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)

Lola Bensky, Lily Brett

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Lily Brett is a well known Australian/New York/Jewish writer, born in Feldafing displaced persons camp, Bavaria in 1946 after her parents, Polish Jews, were released from Auschwitz concentration camp. She grew up in Carlton (Melbourne), attending University High, reported for the Australian pop magazine Go-Set from 1966-68, and moved to New York in 1989 (Wiki).

This is all relevant, as Lola Bensky starts out as a nineteen year old reporter in London for an Australian music magazine, reflecting on her uncommunicative parents’ experience of the Holocaust in between interviewing all the famous names of 1960s London pop culture; marries, divorces, remarries, has children, moves to New York to live. Lives all the time with a type of PTSD arising out of the horrors experienced by (especially) her mother.

I enjoyed the 1960s parts of the book, all the name dropping, interviewing Jimi Hendrix; interviewing Mick Jagger, being invited by Jagger to have a cup of tea with Paul McCartney; then hanging out in New York with Lillian Roxon, “the other fat Australian journalist, as Linda Eastman had so bluntly put it”; being introduced to, and not liking, Jim Morrison. All the time through the prism of her love for her parents and her experience of their horror, and of all the absences, the grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who didn’t survive.

Eastman, from upper-crust Scarsdale, has a Jewish father “who really wanted nothing to do with his Jewishness”.

Even if they had wanted to, Renia and Edek [Lola’s mother and father] would not have been able to discard their Jewishness, Lola thought. Their anguish, their sadness, their wariness was as clear as if it had been printed on them and illuminated and enlarged.

Two years later, when Lillian rings Lola to say that Linda is going to marry Paul McCartney, Lola’s first thought is, “Anyone who could spread her legs that wide could probably get anyone they wanted.”

I enjoyed the rest of the book too, but the first part could have been expanded into an interesting grunge/coming of age novel on its own – and maybe it has, I’m not familiar with Brett’s other work.

We step through the stages of Lola Bensky’s life – 20,30,50,60. At 30 she is married to Mr Former Rock Star in Melbourne, after an awkward ‘mixed’ wedding:

The Jews were too loud. Too emotional. And too obsequious to the Church of England crowd. There was also a lot of kissing from the Jews. And too much kissing for the non-Jews.

They have a son and a daughter, Mrs Gorgeous, but Lola falls in love with someone else, Mr Someone Else, an artist, and moves with him to New York.

Twenty one years later, Lola is lunching with the editor for her new book The Ultra-Private Detective Agency. We digress into the book and its characters for a while. Needlessly, probably. Her mother has died.

Lola had cried for weeks and weeks after Renia died. She didn’t know she would be crying for Renia for the rest of her life. Lola missed her mother. She missed the mother she had and the mother she didn’t have.

Lola understands why her parents couldn’t always be there for her, I’m sure this book is part of Lily Brett’s working her way through to an understanding. At one point, discussing that Lola’s parents had trouble ‘hearing’ her, she writes:

It would take Lola many years to understand that Renia wouldn’t answer questions. that Renia was terrified of questions. And terrified of answers.

Lola’s parents were unable to live in the present.  Mrs Gorgeous for instance is the image of Renia’s niece, nine-year-old Hanka, who with her mother was separated from Renia and Edek on arrival at Auschwitz, into the line for, though they didn’t know it, the gas chambers. And Lola must live, not in the past with them, but in a present where the past is always present too.

To be honest, I avoid Holocaust books. Like every other person in the western world I know it happened, and in a general sense, what has happened since. But Brett says that Australia has the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors of any country in the world, so the Holocaust is an Australian experience too. I’m still not sure I want to know more about it – factual or fictionalized – but I found this ‘memoir’ profoundly moving.

 

Lily Brett, Lola Bensky, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), Melbourne, 2012

see also Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)

Storyland, Catherine McKinnon

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Storyland (2017) as you might expect, is about stories, about the stories that make up this land, this nation. How they are made, how they are told, when they are told, why they are told, what they tell. Is itself a linked series of stories ranging in time from White Settlement into the future and back again. And rightly, McKinnon restricts herself to those stories that are hers to tell. White stories, settler stories, and above all, the story of the land itself.

