Roots, Alex Haley

Over the past month I’ve been engaged with Liz Dexter and Buried in Print in reading Alex Haley’s seminal, important, groundbreaking 1976 novel of the history of a (his) African American slave family. They will I’m sure put up reviews shortly but having a gap in my schedule so to speak, I’ll put up my initial thoughts now while the main elements of the book – which I listened to while they were reading – are still in my head.

I missed Roots when it was on TV, though of course I didn’t miss the hype, so I’m only now realising why it was so important. And that is that Black Americans were for the first time seeing themselves centre stage, taken seriously, with documentable genealogies.

To start at the end, Haley, a relatively middle-class boy from Tennessee, sat at the feet of his great aunts before WWII and heard the oral history of his mother’s family which began with an ‘African’, Kunta Kinte, captured by slavers as a young man in the late 1760s, transported across the Atlantic, and sold for plantation work on arrival at Annapolis, Maryland.

In the final chapters, Haley describes how some of the names of places and objects, indeed the Kinte name itself, which had been passed down for nearly 200 years, could be identified as from the Mandinka nation of The Gambia, a literate, Muslim people. That this history is now, and was almost immediately, challenged does not affect my reading of the novel.

Roots is a long book, a family saga covering the stories of one or two people over four generations, from before the War of Independence to the period following the Civil War. There are 120 chapters, so we read and discussed between ourselves 30 chapters each week. Which suited me as I could listen to my 7-8 hours each weekend while I was driving, then write it up when I got home.

Haley spends a long time, the first quarter of the book, establishing Kunta as a boy and then young man, learning to read and count, memorizing the Koran, being taught his responsibilities, taken on journeys, meeting people from other tribes with other customs (and languages). He is aware that white men, with the assistance of Africans, are taking people away, overseas, possibly to eat them, but he is not particularly cautious and at about age 18 he is captured.

The voyage to America is horrific, chained in pairs, lying damp and stinking on shelves below decks, frequently whipped, badly fed, a thirty percent death rate. Haley I think does a good job not just of telling the story but of imagining what Kunta must have been thinking and feeling.

In the US Kunta is sold onto a plantation, he is a frequent runaway, and just as frequently recaptured until at last he attacks one of his captors and his foot is chopped off. We then have a long period – 20 years – where Kunta comes to terms with being a slave, living with people who have been slaves for some generations already. Finally he marries, a cook, Bell, and they have one child, a daughter Kizzy.

At 18 Kizzy helps her boyfriend escape. He’s recaptured. She’s sold as a field hand to a small plantation further south (we hear no more of Kunta), is raped by the owner and has a son, George. Unfortunately for us, the new owner makes his money cockfighting, George grows to become his principal trainer, and we learn far too much about ‘chickens’ and the sport/industry surrounding them.

George in turn marries Matilda who is a much better woman than he deserves and they have a whole host of kids. No. 3 (I think) is Tom who apprentices as a blacksmith and grows to become a responsible man and father and head of his family.

This brings us up to the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. The family is largely unaffected by the War but soon afterwards, George who has been away, returns and on his word of a ‘promised land’ in Tennessee, 17 Black families (and one white couple) make their way there in a wagon train, and take up 30 or 40 acre plots on rich soil just opened up for settlement. Tom, despite opposition from the local whites, opens up for business as a blacksmith. And the families settle down to prosper.

That, more or less is the end of the saga. In the space of a chapter or so, Tom’s youngest daughter marries a Haley, who has a lumber business, and so in a couple of generations more we have young Alex.

The prose is undistinguished, just words enough to propel us through the story. We are forever being updated on ‘background’, ie. US history, by slaves telling each other what they had overheard or glimpsed in newspapers, which the other two found less intrusive than I did.

I think Haley’s intention was to do with being Black and proud. The survival of ‘the African’ in his family’s history. What I got out of it was firstly the centrality of the matriarch in each generation, holding the family together, despite the stories mostly revolving around the men; and secondly, once Kunta had been beaten down, the slaves mostly just got on with life, rather as you would with a tedious job you were never able to leave.

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Alex Haley, Roots, first pub. 1976. Audiobook read by Avery Brooks, 2011. 30 hours

see also:
Adventures in reading, running and working from home (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print, Slavery: Past and Present #280898 Reasons (3.5 of 4)
The Australian Legend, Project 2022 – Reading North American Black & Native American Lit.

The Ripping Tree, Nikki Gemmell

Nikki Gemmell (1966- ) is an author I really admire. If I had more time (and energy) I would have made her my feature author for a year as I did with David Ireland a couple of years ago. I have written about her previously so if you want to know more start with my review of After (2017), Gemmell’s memoir of dealing with the death of her mother by her own hand, pre-Assisted Dying laws.

An author I admire, but the rest of the world, not so much. She gets “International Bestselling Author” for The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) but where’s the hype for this, her first novel in eight years, or for that matter, for After, which was a really powerful work, but which attracted just one commenter, as did my previous Gemmell review (thank you, respectively, Sue and Lisa).

I picked up The Ripping Tree as an MP3 CD at my latest library, which means I listened to it a week ago, took no notes and there is almost no textual material online to provide me with reminders.

First up, it’s Historical Fiction. How do I deal with that? It’s not a re-telling of an historical event, but rather an imagined story set in maybe the 1840s on an island or coastal community on the east coast of Australia. I read it as a sermon using an alternative reality to posit a world where a powerless young woman, bereft of everything, down to her own clothing, nevertheless stood up to power both for herself and for the local Aborigines whom the settlers were massacring.

Australian history must be re-written to include the Indigenous massacres, oppression and deaths in custody which from 1788 till today, and no doubt well into the future, enable us to live on this land. Gemmell no doubt is an advocate of this re-writing. But I think that by doing it through Historical Fiction she runs into the old #NotAllMen problem, or in this case #NotAllWhites.

