True Country, Kim Scott

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I have been reading Kim Scott backwards, starting with That Deadman Dance (2010) and ending up here at his first, True Country (1993). With Benang (1999) and Kayang and Me (2005) – I haven’t read Lost (2006) – this is a fine body of work. The seven year gap back to Scott’s last work is to be filled later this year apparently with a new novel, Taboo which, according to the author, might be about a community reconnecting to its ancestral heritage, seeking healing.

Now that I have reached the beginning, it is apparent that over the course of his career as a writer Scott has been ‘growing into his skin’. Benang and Kayang and Me were accounts of his journey to document his roots as a Noongar man; and That Deadman Dance was a powerful imagining of a specific and very short time after first contact in WA when the locals, Scott’s Noongar people, held the upper hand. True Country is the story of a young man with some Indigenous heritage, who has been brought up ‘white’, feeling his way as a teacher in an Aboriginal community up north, feeling his way from idealism to a realistic appraisal of the dysfunction of a community in which the old ways are lost and the new ways are not taking, feeling his way towards beginning to internalise his own indigenous-ness.

The quality of Scott’s writing is high, as we now expect – descriptive, poetic, original – and the story is told in a number of voices. First and omniscient is a voice which might be the voice of the community:

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

And it is a beautiful place, this place, Call it our country, our country all ‘round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall…

Welcome to you.

Then there is Billy, just arrived to teach the secondary students with wife Liz. Billy’s narration starts out as first person but slides into third person, signifying maybe, his being outside himself, observing, as the community sucks him in. Other voices, Aboriginal, chime in through short chapters and notes.

The novel takes us through one school year, through the seasons of Australia’s tropical north – Wet, Dry, Wet – with little episodes, closely told, reminiscent, in style, of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976). There is no plot, or not at least until you look back and see what has changed.

The story’s fictional township, Karnama, is on the Kimberley coast of northern Western Australia, and consists of a Catholic mission, a government school and an Aboriginal community. So the whites are priests and nuns, another couple with an 8yo son who are also newly arrived teachers, a handyman, and a manager and a young, single woman employed by the community. Police and doctors might fly in from Derby, but are not part of the story.

Interestingly, Liz as a character is only lightly sketched, we see her pale skin and red hair but rarely hear her voice. Scott’s work is always autobiographical and I wonder if he has/had a wife he didn’t want to offend. Jasmine, the single woman, is a bomb waiting to go off, until she makes her choice late in the year. Gerrard, the manager is venal, profiteering from his position, and the other teacher couple are anxious, fearful, educating their son at home by school of the air, not allowing him to mix with the locals. But none of the whites is really observed in any depth, except Billy. This is his novel and he is most interested in his interactions with his pupils and their families.

But Who’s Tellin’ this Story?

That short teacher bloke, he bit like us, but –he Nyungar or what? Look at him, he could be. Why’s he wanna know things? He get to school proper early anyway, sun-up even …

Dry season: early morning cool, and I left the first footprints in the dew on the lawn.

The switching back and forth of the voices serves to integrate us, the reader, into the community, stops us identifying wholly with Billy.

Fatima, on older woman, tells stories which Billy transcribes from his tape recorder and reads back to his class. This is an oral culture, and even while the children are being criticised for their failure to learn from books, they are able to quote great chunks of the videos they watched the previous night. But Billy loses interest in collecting stories, why?

Gabriella is local girl made good, a uni student down south who comes back periodically to observe. Beatrice, initially bright and helpful, falls apart, is passed from doctor to doctor in Darwin and Perth, maybe she has offended the gods. Deslie, one of the older boys, is cheerful and willing but a petrol sniffer. Francis, held back by poor eyesight and broken glasses, meets a sad end.

The men, Milton, Alphonse, Raphael, Sebastian show Billy around. Billy comes back from Derby with a ute and a tinny, spends his spare time on the river fishing for barramundi. There are not many vehicles and wherever they go there are people piled in the back, tourists too if the bus is broken down.

