Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Ruby Langford Ginibi

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934 -2011) was a  Bundjalung woman from the NSW north coast. Last week I said Hetty Verolme (here) was the same age as my mum, well so was Ruby Langford. and three Australian women couldn’t have had more different lives. We just need a Toorak or North Shore matron to complete the circle, though of course there would be points of similarity as well as difference. So mum and Ruby grew up in rural communities, with not a lot to go round in those years before and during WWII, did well at school but left early and were soon saddled with young children.

Ruby’s oldest, Billy was born the same year I was and Pearl a year later. Seven others followed, to other fathers, and while mum and dad like most of white Australia, working class and middle class, began to leave post-Depression poverty behind in the 1950s, that was not true of Ruby and her fellow Kooris. Indeed, as I read this book there seemed to be many times until her children were all grown that she seemed to be going backwards.

Ruby’s mother and father separated when she was six. Her mother went to Sydney and raised a new family and it was a long time before Ruby regained regular contact with her. For a while she and her sisters Gwen and Rita were ‘mothered’ by Aboriginal clever man, Uncle Ernie Ord, then her father took them to “Aunty Nell and Uncle Sam in Bonalbo“. She lived an ordinary country life in Bonalbo, which she always looked back on as her home town, her father seeing them occasionally while working away, and a mysterious self-contained Aboriginal stockman who was sometimes in town turning out to be her grandfather.

Ruby describes herself as always having her nose in a book, and a good student but at 16 she left home to join her father and his new family in Sydney and began working as a machinist, sewing shirts. Of course she becomes interested in boys and is soon pregnant. This is a warts and all autobiography, an Australian classic, and another view of Sydney and NSW working class poverty which we are familiar with from the works of Kylie Tennant and Ruth Park. Ruby lists her husbands and we see each of them as real people, but they are also a type – rural workers without trades, drinkers, womanizers and violent when drunk.

At each setback, the man finds work fencing, burning off, labouring, Ruby establishes a home – in a hut or a tent – keeps the home clean, the children fed, pitches in with the outside work, has another baby (gets to spend 2 or 3 weeks in hospital) and then one day the man doesn’t come back, or comes back drunk and belts her.

I felt like I was living tribal but with no tribe around me, no close-knit family. The food gathering, the laws and songs were broken up, and my generation at this time wandered around as if we were tribal but in fact living worse than the poorest of the poor whites, and in the case of women living hard because it seemed like the men loved you for a while and then more kids came along and the men drank and gambled and disappeared. It happened with Gordon and later it happened with Peter [Langford], and my women friends all have similar stories. Neddy [Nerida, her best friend] and I have talked about it often as we get older, and how it’s not always different for our daughters and their kids, but those stories are for later.

There are glimpses of hope – that is I, the reader, thinks she may grasp an opportunity to move towards a middle class life – she is an early member of an association formed by Charles Perkins and is appointed editor of their magazine, but is gone before the first issue; and she wins a prize with a short story. But that is it, she descends into urban poverty and welfare dependence, her children start getting into trouble, Pauline dies, struck by a car, Billy dies next, Ruby begins to drink heavily and becomes morbidly obese. Another son is victimised by police, fires a gun, is beaten and charged with resisting arrest, is jailed, escapes, is recaptured, beaten etc. etc. On release he settles down, buys a house, the solicitor steals his money, he gets into fights, is victimised by police, fires a gun …

Ruby gives up the grog, joins a women’s group, starts writing, gets interested in Aboriginal affairs, in particular the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. As I have said elsewhere and as Ruby Langford documents here, Aboriginals have mysterious accidents when in the hands of police who of course are always found to be not at fault.

Slowly she becomes aware of Koori success stories as well as the failures. Her sister Rita has trained as a teacher and works in teacher ed. At the top of her list of books that shouldn’t be taught is We of the Never Never, Mrs A. Gunn.

Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988) made Ruby Langford a success story in her own right and she went on to honorary degrees and four more books. I hope I haven’t given the impression she had an unhappy life, she lived and – so she writes – enjoyed a life of considerable exuberance and love. If you haven’t already, read this book!

