Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Eirlys Richards, Focus on WA writers, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Magabala Books, memoir, Ngarta Jinny Bent, Non-fiction, Pat Lowe, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards

Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 127 pages; 2016. Translated from Walmajarri.

Today is Australia Day, an occasion I haven’t celebrated for 21 years because I’ve lived abroad, but now I’m back home I don’t much feel like picking up the baton, mainly because I think the day disrespects and is hurtful to the First Nations people of this country. I decided to make a point of reading some indigenous writing instead. And what a treat this book proved to be.

Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna is a brilliantly evocative autobiography of two aboriginal sisters. It’s also a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of the desert people’s way of life in the 1950s and early 60s and how the coming of the vast cattle stations changed everything.

Originally published by Fremantle Press in 2004, it has since been reissued by Magabala Books and comprises several different parts. The sister’s memoirs are told separately — Ngarta’s is titled a Desert Tragedy, while Jukuna’s is My Life in the Desert — and there are short chapters, by Pat Lowe (who edited the stories) and Eirlys Richards (who translated them from the Walmajarri language), explaining how the book came into being and putting the sister’s lives into context. It includes a helpful glossary and pronunciation guide, and colour plates of the artwork the sisters produced as well as a selection of their photographs. Jukuna’s story is also published in the original Walmajarri language in which she wrote it.

The new cover on the 2019 edition

Written in plain prose, both the sister’s stories highlight a way of life that no longer exists thanks to the arrival of Europeans and their vast cattle stations in the 1950s.

Both Ngarta and Jukuna were born in the Great Sandy Desert (located in the north-west of Western Australia and spanning more than 110,000 square miles — check out this Wiki page for more info) and lived a largely nomadic lifestyle, wandering from waterhole to waterhole, accompanied by their kin.

Each sister was raised by a different woman — Ngarta was raised by her grandmother; Jukuna by her birth mother — so they have slightly different takes on things, but they both depict relatively simple lives focused on family and hunting/gathering. Everything they did was imbued with a deep sense of respect for their homelands.

Their existence was so remote and their lifestyle so ancient they had never set eyes on a white person before and knew nothing of the modern world.

It was a Cherrabun Station [writes Jukuna] that I  saw a kartiya [white person] for the first time. He was the station manager, Mr Scrivner. I thought, ‘So that’s what a kartiya looks like!’ I stared at his red skin, so different from black people’s skin. He was the boss and he gave us rations in return for our work.

It’s difficult to fathom that even basic things we take for granted — rainwater in a tank, for instance — alarmed and frightened them, for they had never seen such things before. In one scene, Ngarta and her family dip their hands in a barrel of tar they discover on a cattle station, thinking it is some delicious foodstuff, only to find it burnt their fingers, mouths and throats!

A life lived in terror

Ngarta’s story is particularly fascinating because she (and her family) were on the run from a pair of aboriginal brothers who killed indiscriminately.

She had seen them spear her mother and kill her grandmother and then her brother for no reason at all. She kept wondering who would be next. When she had the chance, she took her mother to one side. ‘I said to my mother:’ “You and me’ll have to go, run away in the night. They might kill us.” But my mother wouldn’t listen.’ Perhaps Ngarta’s mother was too frightened to run away in case the men followed them. She must have wondered where else she and her daughter could go, when their only remaining relatives were here in this last little band. Ngarta made up her mind to go on her own.

She flees into the desert taking just a firestick and a digging stick with her, careful to only step on spinifex grass so that she does not leave footprints behind in the sand. Using her wits and her hunting and gathering skills, she manages to survive in the sandhills by herself for a year before deciding to return to her family.

While she had been away the brothers had become firmly ensconced in her family group, and she was with them when they killed cattle belonging to a local station manager; the men were sent to prison for the crime.

The culture and customs of desert dwellers

As well as outlining their day-to-day lives, the book also throws light on indigenous culture and customs, such as marriage, family structure, celebrations and ceremonies, how they grieve, the ways in which family members communicated with one another when they were separated by distance, and the language they spoke.

I learned so much reading this slim volume, not just about the amazing resilience and survival skills of these women, but the ways in which they were prepared to share their experiences with the wider world. Both women went on to do amazing things with their lives to ensure their culture was preserved — Ngarta became an artist in middle age and Jukuna taught Walmajarri to school students.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers liked this one too — read her review here. Bill, who blogs at The Australian Legend, has also reviewed it.

Please note, you can order a copy of this book direct from Magabala Books, which is based in Broome, Western Australia, and is Australia’s leading indigenous publishing house.

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2020 and my 4th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I was given this copy by Lisa Hill, who kindly arranged for it to be hand-delivered by fellow WA-based blogger Bill last year. Thank you to both of them for getting this book in my hands — it was such a privilege to read it.

I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 263 pages; 2019.

Tony Birch is an award-winning indigenous writer with several novels and a handful of short story collections to his name. The White Girl is his latest.

It’s set in the fictional rural town of Deane in an unspecified state of Australia. (The capital city is always referred to as “the capital city”, perhaps in an effort to make this story a federal / universal one.)  It’s the 1960s, the height of the Menzie’s era, when Aboriginal Australians are not regarded as citizens.

