When the Pelican Laughed, Alice Nannup

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

When the Pelican Laughed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Advertisements

A Bunch of Ratbags, William Dick

Image result for bunch of ratbags dick

One of the joys of watching Romper Stomper (Russell Crowe’s first movie), is the locations, around (Melbourne inner suburb) Footscray and particularly the freight rail line that crosses the Maribyrnong River and disappears under Bunbury St by the old Brown & Mitchell Transport depot to come out past Footscray station.

Footscray is a suburb of industry and workers cottages, of football team the doggies and of the big tech now Victoria University of Technology. Over the years I’ve delivered livestock from Newmarket to its various (long-gone) abattoirs, driven backwards and forwards through it when Footscray Road was Melbourne’s main transport hub, had jobs there, walked and eaten and banked there, way back then and more recently during all the years it was son Lou’s home base.

So I was looking forward to this 1965 novel of bodgies and widgies in Melbourne’s western suburbs, a working class bildungsroman, by an author for whom this was lived experience. William Dick (1937- ) grew up in Footscray in real poverty but worked his way out through a trade apprenticeship and a gradually developing career as a writer. By 1985 when this edition was published he had written two more novels and been to Stanford on a writing scholarship. I couldn’t find any more and a blogger I’ve linked to below who went to Footscray Tech in the 1960s concurs, but is able to identify many of the locations, including the protagonist’s (the author’s?) home.

By 1966 when our family moved (temporarily) to Melbourne, Bodgies (and Widgies, their female counterparts) had morphed into Rockers and the rival gangs were Sharpies, Mods and Stylists. Rockers followed Johnny O’Keefe, Mods Normie Rowe, and Stylists the Easybeats. Sharpies, I don’t know. They had short, short hair and wore wide tartan pants. They were rough. Working class kids who spent a fortune on clothes, on looking sharp, according to stories in the Sun. Dick spends a lot of time for a tough guy on descriptions of his clothes, and on the constant subtle changes of fashion. The Sharpies in his day, a decade earlier, were wannabe Bodgies but I think that by class and by attitude they ended up the real heirs of the Bodgies and the Rockers just got the hair and the music.

If an author says a book is a novel, then it’s a novel, and if it seems discontinuous then we look for connections. A Bunch of Ratbags reads as memoir, episodes in the life of, with the names, including the suburb, fictionalized to protect the innocent. The continuity is Terry Cooke growing from 8 to 18 and from petty thief to roughneck to good citizen.

And a warning: his attitude about violence to women is pretty blasé, though he redeems himself a little at the end, in his own eyes anyway, by stopping his mates gang raping a girl (though not till after they’ve bashed her).

The writing itself is disappointing, middlebrow, so that the slang when it’s used sounds false, almost parodic. The only similar book I know, Wild Cat Falling by Mudrooroo, sounds much more authentic. Dick writes like a journalist embedded in a gang, and feels the need to explain everything to us squares.

Cooke lives with his mother and father and younger sister in a falling down 3 BR single story weatherboard backing onto to the rail line. His father is variously a meat worker and an ironworker, doesn’t drink but gambles compulsively, a hoarder of things and animals – chooks, dogs, geese, lambs –  a tyrant in his own little kngdom, a wife beater and a child beater. Cooke hates him and loves him.

– I just had to accept it, that my father liked to belt me up once in a while and that was that. After all, we were only normal people, and if every kid in Goodway murdered his old man after he got belted up, then there would have been no men left in Goodway at all.

As a youngster Terry has a range of little money making schemes, collecting bottles for refunds at the footy, salvaging woodscraps from the rail trucks carting firewood, selling newspapers, stealing.

When he starts at Footscray Goodway Tech he realises he’ll need to join a gang for protection and gradually becomes a little stand-over merchant in his own right. It is typical that when he discovers girls at 13 or 14 his first instinct (and his second and third) is to share, to take her into the toilets and to invite two or three of his mates to follow – he says he only does this with girls who want to “give it away”.

And so he makes his way through school, mostly in with the dumb kids, though sometimes showing enough promise to be put in with kids actually learning stuff; concentrating on his mates, fighting, edging his way into the local Bodgie gang based around the Oasis milk bar (just think Happy Days). At the end of four years, so aged about 16, he leaves, starts at the meatworks on good money but is made to realise that long term he’ll be better off with a trade and so is apprenticed to a furniture maker, alongside some big guys in the Bodgies.

From there it’s vandalism, sex, crime, drinking, gang fights, run-ins with police … and clothes –

The bodgie style had changed from jeans and so on to the new uniform of everything Junior Navy in colour – pants, shirts and socks. Cardigans were still the re-bob style. We now wore one-button, full-drape patch-pocket sports coats, but only the very light colours such as off-white, oatmeal, light blue or powder blue, with black shoes, suede or leather.