 

Ruby Langford Ginibi, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988

 

 

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False Claims of Colonial Thieves, Green & Kinsella

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John Kinsella is a notable West Australian writer and has been on my to-do list for some time, not that x-Mrs L was aware of this when she chose False Claims for me at our local indie book store, fortuitously across the road from our favourite pub. She also didn’t know or had forgotten that her brother had been briefly Kinsella’s teacher at Geraldton High when he was newly out of Teachers’ College. I would visit him when I was in town, in his share house of young teachers barely out of school themselves, strangers in a country town, clustered for warmth and protection, a scene multiply familiar to me after years of following my itinerant school teacher father around country Victoria. BiL doesn’t claim to have had any influence on Kinsella, though he is given credit by a later student, Kim Scott – a dedicatee in this book – for his taking up writing , for which we are all grateful.

About Charmaine Papertalk Green I know little, well nothing, but gleaned the following. She is a poet and artist born in 1962 at Eradu railway siding on the Greenough River between Mullewa and Geraldton on Amangu country and is a member of the Wajarri and Badimaya cultural groups from the Yamaji Nation of Western Australia. “Her books include Just Like That (Fremantle Arts Centre Press) and Tiptoeing Tracker Tod (Oxford University Press). Charmaine lives in Geraldton, rural Western Australia.” (ABR)

John Kinsella, born in 1963 in Perth, has achieved wider fame as a poet and writer generally and even a (short) wikipedia entry. Elements of his biography come up in this collection of poems, which are a reflection by the two poets on their experiences living in and around Mullewa, Geraldton, Western Australia. Kinsella’s father appears to have been a workshop supervisor on mines throughout WA before coming to “a millionaire’s farm” outside Mullewa as manager.

I know Mullewa well enough both from passing through on my way from Geraldton to the eastern goldfields and from visits as a tourist. It is a small town once an important railway junction and centre for farming, notable for its stone buildings and particularly its Catholic church, Our Lady of Mt Carmel.

Catholic church Mullewa
Our Lady of Mt Carmel, Mullewa

The church and its architect/builder Monsignor John Hawes (1876-1956) come up surprisingly frequently in the poems.

Hawes – God’s intruder:

Galloping in, bible and cross in hand/Hawes, God’s intruder/Altar stone of the earth/ Intruding on our barna/In the name of Catholicism/Bow your head and conform/For this is now the whiteworld. (CPG)

That priest, England in his veins,/converted the midwest diocesan vision/of souls gathered under one-roofs./A Spanish breeze drawn/under the arches. Mt Carmel. (JK)

It also helps in understanding the poems to know – from the Our Lady of Mt Carmel website above – that the Yamaji people didn’t attend the church but instead had services at a site outside town

Mass Rock is the intruder in our space
Mass Rock is not my significant site
My people’s campsite not Hawes’ space (CPG)

And it seems Papertalk Green shares my bemusement with the Catholic practice of praying to stone gods: A space for those to pray their sins away/Under the watchful eyes of icons and statues/Like civilised colonial pagans with gargoyle guards.

The back cover blurb describes the poems, which alternate irregularly between the two poets, as “call and response” but that is not completely accurate as they are more “variations on a theme”. Their main shared concern is the impact of mining on country

Grandmothers:

My grandmother was a mining town child -/Kookynie where her father was foreman/of the South Champion Mine. My father/worked for decades in Karratha and Kal -/so it’s not as if I come to the mines/without foreknowledge. But I can only/see them as the harrowing of Hell,/the opening of the land to release/what shouldn’t be released,/a desecration of spirit and place. (JK)

I am glad the only mining/She would have known was/From the rich ochre on her/Body and in her hair during/Ceremony time out on country. (CPG)

Papertalk Green writes also of things that are specific to her – the claims of pale skinned Indigenous people not being taken seriously: His skin is fair – no argument there/Lived as a Yamaji all his life/As a strong Wajarri man (CPG, writing about her father, I think), and words of warning to the Identity Police; drugs in her community, dealers, ‘needle teachers’. While Kinsella writes more generally about Western Australia – Mrs Dance cutting down the first tree; travelling with his parents; the Great Western Woodlands (the world’s largest remaining temperate forest); the tragedy of cutting down salmon gums which may predate white settlement.