In 1796 Bass and Flinders and young Will Martin take a small boat south from Sydney Cove to explore the coast. They are afraid to make landfall because the ‘Indians’ might be cannibals (see Behrendt). To pass the time Will orates the story of a sea-battle, a story he learned to tell ‘back home’, of a battle that Flinders as a young midshipman took part in. We book readers are reminded of the power of oral traditions.

A quarter of a century later, land is being cleared for farming. Labour is mostly convicts overseen by ex-convicts, ticket-of-leave men, though in this case the overseer is the NSW-born half brother of Will Martin. Hawker, the teller of this story, and Lambskin are the workers. McKinnon interrogates the myths of mateship – what happens if your mate doesn’t pull his weight? The ‘natives’ are no longer cannibals, but they threaten the crops. Yet:

When we were building the hut it was the chief’s nephew who showed us the paths through the forest to the cedar trees. He taught us how to strip the bark of the Couramyn to make a fishing line, showed us what berries not to eat. Once, when our traps had caught nothing, the nephew gave us kangaroo tail. He thought he could take corn in return… “That corn does not belong to me,” I explained. The nephew went away and the chief, with complete understanding of men’s desires, sent her back.

1900 and still in the lush farming country between the mountains and the sea south of Sydney, the Illawarra, though the coal mines and smelters that become synonymous with Wollongong and Port Kembla have started their inexorable spread. Lola with her brother and sister Mary and Abe are dairy farming on the shore of a lake . Jewell, their friend and neighbour, has been told by her father she “can’t work with no ignorant bastard girl like you, Lola, and with no half-castes like Mary and Abe.” Jewell draws pictures, another form of storytelling. “’I have to draw you like you is,’ Jewell says … ‘I got to draw the truth.’”  Jewell goes missing. Their aunt takes them to the camp of the local Aboriginals to get help. Abe is attacked by Jewell’s father.

Almost another century, and where the farms were is now housing and the lake’s a “cesspit”, clear water but the shores are black sludge. Bel is a 10 year-old whose vocation is to tell stories.

Uncle Ray says the lake was once full of fish and it was a refrigerator for everyone who camped on the banks in the olden Aborigine days before refrigerators.

Bel’s dad Jonathon is doing his PhD “on people in stories who tell stories you don’t believe”.  Bel and her friends Tarak and Isha come across an older girl, Kristie sleeping rough in Swamp Park. She says she is descended from Mary who “met my great-grandfather and he was like the son of this fierce Aboriginal warrior and they had a pile of kids together and one was my grandmother.” And so the stories link one to another, although probably place alone would have been enough. Ned, Kristie’s boyfriend can ‘spin a yarn’, another story-teller, no-one says bull-shit artist but Kristie teaches them to lie to him, “Some people you can love, but never trust. Ned is one of those people.”

We go off into the future, the near future and the far future at the same time, before making our way back again.

Nada, I want to publicly membank what we say to each other today for our Storyland project.
Ah.
If you don’t wish to be publicly membanked you have that right. If you choose not to participate your treatment here will not be affected. Nada, may I membank?
Nada nods her head.
Nada, I can’t go ahead until you say yes. You must verbally agree. This is a contract.

Nada’s story is that her community up on the escarpment above Lake Illawarra, her house sheltering under the 1,000 year old fig tree, has been destroyed in cyclone Frank.  When she finally makes her way back to the city she descends into a dystopia of food and fuel shortages, flooding and fighting. Kristie appears briefly, at the evac centre, and is shot. Back home, under the guidance of their neighbour Steve, the first Koori to command the Australian Army, they prepare to defend themselves.

Nada is a child knocked down by a car. Bel, Tarak, Isha, their ‘wolf’ dog Zeus rescue Kristie from Ned’s violence. A skeleton is dug up near the beach, the skeleton of a Kuradji, a ‘clever man’. His axe is missing, but we have seen it, in other stories.

Jewell is found.

Hawker kills the woman he has lain with, in the most horrible way imaginable.

Will Martin, Bass and Flinders eat a meal with the ‘Indians’.

Gulls circle above, and the fire spits. The fish is cooked. We sit and eat, pulling the flesh from the bones. We invite our friends to join us. They eat the same way we do. This is proof that they are not cannibals.

Though they continue to have their doubts. The three young men return from their adventures, preparing their stories for telling.

So what has McKinnon been saying with all these stories. That there were people on this land when we got here, they are still here, they never went away, and, I think, that we must learn how to be with them. And, maybe, slowly, we must learn to tell stories, earn the right to tell stories, to live stories, where the first people are Us or part of Us, and not Other.