The children are touchy feely and dismissive of boundaries. Billy and Liz accept this, sometimes of course grudgingly, but often with pleasure:

One hot afternoon Billy, Liz, the high school kids, they all went for a swim …  The group moved in two major clusters, divided according to sex. The girls grouped around Liz and Jasmine, with Jasmine the main focus … They laughed, they shrieked, they studied her earrings and hair. They asked the two women about boyfriends, husbands. ‘Mr Storey [Billy] hit you ever? What he like when he drunk?’ … The girls held their guests’ hands and put their arms around their shoulders…

Imagine, again, seeing all this from above … The kids are mostly tight in around those teachers. Black skin looks good in the sun, shiny. Then nearly at High Diving, the kids break away and start to race to the river. They shed clothes on the run. They dive. They spear the water…

As we progress, the mood gets darker, Billy and Liz feel their openness is being taken advantage of. Karnama is a, theoretically, dry community but the whites drink and are observed drinking. The mail plane brings in alcohol. Builders working on new housing don’t employ locals, live in a men’s camp, drink and are visited by the women. Raphael is a bad drunk, beats his wives. The wives seek refuge with Billy and Liz.

A trip to Broome goes badly. The year draws to an end.

True Country is a stunningly well written book and I hope I have given you some sense of that, but it is also a brave book. Kim Scott, through Billy, confronts his fears and prejudices, the packs of half wild dogs which protect each house, the violence, the lack of purpose and the squalor. And, somehow, at the end he finds himself beginning to belong: “See? Now it is done. Now you know. True Country… We are serious. We are grinning. Welcome to you.”

 

Kim Scott, True Country, Fremantle Press, Perth, 1993

See also:
Kim Scott, Benang, 1999 (Review)
Kim Scott & Hazel Brown, Kayang and Me, 2005 (Review)
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, 2010 (Review)

The Cocanarup Massacre

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Kukenarup Memorial (photo, Kim Scott)

It is central to Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) that in the early years of white settlement around ‘Gebalup’ (Ravensthorpe, WA) the matriarch Fanny (Benang) and her white husband Sandy Mason witness a massacre of Fanny’s people gathered around the homestead of the ‘Done’ family.

Not far from the homestead Fanny – cautiously peering from the load, peeking over bales – saw a small group of men women children, running and falling before station men on horseback. (1999, p.174)

… [Sandy] could see figures leaping to their feet, helping one another up, running. And there were voices calling, calling. People fell, were shot. Were shot….

Flames and explosions leapt from beyond the outstretched arms of a man beside him. A Winchester, almost the very latest thing. The man bent over the bodies, lunging and hacking, faceless in the grim darkness.

‘They understand this.’ (1999, p.186)

The knowledge of the deaths and the scattered bones creates an ‘exclusion zone’ to which the narrator is taken by Fanny’s grandsons many years later.

Scott wrote Benang, a fictionalised account of his search for his Noongar ancestry, from bits and pieces of stories and official records. In Kayang & Me (2005), which he co-wrote with Noongar elder, Hazel Brown, he recounts how Benang was just about done when he met Aunty Hazel, and how they turned out to be related, both descendants of Fanny Mason’s family. Of the massacre, Aunty Hazel writes:

Most of my grandmother Monkey’s family were massacred some time after 1880 by white people at a place called Cocanarup , a few miles from the Ravensthorpe townsite. (2005, p.10)

Cocanarup was a property taken up by the Dunn brothers in 1872 as a sheep run. In 1880 John Dunn was killed by spearing, by Granny Monkey’s brother, Yandawalla, for his part in raping a 13 yo Noongar girl. Yandawalla (aka Yangalla) was subsequently tried for murder and acquitted. There was trouble over the next couple of years as Noongars raided the property for sheep and the Dunn’s retaliated. It seems they eventually got a permit “to kill the seventeen people that were residents of that place.” However, unknownst to them there was a meeting of Noongars nearby from the surrounding districts of Hopetoun and Jerdacuttup, to discuss initiations and marriages and so “there was over thirty people that were killed down there.” (2005, p.65)

The oral history passed down to Aunty Hazel is backed up by white histories. Scott reports Marion Brockway as writing in The Dunns of Cocaranup, Early Days (1970):

Terrible stories abound, but cannot be verified, of the vengeance exacted by John’s brothers on the Nyungars. One story is that a number of Aborigines were killed and buried in a mass grave near John’s grave, the site being marked by a circle of posts. The rest of the Nyungars in the vicinity were chased eastward, the Dunns poisoning the waterholes on the way back, to prevent them returning. (2005, p.70).