Papertalk Green writes a jokey little piece about ‘yarning’ (telling stories) and Kinsella tops it, talking over her: How can I but take up the call,/Charmaine, and yarn right back at you -. Papertalk Green offers a space for reconciliation

Come on I dare you
Grab my hand
We can discard our
Protective robes of
Biases, superiority, stereotypes
Oh yes don’t look surprised
We both own those robes
You wear yours when you
Call me a black multhu, a gin, a black bastard
I wear mine when I call you a
White invading convict land grabbing multhu
Oh yeah we both got those robes
But that space over there
Will allow us to take off the robes
And stitch a new robe
To wear and heal together
On this land we both call home

There’s lots more. This is a lovely book, not just a new look at WA’s midwest, but a new attempt to define what it is to be Australian. I know I say I don’t like poetry but the truth is I mostly can’t be bothered concentrating long enough to read it, and this time I’m glad I did.

 

Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella, False Claims of Colonial Thieves, Magabala, Broome, 2018. Cover image: We Remember – Our Barna! by Charmaine Papertalk Green and Mark Smith. “This print tells the story of Geraldton’s foundation around colonialsim and its impact on the First Peoples – the Wilunyu of the Yamaji Nation.” 2016

Carpentaria, Alexis Wright

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Alexis Wright (1950- ) is a Waanyi woman of the “southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria”. For non-Australians the Gulf of Carpentaria is the big body of water in the north of Australia – between the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula – and the Gulf country is the land to its immediate south: largely unpopulated, flat, tropical, seasonal rivers, mud flats and mangroves.

The Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria (2006) made Wright’s reputation as a writer, but it is often mentioned that this is her second novel and I had to do some searching to find her first: Plains of Promise (UQP, 1997). She has also written some notable works of non-fiction, most recently her genre-busting (and large!) study of Tracker Tilmouth, Tracker (Giramondo, 2017).

Now I have to make an admission. I first listened to Carpentaria some years ago and intensely disliked it. Maybe I conflated Alexis Wright with Alex Miller but anyway I thought this was a white guy book, patronising and worst of all, magic realism. Since then I have read real magic realism from South America, not the fashionable, western wannabe stuff; sub-Saharan African spiritual realism; and above all, have made some inroads into the considerable body of Australian Indigenous Lit. with which we are now blessed, but particularly Kim Scott’s Benang (1999). So second time round I had a context for understanding what I was reading and of course found it marvellous.

The novel is set in the coastal township of Desperance, Qld which may be based on aspects of Burketown or Karumba. I wondered how personally Indigenous people in these towns took Wright’s depictions of them and their disputes, but Wright herself grew up in Cloncurry, 400 km south, not that there are any towns in between, so I guess her depictions are generic rather than particular.

We follow the lives of town elder Normal Phantom, his wife Angel Day and their son Will. Not linearly but swirling backwards and forwards in oral story telling fashion – much enhanced by the choice of Noongar actor Isaac Drandich to do the reading – to pick up aspects of the story that might have earlier been glossed over, as we slowly build up to the confrontation between Indigenous forces supporting Will Phantom and the local Big Miner, and the subsequent fall-out.

Indigenous Lit. has an element of looking at white middle class life from ‘underneath’ – Marie Munkara’s sardonic depictions of Darwin bureaucrats for  example – which gives a new aspect to our view of ourselves in general and to the myths of the Australian bushman in particular. Not just the casual, and not so casual, violence, but the self-interested decision making. Terra Nullius has an entirely new meaning when seen from the point of view of the people of whom the Land was supposedly Empty.

But Indigenous Lit. also has elements which are entirely its own. Country which lives. Fauna seemingly sentient and effective. Carpentaria begins:

The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously – if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of tears ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Norm Phantom and Angel Day, not able to live in the township proper, build themselves a ‘castle’ in the pricklebush, outside the town limits, from scraps salvaged at the tip; raise a family of three boys, Will is the third, three girls and one more boy, Kevin, intelligent, lively, inquisitive, damaged in a mine accident and murdered by young white men playing out KKK fantasies. Norm is at odds with a rival faction led by old Joseph Midnight, from different country and so they end up westside mob, Norm’s lot, and eastside mob, on opposite sides of the town.

We find Norm older, Angel Day gone off with the preacher Mozzie Fishman who leads a convoy of followers in battered cars, his two older boys in secure employment with the mine, Will unemployed with a reputation for rebellion – a reputation whose slow unfolding is the core of the novel – estranged from his father, and as we discover eventually, partnered with Hope, old Midnight’s granddaughter and with a son, Bala. The daughters, abandoned by their men, home again, caring for Kevin.