He graduates to captain of his own section of the gang. Bill Haley explodes onto the screen and then live at Festival Hall. He begins to get the shakes, headaches and diahorrea. Gets a steady girl who doesn’t do it. Seeks treatment. And slowly gets older and makes his way out of the system.

No, I didn’t like it particularly. Of course I loved that it was (more or less) my time, my home turf, but as a novel it was just a list of events, some of them unintentionally distasteful, with no tension, cardboard cutout supporting characters and very little character development even for Terry.

 

William Dick, A Bunch of Ratbags, first pub. 1965, Penguin 1984. Adapted as a stage musical (here)

Review by Footscray boy, blogger Rob Manderson (here)

 

“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

"It's Still in My Heart, This is My Country": The Single Noongar Claim History

“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”* (2009) is subtitled The Single Noongar Claim History – the Noongar people being the original occupants and custodians of south-west Western Australia. The authors credited are South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, and John Host** with Chris Owen. It is basically the case put up to The Federal Court (Australia’s second highest court), Justice Murray Wilcox presiding, in 2005, to prove the Noongars’ claim to native title over the Perth metropolitan area.

To do this Host demonstrates that the Noongars, who can be divided into 14 regions with their own dialects, are one people with an ongoing, uninterrupted cultural life, and that the indigenous people forced out of Perth by white settlement continued their cultural practices within Noongar communities on the outskirts, and maintained their contact with important sites within Perth. These are the main elements to satisfy the Native Title Act (1993) shamefully introduced by Paul Keating to limit the ambit of claims after Mabo, and further tightened by John Howard in 1998 after Wik.

Because the Perth people had been so decimated by occupation and direct government action (eg. “Battle” of Pinjarra), not to mention laws which for many years in the C20th banned Aborigines from being in towns, it was necessary to prove that the Noongar were one people – hence ‘Single Noongar Claim’ – not a number of distinct tribes, and that, as was so often claimed, they had not lost their connection with Perth and the Swan River or, as was often claimed, died out. Indigenous people with European blood continued, and continue to lead Indigenous lives.

The SWALSC won their claim, but in 2007 the state (Labor) and Commonwealth (Liberal) governments appealed, successfully, on the basis that the claimants had not shown continuous occupation of the Perth area “explicitly”. An agreement was finally reached and registered in 2018 (here, includes map).

Host, an historian, describes his task as ‘histriography’, a critical summary of writings about the history of the Noongars. What is known about them prior to white settlement is ‘pre-history’.

Map South East Asia and Australia during the last Ice Age. Courtesy Wikimedia

I think we all know that at one time you could walk from PNG to Cape Yorke and from Victoria to Tasmania (and from Perth to Rottnest) but what hadn’t occurred to me is that around 8,000 BC, lower sea levels meant that Australia was surrounded by a wide, fertile littoral plain, and its subsequent inundation has removed much evidence of early occupation. However, there remains plenty of evidence that the South West has been occupied for 50,000 years.

When the British arrived in 1826, Professor Sylvia Hallam describes the people of the south west as “firestick farmers and kangaroo pastoralists” with practices that had been continuously evolving for millenia. It is a (cruel) curiosity of the Native Title Act that claimants must show that their practices have not evolved since white settlement, but have been ‘preserved in aspic’. With the British came writing and ‘therefore’ history. Explorer Matthew Flinders called in at King George Sound (Albany) in 1802 and “wrote with evident bewilderment that Aboriginal people ‘seemed to have no idea of any superiority we possessed over them'” (see also Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (my review)).

Matthew Flinders organised a military parade for the amusement of the locals and it is some evidence of the efficacy of oral history that the story of that parade was related to (anthropologist) Daisy Bates a century later. In fact, Bates’ meticulous records from when she was living with Noongars around 1906 formed an important part of the evidence for the claim (see also: my post Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (here)).

During the years up until the Swan River colony was formed in 1829, explorers and the garrison at King George Sound observed and recorded a great deal of material about Noongar law, custom and ways of living, by living amongst them relatively unobtrusively. In fact garrison commander Capt Collet Barker and local, Mineng man Mokare were clearly friends, and by the account in Barker’s journal had long discussions about all sorts of matters which greatly informed Host’s opinion about the Noongars’ adaptability in the face of changing circumstances.

Host spends a chapter establishing that there is no evidence for a decline in Noongar numbers after white settlement, despite the opposite being true around Sydney (due to smallpox probably). And in the process makes mincemeat of the work of Dr Neville Green, author of Broken Spears (1984). And yes, he acknowledges that there were massacres, but the number killed were not enough to lead to population decline.

