer us the hope that if we cease attempting to take over, we might earn a place here in “a postcolonial society, a new Australia that is connected to Country”, born of a dialogue between wadjelas and First Nation people.

I’m not going to spoil Coleman’s novel Terra Nullius for those of you who haven’t read it, but is (surprisingly) dystopian SF. Coleman says all novels about the history of Australia are dystopian – post-apocalyptic for the original inhabitants. And writes further that the inspiration for HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds about an invasion from Mars was the invasion by the British of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and the near-genocide of the Palawa people.

Coleman uses the central part of her book to debunk myths; from the obviously ignorant like (former) prime minister Morrison’s assertion that Cook circumnavigated Australia; to the odd belief that Australia was first settled by ‘negrito’ pygmies (an hypothesis attributed to Tindal and repeated by Windshuttle); to the original inhabitants benefitted from being colonised (also Windshuttle); to ‘you were lucky it was the British’; to Australia Day, “an annual vitriolic and excited spasm of settler colonialism and white nationalism”.

There is a long chapter about Grog; depression; the Intervention; Grog bans enforced only on Black people; but this quote struck me: “Remember how well Prohibition went in the US. All it did was lead to organised crime. Already white crime gangs smuggle grog into Aboriginal communities, even the government knows about that ..”

Towards the end, Coleman writes: “It can be hard work being an Aboriginal writer, columnist, activist, it’s hard work and risky work sticking our necks out in this increasingly polarised, dangerous, and in my opinion, increasingly white supremacist society we call Australia.” But she sticks at it! This, she says, is her compilation albumn, a book of all her greatest hits from years of writing. Not as fierce as Chelsea Watego, but in some ways more thoughtful, offering at least the possibility of a way forward.

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Claire G Coleman, Lies Damned Lies, Ultimo Press, Gadigal Country, 2022. 270pp

Coleman’s latest novel, Enclave was released a few days ago. My copy awaits me at Crow Books. See my reviews of her two previous novels:
Terra Nullius (here)
The Old Lie (here)

Australian Genocide

Today, January 26, 2022, marks 234 years since, well, since a few shiploads of British soldiers and convicts moved their base from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour. That the foundation of Sydney is now conflated with the foundation of the nation of Australia is no surprise to the rest of us watching as a series of Prime Ministers, from Howard to Morrison, in defiance of the Constitution, increasingly live in and govern from (and for) Sydney.

And it’s probably fitting that a nation built on the lies of Terra Nullius and ‘peaceful settlement’ should now be blessed with a Prime Minister whose continuous lying has been so comprehensively documented.

One aspect of ‘peaceful settlement’ in white settler histories has always been that Indigenous populations just seemed to fade away, so that by the 1850s there were very few Aboriginal people left in (white) settled areas. This, ‘the passing of the Aborigines’ became both accepted myth and an excuse for inaction. The blame being generally ascribed to the introduction of European diseases, and despair.

In particular, Sydney and its environs were left wide open for white settlement by a smallpox plague in the local Indigenous population in 1789.

An extraordinary calamity was now observed among the natives. Repeated accounts brought by our boats of finding bodies of the Indians in all the coves and inlets of the harbour, caused the gentlemen of our hospital to procure some of them for the purposes of examination and anatomy. On inspection, it appeared that all the parties had died a natural death: pustules, similar to those occasioned by the small pox, were thickly spread on the bodies; but how a disease, to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers, could at once have introduced itself, and have spread so widely, seemed inexplicable.

Watkin Tench, Transactions of the Colony in April and May, 1789

It is now clear that this was an act of Genocide.

Here are the facts:

No one on the First Fleet had smallpox. Smallpox hadn’t been eradicated but vaccination (variolation) had been developed in China in the 1500s and introduced into Europe in the early 1700s.

No person among us had been afflicted with the disorder since we had quitted the Cape of Good Hope, seventeen months before.

Tench

The British weaponized the use of smallpox against North American First Nations people in 1763 (a decade before the great North American epidemic), giving blankets and a handkerchief contaminated with smallpox to Native Americans during an extended military campaign to quash an uprising against colonial rule.

“Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”

General Amherst, British Commander in Chief, North America (and later, Governor General)

A surgeon with the First Fleet, Dr John White, was carrying vials of smallpox (scabs, which were used for variolation).

It is true, that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles; but to infer that [the outbreak] was produced from this cause were a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration.

Tench

Whatever Tench supposed – and his protestations indicate that deliberate infection had at least been considered – some of the military with the First Fleet had served in the North America campaign and not all of them were as friendly towards the local population as he was.

In a paper in the international journal History of Psychiatry, Raeburn, Doyle and Saunders “describe evidence supporting the theory that smallpox was deliberately unleashed by the British invaders”; and that the outbreak began with the kidnapping of Eora man Arabanoo, on 31 Dec. 1788, using the distribution of ‘gifts’ as a distraction.

Following exposure to the smallpox virus, it takes one to two weeks for symptoms to appear. Our theory is the epidemic had been spreading for several weeks before the British became aware of it, and it may have originated from the gifts handed out when Arabanoo was kidnapped about 12–13 weeks earlier. This theory is supported by Aboriginal oral history from the Manly area.

Raeburn, Doyle, Saunders

This outbreak led to the deaths of between 50 and 90% of the Eora and related peoples in the Sydney basin. Being deliberately caused would make it just the first in a long chain of ‘dispersals’, poisonings, and murders by white Australian settlers and police.

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Nakari Thorpe, Olivia Willis, Carl Smith, ‘Devil Devil: The Sickness that changed Australia’, ABC RN, 18 Aug. 2021
Toby Raeburn, Kerrie Doyle, Paul Saunders, ‘How the kidnapping of a First Nations man on New Year’s Eve in 1788 may have led to a smallpox epidemic’, The Conversation, 12 Jan 2022
Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1. here) (2. here)


My usual focus is my home state of Western Australia, as you may see in my Aboriginal Australia page, (here) and in particular the section titled ‘Massacres’.

Another Day in the Colony, Chelsea Watego

It took me a while to realise that in teaching Indigenous anything I was meant to be teaching students to feel good about being a coloniser: that in my presence I was meant to be the site of absolution both for the institution and its students …

I was meant to teach them ways that they could save us, to redeem their unsettled self via sanctioning their continued control over our lives. I was meant to teach us as problems and them as solutions

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READ THIS BOOK!

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Chelsea Watego (Dr Chelsea Bond), Another Day in the Colony, UQP, St Lucia, 2021. 250pp. Cover photograph from Michael Cook’s Broken Dreams series.

Chelsea Watego is a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman born and raised on Yuggera country.

The Yield, Tara June Winch

Journal: 076

Since moving back to running up north I have settled into an easy routine – load Thurs/Fri, unload Sun/Mon, back in Perth Tues/Wed, for a round trip of about 3,000 km. Running over east I would do one round trip Perth-Melbourne, 8,000 km, every 3 weeks. So now, over 3 weeks, I’m running a little further and getting a bit less time off – though it doesn’t feel like it – and earning about the same money (but as I’m not always running as a road train, I am using a fair bit less fuel).

Over the course of a weekend I listen to about 20 hours of audiobooks, say three books a week. This trip just past (actually the trip before last by the time this goes up) I listened to The Yield, Max Barry’s wild Jennifer Government (thank you Emma), and Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Myself.

I originally wrote this post as a review, but as it’s mostly just me bitching about stuff, I’ll keep it between us and won’t put it up on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

Tara June Winch (1983- ) was born in and grew up around Wollongong, a steel manufacturing and port city 50 kms south of Sydney. She now lives between Sydney and France. So not a bush person then.

Winch’s father is a Wiradjuri man. Wiradjuri country is roughly contiguous with the Riverina region of NSW, which is to say the country we are looking at in Such is Life, the open grassland and semi desert country of the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers, north of the Murray, and the southern reaches of the Bogan and Macquarie Rivers (such as they are).