 

Catherine McKinnon, Storyland, 4th Estate (Harper Collins), Sydney, 2017. My copy received from the publisher for review.

See also Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here)

 

 

Wind/Pinball, Haruki Murakami

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Translated by Ted Goossen

That’s a pretty garish cover isn’t it, I think I prefer the audiobook, below. I listened to it at work, didn’t make any notes, then found the paper version in one of my three local libraries (Victoria Park, WA). Wind/Pinball (2015), containing Murakami’s first two published novels from 1979 and 1980, is a book in three parts. Murakami was born in 1949 so he wrote the novels when he was 30,31. They are not autobiographical – though I imagine he was writing about experiences and situations that were familiar – and are strictly realist, unlike 1Q84 and After Dark (review), the only others of his that I have read.

Introduction: The Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction

Murakami married while he was still at university and he and his wife opened a small jazz bar in the student district of Tokyo, before graduating, to avoid having to take office jobs in the City. After five years of working day and night to pay off loans, a baseball game inspired him, he says, to become a writer. He dashed off a novel late at night using a pen and ink (for the Japanese characters) and hated it.

Since I was born in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about and the system crashed.

His solution was to get a typewriter and to write in English, which “led me to discover that I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, as long as I combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner.”

Then I sat down and “translated” the chapter or so that I had written in English into Japanese. Well “transplanted” might be more accurate, since it wasn’t a direct verbatim translation. In the process, inevitably, a new style of Japanese emerged. The style that would be mine.

The resulting novel, Hear the Wind Sing – almost a novella he says (it’s only 100pp) – was a success. He immediately wrote a sequel, Pinball, 1973, and these two, written on his kitchen table, with his next, and first full-length novel, Wild Sheep Chase, form the Trilogy of the Rat.

Hear the Wind Sing

An unnamed narrator and his rich friend, Rat, twenty-something young men, drink in J’s Bar (J, who is older and Chinese, is the bartender) somewhere on the coast, not Tokyo. Interestingly all the cultural references are Western – Hitler, JFK, Flaubert, Mozart, Brook Benton and so on.

The narrator wakes up naked, in bed with a naked young woman. They do not know each other. She interrogates him. He found her unconscious in the toilets in J’s bar, patched her up, brought her home. He didn’t sleep with her. She doesn’t believe him.

There are lots of short chapters. Scenes in the bar. Segments of a DJ on the radio, playing the Beach Boys. The narrator is fascinated by the (fictitious) author Derek Hartfield.

He goes into a record shop and the young woman is there behind the counter. He buys The Beach Boys, Beethoven and Glenn Gould.

The young woman finally works out for herself that nothing happened, gets his number from J’s Bar and phones him, they start going out.

Life goes on. He moves away, to Tokyo. The young woman has moved on. The Rat is writing novels. “California Girls still sits in the corner of my shelf”.

Pinball, 1973

The narrator is living with identical twin girls. They have adopted him, moved in without even a change of clothes, he doesn’t know their names, they tell him to choose, calls them 208 and 209, the numbers on their T-shirts. He is partner in a translation business, pays them pocket money for housekeeping and so on.

They tenderly laundered their sweatshirts once a week in the bath. Lying in bed reading the Critique of Pure Reason, I would glance up and see them kneeling side by side, naked on the tile floor, scrubbing away. Times like that made me feel as if I’d arrived at some faraway place…

Many times I came home after work to see the sweatshirts with the numbers 208 and 209 fluttering in my south-facing window. Occasionally, it brought tears to my eyes.

At college he had interviewed people about where they came from, become fascinated by Naoko who came from the country, a village with a bus stop, a few shops, and “there’s always a dog walking the platform from one end to the other. That kind of station”. No not fascinated by Naoko, by the dog. He has to see that dog.

The pinball machine sidles in later. He becomes expert, the record holder, on a rare three flipper machine, the ‘Spaceship’. When it’s taken away during renovations he has to track it down.

He and his business partner have an attractive receptionist who makes advances to him which he ignores. The Rat has a girlfriend who sold him a typewriter.  This time it is the Rat who moves away. The twins move away too, going home they say.

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Melanie at Grab The Lapels insists I should always answer the question ‘did I like the book?’ I loved it! As far as I’m concerned, Murakami is up there with William Gibson, and in my book that’s high praise indeed.