An old man appears from the sea, walking in over the mud flats, amnesiac, given the name Elias Smith, is befriended by Norm and spends long days with him, out on the Gulf, fishing. When trouble comes he takes Hope and Bala in his dinghy, disappears into the mist. Reappears dead, sitting up in his boat with bags of ocean fish, floating in an inland lagoon. Discovered by Will and Fishman.

White men occupy the peripheries of the story, the policeman, Truthfull, growing fat, sleeping with Norm’s daughter, the only way to get him out of the house; Stan Bruiser, former snake oil salesman made good, now cattleman and town mayor: “If you can’t use it, eat it, or fuck it, it’s no use to you… everyone in town knew how he bragged about how he had chased every Aboriginal woman in town at various times until he ran them into the ground and raped them.” That this is sayable, writeable, over and over, not just by Wright, but by writers black and white, from Rosa Praed onwards is an indictment of the redneck North, of Queensland, of Australia. Of all of us.

But the real villain is Gurfurrit, the mining company, fiercely, murderously protective of its rights. And the most telling part of the story is the light that comes into the men’s eyes when they realise that they have taken on the mining company and won. One win after two centuries of defeats.

The most important part of this book is the writing, which is outstanding, but it also a confronting, unmissable story of love and eco-terrorism and life in the far north.

 

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria, Giramondo, Sydney, 2006. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2006, read by Isaac Drandich. 520pp/19.16 hours

see also:
Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
my review of Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s Indigenous Reading list (here)

Wardandi Massacre

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John Molloy

The Wardandi are the language group within the Noongars whose home territory in south western Western Australia encompasses the coastal land from Bunbury south to Cape Leeuwin (map). The region was most famously settled (ie. commandeered) by the Bussell family, in 1839, but among the original white settlers were John Molloy and his now well-known wife Georgiana.

Jessica White, who is writing an ecobiography of Georgiana Molloy (here), wrote in her end of year (2017) mailout:

I had an essay published in the Journal for the Association of the Study of Australian Literature on my research on John Molloy’s role in a massacre in 1841. This involved painstakingly piecing together accounts in the archives and newspapers, and attending to the language that was used.

and it is this essay and her account of the massacre and its subsequent denial that I wish to review.

The events leading to the massacre(s) began on 22 Feb, 1841. Some Noongars were employed in threshing wheat on the farm of Molloy’s neighbour George Layman, and some Noongar women were employed in the house. A dispute arose over payment (in damper) and Noongar man Gayware approached Layman. Layman grabbed Gayware by the beard and shook him, Gayware speared him and Layman struggled inside and died.

Molloy, as local magistrate, raised a party of settlers and workers (one account says ‘soldiers’), pursued and surrounded the Noongars, killing seven, and then subsequently pursued a larger body of Noongar north towards Bunbury where many more were killed around ‘Lake Mininup’. (Wonnerup, Layman’s property, is a few kilometres north of present-day Busselton and Minninup another 15 km or so up the coast.)

White has put together her account from newspapers, diaries, official records and Noongar oral histories. She writes:

As I pieced together these documents and attended to their language, I realised that the massacre had been depicted in such a way as to obfuscate John Molloy’s role. I also came to understand that this role had been covered, uncovered and contested over the ensuing years.

The earliest contemporary ‘account’ is the diary of Frances Bussell which records on the evening of 27 Feb, “Captain Molloy drank tea here. 7 natives killed.” Any further information is lost as the pages from 5 to 25 Feb have been torn out.

A newspaper account, in the Inquirer of 10 Mar 1841 (here), of the initial reprisals following the death of Layman states that “five or six natives were shot to death. Unfortunately the actual murderer was not amongst the killed.” And interestingly, “It is certainly to be regretted that any native, not being the actual murderer, should have been slain in the encounter; but supposing all that we hear to be correct, the result is at least excusable if even not justifiable.” This account follows Molloy’s official report that he acted after hearing threats against himself by Gayware while he was observing a Noongar campfire from a position of hiding.