And Cleve Hassell in his 1973 memoir of his own well-known early settler family “mentions that the three remaining Dunn brothers ‘declared war’ and took it in turns to go shooting Noongars while one was left at home with their sister. He writes that a great many natives were shot.” (2005, p.71)

I got in touch with Professor Scott (Kim Scott is Professor of Writing at Curtin Uni.) and he was kind enough to send me some extra material, photos and extracts from newspapers. These included a full account of Yangalla’s trial, but this summary from the South Australian Register of 26 Nov., 1881 will suffice: “The native Yangala, tried recently for the murder of Mr. John Dunn, has been acquitted owing to the unsatisfactory manner in which the evidence of the black witness was interpreted.” I have commented previously that colonial officialdom often had a much more enlightened attitude towards Aborigines than did settlers at the ‘frontier’. In the trial –presumably in the Perth Supreme Court – His Honour (not named) was pretty sharp with the police over the way they took ‘voluntary’ statements and the Attorney General was quick to withdraw the evidence so obtained.

The following year, in the West Australian of 30 May, 1882 their Albany correspondent reports:

Great dissatisfaction is being expressed by the settlers to the Eastward, more especially by the Messrs. Dunn Bros., as to the want of proper police protection. Most of your readers will remember the painful circumstances of Mr. John Dunn’s death, and the acquittal of the supposed murderers. Since that time it has transpired that the natives did not intend to murder Mr. J. Dunn, but another brother… it is now believed that they still intend to murder the other brother when an opportunity arises, which benevolent intention they will probably carry out if some steps are not taken to prevent them.

In the same paper, three years later on 25 Sept., 1885 it is reported that James Dunn had been attacked on the 15th and on the following day Robert Dunn “went out to ascertain the intentions and strength of the natives. He met forty blacks coming towards the station who immediately attacked him.” Dunn fired, killing one, the Noongars retreated pursued by Dunn who “killed one and wounded several.”

There’s an interview with Robert Dunn, many years later, in the (Perth) Sunday Times of 20 May 1928 but it’s mostly ‘nigger’ this and ‘nigger’ that and doesn’t add much to the account.

Finally, the following appeared in the Western Mail of 17 Oct 1935 under the heading The Skull at Carracarrup, ‘eight miles SSW of Ravensthorpe’ by WIPECO of Leonora who ‘was told the story by Mr. Walter Dunn (now deceased)’:

[After John Dunn’s death] The remaining members on the station were then granted licence to shoot the natives for a period of one month, during which time the fullest advantage was taken of the privilege. Natives were shot from the station through Lime Kiln Flat, Manjitup and down to where Ravensthorpe is now situated. In the course of their guerrilla warfare, the whites arrived one day at the Carracarrup Rock Hole, and, knowing it was a watering place for the blacks, they crept quietly over the hill until they could peer down into the hole. There they saw two natives who had just risen from drinking. Two shots broke the stillness of the gorge and two dusky souls were sent home to their Maker. The bodies were left lying at the rock hole where they dropped as a grim reminder to the rest of the tribe of the white man’s retribution.

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Cocanarup from Kukenarup memorial (photo, Graham Barker)

The Kukenarup memorial, on the South Coast Highway 15 km west of Ravensthorpe overlooks to the south the Cocanarup homestead and massacre site. The memorial, representing Noongar totems, Wedge Tailed Eagles and Mallee Fowl, includes the words:

This area of country has a harsh, complex and sometimes contradictory history. Many Noongar people were killed here, and all that death and the apartheid-like 20th century legislation meant many of our families were never able to return and reconcile themselves to what had happened.