No doubt there were ‘good’ Germans, and there are ‘good’ men, but the Germans have shown that the way forward for them is to accept responsibility for the Holocaust; the South Africans that Truth precedes Reconciliation; women are asking all men to acknowledge their privilege; I am saying ALL non-Indigenous Australians must acknowledge that our prosperity derives from theft and murder. The problem with this book is that it will leave readers with the option of saying ‘well, we weren’t all bad’ when the truth is that right up to today we either participated or looked the other way.

[Does the sensible thing, rings the library, goes and picks up a paper copy].

The novel is framed as a story told by a grandmother to her grandchildren who have been up the coast to visit the ‘stately home’ Willowbrae. “The turrets, the crenellations, the magnificent library, the avenue of elms, the circular flower beds”. But that is just two or three pages, of no consequence.

The novel otherwise, is divided into seven consecutive days and the days into chapters of just a few pages. On day one Thomasina Trelora, 16 years old, from Knockleby, Dorset wakes to find herself in a strange bed, in a girl’s bedroom.

Her father has died. Her half brother has sold the estate to pay his own debts and has brought Thomasina to his home in Australia where she is to marry a clergyman sight unseen. But their ship has missed the harbour entrance in a storm, has smashed on the rocks, and she, the only survivor has washed up onshore, barely conscious, has been rescued by an Aboriginal man

Black. I took the hand in mine and turned it over, held the rescuing fingers close. The hand was darker at the knuckles and ghostly pale underneath, as if the sun had never reached into it, or use had rubbed it light, and there was a paleness under the nails and near them and, no, actually, the skin wasn’t uniformly black at all: the fingernails were yellowed and ridged and strongly thick as if from something else. The ocean perhaps, shells or sea creatures …

who deposits her in the night on the steps of Willowbrae. She determines to keep her name to herself, to avoid the unwanted marriage, and the youngest son of the house, Mouse, names her Poss, for the “opossum that comes in the night and scrambles things up and is really cheeky with lovely big eyes”.

The family in whose house she finds herself, the Craws, consist of mother, father, two adult sons, Tobyn and Virgil, a dead sister in whose bed she is lying, and young Mouse. The two elements of the story are Poss’s refusal to be tied down to a proper feminine role, let alone take the place of the dead sister; and her discovery of a dead Aboriginal mother and baby – and subsequently the dead woman’s young English-speaking daughter – and her determination to have the death investigated, when it’s clear that a) it’s part of a wider policy of ‘dispersing the natives’, and b) that the baby was Virgil’s. The second element is made worse by her further discovery that Mr Craw is sending Aboriginal bones back to England for ‘research’.

A strange Vicar is introduced into the story, a shy, awkward man who offers Poss friendship. But the local townspeople want her gone, and by day seven Poss is facing the very real possibility of life-long incarceration in an institution for unmanageable women.

Mr Craw’s fists smash upon the desk. ‘You’re mad, child. Seeing things. It’s a sign of hysteria – and that ridiculous insistence on men’s clothes was only the start. There’s no “black man” here or anywhere near Willowbrae. You had a blow to the head and need medical help.’ Is he right? No, surely. ‘You need a doctor. Immediately.’

Gemmell is a fine writer and this is a powerful story, full of tension, about an imagined past in which heroic young women fought back against the murder of the original inhabitants. Despite my reservations I enjoyed it. I hope you read it for yourselves.

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Nikki Gemmell, The Ripping Tree, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2001. 340pp. (sorry, I returned the CD without noting the reader. I imagine the running time was about 9 hours).

Nikki Gemmell website (here)

The ‘ripping tree’ is a tree from which the bark may be ripped in sheets. Gemmell says paperbark but (IMO) they are a relatively small tree and the bark comes off in flakes. Perhaps it’s different on the NSW north coast (I’m wrong, see Lisa’s comment below)

Born in to This, Adam Thompson

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

A number of bloggers have got before me to this short story collection by new (43 year old) Indigenous writer Adam Thompson, a Pakana man from northern Tasmania. Not helped by me leaving it at home on my last trip and so missing Lisa’s ANZLL Indig. Lit. Week.

Brona/This Reading Life aka Brona’s Books writes (here): there are powerful and promising things going on here. Some of his stories pack a serious punch, others creep in quietly under your skin. Either way, it is the diversity of characters, settings and tone that is truly impressive.

Kimbofo/Reading Matters’ take is similar (here): Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it… But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos.

And what does Sue/Whispering Gums, who thought to send me this book, say? (here): … these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian.

I, as Sue knows, am not a short story person. Was giving me this book punishment for something I said or did? Am I going to like all or some of these stories? Am I going to be able to say something different? Great questions. Well done Bill. (That’s an Angus Taylor joke. Angus Taylor is an Angus Taylor joke.).

Ok, the first story, The Old Tin Mine was good. An older Indigenous man taking a group of townie Indigenous boys on a survival camp in country he knows, or thinks he knows, comes unstuck.

The second story is better. What’s going on here? A white guy with a Black employee boasts to him about destroying Aboriginal stone implements, “Hope I’m not offending ya.” And he comes unstuck.

The third is more like it, female protagonist/male author, I’m sure not to like it. Kara is a receptionist with a shitty boss and a shitty job. She goes for a quiet walk in the bush on her afternoon off. Both the people she encounters, and the bush are closely observed

The strangers passed, oblivious to her presence. A middle-aged couple, slim and fit. The man had an odd-shaped but well-clipped beard. The woman wore a designer hiking outfit in retro pastel colours. Kara could tell they weren’t from round here. They held themselves – as did all white mainlanders – with that peculiar, assured air. It made them seem taller and more upright than the locals.

Interestingly, the story harks back to the previous story’s stone tools. As a girl she would go out with her uncle, looking for stone tools, photographing them and recording their location.

