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.

.

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

The Bluebird Café, Carmel Bird

I see Carmel Bird around from time to time, commenting on Whispering Gums or ANZLitLovers. I imagine her as Tasmanian, which is where she was born and, I think, grew up. According to her bio in the short story collection The Babe is Wise (1987) “Carmel Bird was born in Tasmania in 1940 … [she] now lives in Melbourne and is working on a novel The Bluebird Café.” And here we are.

The copy I have, which of course I picked up second hand somewhere unrecorded, for $2, was published in New York. The copyright material mentions a Canadian edition (Penguin) but no prior publication in Australia or England. I hope it was at least distributed here.

Being cautious, I check Bird’s bio on-line (she’s still with us) and see she received The Patrick White Award in 2016. A mixed blessing. No one minds $25,000, but the award of course is for writers who have been insufficiently recognised over the course of their careers. And she’s still working. The Bluebird Café was her second novel and her eleventh, Field of Poppies, was published just two years ago.

The Bluebird Café is set in Tasmania, probably in some sort of whimsical alternative reality, I haven’t been there. There are two locations – Copperfield Historic Museum Village, a hugely successful theme park, owned by the Best family, which has replaced the suburb of Trevallyn on the cliffs above Cataract Gorge …

Copperfield is on top of Cataract Hill which overlooks the Gorge where the South Esk meets the North Esk to form the Tamar River at the city of Launceston in northern Tasmania…

The Historic Museum Village of Copperfield was inspired by the original town of Copperfield on the Welcome River in the far north-west of Tasmania at Cape Grim [map].

… and the original Copperfield, which by 1985 “had become a ghost town where only one person lived. This was a woman called Bedrock Mean”. Bedrock Mean lives in the Bluebird Café started by her grandfather, Philosopher Mean. She waits there for her daughter Lovelygod who disappeared 20 years earlier at age ten, “one of those mysterious and tragic Australian children who vanish, leaving no trace”, while her (Bedrock’s) twin brother Carillo travels the world, searching.

Among the wax figures of miners and Aborigines in the Historic Museum Village is one of Lovelygod, just two feet tall, with the sign “Lovelygod Mean, midget, born 1960, disappeared 1970. The mystery of her disappearance remains unsolved.” Visitors are invited to write down their theories.

The next character introduced is Virginia O’Day, who in the 1980s is commissioned to write a play celebrating Launceston’s new tourist mecca. Virginia grew up in Launceston and at age 18 had holidayed in Copperfield where she wrote the play The Bluebird Café Murders which “enjoyed considerable success in the West End and on Broadway”. The previous year, 1950, Bedrock and Carillo then aged 10 had holidayed at the O’Days. Virginia would not eat. She had got her weight down from 8 stone to 6 1/2 and was aiming at 6. When Bedrock and Carillo went home to Copperfield, Virginia went with them, her parents hoping a change of scenery might help. They travel by train. Of course I have to check. Current maps show rail lines along the north coast, and Bedrock remembers “the little railway in from the coast that has not run for many years”.

Copperfield – there is a minor Charles Dickens theme running through the novel – and its little railway are, I assume, made up. I’m not aware of any mining up there in the north west corner. Queenstown is further south.

The Best family, who own everything in northern Tasmania, and in particular Nancy Best, are mentioned more often than I have indicated here and may be a satirical reference to Edmund Rouse, who was for decades Tasmania’s leading businessman and owner of the Launceston Examiner, until in 1989 he was sentenced to three years gaol for attempting to bribe a politician (instead of following the more usual path of Australian businesses of offering him a high-paying sinecure).

Virginia is writing both a novel and a journal. Part two of the book, consists of her journals for that year in Copperfield; part three is the transcripts of interviews she does in the ‘present’;

Virginia: [speaking of her novel] … giving away the plot won’t stop people reading it. Everybody knows all the plots, don’t they?
Interviewer: If everybody knows all the plots, why do you think people keep reading books?
Virginia: Perhaps it’s very reassuring to keep being told the same things in different ways. And every storyteller puts the story together in a different way. It’s nice to see how it’s done each time. You can arrange plenty of surprises for the reader.

.. part four is a short interview with Virginia’s sister Rosie; part five, an even shorter piece from the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 1989 under the heading ‘Waiting for Lovelygod’; and part six is an essay by a Japanese student speculating on the causes of Lovelygod’s disapperance. These are followed by a 22 page Readers’ Guide with an alphabetic listing of terms and names used and their meanings.

I can only imagine Bird got lost in post-modern theory and somehow found a publisher who was willing to inflict it on us.

.