The fiction of Terra Nullius has meant that the Cocanarup and similar massacres, not to mention all the deaths of Indigenous people from mistreatment and deprivation of resources, have too often been whitewashed out of official histories. We can only that hope our wilful forgetting is at long last in the process of being reversed, for without knowledge and then acknowledgement, there cannot be Reconciliation.


See also: Bob Howard, Noongar Resistance on the South Coast 1830-1890 (here)

For further information you should search on ‘Cocanarup’, ‘Kukenarup’ and ‘Ravensthorpe Massacre’. Google Map (here).

Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1999 (review here)

Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang & Me, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2005 (review here)

Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador 2010 (review here)

My post on the Pinjarra Massacre of 1834 (here)

Kayang & Me, Kim Scott and Hazel Brown

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Kim Scott’s writing over a number of books is a voyage of discovery of his antecedents as a Noongar man, that is of the Indigenous people of Western Australia’s South-West. The Wilomin, to whom Scott has found he belongs, are the eastern-most sub-group of the Noongar, occupying sandy, mallee country along the south coast between Bremer Bay and Esperance and inland around Ravensthorpe, the territory covered by his much awarded novel, Benang (1999). His later novel That Deadman Dance (2010) was set further west, around Albany and the jarrah forested Stirling Ranges, although characters and geography overlap between the two novels, even if the names they are given differ.

In Kayang & Me Scott and his Aunty Hazel alternate in telling stories around Scott’s Noongar heritage. Different fonts are used so it is always clear who is talking. Kayang, by the way, has the meanings ‘Aunty’ and ‘Elder’. Scott says:

Most of Aunty Hazel’s writing in this book comes from transcriptions of tape-recordings we did together. That method created some difficult decisions for us, most of which could be reduced to the particular problem of how to capture the distinctive nature of her speech while allowing it to be relatively smooth to read on the page.

Aunty Hazel, Hazel Brown “was born on the ninth of November 1925, at a place called Kendenup [north of Albany]… I was born in an old packing shed. Years ago no women had their babies in hospital, you weren’t allowed to.” Her mother, Nellie, who had a white father, had been taken from her home at Marble Bar and sent 2,000 km south to Carrolup Native Settlement where, perhaps to cure her running away, she was made to marry a Wiloman man, Yiller, who died when Hazel was 5. Nellie, who by then also had a son, Lenny, then married Yiller’s brother, Fred Tjinjel Roberts, and Hazel grew up with her brothers and sisters and her father’s “full blood relations”, living a relatively traditional life in the Ravensthorpe/Wilomin region, while her father worked as a farm-hand and shearer.

My father’s father was called Bob Roberts (also known as Pirrup) and his mother was known as Monkey… Most of my grandmother Monkey’s family were massacred* some time after 1880 by white people at place called Cocanarup, a few miles from Ravensthorpe.

Kim Scott (1957- ) writes “my father, Tommy Scott, was the only surviving child to an Aboriginal woman who died when he was ten years old, after which his Aboriginal grandmother continued to raise him until his Scottish father arranged boarding schools …”. He died young, in his thirties. Scott remembers him telling him to be proud of his ‘Aboriginal descent’. Growing up, in Albany, Scott knew very few of his extended indigenous family, and only some of those identified as Noongar, but he was aware that his father’s mother and grandmother had lived around Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.

As an adult enquiring after his family he was told, “go see Aunty Hazel. They reckoned Hazel Brown knew everyone who lived around Ravensthorpe.” And so it turned out, her husband and Scott’s father had been drinking buddies. “Your father was my cousin, she told me.” Scott had already put in a great deal of research to come up with the material that underlies Benang, now Aunty Hazel was able to flesh it out. The starting point from Scott’s notes was his great grandmother Granny (Fanny) Winnery, who Hazel remembered as Pirrup’s sister, having often visited her in Ravensthorpe as a young girl. Granny Winnery and Pirrup’s father, Old Bob Roberts, appears to be the ‘Bob’ recorded as guiding Surveyor General JS Roe along the south coast in 1849, and who ended up as a hated ‘black tracker’.