The walk turns out to have a destination and a purpose. To take a small revenge on the forestry companies replacing native bush with plantation pines. Oh well, perhaps I’ll dislike the next one.

And I did. Well, I thought it – Invasion Day – an awkward evocation of what it is like to be up the front at a protest march.

We go on .. A man alone on an island off the north coast. His uncle who was staying with him, no longer is. A flash cruiser with five police on board brings him a letter. Which he burns. That’s it.

A very good story, a young couple going camping. Is he her trophy Black boyfriend? He certainly thinks she’s his trophy summer girlfriend

‘I’m so sorry’, you blurt out before I can react…
‘For what?’ …
‘For what my people did to yours.’ Your eyes well up again. ‘You owned all this land and now you have to struggle – like now, just to get a camp on the beach.’ Breaking into a sob, you collapse into me…
If you could see my eyes right now, it would kill you to witness them roll in irritation…
‘It’s not your fault,’ I say.
‘You’re so kind,’ you whisper.

A curate’s egg of a story, Mean Girls, aided by teachers, picking on smart Black girl. An awkward story of a white guy at his black mate’s funeral. Another awkward story, awkward in that the writing is stilted, a man waiting on an island for his mate at sea in a tinny in a storm. A not very convincing story about a man and a gun. A silly story about a doctor being shamed into signing his posh house over to a young Aboriginal woman.

“What’s with these acknowledgement of country speeches that kick off every public event these days? It’s all just words! Where is the action? If you acknowledge that this is Aboriginal land, then bloody well give it back, Don’t just say it, do it!”

Then a clever story about a new (Conservative) government policy – every (white) taxpayer gets a letter from one (Black) person on the dole whom they are “sponsoring”. A touching story about … climate change, fathers and sons, a dead child.

A story that points to a missed opportunity – in my eyes only probably – a Black guy at the beach on Invasion Day, flying an Aboriginal flag kite amongst all the whities in their Australia flag picnic chairs, when the Invasion Day story above has already caused a stir.

And finally, “It all started when I discovered my brother was sleeping with my wife …”

How would I describe Born to This? Not so bitsy as some collections. But still a missed opportunity to write something more cohesive, stories which point back to each other, which are connected not just by a shared geography but by recurring characters and families. With a bit more effort Thompson may have turned out, if not Olive Kitteridge, which revolves around one person, then at least The Turning, which involves an extended community seen from multiple viewpoints (and times).

My other problem is my problem – I don’t like authors who step outside their own POV. But, for all you (strange) readers who don’t mind that, who actually like short stories, what can I say? What they said, ” punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia.

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Adam Thompson, Born in to This, UQP, Brisbane, 2021. 206pp, Cover painting and artwork between stories, Judith-Rose Thomas

Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

Dark Emu (2018) has been well reviewed over the past two or three years, and as Lisa/ANZLL sent me my copy more or less at the beginning of that period I have been remiss in not reviewing it earlier. Pascoe, a man of Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage, of course uses this book to argue that the Indigenous people of Australia were much more than ‘just’ hunter-gatherers, but were in fact custodians of the land who built houses, sowed grain and had a pan-continental system of governance that allowed the various language groups to live largely in harmony.

The advantage of my review being late is that I will be able to incorporate some recent papers which argue that Pascoe has overstated his case. At the base of these arguments is a new book by “eminent Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and respected field archaeologist Keryn Walshe”, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021). No, I’m not going to read it, but the book has led to spirited reviews in The Conversation and in the daily newspapers. Pascoe has responded that he welcomes this debate.

ANU senior lecturer Christine Nicholls in her review in The Conversation of 15 June 2021 says that Sutton & Walsh demonstrate that Pascoe was selective in the way he used sources – the journals of early explorers – to imply that “all along Aboriginal people were farmers and/or aquaculturalists”, and that he deliberately failed to interview the few remaining people who have led or are leading, traditional lives [see for instance Two Sisters]. Though the two books are sometimes in agreement –

[Sutton & Walsh] portray classical Australian Aboriginal people as highly successful hunter-gatherers and fishers. They strongly repudiate racist notions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers as living in a primitive state. In their book, they assert there was and is nothing “simple” or “primitive” about hunter-gatherer-fishers’ labour practices. This complexity was, and in many cases, still is, underpinned by high levels of spiritual/cultural belief.

Nicholls

Right at the beginning of Dark Emu, Pascoe makes clear that his concern is the system 18th and 19th century anthropologists used to rank societies – with hunter-gatherers at the bottom, then primitive agriculturalists, then traders and so on. By ranking them at the very lowest rung, the British were able to argue that Indigenous Australians had made no attempt to take possession of the land and therefore it was technically unoccupied, terra nullius. The concept of living in harmony with the land, which is the basis of Sutton & Walsh’s argument, was ignored, or to be kind, not understood. Pascoe, understandably perhaps, attempts to make his argument on his opponents’ terms, attempts to show that his people were above that lowest rung.

Hunter-gatherer and farmer are both settler/colonial labels, and the long prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (as a justification for terra nullius)

Pascoe, The Age, 12 June 2021

Michael Westaway, an archeologist, also in The Conversation (18 June 2021), is open to Pascoe’s views and is testing them at the site of known village and Indigenous stone quarry in the Channel Country in central Australia

We have been working in a landscape that provides an important test of the Dark Emu hypothesis. In partnership with the Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation, who occupy the Channel Country in Central Australia, we have begun investigating Aboriginal settlement sites, pit dwelling huts (known as gunyahs) and quarries.

Our landscape study, published in the journal Antiquity, has found over 140 quarry sites, where rock was excavated to produce seed grinding stones. We have also developed a method to locate traces of long-lost village sites.

Were First Australians farmers or hunter-gatherers? Contemporary archaeological research suggests it’s not such a simple dichotomy. Understanding the Mithaka food production system may well tell us whether such terms are a good fit for defining socio-economic networks in Aboriginal Australia.

