Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 299 pages; 2010.
You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.
True Country, Kim Scott’s debut novel, was first published in 1999. It tells the story of Billy, a young teacher, who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school.
Here, in a Christian mission now in decline and a government administrative outpost struggling to keep staff, Billy and his wife, Liz, find themselves thrust into an Aboriginal community that appears to be in disarray. Yet Billy is drawn to the people and the astonishing landscape in which they live in ways that surprise him.
An immensely powerful read about dispossession, the clash between cultures and finding your rightful place in the world, I found True Country the perfect follow-up/companion read to Stan Grant’s memoir Talking to My Country. Both books sing from the same hymn sheet, as it were, and paint a stark, disturbing portrait of what happens when one culture tries to subjugate another.
A remote settlement
When Billy and Liz fly into Karnama this is what they see from the plane window:
We flew over a large curved pool in the river, and saw the mission with its lawns and buildings and plantation. There were small huts and large trees, and a scratch of track that dipped through creeks. It scratched past the powerhouse and the school, turned the corner of the basketball court near the mission gates and continued, lined with coconut palms, past corrugated iron huts to a gravel airstrip in the shape of a cross. Not far from the airstrip the river flows through a gorge before widening to a mangrove-lined mouth and into the sea.
This first impression of a beautiful, semi-ordered landscape is tarnished when the plane banks over the bush on the other side of the settlement and Billy sees that it was “littered with old car bodies, tins, plastic, all sorts of rubbish”. And perhaps that’s a metaphor for this whole, carefully structured, novel, which scratches the dark underbelly of what it is to be a forgotten people living in a community beset by problems, many of them caused by decades-long interference from others who think they know better.
It’s only when Billy and Liz settle into their new lodgings and begin work that they pick up on the very real “them” and “us” mentality that exists between the whites and the blacks. Grog is forbidden for Aboriginals, but the priest has his own private supply, for instance, and all the white staff live in well-built air-conditioned housing and have access to vehicles, while the blacks sweat it out in hot corrugated iron shacks and travel everywhere by foot.
Tensions arise between these two cultures, caused primarily by a different set of values. Many of the Aboriginals living in Karnama have so little respect for education that the teachers must wake up their students and practically drag them into the classroom every morning. There is no understanding of the concept of personal property, so if they “borrow” a car and crash it, it is simply abandoned by the side of the road, and children think nothing of going into a teacher’s unlocked house without their knowledge to rifle through their belongings. And there’s a strong (cynical) belief that the white people, whether teachers, government administrators or clergy, are there simply to make money or to further their careers, they have no real interest in helping the Aboriginal community.
There are deeper, more disturbing problems here, too: alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing are rife (to “kill the world”, as Billy puts it) and the men are violent with each other and their wives (usually after drinking too much grog).
Room for hope
Strangely, for all the shocking incidences in this book (including a violent murder committed by white men), it is not a depressing one. That’s largely due to Billy’s “assimilation”, for want of a better word, into this community, for part-way through the story you come to realise that Billy is not white: he has Aboriginal ancestry, and his reason for moving to this community is to discover that part of himself which, for so long, has remained dormant and unknowable.
There are wonderful descriptions of outings to go fishing and to learn about bush culture and to fall that little bit in love with the varied landscape around him and to appreciate the vagaries of the seasons.
This time of the year […] it is getting hotter. Late in every day the sky comes low, it sags down like it is swollen and bruised. The flies are sticky drinking your sweat. Over on the edge of the sky the lightning stabs the hills. But no rain comes yet. It will.
He strikes up a particularly lovely friendship with Fatima, one of the oldest Aboriginal women living in Karnama, who sits at his kitchen table and tells him stories that he records on audio tape with a view to transcribing them for his students. It’s perhaps telling that this form of oral history, so much a part of Aboriginal culture, never makes it into written form, for Billy realises that to do so would require too much time and too much editing and he doesn’t think he has the right to alter Fatima’s words: these are not his stories to tell.
An engaging portrait
The novel is largely structured around a series of vignettes and what I would call sketches of characters or scenes, some of which are only a couple of pages long. But this style builds up an engaging portrait of the community so that you come to learn about the way it works and the people who inhabit it in ways a normal straightforward narrative might not have been able to do.
It’s largely written in the first person, past tense, but there are snatches of present tense to heighten tension and there are passages told in Aboriginal vernacular which lend a vivid, authentic flavour to the prose. It is that vernacular that I loved most, perhaps because much of it so wonderfully conveys the spiritual connection between people and the land:
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. We got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle… every kind. Sweet mango and coconuts too.
In case you haven’t guessed, I really loved this novel. I loved the way Scott writes about confronting, often shocking, problems but in an intelligent, empathetic way. I loved his poetic use of language. I loved his characters, the whole complex range of them. I loved his descriptions of the landscape. I loved his sense of humour evidenced in descriptions of shambolic corroborees put on for American tourists expecting polished performances. And I loved the redemptive ending. But most of all I loved its big beating heart.
True Country has been widely published, so British and North American readers should be able to source a copy online without too much difficulty.
Kim Scott is a descendant of the Noongar people of Western Australia. He has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice — for his novels Benang: From the Heart (in 2000, jointly with Thea Astley’s Drylands) and That Deadman Dance (in 2011).
This is my 47th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.