Hazel has stories of Old Bob and his brothers and sisters, who married whom, working for early settlers the Hassells, shepherding and on the wagons running from the coast to Balladonia 300 km inland. All of which Scott must reconcile with scanty written accounts.

Old Fanny Winnery, she had two daughters, didn’t she? She had two daughters. That’s right! Married Coleman twins. And after that one of their girls married the Scott.

Fanny Winnery is recorded as having given birth to a daughter at a camp east of Esperance, the father’s name given as John Mason. Mason had been a sailor and Scott finds an account, by a settler, of a marriage between a ‘Jack Tar’ who is shepherding for him, and an Aboriginal woman who was probably Fanny. More information comes from the records of the Chief Protector, enquiring after a John Mason who served in the First World War. He is the son of Jack Mason and Fanny ‘Pinyan’. Fanny died in 1913, in the house of her son in law Daniel Coleman, and she and Jack were buried together in Ravensthorpe. These names of course are all familiar to us from Benang.

Scott goes down to Ravensthorpe with Hazel’s brother, Lomas Roberts who is documenting a Native Title claim, to visit long time resident, Mrs Cox –

‘And you must have known Kimmy’s father’, Uncle Lomas said.

‘Oh yes’, she said, bursting into a smile, ‘I went to school with Tommy Scott.’

She remembered my grandmother too.

That was Harriette Coleman, daughter of Fanny, and mother of Scott’s Uncle Will. You can see the problem though – Fanny Winnery was dead before Aunty Hazel was born, so the Granny ‘Winnery’ she remembers seeing must have been Harriette. Reconciling Hazel’s oral genealogy with his ‘scraps of paper’ became a problem for Scott and held up the writing of this book. In the meanwhile we learn a great deal about the history of White/Noongar relations from both Scott and from Aunty Hazel, the murders, the imprisonments on Rottnest and other islands, the apartheid-like impact of the 1905 Aborigines Act, the ‘colour bar’ in country towns, the deaths caused by doctors refusing to treat black children.

But Aunty Hazel is a woman who knows her own mind, she and her husband had friends in the white community, and not all her stories are dark. At one time in the thirties a very young Hazel and her family were walking along a track between Ravensthorpe and Esperance –

Now these people came along. They had an old black motor and I don’t know … it was like a square top and it had a funny little front. It was like a little ute. … She was a woman that was going through to Esperance, and she was going to South Australia, and in some way she was connected to Daisy Bates. … she started sending Mummy the funny little magazine that Daisy Bates made.

Scott doesn’t speculate as to who this might have been. Ernestine Hill went from WA at this time to meet Bates, but by train. And she did her trans-Nularbor road trip with Henrietta Drake-Brockman in 1947 when Hazel would have been 22.

Aunty Hazel lectures Scott on truth in story telling, even when it’s told different each time: “We don’t wanna bore people, unna? We wanna tell a good story. You should know that better than me, you s’posed to be the writer.” This is a fascinating book, of genealogical enquiry, of the details of an almost forgotten way of life, of Scott’s attempts to interpret and interrogate his Noongar heritage. Aunty Hazel is a wonderful story teller and of course Scott is one of our finest writers.

Here is Scott’s (confronting) conclusion, which I think ties in with what I’ve be I’ve been trying to say about leaving space for Indigenous writers –

In order to strengthen Indigenous communities – and that’s the only means by which an Australian nation-state will have any chance of grafting onto Indigenous roots – we need some sort of ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies, a moratorium, a time of exclusion to allow communities to consolidate their heritages. After that, exchange and interaction from relatively equal positions should be possible, because that’s how cultural forms are tested and grow.

Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang & Me, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2005

See also: my reviews of Benang (here) and That Deadman Dance (here)


*I have not said any more about the Cocanorup massacre because there is too much to say. The authors provide pages of recollections, but as Scott says there is very little documentation.  A search on Google brings up nothing and on Trove, one account of an expedition to the Goldfields in 1890. If I can I may put up more in a separate post at a later date. I have overcome these difficulties (with some assistance) and will put up a post on the massacre in a few days.