If taking issue with the notion of drastic population decline between 1829 and 1850 has diverted me from the terms of my brief, it has been necessary. As noted …, evidence of cultural maintenance is of doubtful value unless the allegation of Aboriginal extinction or near extinction is shown to be groundless.

An interesting aspect of Host’s account is the permeability of boundaries. While one family group had primary responsibility for one area, the area may have been occupied by different groups at different times, with connections formed by marriage allowing families to travel widely to hunt. For instance, Mokare told Barker his family sometimes moved away inland to allow another group to camp by the shore and fish. However, absence did not lessen connection.

It is clear both from settler accounts, and from oral histories – of which many are cited – that Noongars, who in any case had always moved around a lot, adapted to white settlement spreading throughout the south west in the latter half of the C19th (and up to the 1930s) by combining seasonal farm labouring over a number of properties with frequent absences to maintain their culture.

By 1900, disregarding official attempts to distinguish between ‘full bloods’ and ‘half-castes’, Noongar culture remained vibrant and the Noongar population had probably increased.

The turn of the century brought two shocks. First, goldrushes expanded the white population from 50,000 to 184,000 in a single decade; and then, the 1905 Aborigines Act, brought all WA Aborigines under the direct control of the Chief Protector, and presaged 60 years of determined attempts to separate children with European descent from their mothers (see: Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review)). The Indigenous population of the South West in the 1901 census was about 1,500 but only Noongars living near towns or as farm workers were counted. As Noongars were notoriously (and rightly!) shy of officialdom and there was, and still is, a great deal of bush in the South West, the actual population was much higher, but as had always been the case, could not be accurately estimated. By the 2001 census, the Aboriginal population of the South West was 27,596 and a high (but unknown) proportion of those were Noongar.

Finally …

I will argue, however, that although the maintenance of traditional connections has been harder for some Noongars than for others, the Noongar as a people have retained the web of territorial and kinship ties along with the reciprocity or mutual obligation, that made up (and make up) the matrix of traditional law and custom.

The last quarter of the book documents the survival of the Noongar in the face of the 1905 Act, concentration camps at Moore River and Carrollup, the paucity of aid, the loss of farm work during the Great Depression, legislation which effectively prevented Aborigines from becoming landowners, and misguided attempts at assimilation in the 1950s, through to the current situation of recognition tempered by high rates of unemployment which we might say began with the Whitlam years, 1972-75.

This is a fascinating work, eminently readable, which greatly added to my understanding of Black-White interaction during the first century of white settlement. Of course this is local history for me, but I am sure Eastern-staters will find it equally interesting.

 

South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, John Host with Chris Owen, “It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”: Single Noongar Land Claim, UWAP, Perth, 2009. Cover: Ngallak Koort Boodja (Our Heart Land) canvas by Shane Pickett, Lance Chadd, Troy Bennell, Alice Warrell, Sharyn Egan and Yvonne Kickett.


*”White fella got it but it’s still in my heart, this is my country,” Noongar elder, Angus Wallam, during Oct 2005 hearings.

**From what I can gather, Dr Host, who wrote this report, assigned the copyright to SWALSC who then had it published with some alterations and without Host’s permission. Chris Owen is/was an historian employed by SWALSC. See: Struggle over Host report (here)


Message to Lisa: It’s of course entirely up to you whether this counts as Indig.Lit. The report was commissioned by the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, and they list themselves in first place as authors, though the actual writing has clearly been done by Dr Host.

 

 

Blakwork, Alison Whittaker

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

Blakwork - Base Image

I am not a poetry reader let alone reviewer and I only bought this book, a year or so ago, because I was in my local bookstore and the book’s from Broome, WA based indigenous publisher Magabala, and so I assumed it was West Australian. In fact Alison Whittaker “is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah [NSW]. She is a Fulbright scholar, and a poet and essayist …”.

BlakWorks then languished on my bedside table until I was reminded by Brona’s review of the poem A Love like Dorothea’s (here including a video of a reading by the author) to give it another try. I wasn’t really thinking about who Dorothea was when I started to read and so it hit me like a punch. The assertion Whittaker is making here, I think, is that our love for this land we have so recently occupied alienates the people who have been its custodians for the last 60 millenia. Our love leaves no room for their love. No quote, it would decrease the impact of you reading/listening to it yourself.

The book is divided into 15 sections: whitework, bloodwork, storywork … through to newwork, blakwork; each with about half a dozen poems. Whitework commences with the poem blakwork which tells us that it is a full time job dealing with white guilt: “Indentured blakwork, something like:/nine to five, forgiv-/-ing you.”