Carmel Bird, The Bluebird Café, New Directions, New York, 1990. 180 pp

The Black Line

TheNightingale2019.jpg

This year’s Anzac Day post was sparked by an argument with my daughter. Psyche and I argue pretty noisily, which was a problem when we were both teenagers (OK, I was 40) and neither was prepared to back off. Not so much now that I’m a bit older. We were watching the Australian movie The Nightingale (2018) and the argument was about whether Aborigines made guerilla attacks on white settlements, as implied by the movie. I said Yes, and she said, No they didn’t she works with and talks with Aboriginal people and they only made reprisals.

School children learn the names of Aboriginal Resistance leaders these days and Perth’s new city square, Yagan Square, is named after one. Another, in the Kimberleys in WA’s north, who came up when I was writing up Kimberley Massacres was Jandamurra. There are others in every state. The page, Aboriginal Resistance (here), lists many instances culled from just a few sources, stating “when this many are seen in such a long list they help to explode the myth that Europeans walked in here and took over without any real resistance” .

The Nightingale is set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1825, only a few years after white settlement began in earnest. A young Irish woman convict, Clare, working as a servant is raped by a British lieutenant and her husband and baby murdered. The lieutenant and a small party head off through the bush towards Launceston pursued by Clare intent on revenge. She secures the assistance of “Billy” an Aboriginal man who speaks perfect English . Billy, real name Mangana, is seeking to rejoin the women of his family who have been taken north. There are more rapes and a lot more bloodshed, and some stuff about the Aboriginal and Irish cases being equivalent. Let’s say 3/5.

So. Time for research. If I were home I’d turn to Henry Reynolds, the historian most responsible for arguing that white settlement involved a series of frontier wars. I have a couple of his books, but here I am in Darwin (or there I was at time of writing).

First, the Black Line.

Prior to European colonisation, there were up to 15,000 Aboriginal people in Tasmania living in nine nations. White settlement began in 1803, and ramped up quickly following the end of the Napoleonic wars. The reaction of the original inhabitants was hostile (unsurprisingly) and by 1824 the two communities were clearly at war. In 1826 all Aborigines were declared to be “insurgents”, meaning they could be shot on sight; in 1828 Governor Arthur declared martial law; and in 1830 he commanded the white community to form a line, the Black Line, across the island in order to drive the remaining Aboriginal population south to the Tasman Peninsula where they could be rounded up and relocated to reserves on islands in Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland)

The community being called upon to act en masse on the 7th October next, for the purpose of capturing those hostile tribes of the natives which are daily committing renewed atrocities upon the settlers … Active operations will at first be chiefly directed against the tribes which occupy the country south of a line drawn from Waterloo Point east, to Lake Echo west …

Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, George Arthur, September 1830

The operation resulted in only two captures and two deaths, but nevertheless had the desired effect of forcing all Aboriginal people off lands claimed by white settlers. (Source: National Museum of Australia, here).

And that brings us to The Conversation, 24 Apr. 2014, Tasmania’s Black War: A Tragic Case of Lest We Remember (here). The author, Nicholas Clements, a researcher with University of Tasmania, believes that the proximate cause of Aboriginal anger was not so much white settlement as the constant taking by white men of Aboriginal women for sex. This accords for instance with the causes given for the killing of whites in my recent post on Kimberley massacres (here).

The toll from eight years of war, the most violent anywhere in Australia, was Colonists: 223 killed, 226 wounded; Aborigines: 306 killed, thousands dead of disease, just 200 survivors remaining to be exiled to Flinders Island.

The National War Memorial, which is happy to memorialize not just two World Wars but our participation in immoral conflicts from the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion to Viet Nam and Iraq, refuses to recognise the combatants on either side of Tasmania’s Black War for the spurious reason that neither side involved ‘Australian’ soldiers.

I’m not sure the War Memorial – which is increasingly being repurposed as a temple to glorify the Nation, rather than to deplore the conflicts to which the division of the world into nations inevitably gives rise – is in any case the appropriate place to confront our bloody history.  But until we, the right as well as the left, do acknowledge our history then there can be no hope of Reconciliation, and today is a good day to remember that.

 

Jennifer Kent writer/director, The Nightingale, 2018. Featuring as Clare: Aisling Franciosi; Mangana: Baykali Ganambarr, an Elcho Is, NT/Galiwinku man

see also: My review of Robert Drewe, The Savage Crows (here)

Bruny, Heather Rose

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Tas]

46194329._SY475_.jpg

Bruny is a political thriller set a couple of years in the future – after the next US presidential election, which the present incumbent wins, and by which time Rose thinks our own “head of state” will be a king rather than a queen – in little, out of the way Tasmania. As a follow up to The Museum of Modern Love it is, initially at least, a disappointment. How could Heather Rose, the author of one of the finest literary works of this decade, descend to writing a thriller? Money? Maybe, but if so, if I were she, I would have used a different name, kept ‘Heather Rose’ as the literary brand, and used say ‘Robert Galbraith’ for pot-boilers, well that name’s taken, but you get my drift.