Westaway

Stuart Rintoul in The Age, in a “review” which illustrates perfectly why I can’t be bothered with mainstream media’s focus on personalities over books and ideas, discusses the background to the Sutton & Walsh book, and also the racist response of the right to Dark Emu.

And that is as far as I got before I left Perth last week to come to Melbourne. Now, the following Thursday night I’m sitting have tea waiting till it’s time to leave (due to boring logbook stuff) to go back home. If I don’t post this tonight then my next opportunity will be next Wednesday. I’m a big fan of Lisa’s Indig. Lit. Week and I’d be sorry not to contribute. I’m already sorry about not commenting, not to Lisa’s daily posts, nor to BIP’s prolific #ReadIndigenous series. I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do. Yes, I know we all do what we can, but I’m still sorry (sad).

As it happens, my current audiobook is Archie Roach’s memoir Tell Me Why. If you don’t know, Archie Roach is one of the great singer songwriters – I last saw him at Perth’s Quarry Amphitheatre, a wonderful venue and a great night – Indigenous, and of course, one of the Stolen Generation (here’s They took the Children Away). I’ll try and remember enough to review it when I get home.

So, back to Bruce. Dark Emu concludes with

The start of that journey [to equality] is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Stirring words. My impression is that Pascoe has put the advocate’s case, his people’s case, and has done it well, though probably with some understandable hype. He has certainly made the impression he wished and has in particular had some influence on how Aboriginal history is now taught. More power to his elbow.

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Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala, Broome, first pub. 2014. New edition 2018. 229pp.
Christine Nicholls, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, The Conversation, 15 June 2021 (here)
Michael Westaway, How our archeological research investigates Dark Emu’s idea of Aboriginal ‘Agriculture’ and Villages, The Conversation, 18 June 2021 (here)
Stuart Rintoul, Has Dark Emu been debunked?, The Age, 12 June 2021 (here)
Mark McKenna, Bruce Pascoe has welcomed the Dark Emu debate, The Guardian, 25 June 2021 (here)

Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston

I’m sure you know, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an influential Black American woman writer and anthropologist whose most famous novel is Their Eyes were watching God (1937). Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) was her first. I have been aware of her for some time – three or four years – as she comes up pretty regularly on Melanie’s blog, Grab the Lapels.

“The novel is semi-autobiographical, describing the migration of characters, similar to her parents, from Notasulga, Alabama to her long-time home of Eatonville, Florida” (Wiki). That’s an interesting statement, as the beginning of the novel feels as if it is in the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War (1861-65), compared with Hurston’s birth year 1891.

When Old Massa wuz drivin’ you in de rain and in de col’ – he wasn’t don’ it tuh he’p you ‘long. He wuz lookin’ out for hisself. Course Ah was twelve years old when Lee made de big surrender ..

John’s mother talking to his father (p. 5)

John Buddy is 16 here and his mother was probably 16 when she had him, so we’re talking 1885, which until I “did the math”, is later than I expected. Don’t you love how she dates the abolition of slavery from “de big surrender”. Ned, John’s father, drives his children “in de rain and in de col'”, sharecropping for poor white landholders in backwoods Alabama, who inevitably steal his share of the crop. In these opening pages we learn that John is Ned’s stepson, that his father is white, and that he is physically big. When Ned takes a whip to his wife, John knocks him down and leaves to seek his fortune on the other side of Big Creek, at the Pearson property where his mother was from.

Although you might think that other characters – friends, neighbours, family – might play a part, they soon drop off, this is entirely John’s story – fictionalised biography, not autobiography. Hurston never speculates about John’s parentage, but on his arrival at the Pearson estate, we see that he is about Pearson’s build, he is warmly welcomed, and he takes Pearson as his surname. There, he begins attending school, sees a railway train for the first time, learns slowly to read and write, works his way up into positions of responsibility, joins the choir to be near very smart twelve year old Lucy Potts whose father is an independent landowner, and is set upon by all the buxom teenage girls.

He has to go away for a while to help out his stepfather. He exchanges notes with Lucy, is soon back and they are walking out under the strict supervision of Mrs Potts who has promised her to another old farmer. And when Lucy turns 16 they are married.

They start having children, John is forever giving into the buxom girls and women who continue to beset him (Zora doesn’t apportion much blame to her father). He is obliged to leave the Pearson place and with a considerable gift from old Pearson, John makes his way to Florida where he becomes a powerful gospel preacher. Now, that’s enough of the story. If you really want to know, when John is old he drives his new Cadillac in front of a freight train, and that’s the end of him.

The importance of this work is of course the first hand account of the post-slavery years in the South, but more than that, it is the beauty and originality of the language. This is not some heavy handed Peter Carey reconstruction (Ned Kelly, Jack Maggs), but a poet writing as she and the people around her speak.

The rhythms of John’s preaching, the rhythms of their partying and dancing are the rhythms of Africa –

Furious music of the little drum whose body was still in Africa, but whose soul sung around a fire in Alabama. Flourish. Break.

Ole cow died in Tennessee
Send her jawbone back to me
Jawbone Walk, Jawbone Talk
Jawbone eat wid uh knife and fork.
Aint Ah right?

CHORUS: Yeah!
Ain’t I right? Yeah!

Hollow-hand clapping for the bass notes. Heel and toe stomping for the little one. Ibo tune corrupted with Nango. Congo gods talking in Alabama.

As it happens, the book I read and wrote up before this one was Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel (to be posted in January). Stead’s protagonist is a German-Swiss, the guests are English, French, Swiss, Italian and the maids have their own language from whichever region of Italy they are from. So I’ve been thinking a lot about rendering language into English, which of course is a problem here too in Australia.

I love Hurston’s approach: This is the way we speak, suck it up!