I won’t pretend I understood all, or even half, of what I read. Some of the poems are concrete, that is their structure is part of the poem; at least a couple are short essays but here, in a book of poems, we must be aware of the shape, the sound of words as well as of meaning; a number render legalese into poetry to provide a commentary on Indigenous people’s experience of the Australian legal system; and some (I think!) are about other stuff, not just Black-White relations.

Some I like without knowing why: “… so many blaks/How could I name them all?/Inner city arty blak/Remote yet so connected blak/Welfare woman villain blak …” (bpm); or “Indigine, slip through the world Aboriginally this is your line, as your parents will prepare/you so too will you prepare yourself so too will you repair you …” (badblak).

One, ethnomathematics, struck me with a dose of that white guilt. A few words (numbers) dotted across the page: “one, one   /halfhalfhalf …/threequarters/fiveeighths”. Pretty clear what it’s referring to.

There are a few poems which are commentaries on white man’s law. Two or three are ‘simply’  lists of the most common phrases in the judges’ decsion. So, the skeleton of the common law is extracted from the Mabo decision; and exhibit tab is from the inquest into the death of Ms Dhu [who died in a police cell in Port Hedland WA in 2014, while being held for unpaid fines (here)] –

Exhibit 2 tab
The custody system
XXXX Dhu’s temperature
The police vehicle
Lock up procedure

Another, An Act, plays with white legalese: “This Act is the Binaal Bunma-li, Warra-y Act 2018 …  Definitions:/… Binaal Bunma-li: to soothe or settle down/…/Regulations: such as determined by Elders through Country/…. “.

Some is more or less what you would expect, family stories in the section the abattoir; a complaint that a Black woman has been white-washed out of the Thunderbolt [bushranger] legend; an ode to her schoolmates, for feral girls:

‘O, youse feral girls,’
Twisting hands, dancing to warrambul like they’re crossing fingers,
twisting Kmart bras under Big Dub singlets.
They got that
sacred patchwork of precedence–legging thighs follow panty lines,
topograph their overcourse–goad softly little babs to sleep
goad firecourse to wake
goad Centrelink, its cards and monies, from the settler state.

And out of the blue, the section, the centre appears to be a dystopian short story in blank verse:

Bounced through a low-hanging satellite that competes with the atmosphere like I compete with the pedestrians, the Centre for Mob Futures is being rebuilt. Far from here, out desert ways, I’ve reported on its programmers quick to plug its many hostile haemorrhages and rework its paper scaffolds. An archive of drives all buzzing with unsteady fans and unlabelled wires. (futures. excellence.)

Access to the centre is guarded by an AI which determines Aboriginality by yarning, and demands that it be made a cup of tea (blak captcha). In a virtual outback-

… totally unsupervised by mission managers –old and new alike–mob frolicked, philosophised, borned art, and built technologies… In the Centre, a place spinning imprecisely through the sky and broadcasting to a supercomputer in the desert … (virtualisation).

It fails, I think (the project, not the poem).

As I slipped back past the belly-touching AI into the real meatland, all sparse and beige-hot and withering, the Centre’s satellite lost its signal. It shut down. (the last project).

You know I’m an SF/dystopian fan and it’s interesting that Whittaker, Ellen van Neerven and Claire Coleman, to name the most obvious, are all, sometimes anyway, in that space (pun unintended, and indeed unnoticed until about the fourth re-reading).

All the poems require contemplation, more than I have given them at this reading, and I recommend you follow Brona, both in reading one poem at a time, and literally, to see what she has to say about them. And if you’re really serious you could read the review below from the Sydney Review of books. (I haven’t, not yet anyway).

Melanie, did I like it? Not enough to rush out and buy more, but nor did I dislike it, it was interesting.

 

Alison Whittaker, BlakWork, Magabala Books, Broome WA, 2018

Jeanine Leane, Ultima Thule: BlakWork by Alison Whittaker, Sydney Review of Books, 5 Feb 2019 (here)

For further reading of Indigenous authors see –
my Aboriginal Australia page (here) – there’s a list of all my reviews at the bottom.
Lisa’a ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List (here)

Waterway, Eleanor Dark

Image result for eleanor dark waterway

Waterway (1938) is a far more significant work than I realised when my brother (B2) gave it to me to read a few months ago, and I’m going to go into some background to try and explain why I think so.

Before I go on though, about halfway through reading this novel I happened to glance at the back cover (of the edition pictured above) and it completely gives away the novel’s ending. Why a publisher would do that I don’t know, but it spoiled my reading of the book, and I can only advise you to resolutely hold the book face UP.

Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) was one of the women writers who dominated my Australian Gen 3 period – from the end of WWI to the 1950s, a period marked for women writers at least by a concentration on social (and in some cases socialist) realism. Socialism was an important influence during this period, though of course much less so after 1956. KS Prichard was a Communist; as was Jean Devanney; Christina Stead was, though she wasn’t a party member; Kylie Tennant was briefly a party member; there is evidence Miles Franklin hovered between socialism and communism. I’m not sure about Dark, but her husband was socialist and active on the left of the Labor Party.

Prior to my reading this book, Dark’s importance, to me, was her Timeless Land trilogy (1941, 1948, 1953) which imagined for the first time white settlement from the point of view of the displaced Aborigines. The only other of her works I remember reading is Return to Coolamai (1936) and it seemed to me her interest there was in middle class character and interaction. But I can see now her importance in the introduction of Modernism.

Waterway was Dark’s fifth novel. No.s 2 and 3, Prelude to Christopher and Return to Coolamai were both winners of the ALS Gold Medal. Wikileaks says (today anyway) of Prelude that “the storyline is nonlinear and of interest to those interested in the establishment of modernism in the arts in Australia.” It is interesting to guess what books/writers Dark might have been influenced by. Here are some landmarks –

Joseph Furphy, Such is Life (1903)
DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Eleanor Dark, Slow Dawning (1932)
Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934)
Patrick White, Happy Valley (1939)

So Dark and Stead were almost exact contemporaries, with Dark the first to be published, by a couple of years. Stead had the advantage of being in Paris in the early 30s in the circle around Sylvia Beach who published Ulysses, while Dark remained in Sydney. And I think Stead gradually became the more polished writer. Interestingly, both Seven Poor Men of Sydney and Waterway are set in Watsons Bay, just inside the Heads, on the south side of Sydney Harbour.

Like Ulysses, Waterway is one day in one city, but from the point of view of an omniscient observer relating the conversations, arguments, thought processes of 16 people from half a dozen houses in this one waterside suburb, as they bump into each other, in the street, in the water and on the ferry to and from the city.

Dark divides her protagonists into thoughtlessly wealthy and philosophers (with not much in between). The philosophers are led by Professor Channon who has two beautiful, intelligent daughters – Winifred unhappily married to rich Arthur Sellman and Lesley, single, who has just become the lover of Sim, the carefree, handsome younger son of another wealthy family, the Hegarty’s. Winifred has a blind daughter, 6 and is in love with her widower next door neighbour Ian who has sons aged 7 and 8. Arthur’s sister Lorna, also beautiful, but vain and thoughtless with it, is determined to marry Sim. Then there are the doctor and his artist wife, Lois; Roger who publishes a failing literary newsletter; and finally Jack, unemployed, living in a shack on the waterline amongst the fishermen, strong, angry and incoherent.

Dark’s philosophy, which is expressed by a number of her protagonists, basically seems to be Christianity without the religion –

“Hang it all, if you gave away every bean you possessed tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the little bit of ‘philanthropy’ that mattered, it would be the freeing of yourself [from possessions].” Roger to Sim.

It’s summer, the day is fine, hot. Those who can, start the morning, or in Lesley and Sim’s case, finish the night before, with a swim in the cove. The workers catch the ferry or drive into town. Winifred and Ian have vowed to stop meeting but manage to be on the beach at the same time so his boys can take her daughter for a swim. Arthur of course is angry and broods that the wife to whom he gives everything wants nothing except divorce.

The afternoon is to see the society wedding of Sim’s older brother and that, though unimportant to all the protagonists, is a focus for much of their activity. Jack falls and damages his hand, ends up in a mob of unemployed which gravitates towards the crowd watching the wedding; the kids go to the zoo; the artist has some paintings in an exhibition; one way or another most of them end up in town to come home on the 10 to 5 ferry.

There’s some excitement and the day draws to a close. It’s very well done and we the reader are involved in the ebb and flow of their thoughts. Sue (WG) of course will ask me how I can allow Dark to write the thoughts of men. Good question Sue. To a large extent the men are stereotypes, particularly Jack, I don’t think Dark is very familiar with the working class. The women are much more interesting. Winifred, Lesley, Lois and even Sim’s mother, Lady Hegarty are thoughtful and intelligent, though none of them is independent in the sense of wishing for a life without a husband.

Dark foreshadows her later work, which may have been inspired by a feeling that the Harbour is a living, breathing organism with a life independent of the white society that has so recently perched around its shores –

And when the invaders landed they felt a soil beneath their feet whose very texture was alien; a hard earth, which smelt not of grass and flowers and hay, the reassuring familiar odours of man’s long habitation, but strangely of an age-old solitude.