 

Haruki Murakami, Wind/Pinball: two novels, Borzoi, New York, 2015. Originally published in Japanese in 1979 and 1980. Audio version, Random House Audio, read by Kirby Heyborne, 2015.

Cave of Silence, Kostas Krommydas

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I didn’t buy many books while I was away, because I was carrying a few with me, plus a kindle, because I didn’t see that many English language books for sale in the second-hand bookstalls, because you know, well, weight. Still, I kept looking. On Santorini I browsed an apparently famous but ruinously expensive bookshop in Oia without being tempted, and then in an ‘ordinary’ bookshop back near our hotel the nice lady recommended I try this book by one of Greece’s more popular authors (She said. I can’t find anything about him).

Krommydas presumably wrote Cave of Silence in Greek as there is a very small credit “Translation-Editing: Maria Christou”, with the publishing info, although there is no Greek publication date. Some of the English constructions are a little clumsy, and some of the proof-reading leaves a bit to be desired (but that is true everywhere, these days) – as in horse’s reigns, for instance – but it reads well enough. The style is a little florid, though that is a function of it being a romance and not of the language.

Finally, as it is “based on a true story”, presumably the massacre by Germans of locals on a Greek island towards the end of the Second World War, I have looked up a bit of the background. The unnamed island* which is the focus of the novel was one of a group (the Dodecanese), with Greek speaking inhabitants, off the coast of Turkey, seized from the Ottoman Empire by Italy in 1912.

In 1939, Italy under the dictator Mussolini invaded Albania and threatened northern Greece. Greek forces resisted successfully until they were overrun by the German Army in 1941. The Dodecanese islands remained under Italian rule until 1943, when Mussolini was deposed. He formed a puppet government in German-controlled northern Italy and the Germans assumed control of the islands, withdrawing only towards the end of the war, when the islands finally reverted to Greece.

The novel takes place in two time-frames. ‘Today’, the narrator, Dimitri, is the male lead in a feature movie being made on another unnamed island in the Dodecanese group. The female lead, Anita, is German of Greek descent. They are in love.

Untamed passion set the rhythm of our movements, while the first rays of sunlight peeked through the thin curtains fluttering in the gentle breeze. We stayed there kissing, breathless, waiting for the intensity of our feelings to subside, letting our selves wallow in them.

“Good morning “, I said, brushing away the long brown locks that fell softly in her eyes. Her smile lit up the room. “Good morning”, she replied softly.

Dimitri has undertaken to spread his uncle’s ashes on the island, from which his mother and his uncle, her older brother, had fled as children, ahead of a German massacre in which their parents had died, at the end of the War. There is a mystery around Dimitri’s mother’s refusal to ever return to the island.

Back in Berlin, Anita’s mother is nursing her dying mother, Eleni, who came to Germany from Greece as a war-bride, also at the end of the war.

‘Before’ is the years up to and during the War. In 1938 Elini is a young woman on the island being brought up by her widower father. She wishes to marry Manolis, a young man who, with his brother operates a flour mill, but first she must spend two years at the University of Pisa where she has a government scholarship to study Italian (the Italians suppressed the use of Greek in island schools). A photograph is taken of her departure for Italy in which she is pictured being held by Manolis. By the time she returns Manolis is about to depart for Greece to fight the Italians. He is captured and for a number of years his whereabouts are unknown.

‘Today’ Dimitri takes a few days off filming and goes to the island, putting up in a b&b, meeting some locals, spreading the ashes. In Berlin, Eleni is about to die and wishes to get some stuff off her chest. There are strange coincidences about Elini’s drawings of a Greek island which Anita’s mother has not seen before and photos Anita has sent from the island neighbouring the one where she is filming. And of course there is the old photo of her mother in the arms of a strange man.

In 1945 Elini has been befriended by one of the occupiers, a German officer in a film-making unit. She rejects his advances. Manolis returns to the island to lead the resistance. Eleni and Manolis finally get to spend one night together. Manolis is betrayed by an informant. The Germans round up the islanders and threaten to kill them if Manolis doesn’t give himself up. He does, but many of them are murdered anyway. A few escape into the mountains and two children escape by boat. Eleni is taken, unwillingly, to Berlin by the German film-maker, who is killed in the last days of the war by Russian bombs.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is joined on the island by Anita, and from one of the escaped villagers they hear the story of the massacre, in which Eleni features as informant and traitor. Dimitri realises that his mother and uncle were the two children who escaped, and that they had apparently been betrayed by Anita’s grandmother. The breach between the lovers is immediate and unbridgeable.