Benang, Kim Scott

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Benang is a great, swirling, discursive voyage of discovery; of a young man brought up White uniting the documentary evidence collated by his White grandfather with the family histories revealed to him over the course of the novel by his Black uncles; of a family raped and pillaged, figuratively and literally, by white settlers, by racism institutionalised by the 1905 Aborigines Act*, and by the infamous Western Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville.

Kim Scott (1957- ) is an Indigenous Australian, of mixed Black and White heritage, which this novel explores; a Nyoongar, which is to say, of those people whose country is the south-western portion of Western Australia (from south of Geraldton to west of Esperance); and of the Wirlomin, the south-easternmost of 14 language groups making up the Nyoongar.

The towns at the centre of Benang – Wirlup Haven on the coast and Gebalup 50 km inland – correspond to the towns of Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe in the heart of Wirlomin country. Other towns mentioned, Kylie Bay and Frederickstown, seem to correspond to Bremer Bay and Albany. The land, these days largely cleared for cropping, is sandy, semi-arid and the native vegetation is mostly low scrub. As you go west, towards Albany and the Stirling Range, the climate is wetter and the country more heavily treed.

As ‘I’ – the protagonist’s name, Harley, is only mentioned two or three times through all the 500 pages – explores and has related to him the stories of his family’s ancestry, we range back in time to the middle of the 1800s, not long after first white settlement, when Sandy One Mason, a near-drowned survivor from a capsized sealing boat is cast ashore near Kylie Bay and is taken up by a young Aboriginal woman, given the name Fanny, but whom we learn towards the end of this epic tale has the name amongst her own people of Benang (Sandy and Benang appear again, as Jak Tar and Binyan, in Scott’s later work That Deadman Dance). And although ‘I’ is the conductor of this story and in some ways all that we learn is mediated through him, the heart of the novel is Fanny, the matriarch of her people.

We, the readers, are given the material in the order that ‘I’ receives it and as a lot of what he learns is out of order, doesn’t make sense till later in the book, not all of it is retained, not even by a reviewer taking notes. I’m sure that when I re-read it in the future, as I certainly will, much more will be revealed to me.

As the first-born-successfully-white-man-in-the-family-line I awoke to a terrible pressure, particularly on my nose and forehead, and thought I was blind.

So we learn two things: that ‘I’ is born out of of A.O. Neville’s terrible determination to breed the ‘Black’ out the Aborigines; and that he is, as we learn, effectively weightless – his face is pressed against the ceiling – and possibly crippled, following an accident in which he is instrumental in the death of his father.

When I was seven years old my father gave me to his own father to raise.

My grandfather owned and managed a gentleman’s boarding house.

Granddad – Ernest Solomon Scat – had come out from Scotland and found employment with his ‘cousin’ A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines from 1915-1940, with complete control over the Indigenous population – where they lived, who they could work for and who they could live with. Neville was excessively (obsessively!) concerned with degrees of blackness, believing and writing that the child of an ‘octoroon’ and a white person might be regarded as white. Over and over in this novel Scott’s characters face the dilemma that if they are to be regarded as white, or nearly white – and Neville has the power to issue them with, or deny them permits – then they must stop associating with their darker relatives.

In the course of his work Scat finds his way to Gebalup, an isolated mining town, more than 100 km from the nearest point on the rail network connecting farming communities in WA’s south west, but with its own ‘orphan’ line to the port at Wirlup Haven, and there he decides to stay. Benang commences near the end of Scat’s life. He has had a stroke and is dependent on ‘I’ who is being introduced to his Aboriginal heritage by his uncles Will and Jack and is in turn incorporating this with the material accumulated by Scat, extracts from the 1905 Aborigines Act and from the writings of A.O. Neville, into a family history from which he reads as we go along.