Lesley, who is probably the closest to being Dark herself, as the doctor seems based on her (Dark’s) husband, writes stories set in the earliest days of white settlement

By now, fed by necessary research, her mental picture of the city in its infancy had grown so familiar to her that she had often felt when she stepped out again from this quiet room into the daylight … surprised to find it no longer that … straggling settlement of a handful of colonists.

I haven’t really made the case for just how good the writing is, the long streams of consciousness as one protagonist or another reflects. The author herself notes one of her influences –

She thought, “I’m going all D.H. Lawrence! I suppose you have to go through this before you realise how accurately he paints – one side of the picture!” Lesley.

If you like to think about writing, and about Australian writing in particular, then this is a book you should consider. I think Aust.Lit. came of age in the 1930s and it was the women, and I guess Xavier Herbert, who were responsible, and who in a large way formed the base built on by Patrick White.

 

Eleanor Dark, Waterway, first pub. 1938. My copy Imprint 1990 with Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska

see also:
Meg Brayshaw, The Quiet Brilliance of Eleanor Dark, AWWC (here)
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here)
Sylvia Beach, Ulysses in Paris (here)

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week will be in the second week of January 2020 (and there will probably be a Part II in the corresponding week of the following year).

Hitchhiking

Journal: 033

Image result for r190 international
R190 International

Today’s post was meant to be a review of Nam Le’s short story collection, The Boat (2008) but after the first story, Le keeps writing about everything but himself, and when he got to the bit where he was a thirtyish woman having sex with her boyfriend I tossed it aside. And I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like arguing today about my preference for literature to be written from lived experience.

Sue (WG) tells me Nam Le has been lauded for his ability to present so many varied points of view but I don’t see how you can read the intense first story about a writer in the US dealing with his Vietnamese refugee father dealing with all his demons, and then be happy to settle for the entertainments which follow.

But the space below is still asking to be filled. I will write a story of my own. Toss me aside at this or any other point, I won’t blame you. Better still, go down to the bottom and tell me at what point you tossed me aside.

This brings me to think about the difference between writing a story and yarning. I noted when I reviewed Vance Palmer’s collection the Rainbow-Bird that he found it difficult to get going, fell back on the yarning style encouraged by the Bulletin. Nam Le begins his first story, “My father arrived on a rainy morning. I was dreaming about a poem …” and he begins the second, “In Cartegena, Luis says, the beach is grey at dawn.” This is enough to get me going.


The Young Bride had a problem, too much bleeding. When I met her and persuaded her to live with me in 1971 she had dropped out of high school, left home, taken a room with a couple of mates of mine in Carlton who had an old terrace house later demolished for the (old) Royal Women’s carpark.

RT and I had a much nicer two storey terrace in Drummond Street, had taken it early in the summer break so we would be set for the following year but our Greek landlord sold out to some distant connection of the premier for her two posh daughters. Luckily RT was posh too, Toorak, Melbourne Grammar and all that, and their mother let us stay. But I reacted in the worst possible way to all this poshness so that by the time YB came into the picture RT and I had moved to another old terrace house facing the back of the Windsor Hotel in the City.

That very first night, finding half my bed was empty I went downstairs to find YB crying and bleeding in the outside dunny. This happened a bit, and one night not long after found RT and me piggy backing YB up Russell Street to Royal Women’s where she was admitted, after one of those interminable waits sitting through the night in the Emergency Department that I later got used to as a young parent.

Her parents and I didn’t hit it off.

At 20 doing a third first year, I was skinny, long haired, barefoot, poor and scruffy in a long grey overcoat (RT’s school overcoat, how posh was that) and torn jeans. I sat by YB’s bed, or outside, all day, but when her mum and dad and little brothers and sister turned up that evening I took off. Not with any idea of where I wanted to go, but just wanting to keep moving. Walked across the uni to Royal Parade, faced north up Sydney Road, stuck out my thumb and got a lift through the narrow shopfronts and tired neon of Brunswick and Coburg, out past Pentridge to what was then the outer northern limits of the City.

The first time I had done this was on the very first weekend of my first first year. Not knowing anyone else in Trinity, which in any case was nearly empty, Engineering starting two weeks earlier then the rest, I walked out into Royal Parade on a fine autumn morning and hitched up to Sydney, walked across the Harbour Bridge, which I had never seen before, and was back home Sunday evening.

I’d started hitching the previous year, in high school, to get to other country towns to play football or hockey. Then over summer I’d left my uncle’s farm where I was working while Mum and Dad and the boys were away on holidays, hitched back to Mudsville for New Years Eve, got work haycarting, hitched down to Queenscliff at weekends where Fancy was holidaying with her parents.