The most graphic account of the second part of the massacre is in Warren Bert Kimberley’s History of Western Australia (1897):

Colonel (sic) Molloy ordered his soldiers to prepare to march, and he took command of them and the chief settlers in the south-western districts. He gave special instructions that no woman or child should be killed, but that no mercy should be offered the men. A strong and final lesson must be taught to the blacks. All were well armed. Into the remote places this party went, bent on killing without mercy…  Isolated natives were killed during the first few days, and, so it is said, some women among them, but the main body had hidden from the terrible white men. A few parties fled from the threatened districts to the southern coast, and escaped. The majority hid in the thick bush around Lake Mininup. Although several natives were killed, the settlers and soldiers were not satisfied… Here and there a native was killed, and the others seeing that their hiding place was discovered fled before the determined force. They rushed to a sand patch beyond Lake Mininup…  The soldiers pushed on, and surrounded the black men on the sand patch. There was now no escape for the fugitives, and their vacuous cries of terror mingled with the reports of the white men’s guns. Native after native was shot, and the survivors, knowing that orders had been given not to shoot the women, crouched on their knees, covered their bodies with their bokas, and cried, ‘Me yokah’ (woman). The white men had no mercy. The black men were killed by dozens, and their corpses lined the route of march of the avengers.

James Battye (after whom our principal library is named) in Western Australia: A History (1924) attempts to excuse all the bones at Lake Mininup:

In 1841 there occurred an incident which, if true, can only be described as an act of atrocious cruelty and savagery on the part of some of the settlers in the south west … An avenging party under Captain Molloy set out and, it is said, ultimately succeeded in surrounding the whole body of natives on an open sand patch …

No records of the encounter exist, and it is more than likely that it has been built up to account for the collection of bones, which in all probability represents an aboriginal burial-ground…

White’s is an excellent account of how Molloy in particular but officialdom in general used weasel words and indirect language to obscure what even the newspapers called “not justifiable” killings. Let us leave the last word to an oral history collected by Whadjuk/Barladong scholar Len Collard in A Nyungar Interpretation of Ellensbrook and Wonnerup Homesteads (1994):

“The first mob was caught, was just the other side of the Capel River (Mollakup). When I was a little boy we found some skulls up there. One of them had a bullet in it, it had gone through the forehead and just sticking out the back. There was quite a few with holes knocked in them in the skulls and the next mob they caught was at Muddy Lake (Mininup) that’s this side of Bunbury and then they chased the other right through Australind somewhere around Australind area they caught up they killed some more there and the rest got away.”

Molloy of course was never brought to account for the murders that occurred under his command, and over time his role was ‘forgotten’, not least by Georgiana Molloy’s biographers. Happy Black Armband Day.

 

Jessica White, ‘Paper Talk’, Testimony and Forgetting in South-West Western Australia, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 2017/1 here

see also my posts on The Cocanarup Massacre (here) and the ‘Battle’ of Pinjarra (here)

I’m not sure this massacre has an ‘official name, though it appears in at least some (recent) accounts as Wonnerup Massacre. Googling “Wardandi Massacre” brings up a lot of information on this and other massacres.

Taboo, Kim Scott

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The biggest issues we face today are the flat-lining of the Australian and most western economies after decades of neo-liberal pro-market, anti-worker policies; and the refusal of right-wing politicians to allow even the possibility of a consensus for dealing with global warming.

Yet the biggest, the dominant issue in Australian Lit. is clearly what it means to be an Australian – Anglo, Indigenous, or otherwise – in this land we whites stole from its Indigenous inhabitants, the oldest continuing civilization on Earth. And which by the way, we continue to steal by all the artificial constraints State and Federal governments put around Native Title determinations when the graceful thing to do after the Mabo judgement would have been to declare all Crown land Indigenous and to negotiate with the traditional owners using that as the starting point.

This blog was started to investigate notions of Australianness, so I would say that, but look at who is prominent in Aust.Lit today and what books are receiving the most attention. None is about the failure of the welfare state or the casualization of work or the disappearance of free education or the obscene wealth of the very rich, and very few are about climate change. It is a subject for another post, the question of which writers at the height of their powers today, clearly stand head and shoulders above their fellows, but I would suggest three names, Kim Scott, Alexis Wright and Chris Tsialkos, and two of those are Indigenous and the third, Tsialkos is concerned to investigate Australianness from his own non-Anglo, non-straight background.

Taboo (2017) is both personal for Kim Scott and political. Personal in that it is a continuation of his exploration of his roots as a Wirlomin Noongar man, a sequel to the story he began telling in Benang (1999), and political in that he uses the return of the Wirlomin to the site of the Cocanarup Massacre and the reaction of the current (fictionalised) owners of Kocanarup Station as a metaphor for how whites of good intentions everywhere struggle to recognise the depth of the ongoing harm that they are party to.


Noongar: those Indigenous people whose country is all the south-western portion of Western Australia (from south of Geraldton to west of Esperance).