To make a linear summary of a very non-linear narrative, Sandy One and Fanny have 3 children, Sandy Two, Harriette and Dinah. Sandy One makes his living as a teamster, delivering supplies brought in by sea to Wirlup Haven, to as far afield as the Kalgoorlie goldfields, dependent on Fanny’s ability to locate water, edible plants and game. Harriette and Dinah partner (white) twins Daniel and Pat Coolamon. Harriette and Daniel settle in Gebalup where they have children Will and a number of girls who are all, eventually, married off to white men. Pat and Dinah have Kathleen and Jack Chatalong. Pat doesn’t hang around. Dinah is raped by sealers, left for dead on the beach and found by Sandy One and Fanny. Kathleen and Jack Chatalong are brought up in Daniel and Harriette’s compound in Gebalup – Noongars are tolerated in town if they keep out of sight – but Dinah is sent off to the reservation at Mogumber (Moore River), north of Perth, so hundreds of kilometres away.

White settlers rape and massacre a large part of the indigenous population in the Gebalup, Wirlup Haven, Kylie Bay area. Most of the remainder are confined to a ‘camp’ between the Gebalup tip and night soil pits.

Ernest Scat takes Kathleen as his wife but also has indigenous girls as servants who are periodically moved along as they get pregnant. The story of Tommy, ‘I’s father, comes out in bits and pieces only slowly through the course of the novel.

The first strength of Scott’s writing is its poetry (Sandy Two is driving a sulky):

Sandy was alone. The clouds in the sky.

He felt it was almost like sailing. He sailed on a breath of trust toward new country. But the land was not like the sea in that it slowed you, dragged you down to it. It was slow moving.

He read the road. Hooves, wheels, snake.

The gentle jingle jangle of draw bars in their steel rings, clinking of chains, creaking of wagon timbers; the murmuring of iron tyres along a sandy track.

A horse can follow the way and it swings along easily.

Clouds. Sand. Disturbed stones.

It is hard to stay awake.

The footprint of a bird.

And the second strength is the deadpan description of the indignities, the crimes inflicted on Fanny/Benang, her people and her descendants. All the power, all the reader’s indignation, comes from the contrast between the language used, white man’s language, and the actual, often only implied, consequences. So, for instance, a ‘spree’ is for white men a bit of fun after drinking, but for the People whose stories we are hearing these same ‘sprees’ generally involve their rape or murder.

In the end we circle back to the beginning, to Fanny.

Fanny Benang Mason saw her people fall; saw them trembling, nervous, darting glances all about them. Some became swollen, felt themselves burning up. Their skin – too hot to touch – erupted in various forms of sores. People itched, and scratched the skin away, and writhed on the ground with their arses sore from so much shitting, until eventually that ceased and there was only an ooze of mucus and blood.

And always, again and again, even in Granddad’s sources, but never underlined. They shot a lot.

Children, becoming white, gathering at the woodheap, learned to work for indifferent and earnest fathers.

There is much, much more in this novel than I have even touched on. It is a difficult, magical, scarifying work and should be read by every literate Australian. Read it for yourself and see.

 

Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, N.Fremantle, 1999


*”The sixty years from 1881 to the 1940s can be divided into two by the passage of the 1905 Aboriginal Act, which resulted in institutionalised racism and created what amounted to Aboriginal “concentration camps” in which the Aboriginal people were to be confined until the race became extinct.” (Wiki)

Western Australia Aborigines Act 1905 (pdf)

* Noongar account of the impacts of 1905 Act (here). Note: Scott uses the spelling “Nyoongar” and others use other phonetic spellings.


My review of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (here) and a follow-up concerning the Pinjarra Massacre (here)

Lisa at ANZLL posted her impressions on first reading Benang (here)

If you have come to me from ANZ LitLover’s Indigenous Literature Week, coinciding with NAIDOC Week, 3-10 July 2016, then you might want to see other posts I have done in the area of Australian Indigenous Literature over the past year: –

Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, Pictures From My Memory (here) – Autobiography

Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala (here) – Who should write Indigenous stories?

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light (here) – Short stories

and from Michelle at Adventures in Biography –

Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza  (here) – How histories of White/Black interaction are framed to reinforce White privilege.