There are of course a few more twists which it would be un-reviewerly of me to reveal, as the novel draws to a satisfactory conclusion.

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Kostas Krommydas, Cave of Silence, Dioptra, Athens, 2016. Translation-Editing: Maria Christou


*Early on, the author refers to the island as Krifó or Kryfó which appears to have the meaning ‘secret’. Googling ‘Krifos’ brings up “an isolated small cove that is located under rocks full of caper and it has a cave. Sweet water streams out of the cave’s bottom” on Leros in the Dodecanese Islands – this pretty much matches “the cave of silence” of the title, though Leros is probably more settled, has more towns, than the island in the novel.

Kalymnos, where George Johnson and Charmian Clift spent a year (here) is also one of the Dodecanese Islands.

Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt

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In recent times it has become apparent that Indigenous Australians were mostly welcoming and helpful to the Europeans who came onto their lands, whether by accident or design, as evidenced by the assistance offered to explorers and escaped convicts; and that narratives about ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’ were fictions designed to “justify” British occupation of Australia and the killing of Indigenous people.

In Finding Eliza (2016) Larissa Behrendt (1969 -), an “Aboriginal lawyer, writer and filmmaker”, makes a compelling case that the story of Eliza Fraser who lived with/was captured by the  Butchulla people on K’gari (Fraser Is., Qld) following the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836 was framed right from the beginning as a tale to serve colonial interests.

Eliza Fraser, aged about 38 at the time of the shipwreck, was the wife of Captain John Fraser and 20 or so years his junior. They had 3 children whom they had left behind in northern Scotland. The Stirling Castle foundered on Swain Reefs near the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, and the crew were making their way south in two boats to the settlement at Moreton Bay (Brisbane) when, after two months, short of water and with talk turning to which of them they would eat first, the captain agreed to risk the ‘savage natives’ and pull into the big sand island now known as Fraser Is.

Briefly, Butchulla people apprehended the whites. Eliza was taken off by the women, daubed with coloured earths and made to assist in the collection of food. Capt Fraser, who was with the men, died. Some of the crew – presumably in the second boat – made the remaining 220 km to Moreton Bay and after 52 days, Eliza was rescued.

Numerous accounts of Eliza Fraser’s ordeal have been produced, starting with her own Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser in 1837, in which Eliza is portrayed “as a vulnerable white woman who finds herself among villainous black people”.  In some accounts Capt Fraser is speared while Eliza hides behind a tree, in others he dies accidentally or of his illnesses. Eliza describes the humiliations of being daubed and forced to work, and claims to have been on the point of meeting a “fate worse than death” when rescuers arrived:

… visited by one of the most ugly and frightful looking Indians that my eyes ever beheld or that the whole island probably contained; with proposals that, ‘as I had lost my mate, I should become his squaw!’

The rescue party was led by a convict, John Graham, who himself had lived for six years with Aboriginals nearby on the mainland. Only a few others of the Stirling Castle’s crew survived, including Harry Youlden who, much later, published an account disputing Eliza’s version and saying that “he and his mate were offered food and that the locals seemed concerned about their welfare.”

Behrendt breaks down the Eliza Fraser story and analyses its separate elements:

White women are pure and virtuous, blacks are savage, cannibalistic, immoral – the superiority of the white is/must be asserted;

White women need men’s protection, black women are their men’s slaves – ignoring Eliza’s agency in surviving where many of the men didn’t; and overlooking women’s status as chattels in British law;

Aboriginal women: mean and jealous – they treat Eliza badly out of envy for the greater attractiveness of her white skin.

As a lawyer (a Doctor of Juridical Science from Harvard!), Behrendt of course asks cui bono, who benefits from the distortions in Eliza’s story. The list is long. Graham, the convict, is rewarded for his ‘bravery’ so it pays him to overstate the barbarism of Eliza’s captors; Eliza herself initially makes her living as the brave woman who survived unimaginable horrors; missionaries use Eliza’s tribulations as proof of the need to bring Christianity to the “savages”; colonialists justify their land-grabs by reference to the unworthiness of the original inhabitants; and above all, the British race must continue to assert its claimed superiority.