Wirlomin: the south-easternmost of 14 language groups making up the Noongar. Their country is centred on the present-day towns of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.

For maps of Australian Indigenous language groups see the ‘Aboriginal Australia’ page above (or here). The AIATSIS map labels the Wirlomin region as ‘Minang’.


And finally, that cover. I have no religion, nor any thoughts about spiritualism or life after death, and I hope that when I am dead my body is rendered into compost. But that doesn’t mean that I think images of dead people should be used as decorations on book covers. And given the enormous efforts of Indigenous people over a long period to have the bones of their ancestors returned from museums and given a proper burial, I think it is doubly inappropriate that a skull should be used in this way an the cover of this book.

In fact, despite my great age and years of long-distance truck driving, I have not only never seen a dead person, I avoid seeing people killed on film or television (I certainly don’t find it entertaining!), and have never been the first or even an early attender at a traffic accident, except of course the ones I’ve been in myself. Which is by way of a lead in to the first (and last) scene in the book: a truck loaded with grain loses its brakes at the top of the short steep hill at the eastern end of Ravensthorpe’s main street, gathers speed, missing pedestrians and cars, looks headed towards the roadhouse at the bottom of the hill before veering to the right, towards the creek where, “slowed at last by deep, coarse sand”, it falls slowly onto its side. And as grain pours from the beached tipper trailer, there appears gradually … “Something like a skeleton, but not of bone. At least, not only bone. The limbs are timber. The skull is timber too, dark and burnished, and ivory dentures …”

Except here Ravensthorpe is called Kepalup (in Benang it was Gebalup), Hopetoun 30 km south on the coast is Hopetown and Albany, the main regional centre, 300 km west along the WA south coast, is King George Town (as it was in That Deadman Dance). Other nearby towns, Esperance and Lake Grace for example, keep their names and Perth is just the City. Kocanarup is now owned by the overtly Christian Hortons – Dan, a widower and his brother Malcolm. In the 1880s, at the time of the massacre, it was owned by the Dunns (Dones in Benang).

Dan Horton’s late wife Janet had been a prime mover in the establishment of a ‘Peace Park’ at Kepalup (which may stand in for the Kukenarup Memorial which overlooks Cocanarup Station, 15 km west of Ravensthorpe). A party of Wirlomin, mostly elderly, mostly from King George Town, camp at the Hopetown caravan park by the sea for a retreat, for some of them to dry out, to prepare for the official opening of the Peace Park.

Tilly, the central character is a student at a private girls school in Perth, on scholarship. She is the daughter of a white mother and a Wirlomin father, Jim who has recently died in jail where he had been leading the revival of Wirlomin language and culture. As a baby, till reclaimed by her mother, she was the foster daughter of Dan and Janet Horton.

Tilly comes down on the bus to Lake Grace where she is met by her father’s cousins, twins Gerald and Gerrard Coolman – descendants of the Coolamons of Benang – one who had been in jail with her father and is now dry and a leader of the Wirlomin revival and one who is not, and they continue on to Kokanarup, to meet Dan Horton and to walk around the vaguely defined sites of the massacre up till now treated as taboo. After a night as guests at the Station they go on down to Hopetown and meet up with the others for the retreat.

All the people are carefully, lovingly even described and we get to know them as they tentatively reclaim the language that was forbidden to them when the older ones were sent away “to the mission” as children, and nearly lost, and as they slowly reclaim the springs and creeks and hills and stones of the massacre site. And so Tilly, by upbringing and education a stranger but still a loved family member, learns the words and sites of her people as Scott must have done too when he began the long journey whose beginning is described in Kayang and Me.

For a while, the middle section of the book, we go back. Tilly starts seeing her father, dying in jail, runs away from her mother, gets in harm’s way, is rescued. A malign presence, a large white man, is in her life, in her nightmares, in the lives of many of the people. And in the third, final section he’s in Kepalup.

Benang, in particular, was a poetic work. Taboo is much more plainly written, but that is also its power.