It is very easy – and far too common – to dismiss non-received English as Pidgin. But Hurston demonstrates that yes, poor Black Americans must speak some English to communicate with their masters/employers, but also that they have language histories of their own, to which they will not let go.

Before he is made to leave Alabama, John often leads the prayers –

John never made a balk at prayer. Some new figure, some new praise-giving name for God, every time he knelt in church. He rolled his African drum up to the altar, and called his Congo Gods by Christian names. One night at the altar-call he cried out his barbaric poetry to his ‘Wonder-workin’ God so effectively that three converts came thru religion under the sound of his voice.

But in the end, John is a weak vessel, not worthy of Lucy, boastful and heedless of Lucy’s greater wisdom. Lucy, in fact would have been a much more interesting subject. And I hope a least one of Hurston’s other novels has a female protagonist. Eatonville, Florida was an all-Black town, indeed Pearson was for a while mayor, and Hurston was able to grow up as her mother intended, away from prejudice. John and Lucy’s children play such a small part in the story that I didn’t take the time to work out which one of them she was.

This is a fascinating story, of a flawed man, written with great poetry. There is an Introduction, written by someone I don’t know, about the influence Hurston had on that person, so I skipped it. But I will be looking for more.

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Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, first pub. 1934. This edition Virago, London, 2020. 215pp.

Setting Out

Journal: 050

20200606_131642

I’m setting out on this post with no clear idea of where it will end up. It’s Sunday 6.46 am and in a few hours I am setting out on another trip to Melbourne (from Perth WA if you’re new here). Yesterday I was planning to go half empty but a truck came up on Loadshift, I tendered my usual price, within 15 minutes I had the job, within 3 hours the truck was loaded and back in the yard (my mate’s back paddock).

Today, I’ll run that trailer ‘up the hill’ to the assembly area on the highway south, go back for the other two, and head down to Esperance, 800 km away on the south coast, to load scrap steel. Then it’s off across the Nullarbor, to the northern outskirts of Adelaide, then for the first time as a road train in my old home state, across the north west corner of Victoria and down the river, on the NSW side, to Echuca (map). Break up, run one trailer into Melbourne, then the other two to Wodonga where the steel is remade in an electric arc furnace. Which should put me empty in Melbourne Friday too late to load out.

Sue (WG), who is flat out getting her elderly parents settled in new nursing accommodation (I think at 90 and 100 it’s safe to say elderly), says I should cherish my mother while I have her, so I guess it’s out to mum’s for the weekend.

If you follow Whispering Gums, and doesn’t everyone, you’ll see she’s running a series called Bill Curates, which is me choosing representative posts from her back catalogue – I’ve made my way so far from May to June 2009 – picking out items to repost. Lots of fun for very little effort. A good way, as Karen/Booker Talk suggested in her excellent A to Z of Blogging, of revisiting material not seen by most of her followers, and a good way too of keeping Whispering Gums ticking over while Sue is so busy.

I have to write Journals because I read so little, even when I have “days off”, which mostly involves moving trucks and trailers from one spot to another to get them repaired or serviced or new tyres, or a paint job and new guards (mudguards) as with the trailer immediately behind my ute in the picture above, white and light blue is going to be my new colour scheme, not to mention keeping my bookwork up to date, though none of that explains why I read only a few pages in the evening, catch up on the news, solve a killer sudoku and am fast asleep by 10pm.

Remember, four months ago, when ‘the news’ was that the Australian government was doing nothing about climate change, then bushfires across half the continent made even the Liberal Party aware that climate change was here now, and just when we thought something might happen Covid-19 wiped everything else off the front pages and the Morrison (and Trump) governments took the opportunity to begin sabotaging every remaining climate initiative they could think of, and now the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has wiped Covid-19 off the front pages, except for the relatives of 110,000 people killed by Trump’s willful negligence, but of course it couldn’t happen here. Except it does.

“there’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. I mean, Australia is a fair country … I mean, Australia is not the United States.” [Prime Minister Morrison]

African Americans make up 12% of the adult population, but 33% of the US prison population; in Australia the ratio for Indigenous people is 3% of the population and 29% of the prisoners. [Greg Jericho, Guardian Australia, 7 June 2020]

Do the maths. Black Australians are FOUR times more likely to be jailed than Black Americans and TEN times more likely to be jailed than white Australians.

Since 1991 and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 432 Indigenous people in prison or in the hands of police have died and not one person has been convicted of any offence in connection with those deaths.

That is the Australia we live in, whether we set out to achieve it or not, an Australia founded on the murder of its original inhabitants, as I have attempted to document, and in which those murders continue today, unpunished.

 

Remember: Indigenous Literature Week (July 5-12, 2020) on ANZLitlovers

 

Recent audiobooks 

Stephanie Laurens (F, Aus), Four in Hand (1993) – Romance
as far as I can tell, Laurens has lived in England for a long time, but she does have some reviews on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database. I should contribute another.
Janet Evanovich (F, USA), Seven Up (2001) – Crime
Camilla Lackberg (F, Swe), The Lost Boy (2013) – Crime
Anne McCaffery (F, USA), Damia (1992) – SF
Susan Choi (F, USA), The Foreign Student (1998)
Blake Crouch (M, USA), Good Behaviour (2016) – DNF
Belinda Alexandra (F, Aus), Silver Wattle (2007) – DNF

Currently reading

Patrick White, The Cockatoos
Majorie Barnard, Miles Franklin
Flannery O’Connor, Complete Stories
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (I just bought it, I hope I start reading it)

 

The Foreign Student, Susan Choi

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Susan Choi, born 1969, is an American novelist who had a Korean father and a (presumably white American) Jewish mother. The Foreign Student (1998), her first novel, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction. Choi did her MFA at Cornell, and going by the dates, the novel was her Masters project. I tell you all that to provide context for what I want to say about the book, the audiobook version of which, read by Daniel Isaac, I listened to last week.