That Deadman Dance, Kim Scott

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Well, it’s taken me a while to get to Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (2010), but it was worth it and his earlier Benang is beside me in the TBR so now I suppose I must read that too. In fact I listened, rather than read, to the mellifluous tones of Humphrey Bower who, for audio book fans, is the voice of so many Australian books.

This is a historical novel, of first contact. Scott, I think, is at pains, subtly, to emphasise ‘novel’ rather than ‘historical’ with place names King George Town and Cygnet River alluding to the initial white settlements in WA at Albany (on King George Sound) and subsequently at Swan River. Reviewers were quick to point out similarities with The Secret River (2005), Kate Grenville but of course the novel’s real precursor is Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land (1941), a serious first attempt by the dominant white culture to understand both sides of the consequences of first contact at Botany Bay.

Kim Scott grew up on the south coast of Western Australia. As a descendant of those who first created human society along that edge of the ocean, he is proud to be one among those who call themselves Noongar. (Inside cover, Picador 2011 ed.)

So this is the first serious attempt to portray first contact from the other side, the losing side. And yet it is not ‘losing’ that Scott portrays. Rather, it is the attempts of the Noongar to deal with the numerically inferior whites fairly and in accord with custom. And, until the devastating last paragraph, it is an optimistic portrayal. The commonplaces of first contact, rape and murder and even the displacement of the original inhabitants, are largely mentioned obliquely, as happening to someone else and not to the principal (indigenous) characters.

Scott’s style of writing is engaging. He writes in the third person, and in the voice of each person, focusing on a number of characters, settler and Noongar, but circling back repeatedly to Bobby, Wabalanginy to his own people, a baby by his own estimation when the first ship comes in 1826, and who we see grow, but eccentrically, as Scott also circles around in time using the future to illustrate the present and the past.

Scott starts with Bobby practising his letters, but soon introduces Chaine who will become the principal merchant and entrepreneur of the new settlement, and at this point I thought “this is just another whiteman story set in the C19th”. And I was wrong. Scott has the gift of speaking in one voice for the settlers and another, entirely “other” voice for the Noongar. Every time we circle back to Bobby we swoop and swirl with his joy in being alive. In this example Bobby is at sea:

Oh imagine sailing on one of those very fine days on the ocean. Clear sky, sun and bright air, foam and bubbles at bow and wake, and taut, swelling sails, Bobby felt like a bird, rising on a sweep of air; he felt like a dolphin slipping easily in and out of the wave face.

The deck tilted mostly one way, and its regular beat at that angle put a rhythm to Bobby’s step, a walking uphill-downhill thing that, even with no music and no one singing out loud, made him want to dance (p.32)

The optimism of this story, of Bobby’s cooperation with, or cooption into, Chaine’s bustling enterprise, or of the happy marriage of Bobby’s sister Binyan and the white whaler cum shepherd, Jak Tar, is at odds with what we think we know of settler history. And with mostly male protagonists there is an absence too of sexual tension, and so, for a while, there is little narrative drive, but subtly – and there’s that word again- we are made aware that, in the background, there has been change. Bobby and Chaine’s daughter Christine, for many years playmates, are now distant. Bobby as an adult has responsibilities with his people and Christine is to marry the “Governor’s” son (I’m not sure why Scott invented a “governor” for Albany) but when they meet there is a charge between them. Likewise, the easy relationship between Bobby and Chaine evolves without us really noticing until, near the end, Bobby is using his familiarity with Chaine’s farms to raid them for food which Chaine is no longer willing to share, and as the Noongar had shared with the settlers in the past, and Chaine has grown with prosperity into pomposity and inflexibility.

I read recently that The Secret River is now the book most often set as a school text (ahead of My Brilliant Career). If we are serious about Reconciliation then I trust that one day soon that place will be taken by That Deadman Dance.

 

Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador 2010 and on Bolinda Audio, read by Humphrey Bower

See also reviews by:
Whispering Gums
ANZ Lit Lovers
The Resident Judge of Port Phillip