Captivity narratives form a part of Australian frontier folklore, and they emerged at a time that has more significance than we might appreciate. The clear inferiority of Aboriginal people and the barbarism of their culture as portrayed in a story like Eliza Fraser’s was relied on to justify their dispossession and to ignore their connections to their traditional country, their own laws, and their own systems of decision-making.

A contrary (and more likely) version of Eliza’s story is told by Aboriginal Elder Olga Miller, from the perspective of the people who rescued, rather than captured, her. The island was experiencing a severe drought and it is unlikely the whites could have survived without assistance. Eliza was severely sunburnt and was painted in grease and ash to alleviate this, and was daubed with a white ochre mark which said to the Butchulla men, “this woman is not to be touched”. Eliza’s fearfulness made her an ungrateful guest, and one who was unwilling to help in the everyday tasks of Butchulla women.

Behrendt then offers a striking, shaming example of a Genuine Frontier Captivity Story under the headings:

… captured by savages …

… suffered cruel abuses at the hands of the savages …

… treated like slaves …

… suffered a fate worse than death …

Under which she inserts testimony not from whites, but from Indigenous people in the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission Bringing Them Home – children torn from their mothers; children in ‘homes’ undernourished and beaten; wages paid into accounts which Indigenous workers never saw (yes, looking at you Qld Government); routine sexual abuse of children in foster care.

Behrendt goes on to discuss other stories which have demonised Aboriginal people, including a scathing review of Katherine Sussannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1928). I have criticised Coonardoo myself as not being the story of an Aboriginal woman, but the story of Hugh, her (white) sometime friend and lover, who abandons her and their son. Behrendt takes this much further and points out Prichard’s no doubt unconscious racism. For instance:

The exploitation of Aboriginal labour under the guise of Hugh and Bessie’s [his mother’s] supposed benevolence is tangible. Mrs Bessie teaches Coonardoo the management of the household and threatens her with haunting and fearful ‘guts-ache’ if she lets Hugh down, no matter what happens.

A message reinforced by the fact that Coonardoo’s mother, herself a house-servant, had been kicked to death by Hugh’s father for failing to carry out his instructions.

Coonardoo becomes ostensibly the slave in the [station] kitchen but she also does the men’s work. She is the provider for her own family in a camp that is rarely referred to in the book, as though her whole life could revolve around the homestead kitchen rather than her family and the land that she loves.

Other books are discussed, not much less extensively, including Liam Davison’s The White Woman (1994) – an historical novel around the myth of a white woman captured by savages; Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976) – which is of course a reimagining of the Eliza Fraser story; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) – a religious allegory demonstrating the superiority of the white man over the cannibals; and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).

There is also a forensic analysis of Elizabeth Durack’s appropriation of Aboriginal culture to create the Uncle Tom-ish Eddie Burrup as a marketing tool for her paintings – incidentally her best work, according to Behrendt.

Durack created a website that featured a constructed account of Eddie Burrup’s life… Eddie’s words appeared in Kriol but were interpreted by Durack, and the website was peppered with Eddie’s totem, the sand crab…

Eddie was a strong supporter of the mining and pastoral industries… Eddie accepted European occupancy as a given… And Eddie had praise for every white authority figure he’d encountered. Even his jailors were ‘all very decent fella’.

Under the headings ‘Cannibalism: Dark Acts on the Frontier’ and ‘Imagining Noble Savages’ Behrendt spreads her net wide, but she brings it all together in the end. Finding Eliza is a surprisingly easy read, a prosecutor’s summing up maybe, with much of the evidentiary heavy lifting left to others, in particular historians Kay Schaffer and Henry Reynolds.

 

Larisa Behrendt, Finding Eliza, UQP, Brisbane, 2016

Further reviews:
Michelle at Adventures in Biography here
Lisa at ANZ LitLovers here
Sue at Whispering Gums on Larissa Behrendt here

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

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Well known – to other people – US author Lionel Shriver only came up on my radar during the Shriver Kerfuffle last year, when she insisted on her right to tell stories from any point of view that she chose. It is not a ‘right’ that I contest, but nor is it one which I endorse. I believe firstly that privileged writers should leave space for less privileged peoples to tell their own stories; and secondly, that as a reader/reviewer I should point out (if I can’t avoid them) stories which are ‘inauthentic’.