 

Kim Scott, Taboo, Picador, Sydney, 2017

see also:
The Cocanarup Massacre, my post based on Kim Scott’s source material (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review of Taboo (here)
My reviews of Kim Scott’s earlier works –
True Country, 1993 (here)
Benang, 1999 (here)
Kayang and Me, 2005 (here)
That Deadman Dance, 2010 (here)

Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman

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The doctrine of Terra Nullius was the ex post facto justification for British settlement in New Holland (Australia); basically, the continent was regarded for legal purposes as uninhabited. That it was occupied by and subject to the laws of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for tens of millenia was not accepted into Australian Common Law until the Mabo decision of 1992 – a decision which ‘conservative’ governments have been at pains ever since to read as narrowly as possible in order to protect the interests of the miners and graziers who are their principal constituency.

Claire Coleman, the author of this recently released fictional exploration of the doctrine, identifies as Noongar, the indigenous peoples of the south west corner of Western Australia, where Terra Nullius is set. This is her first novel, written while travelling around Australia in a caravan according to this interesting profile (here).

Coleman, like multi-award winning author Kim Scott, is specifically of the people of the Ravensthorpe/Hopetoun region [the Wilomin] and in the interview references a memorial acknowledging the massacre of her family’s ancestors near Ravensthorpe (see my post The Cocanarup Massacre, here) which is also important in Scott’s writing, particularly Benang and Kayang and Me (reviews here and here).

The writer she most reminds me of though is not Scott but Charlotte Wood. Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (review here) is almost a parable, timeless, although probably in a near future, and placeless, set in a generic ‘outback’. As well, the writing of both has a certain flat, unemotional quality suited to the dystopian scenes each is describing.

“The best way to sneak in a statement without people realising is through sci-fi. The best novels are controversial. I wanted to make a connection, so that people sitting on the edge will fall off it.” (Coleman)

The first half of Terra Nullius feels as though it is set a hundred years or more in Australia’s past and it is not until we are half way through that we are made to realise that it is not. Likewise the scrub country which is the novel’s setting has no real place. Perth and the small town of Jerramungup (half way between Albany and Esperance in southern Western Australia) are the only towns mentioned, but they are not important; and the scrub country of the novel borders on the desert, although Jerramungup is in reality separated from the Western Desert by hundreds of kilometers of scrub and temperate woodlands.

The novel consists of a number of stories, told in parallel, which gradually come together [the pedant in me struggles with parallel stories converging]. Jacky runs from a Settler farm where he had been working for no wages and was unable to leave, ie. was a slave. He has only vague memories of being taken from the bush as a child to a mission where he was trained for servitude. Sister Bagra runs the mission:

Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them… Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.

The Head of the Department for the Protection of Natives, known to everyone only as Devil, finds “nothing to like about the job except the satisfaction he received from helping the Natives to help themselves. Natives raising their own children to the primitive ways they lived before he came was unacceptable, they would have to be elevated.”

Esperance runs a camp in the scrub on the edge of desert, her ‘hut’ a single sheet of corrugated iron, her people a motley collection united only in being pushed off their lands by the advancing Settlers.

Sergeant Rohan makes up a party of young Settlers to recapture Jacky, none of them competent trackers, and always on the edge of running out of water as they struggle from one reported sighting to the next.

Jacky finds his way to the mission, breaks in, not for food although he is starving, but for information. A young nun comes on him in the dark, tells him to head east, that he was taken from Jerramungup.

Two young nuns appear to be defying Sister Bagra. Someone has written to the authorities to inform them that Native children reported as absconded may have been mistreated and died. An investigator is coming from ‘home’.

A trooper takes part in a massacre:

Johnny was with them as they chased the terrified, fleeing survivors, in the almost dark, in the glowing red light of scattered coals from campfires, in the light from burning humpies. Some of the Native men grabbed their primitive arms and tried to fight back but men with ancient weapons cannot stand against men with modern guns. They were gunned down… Johnny ran with others of his troop, guns empty – who could be bothered reloading? – running buoyed by their laughter, knives in hands slitting throats and piercing bellies.

but is sickened, as well he might be, and deserts into the bush, meeting up with and being accepted into a party of Native marauders.

Johnny gets ill, is left behind by his mates. Jacky, still heading vaguely east but with no idea of where he is, comes upon Johnny, spares his precious water to revive him.

In her review, Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here) writes, “Always have faith that an author knows what she’s doing! As the novel progresses there are odd little incongruities here and there, details that seem like mistakes that an editor should have picked up, until about half way through the novel when the penny drops and the reader’s assumptions fall away…”. What else can I say, except: Well done! Claire Coleman, long may you produce novels as good and original as this one.

Let Johnny, the renegade, have the last word: “Stealing something to eat, that is a crime that would get me flung into jail. Stealing everything, that is just good government.”