After that first time I hitched again to Sydney and came home down the coast road, told one guy I was an orphan and he promised to train me up as a bulldozer driver; hitched up the Calder to Mildura then across into SA, riding through the night in a Lake Boga R190 Inter, Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay blasting out, the first time I’d heard it. Made it to Port Augusta that trip before deciding to turn back, got a lift in an airconditioned Monaro, another first, came home via Adelaide, Murray Bridge, spent hours waiting for a lift south to the Mount and more hours after midnight at Heywood, maybe one vehicle every half hour, engine noise building, building, passing, fading. A truck at last took me right to Melbourne, stopped for a while in Mudsville to drop off some timber. I pretended I’d never been there.

Hitching was easy. Later, when I hitched home from Brisbane for my 21st birthday, Mum and Dad drove me back out to Campbellfield, and there were maybe six kids waiting for a lift, strung out along the road. Honour had it that the latecomer took the furthest spot, but that didn’t bother me, I preferred to hitch walking, looking back over my shoulder. The next morning in Sydney, which was really my 21st birthday an old guy took me home and gave me cornflakes for breakfast, set me back out on the Windsor Road and the first guy to stop, in a Rapid Transport Transtar, was the guy who’d brought me down from Bris. I leaned casually with my elbow on the window until he admired my new gold watch.

So this night in 1970 I’m heading north out of town and a guy fortyish maybe picks me up in an old Customline, says he knows a back way to Seymour and I don’t care, I like new roads, we wind through the bush till he pulls up. It’s time to deliver. I get out, he gets out. It’s dark, cold, silent. In front of the car we wrestle furiously, I want his car keys. He wants … But I’m too young and strong for him to get it by force. Eventually, I break away. He tears off in the car. I struggle across paddocks to a distant light, a farmhouse. Wake the farmer and he calls the police. The policeman is furious. Bloody longhairs. He drives me back to Seymour and warns me never to be seen in his town again.

I get a lift home, pick up YB from hospital. We live happily ever after, for a few years anyway.

Currently Reading

BlakWorks, Alison Whittaker
Waterway (1938), Eleanor Dark

No Friend but the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani

39284186.jpg

Behrouz Boochani (1983- ) was born in that part of Kurdistan which has been subsumed into northern Iran, and which was the site of battles during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. He took a masters degree in Political Science in Tehran, worked for a time as a journalist, and was active in promoting Kurdish independence. This brought him to the attention of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. When, in 2013, many of his colleagues were arrested Boochani went into hiding, and subsequently made his way to Indonesia, where this memoir begins, to make the risky passage by boat to the Australian territory of Christmas Island, and there to claim refugee status.

As is well known, Boochani is today and has been for a number of years, a prisoner in the hell hole maintained by private contractors on Manus Island, PNG as part of the Australian government’s illegal indefinite offshore imprisonment of non-White refugees. The book began as a series of long text messages (thousands of words) in Farsi which were then translated into English by Dr Omid Tofighian of Sydney Uni. (more here and here). Boochani and Tifighian collaborated closely in a process “requiring literary experimentation … and a form of shared philosophical activity”.

The text of the memoir is surrounded by forewords and afterwords, by the translator, and by Australian author Richard Flanagan. I have chosen not to read them, but to concentrate on the words of the text itself. When the memoir begins, the author is anonymous, in a party of others like himself being carried in two trucks to the beach. And we only slowly build up a picture of who he is, who they are, and why they have chosen to undertake this clearly perilous voyage.

Two trucks carry scared and restless passengers down a winding, rocky, labyrinth. They speed along a road surrounded by jungle, the exhausts emitting frightening roars … For six hours I have sat without moving, leaning my back against the wooden wall of the truck, and listening to an old fool complain about the smugglers … Three months of wandering hungry in Indonesia have driven us to this misery, but at least we are leaving on this road through the jungle, a road that will reach the ocean.

And so the scene is set.

The book proceeds as a series of images, through text and poetry, of surroundings, of people who are rarely named but instead are given descriptors – Maysam-the-Whore, Father-of-the-Months-Old-Child, The-Friend-of-the-Blue-Eyed-Boy. First the voyage, itself worthy of a book on its own. A little fishing boat, crowded, leaking, a storm, the boat out of fuel. It is only slowly revealed that this is the author’s second attempt at a crossing. But this one is ‘successful’, the boat sinks, they are rescued, transferred to Christmas Island.

The author is of the mountains to which he and his mother had retreated to avoid the Iran-Iraq War, knows the ocean only from geography textbooks, had considered joining the Peshmerga, the Kurdish liberation army, questions his own courage because he didn’t.