With Big Brother (2013) this raises an interesting question. The narrator of this novel is a woman, not a Mexican, nor even a man wearing a sombrero, but a plump Iowan housewife and accidental businesswoman. Still, Shriver in this role doesn’t feel right. My (hastily formed!) impression of her is that she is an angular, east coast intellectual. We soon learn that Pandora, the narrator is from LA – where her father had been the star of a TV sit-com, Joint Custody, about separated parents fighting over their three children – and had moved back to her grandparents’ (and parents’) home state after College, so that is a partial explanation for her not coming across as believably  ‘mid-western’. But as well, throughout the novel I maintained the impression that Pandora was describing feelings rather than feeling them.

In these times you might think that the Big Brother of the title pertains to government oversight, but in fact it is meant literally. When Pandora meets her brother at the airport after they have been some years apart, she discovers he has morphed into a barely ambulant 386 lb mound of blubber. The brother, Edison, is a NY-based jazz pianist who has fallen on hard times and has come to New Holland, outside Cedar Rapids, IA, for an extended stay with Pandora, her husband Fletcher, and her teenage step-children Tanner, 17 and Cody, 13.

There’s plenty to keep you occupied over the 370pp of this novel – Pandora and Edison’s firm conviction that their father’s TV family was more real to him than his actual family, and the way they in turn seemed to match themselves to their fictional counterparts; the success of Pandora’s business manufacturing individualised dolls (for adults), which has ‘gone viral’; the relative failure of Fletcher’s business as an arty furniture maker;  Fletcher’s obsessive bike-riding, food faddishness; the children’s attempts to mark out their own space and so on. And Shriver is a fine writer, you can feel the care with which she places each individual word.

The one aspect of our father’s show that I still admired was its representation of the way siblings live in a separate world from their parents, who for kids function as mere walk-ons. Joint Custody captures the intense, hothouse collusion between siblings, while [the parents] are played for fools. Often ashamed of tugging the children’s loyalties in opposite directions, the parents fail to grasp their kid’s salvation: the children’s uppermost loyalty is to each other.

In the beginning there are the usual marital tensions which arise from one spouse having a sibling to stay (says he who would often be jealous of the times not-then-ex-Mrs Legend stayed up late talking to her sister during her infrequent visits to Melbourne), let alone a sibling who smokes, raids the fridge, is unable to contribute to the budget, leaves his stuff lying around, and breaks the furniture. For two months!

But then Shriver takes it to another level, Pandora tells Fletcher that she is taking an apartment nearby with her brother to supervise his return to his teenage weight of 163 lb. Fletcher tells Pandora that in that case she is not permitted in his house. Not much negotiation going on here, nor any thought of how the apparent abandonment/effective ban on contact may affect the children.  And Pandora still regards herself not only as married, which technically at least she is, but as able to resume normal relations with Fletcher after, as it turns out, a year of almost zero contact.

Here Pandora breaks the news to Tanner, as he waits for his sister after school:

“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” I dived in. “And maybe it’s good Cody’s not here yet. I’ll need you to look out for your sister for a while. You know, the way you used to. I’ll still be a resource of course – “

“So you’re leaving Dad,” he said – matter of fact, with a trace of satisfaction. “Guess he brought it on himself. Least he’ll be the healthiest misery guts in town.”

“I’m not leaving anyone.” Hastily I detailed my grand plan – adding judiciously that I wasn’t at all sure it would work.

He heard me out. “So you’re leaving Dad.”

Rolling my eyes in exasperation, I spotted Cody across the street. She looked stricken. I never showed up in the car like this. Obviously, someone had died.

I waved, and she lumbered up with a pack as big as she was to their Meeting Tree. “What’s cookin’?” she asked warily.

“[the doll business] isn’t enough for her,” said Tanner, “Pando’s starting a fat farm.”

The next half of the novel concerns Edison’s progress towards his target weight on a diet of four protein shakes a day; the effect on Pandora of following the same diet; lots of sibling bonding; and at least some concern for Cody who is in the invidious position of pretending to both her parents that she is on their side.

There is a short, third part, a fashionable, bullshit post-modern ending which makes the reading of all the preceding pages a complete waste of time, which I don’t suppose you can avoid, but which you would do well to skip over.

 

Lionel Shriver, Big Brother, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version read by Alice Rosengard, Blackstone Audio, 2013

Kate W’s review in booksaremyfavouriteandbest here (she likes it!)