 

Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette, Sydney, 2017

 

 

The Swan Book, Alexis Wright

2017 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

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Waanyi, Gulf of Carpentaria woman Alexis Wright (1950 – ) is older than I am, which is to say retirement age, but The Swan Book (2014) is only her third novel. Her second, Carpentaria (2006) won the Miles Franklin. I listened to it a few years ago, but didn’t like it, found it an uncomfortable combination of standard outback story-telling and magic realism. I commented on this after a Whispering Gums post and she, Sue got me started on Indigenous Lit, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance first-up, until now I have a much better idea of how Indig.Lit works – and the crossovers between spiritualism and magic realism in non-Western Lit generally – and anyway I think now I probably confused Wright with white Australian author Alex Miller, and that shaped my expectations.

The Swan Book is a great, swirling confusion of words that gradually coalesces into the story of Oblivia, an Aboriginal girl, mute after being raped, living in a coastal swamp in northern Australia, some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars.

Through this cyclone of words drift scraps of the local, Waanyi language, lines of old songs, phrases from books and poems about swans, sly digs at the language of Indigenous Affairs – ‘Intervention’, ‘Closing the Gap’.

Here are the elements from which we may construct a story: Oblivia’s people are the caretakers of country which includes a vast lake; the armed forces tow a flotilla of old and wrecked ships into the lake and abandon them there, to be used for target practice by the airforce; great dust storms close the channel to the sea and turn the lake to a swamp; Oblivia sleeps for decades in the bowels of an old eucalypt until she is rescued, still a young girl, by Bella Donna, an old refugee woman from Europe, and taken to live in a hulk in the middle of the lake; the army fence the lake, turn it into an internment camp, the better to protect the children.

An elder, a healer for the country arrives, a wululuku, “an Aboriginal man with an Asian heritage … a half caste, yellow fella, or mixed blood urban Aboriginal … Someone with special healing powers who travelled anywhere he was needed, just by thinking himself into a sick person’s mind”, the Harbour Master.

Bella Donna in her travels has seen all the types of swans, was led to safety by a white swan, swaps swan stories with the Harbour Master, carries books of swan stories which she reads to Oblivia. Black swans come up from the south and settle on the shores of the swamp.

The old man and woman daydreamed themselves into every swan image on earth, and off they went again. There they go – la, la, la, the wild girl Oblivia whinged under her breath, excluded from entering their world of knowledge.

The drought ends, the sand is blown away, the Harbour Master departs, Bella Donna dies, Oblivia lives on in the hulk. In a neighbouring community, the Brolga Nation, golden boy Warren Finch is being trained for leadership.

Twenty years later Warren is a modern Moses,  a saviour, deputy President of Australia, solving problems around the world:

He was the lost key. He was post-racial. Possibly even post-Indigenous. His sophistication had been far-flung and heaven sent. Internationally Warren. Post-tyranny politics kind of man.

He comes to the swamp to claim Oblivia as his promised bride. They make a journey through the desert, escorted by bodyguards who are natural scientists, cataloguing wildlife – owls and snakes living on a plague of rodents. Warren in constant contact with the world through his mobile phone, until at last they leave behind their vehicle, leave behind the bodyguards, take a small plane from a remote outpost to a crumbling city on the coast.

Oblivia is dressed in borrowed finery – “The girl looked into an oval mirror and saw herself like golden syrup in a cream dress with the same colour arum lilies of the land of the owls” – nods in the right places, is declared married, stands off to one side at the reception as Warren circles through his hordes of admirers and benefactors, is led by Warren through filthy streets to a flat on the upper floor of an apartment block, where he leaves her.

The Harbour Master joins her. Food is left at her door. Over the years they see Warren, now President, on TV, accompanied by her, the promised bride. The swans find her again though many are injured swooping between the buildings, and she rescues them, keeps them safe in her flat.  I’ve already told you a lot, elements of story gleaned from torrents of words. I won’t tell you the ending, though it’s not a great shock.

As we have been with paintings, we are blessed to have been given this gift of literature derived from 50,000 years of oral tradition. Treasure Indigenous Lit. Treasure Alexis Wright, she is a great, great talent and we have had too little from her. I’m going back to re-read Carpentaria.

 

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book, Giramondo, Sydney, 2013

see also Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
and Lisa at ANZLitLovers review of The Swan Book (here)