Further context is provided by the recent murder of Black American George Floyd in police custody and the ensuing riots. And if you wonder what my opinion is about them, then I think that setting fire to Minneapolis Police Headquarters is the least that the protesters should have done.

The Foreign Student is a discussion of race and ethnicity in the US masquerading as gentle, historical fiction, with a good, old-fashioned eternal triangle. The setting is the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, which Wikipedia assures me is a real place, in 1955-56. As you most likely know, I dislike historical fiction and one of the reasons is that feeling of the writer being in the now and writing of a period which is not-now. Choi amazingly avoids that feeling altogether. This is a novel which feels as though it was written in 1956.

And so we get to race. This is a novel which feels as though it was written in 1956 by a Southerner. As you can imagine, all the domestic staff at Sewanee are Black and they are invariably and without qualification referred to as ‘boys’. If you have been following along with Melanie/GTL’s Flannery O’Connor short stories series you will know what I mean about that feeling of privileged whites only slowly coming to grips with the early days of desegregation.

I read/discuss US novels about race to help get a handle on racism in Australia. The George Floyd riots have generated an impassioned response to the it-couldn’t-happen-here crowd with a reminder of our own disgraceful record of Black deaths in custody, including the “I can’t breathe” death of David Dungay. It seems to me though that the tremendous problem of anti-Black racism in America overshadows the disadvantaged position of First Nations’ peoples, while in Australia the two problems are of course combined.

The Foreign Student begins with a young Korean man being dropped off by his taxi at the beginning of the long uphill driveway to Sewanee and being picked up by a good looking young white woman in a little yellow open-top British sports car (I’m only guessing a 1954 MG).
1954 MG TF Right Hand Drive Roadster | Beverly Hills Car Club
The two are Chang (Chuck) Anh, 24 and Katherine Monroe, 28. Katherine lives in the house in Sewanee left to her by her father and which her parents gave up forever years earlier when Katherine, then 14, began an affair with her father’s best friend professor Charles Addison.

Chuck has been accepted at Sewanee as an international student on full scholarship; Addison, in his late fifties, is still at Sewanee, his career having stalled, his affair with Katherine having been renewed, is slowly moving towards marriage; Katherine never made it to college, has returned to Sewanee after years away, and now leads a pointless existence running errands for friends in her little yellow roadster.

Katherine and Chuck slowly become interested in each other and Addison is left more and more by the wayside. Which is all you need to know about the romance side. It would be interesting to know how much of Chuck’s story is Choi’s father’s story. Choi uses Chuck’s being Korean as a sort of bridge between Black and White. So that Chuck as a student is White and his attempts to communicate with the servants are knocked back. When Chuck is the only student staying on over summer it is organized for him to eat in the servants’ dining room, but he is so uncomfortable about being seated separately and waited on that he takes (and makes) all further meals in his room. But later, when he must be punished for a breach of the rules, he is treated by the Administration as colored and given a job in the kitchen where he is at last able to be friends with the staff.

For a short while that same summer he has a job with a bookbinder in Chicago where interestingly he is generally treated as Japanese, which language he speaks. Throughout the novel we work our way through Chuck’s back story, his father a professor in Seoul collaborating cooperating with the Japanese occupation when he was a child and then the dark years of the Korean War, communist occupation of Seoul (twice) and the corrupt US-supported dictatorship of Syngman Rhee. Chuck variously works as a translator for US Intelligence and is imprisoned and tortured by his own government.

Choi grew up in Texas and went to university at Yale and Cornell, so this is not home territory for her. If her father did attend the University of the South that would be interesting, but even if he did not, setting her story there enables us to contrast the experience of being Korean in America with that of being Black in America without having to paint it on with a trowel. Highly recommended.

 

Susan Choi, The Foreign Student, first pub. 1998. Blackstone Audio 2019, read by Daniel K Isaac

Traveller Inceptio, Rob Shackleford

Traveller inceptio

An Open Letter to the Author

Rob,

Your letter to me began –

Hi!

My name is Rob and I’m an Australian author.

My book ‘Traveller Inceptio’ has been recently published by Austin Macauley and I’m shooting this email to see if you might be interested in casting your eye over it.

Traveller-Inceptio is a gentle Sci-Fi that blends the genres of Historical Fiction and Action / Adventure, with a dash of Romance thrown in.

I’m used to Science Fiction and to the awkwardness of the often geeky (sorry!) types who write it and are its biggest fans. So I mostly regarded your overstretched prose, your blonde heroes, the few token women, and the fewer token people of colour with tolerance. But around half-way through, at Loc 5500, I got angry.

Your words were –

Vague surprise on their simian faces, they shrugged and wandered into the crowd to cruise for any infraction, real or imagined, that would allow them to instigate a forced ejection and the occasional thump if resisted.

I’m sure you know that ‘simian’ means “monkey or ape-like”. This is SF, you may have been referring to aliens or to humanised apes, but in fact the people you are describing are the security staff at an Auckland night club, “bull-necked Pacific Islander[s]”. There are many situations where the use of ‘simian’ in this context could see you in jail or cost you your job. Your usage is made more egregious here because it is in the context of brave white soldier heroes seeing off bullyin, cowardly Maoris.

The antagonist was big and beefy, with the arrogance and barely contained violence of a football player… The Maori looked to his back-up in delight, and they seemed to swell in size and threat.

I do have a second, related area of complaint that I might have discussed in the normal course of a  review and that is from when the initial time travellers, in Queensland, run into a party of Aboriginal men.

… three bearded and naked aboriginal men stood by the fishing line, eyes comically wide in terror as they stared.

