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