But I think rather, that Rose’s ambition might have been to write a literary political thriller, and while I don’t think she quite carried that off, by the end I thought she came a lot closer than I expected, and along the way discussed a lot of interesting politics that doesn’t generally see the light of day in novels. That said, I wasn’t thrilled with the politics of her ending – the idea that it might be a good thing for a cabal of dedicated democrats within the CIA to intervene in Australian politics.

The newspaper reviews almost universally categorise Bruny as political satire: “a literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit”, which is just plain illiterate. Rose’s latest is in fact just one of the many recent works of Australian literary fiction to approach our present state of desperation through Science Fiction – extrapolating from today into an imagined, dire future.

Bruny is the name of a largish island, about 50km long, south of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, and separated from the mainland (ie. Tasmania) by a narrow channel. It has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents but many Hobart people maintain shacks on the island for weekend getaways. The premise of the novel is that an extravagant suspension bridge, supporting a 6-lane carriageway, is being built to the island with $2bil from the Commonwealth government, ostensibly to bring in more tourists.

The novel begins with terrorists attaching explosives to the supporting pylons and bringing one of them down, before escaping in a sophisticated stealth speedboat. The protagonist, UN conciliation specialist Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is contacted by the Premier of Tasmania, her brother John “JC” Coleman, and the Leader of the Opposition, her sister Maxine “Max” Coleman – yes, a little bit of satire there about Tasmania’s incestuously close population, but that’s where it ends – to come home from New York and smooth over opposition to the damaged bridge being rebuilt in time for the next election.

There’s a lot of character development, not as much as in a novel about relationships, but plenty given that it’s a plot-driven rather than a character driven novel. Astrid Coleman is a divorcee, with two university aged children, after a long, unsatisfactory marriage to a Jamaican man. JC’s wife Stephanie is the perfect political wife, but with hidden depths. Max is single. JC by the way is Liberal and Max Labor. Their parents are both dying but are an interesting presence throughout. There are various slimy political types. Then there’s Dan, bridge foreman and honest Aussie bloke. And there are various Greens and protestors who initially seem important, but mostly fade out as the story proceeds.

The tension, to the extent there is any tension, is to do with the Chinese. To what extent has the $2bil been sourced from China? What are China’s ambitions in and for Tasmania? Entities connected with the Chinese government have been buying up large tracts of farmland and housing. They have paid for Hobart airport to be extended so that fresh milk may be freighted direct to Beijing. The first payoff comes with the announcement that bridge rebuilding will be facilitated by Chinese workers, the thin end of a wedge that permits Australian mines to also import cheap Chinese labour (ignoring that there is already a large iron ore mine in WA, Cape Preston, with its own secluded port facilities, all owned and manned entirely by Chinese). But above all, what is motivating the Tasmanian state government? What’s in it for JC?

I’ve watched the government do deal after deal that’s bad for Tasmanians. Most everything done here in the past hundred years has made future generations poorer. Tasmanians have voted for it, believed in the rhetoric, and called it progress. What does Tasmania have to show for all those lost forests? All the polluted waterways? The overrun national parks and lost wilderness? There are tourists swarming over every last inch of the place. And now we’re going to lose Bruny too. One of the last truly remote, beautiful, liveable places in the world.

The bridge is resurrected. Coleman moves among all the players, calming them down, gathering information. Election day approaches, and with it the official opening of the bridge. The more Coleman learns the less happy she becomes. A hurricane makes its way down the coast …

Along the way Rose gets in digs at unsatisfactory husbands, election funding (non-)disclosure laws, Tasmania’s family-owned gambling monopoly, salmon farming trashing Tasmanian waters, and some words of love for MONA (ironically, funded by a successful poker professional). It’s a good read, but not important, not in the way that The Museum of Modern Love was.

 

Heather Rose, Bruny, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

And that’s Bingo! The books I reviewed for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth were –

Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Result [Vic] (here)
About Canberra [ACT] (here)
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend [NSW] (here)
Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River [Qld] (here)
Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing [NT] (here)
Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey [WA] (here)
Peter Goldsworthy, Wish [SA] (here)
Heather Rose, Bruny [Tas]
Keith Cole, Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission [Free] (here)