Is this human being who he thinks he is?

Does this human being reflect the same theories that he holds?

Does this human being embody courage?

From Christmas Island the refugees are rapidly transported to Manus Island. To a hastily and shoddily constructed prison. They are warned by their Australian captors that the Papuans, to whose country they have been shunted, are cannibals. And the Papuans – “Papus” in this text – have been told that the refugees, all men, are terrorists awaiting deportation. This is of a part with the Kyriarchal system of oppression employed by the Australians (see link below) in which every person is controlled by being forced to treat every other person as enemy.

Boochani describes at length the systems, or rather his reactions to the systems of handing out food, communications, and medicine which are designed deliberately to be both inadequate and inequitable so that prisoners are forced constantly into queues to be the first to get to fresh food, or paracetamol (all other medications being stockpiled but not dispensed), to doctors and dentists who are promised monthly but never arrive.

He is never able, we are never able to forget that he is caged, indefinitely, in the most squalid conditions, the toilets and showers flooded with and surrounded by human waste, tropically hot beyond bearing, crowded into tiny, ill-ventilated rooms, mosquito bites festering into open sores. And yet he remains both human and a poet.

That damn fan keeps spinning pointlessly. My whole body is drenched in sweat. I take my clothes off. Whatever position I lie in to try to sleep, half my body becomes covered in perspiration …

He sketches in his fellows, mostly Kurds, and particularly the Gentle Giant who breaks up disputes just with his presence. The author enjoys brief respites in the dark, on the roof or over the fence, on the beach, but the book ends with the four compounds of the prison breaking into protests and then riot. The Australians retreat, even the elite riot squad, “iron men, with their proud iron armour” –

The officers had all run away.  They stood on the other side outside the prison, and on the dirt road behind the prison. The Papus also stood there … Slowly, gradually, a group of local people emerged on the dirt and outside the prison. An unimaginable alliance was forming: locals were uniting with the Australians. Even in these circumstances they commanded the situation. They still ruled.

As the prisoners break down the fences separating the compounds “a downpour of rocks descended. It wasn’t clear where they came from, but they rained down on the mass of prisoners on the battlefield.”

Over time, in the dark and confusion, the Australians are reinforced. They lead the non-combatants, of whom Boochani is one, out of the prison, down a road lined by Papus, who beat any prisoner who gets out of step. After long hours, when the riot has been quelled, they are led back, not to their rooms, but to a tent where the bodies of the wounded are piled.

The message arrives. They had killed Reza. They had killed The Gentle Giant.

This great and poetic work proclaims what has gradually been becoming clearer over the past decade. We Australians are allowing ourselves to be ruled by Nazis. Nazis who maintain their concentration camps offshore but who, emboldened by our passivity, are slowly increasing their hold over us through surveillance, through the withholding of information, through the ‘legal’ persecution of those few brave enough to reveal the government’s illegal actions.

We didn’t complain when they introduced indefinite detention without trial for non-white refugees. We didn’t complain when they introduced indefinite detention without trial for non-white muslim “terrorists”. We have never complained about the ongoing killings by police and vigilantes of Aboriginals. So don’t bother to complain when they start coming for white, middle class anti-war activists. It will be too late.

 

Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains, Picador, Sydney, 2018. Translated (from Farzi) by Omid Tofighian


Postscript: On 18 May the Australian people voted in a federal election. Racist, troglodyte Queenslanders put the far-right One Nation party and the expansion of coal mining first in such numbers that against all expectations the Morrison Liberal government was returned. For Boochani it was the end of all hope:

How many more people must die on Manus before Australia ends indefinite detention?Behrouz Boochani (The Guardian [4 June 2019]): “I have never seen the refugees on Manus so depressed. Even when Reza Barati was killed, when that innocent man was sacrificed … that time when the other refugees were bashed and beaten. I swear, it has never been like this. Not even on Good Friday in 2017 when soldiers rained shots into the prison camp. Even at the height of the violence and when confronted with death the refugees always maintained a sense of hope. However, the day after the election, everything sank into an abyss of darkness. The outcome of the last election extinguished the last glimmer of hope for freedom, it shut out any hope that remained after six years of purgatory. Overnight everything just slipped away.”


See also:
Manus Prison and the Kyriarchal System (here)
Arash Kamali Sarvestani & Behrouz Boochani, Chauka, Please Tell us the Time (video here)(Age review here)
Mohammad Ali Maleki, Iranian poet/Manus Is. prisoner, at Verity La, 6 June 2019
Refugee sets self on fire (Age 12 June 2019)
Mums4Refugees Facebook page (here)
Dawood Amiri, Confessions of a People Smuggler (review)