“The Wiradjuri language is effectively extinct, but attempts are underway to revive it, with a reconstructed grammar, based on earlier ethnographic materials and wordlists and the memories of Wiradjuri families” (Wiki). Winch acknowledges the actual people working on this grammar, but in her novel ascribes it to the fictional Albert Goondiwindi. (I don’t have a problem with that).

The Yield (2019), which won the 2020 Miles Franklin, is an exploration of Wiradjuri heritage and language through the eyes of a young woman protagonist, August, returned from London for the funeral of her grandfather, Albert Goondiwindi. August, now thirtyish, had been brought up by her grandparents, following the arrest and imprisonment of her parents on drugs charges, on the family property, a 500 acre wheat sheep farm on the banks of the (fictional) Murrimby River outside the town, and shire centre, Massacre Plains (also fictional).

The problem I had with the novel, which others clearly did not, is that it is based on learned rather than lived experience and the history is, as the author says, a composite of the average experiences of this sort of community. Still, it is well written, indeed innovative in the way Albert Goondiwindi’s Wiradjuri dictionary is woven into the text.

There are three stories, with different voices: a foundation story, set in the 1880s – ie. at exactly the same time as Tom Collin’s stories in SIL – told by the Lutheran missionary who gathered the Goondiwindi community onto one property; Albert Goondiwindi’s story of his childhood in the 1940s; and August’s story of her return to be with her grandmother and to attempt to save the family property from (tin) miners who are about to commence mining their land. There is also a further story running in the background, the disappearance of August’s sister, Jedda, as a child, which we hear of first from August then from Albert.

The one definite location we are given is that Massacre Plains is on the Broken Highway, which runs from Dubbo to Broken Hill (more or less horizontally across the centre of the map), shading from cotton farming, to scrub, to open desert capable of supporting only feral goats and pigs, and with, beyond Nyngan, and the cotton country on the Bogan, just two towns – the mining community of Cobar, and the run down rural community of Wilcannia on what is left of the Darling River.

My guess is that Winch was thinking of Nyngan for Massacre Plains, though there would be little chance of making a living off 500 acres there, and the nearest wheat farm would be further east or south. Maybe Nyngan has a modern, three storey shire office, it’s two or three years since I was last through there, but it’s a long way to the Darling, where Albert takes the local kids camping.

The names too, are puzzling. The family name Goondiwindi is from southern Queensland, and Jedda comes from the story of an Aboriginal girl in the Northern Territory (and Australia’s first colour movie).

I could go on but you get sick of my pedantry. And luckily for you, books that I listen to rather than read, I can only make notes in my head, and most of them I forget. Anyway, it’s only fiction you say. But that’s the point, it’s not. We are meant to read The Yield as representative of Aboriginal experience. I’m sure that it is, but compared with, for example, Marie Munkara’s visceral lived experience of colonial racism, Winch’s telling feels second hand.

A better comparison might be with Benang, Kim Scott’s exploration of his Wirlomin/Noongar heritage and his family’s experience of the actual, not invented (or “composite”), Cocanarup Massacre. Even leaving aside the magnificence of Scott’s language compared with Winch’s, the way he incorporates his search for identity into the text is clearly superior to Winch’s regurgitation/reconstruction of stuff she has read.

I’ll admit that as the story went on, August’s and Jedda’s stories in particular, I became more engaged. But did I like it, Melanie? No, not a lot. The problem (for my point of view) of course is that the Wiradjuri’s story needs to be told, and if not by Winch then who? But firstly, I think it could have been told better, and without the inconsistencies; and secondly, from memory, there were actual massacres, the Bathurst/Wiradjuri Wars for instance, which might better have illustrated her telling.

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Tara June Winch, The Yield, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2019. Harper Audio, read by Tony Briggs. 9 hours.


The map is of the rivers of New South Wales (I forget where I got it now). For scale, it is about 1,000 kms from left to right. Sydney is under the ‘River’ of Nepean River. The Great Dividing Range runs parallel to the coast and about 100 kms in, forming the eastern boundary of Wiradjuri country. The western/northern boundary would seem to be some distance east and south of the Darling.

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)