What can I say? The Black man with his “eyes comically wide in terror” is a trope of the Jim Crow era, and I struggle to see how you might be so ignorant as to use it here. Further, ‘aboriginal’ should no more be uncapitalised than ‘Australian’ or ‘Shackleford’. You compound these errors, at Loc 3375/Chapter 29, by purporting to describe the encounter, including its religious and spiritual significance, from the Aboriginals’ point of view. This is a form of racism, sadly all too common in White writers, called ‘appropriation’. Look it up.

I can only hope the offence you have given here was unintended and that your book is taken down until it is rectified.

yours faithfully,

Bill Holloway


 

Traveller Inceptio begins with a group of graduate students in Queensland getting funding to invent a 3D scanner for baggage through customs. They set up in a shed on the beach near the mouth of the Maroochy River (so two of the researcher dudes can go surfing every morning) and an accidental bump to the wiring of their prototype turns the scanner into a transmitter able to send and recover people 1,000 years back in time.

Because, and the author really says this, armies are mostly white and male, half a dozen white, male soldiers from SAS regiments in Australia, NZ, UK, Canada and USA are trained to return to Saxon England – during the Danish invasions at the time of Etherald the Unready, prior to the Norman invasion of 1066 – because they’ll fit in.

Two story lines proceed in alternating chapters – the grad students set up their workshop, make their discovery, deal with their commercial sponsors, the university, Australian and US spooks; a man called Michael wanders through Nottingham Forest (its Saxon name is Snot-something), meets primitive but civilised villagers etc.. The grad student story fades away and is replaced by SAS men training to be Saxon warriors. And it all comes together in a series of very gory battles – not to my taste but I think I understand the point the author was trying to make.

The writing is over-descriptive, but does settle down after a while. There are token women, but that is a given in mainstream SF, of course they are all beautiful and good in bed (SF writers get their sex education from Playboy), except for one geeky woman who is also good in bed but of course wears glasses. The novel starts out as campus fiction but morphs into something else as the author studies what real face to face conflict with swords and axes might mean to modern soldiers. It’s ok, well except for Shackleford’s ineptitude – I hope it’s nothing more – in dealing with race.

 

Rob Shackleford, Traveller Inceptio, Austin Macauley, London, 2019o

Purchase here
Author website here

 

Beloved, Toni Morrison

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I’m late to the Toni Morrison party – she is obviously, and deservedly, well known to feminists and to all readers not so determinedly nationalistic as I am. At this point I check Wikipedia and discover Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am really late to the party! Morrison (1931- ) was “the second of four children in a working-class, African-American family.  She grew up in Ohio, did her BA at Howard in Washington DC and worked as a lecturer and in publishing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye came out in 1970. Beloved (1987) was her fifth and was subsequently developed into a trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). As with many of my posts, I’m learning as I write, so forgive me for including stuff you already know.

My reason for reading Morrison was that I’m interested in the portrayal of race relations in other countries and in thinking about how that reflects on race relations in Australia; and that I had seen Morrison mentioned a few times by Melanie in Grab The Lapels. In her review of Sula (here) Melanie writes: “If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can.” My reason for reading Morrison in the future will be her wonderful command of language.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, and her daughters ‘Beloved’ and Denver. I write ‘Beloved’ because that is the single word on the headstone of Sethe’s daughter who died as Denver was being born. The novel begins:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old …

Baby Suggs was Sethe’s mother in law. They had been slaves on a farm down south, Sweet Home, along with six men, one of them Baby Suggs’ son Halle. The novel drifts backwards and forwards over the years (approx.) 1855 – 1875 slowly building up the story as to how the women’s home, 124 became haunted and then un-haunted. Does this make it magic realism? I’m not sure, for Morrison’s characters Beloved’s spirit is just another facet of life.

The timeline which underlies Beloved includes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which mandates that slaves escaping to the North must be returned to their owners in the South), the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the Emancipation Proclamations of 1863-65, but only the War comes up in the text and even then, only tangentially.

Briefly, the owners of Sweet Home allow Halle to earn money in his free time, to buy his mother out of slavery. She moves to Ohio, to the white house on Bluestone Road outside Cincinnati which becomes known as 124. After Mr Garner, the farm owner dies, Mrs Garner brings in ‘the schoolteacher’ to manage the farm and the slaves lose all the freedoms they had previously been allowed. There’s a revolt. Sethe sends her boys on ahead, becomes separated from Halle, and must make her way alone, pregnant and with an infant daughter, to Baby Suggs.

Halle, we don’t see again, but in 1873 another of the six men from Sweet Home, Paul D, turns up, exorcises the ghost, the spirit of the dead baby daughter, and eventually Sethe takes him as her partner. A young woman, seemingly dumb but beautiful, giving herself the name Beloved, moves in with them. Then one day, Paul D learns the secret of the dead baby’s murder, and the three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved are alone, isolated from the community of which Baby Suggs was once the centre.

What gets me. Over and Over. Is how hard Toni Morrison is on Whites. The “hard” we have to absorb before we can even begin to understand. The ten minutes of sex Sethe pays to have the headstone inscribed; slaves wearing headpieces with bits forcing their mouths into unnatural smiles; Sethe’s feet beaten to stop her walking off the farm, and yet she does; Black women valued more highly than men because they were mares who could throw off foals for resale; and

… That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.

And yet, the novel ends on a note of hope. Retracing Paul D’s story as the War comes to an end, he finds himself in the North, walking unremarked amongst whitefolks, being paid for work: “That was when he decided that to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got. And he did it for seven years till he found himself in southern Ohio, where an old woman and a girl he used to know had gone.” Which is more or less where we started.

A scarifying work, written in the most wonderful prose. Read it and weep for all the wrongs that we have done, that we go on doing.

 

Toni Morrison, Beloved, first pub. 1987. My copy Picador (as pictured), London, 1987.

 

 

Journal of a Journey, Joseph Hawdon

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The full name of the journal (as you can see) is: The Journal of a Journey from New South Wales to Adelaide Performed in 1838 by Mr Joseph Hawdon. It’s a slender hardback of 66pp, published in 1952, so 114 years after it was written, from mss in the SA State Archive, the Mitchell Library (NSW), and in the possession of the family. My father has inscribed his name on the flyleaf and the year 1959.

Joseph Hawdon (1813-1871) was an early settler in Port Phillip (now Melbourne), the first to drive cattle overland from the north (from around Gundagai maybe, on the Murrumbidgee), he established the first overland mail service between Melbourne and Sydney, and he was, as he describes in this journal, the first to travel overland between Melbourne and Adelaide.

Hawdon arrived in Sydney from England in 1834, joining his elder brother John who had already established himself with properties at Cowpastures (outside Sydney, and presumably neighbouring the Macarthurs) and then at Bateman’s Bay, though at the time of this journal John was on their Howlong property on the ‘Hume’ (the Murray). In 1836, “Soon after my arrival at Port Phillip, I formed a cattle station midway between that Settlement and Western Port” (at Dandenong according to ADB).

Hawdon writes, “Towards the end of last year (1837) I determined on making the arduous experiment of driving Cattle, for the first time since the colonization of New Holland, from Eastern to Southern Australia …”. His journey took him northeast from Port Phillip, then west following the Murray (map). Along the whole way he encountered local Indigenous people and relations were generally friendly.

My map of major Aboriginal languages (here) shows all of central and western Victoria belonging to the same family. I have sourced a more detailed map (here), and the SA section of the AIATSIS map (here). I’m sorry that’s the best I can do to name the people whose country Hawdon and his party passed through. Hawdon writes that he talked to the locals and his comments accord with my map of major languages – “The languages of these tribes [west of L.Bonney in SA] is different from that of the tribes near the junction of the Murrumbidgee [north of Swan Hill], and the people are of a much milder and more friendly disposition.” Lake Bonney was known to the locals as Nookamka, “but in virtue of my privilege as its first European discoverer” he named it after his travelling companion Charles Bonney.

Hawdon speaks to Aboriginal people all along the way, but fears them too, often waving his gun at or shooting near them, though funnily enough the person who came nearest to being shot was Hawdon himself when one of his men in fear of his life took a shot at a charging bullock, and missed, the ball grazing Hawdon’s chest.

Setting out on Jan. 1 from his own station, 17 miles SE of the Port Phillip Settlement, “crossing a small range of hills, wooded with stringy-bark, the rest of the journey [to Melbourne] was through an open forest well covered with grass”. Think of that next time you’re on the Monash Freeway.

Jan. 2. Breakfasted with Captain Lonsdale, the Police Magistrate, who also lent him a dray. Then set off in company with the Postman. Picked up Bonney at “Mercer’s Vale” (Beveridge) and crossed over the Great Divide (at Pretty Sally I guess), arriving at the Goulburn River on Jan. 5. Took 2 more days to reach Howlong, near Albury, on the north side of the Murray. There the postman exchanged mail bags with the postman down from Yass. So the overland mail service, which Hawdon instigated, involved three 180 mile stages – Sydney-Yass by coach, then Yass-Howlong and Howlong-Melbourne.

Selecting cattle from the herd which he and his brother ran at Howlong, he swam them back over the river which he describes as being 100 yards wide with a strong current. I’ve swum in the river above Albury and that’s much wider than I remember but I’m sure the Hume Weir upstream makes a big difference.

They return to the Goulburn River, battling sand and lightning storms. He never says he regrets making the trip mid summer but he may well have. A bit of winter rain would have made the long sandy stretches later in the journey much more manageable, and would also have meant more feed for the cattle. Bonney has 1,200 sheep, which some days later escape in the night and make their own way home.

Finally, on Jan. 22, they set out. Following the Goulburn and then the Murray, though staying a bit south as they cross the Campaspe and the Loddon. Near present day Mildura they use a sandbar to cross to the north side of the river and then almost immediately come on the confluence with the Darling (much of this country was ‘known’, having been reported on by Major Mitchell after his expeditions of 1835 and ’36) which they ford without difficulty, on March 1.

On March 4 he ‘discovers’ a lake which he names Victoria and which I didn’t know existed (there’s no road north of this section the Murray). The country is mostly rolling sandhills and the only feed for the cattle is the reeds along the river. Further along, he is separated from the river by high – he says 200-300 ft – limestone cliffs and each night must find a pass down to get the cattle to water.

By Mar 10 they are in South Australia and ‘discover’ Lake Bonney. When the river turns south (Overland Corner) they start looking out for the ranges which separate them from Adelaide. At Mt Barker, Hawdon can see across to Lake Alexandrina (through which the Murray drains to the sea) and then they must conduct the cattle down the precipitate slopes of Mt Lofty to present day Noarlunga and so on to Adelaide (settled a couple of years earlier) 20 miles back up the coast.

I won’t stretch your patience by including quotes, but Hawdon’s descriptions of the country he passes through, of the plentiful birds, fish and kangaroos, and of the people he encounters nearly every day make this a book well worth seeking out – especially for Victorians and South Australians who will recognise many of his descriptions.

For Hawdon’s history after 1838 an excellent starting point is Janine Rizzetti (The Resident Judge)’s alternative blog Banyule Homestead (here), as Hawdon was its original owner.

 

Joseph Hawdon, The Journal of a Journey from New South Wales to Adelaide, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1952


On Feb. 22 Hawdon recorded: “On the opposite bank of the river in front of our tent, were a tribe of Blacks having their bodies painted in white streaks… I think this might have been part of the tribe that attacked Major Mitchell in 1836.” The date accords with Hawdon being in the region of Mt Dispersion, between Robinvale and Red Cliffs, where Mitchell ambushed and killed Aborigines he said were threatening him. I plan to look into this in a future post.