Under the 1905 Aborigines Act, their freedom of movement is curtailed and they must apply for a travel licence if they wish to leave their local area. Every Aboriginal child up to the age of 16  is under the legal guardianship of the state (represented, for instance, by the Chief Protector of Aborigines) and authorities are permitted to forcibly remove indigenous children away from their families, a devastating government policy we now refer to as the Stolen Generations.

Living under this Act is Odette Brown, whose own daughter did a runner more than a decade ago, leaving her to bring up her granddaughter Sissy single-handedly. Sissy is now on the cusp of becoming a teenager and is attracting the unwanted attention of the local hoodlums. Odette fears for her safety.

Odette also fears that the new overzealous policeman in town, Sergeant Lowe, is going to take Sissy away on the basis that she’s legally under his guardianship and is fair-skinned (therefore making her easier to adopt out to a white family). Keeping Sissy safe becomes Odette’s one abiding objective, but she finds this difficult because she’s struggling with an ongoing health issue that she’s hiding from everyone. That’s because she knows that if she is hospitalised, Sergeant Lowe will step in and remove Sissy from her care.

This story of an older Aboriginal woman doing everything she can to keep the authorities away from her granddaughter is essentially the entire basis of the plot. Will she succeed or won’t she?

Commercial fiction

I must admit that I was disappointed by this book. I had pigeon-holed Birch as a literary writer (this is the first book by him that I have read), but what I got here was commercial fiction. It’s a very linear story, told in a simple manner, and did not tell me anything I don’t already know about the Stolen Generations. Its simplicity and the easy going entertaining nature of the storytelling brought to mind Bryce Courtenay on more than one occasion.

The Australian literary critic Geordie Williamson apparently labelled the characterisation of this novel as “easy binaries”, for which Lisa of ANZLitLovers took him to task in her excellent review. I haven’t read Williamson’s review (because it is behind a paywall), so I can’t say whether his criticism is fair or not. But what I can say is that the story did feel a bit — no pun intended — black and white to me. It felt too simplified and some of the characters, especially Sergeant Lowe, too caricatured.

But I’ve come to the realisation that I am perhaps not the target audience for this book. It’s the kind of story that anyone could pick up, perhaps people who read infrequently or think books are a waste of time, and they would find it enjoyable and easy to read.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I actually think that it’s vital that this novel attracts as wide an audience as possible because this story, which is rooted in reality and all-too recent (and shameful) Australian history, is an important one to tell. Sue, at Whispering Gums, says it better than me in her review, claiming that “we need more novels like this [… that] are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience”.

So while The White Girl didn’t set my world on fire, I truly hope it’s a commercial success. The more readers who learn about the shocking ways in which Aboriginal Australians were treated by their colonial oppressors for nearly 60 years the better.

I read this book as part of ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, which coincides nicely with NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) here in Australia.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott

Taboo by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Picador Australia; 276 pages; 2017.

Kim Scott is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award and his latest novel, Taboo, has been shortlisted for this year’s prize.

A descendant of the Noongar people of Western Australia, he is an indigenous writer whose work tends to focus on aboriginal identity and the sometimes strained relations between black and white Australians.

Taboo is no exception. Set in Noongar country, it examines the thorny issue of reconciliation: after so much bloody and violent history, how can white Australians and indigenous Australians make their peace?

This dilemma is neatly summed up in the book’s opening paragraph:

Our hometown was a massacre place. People called it taboo. They said it is haunted and you will get sick if you go there. Others just bragged: we shot you and poisoned the waterholes so you never come back.

Told in the third person, but largely through the eyes of a teenage girl, Tilly, the book focuses on plans to open a Peace Park in the Western Australian (fictional) town of Kepalup as a form of reconciliation. Just outside the town lies a farm, owned by widower Dan Horton, where Dan’s ancestors murdered Tilly’s in the late 19th century.  (By a stroke of coincidence — and there are many in this novel, it has to be said — Tilly was fostered by the Hortons when she was a young child.)

Dan, a devout Christian, wants to pursue his late wife’s dream to invite the Noongar onto the farm, to “reconcile themselves to what happened here”. He is more dismissive, thinking it was a long time ago and “there was no real evidence of any more than a few Aborigines being killed”.

A haunting tale

It’s fair to say that this massacre haunts the pages of this novel; a ghostly spectre that reminds us that modern Australia is built on horrific foundations. The story is also haunted by the long arm of dispossession, and the devastating impact on people when their cultural identity has been stripped from them.

In places it makes for depressing reading. Pretty much every indigenous character in this novel is struggling with an addiction, whether drugs or alcohol, and many have been in prison for violence and petty thievery.

Tilly’s back story is particularly horrific. Raised by a white mother, when she’s a teenager she learns that her father is an Aborigine, the legendary Jim Coolman, who’s serving time in prison. Drawn into the orbit of her new family, Tilly falls prey to a (white) violent sexual predator who feeds her drugs, ties her to a leash and treats her like a dog.

But there is hope here, too, for when Tilly eventually escapes she grabs a rare chance to make something of herself: she wins a scholarship to a boarding school, settles down to a life of some normality and is welcomed into the arms of her (extended) Aboriginal family.

A trippy novel

In his afterword, Scott describes Taboo as a “trippy, stumbling sort of genre-hop that I think features a trace of Fairy Tale, a touch of Gothic, a sufficiency of the ubiquitous Social Realism and perhaps a touch of Creation Story”. And he’s right: at times it does feel “trippy” and, I’d argue, slightly patchy and uneven in places. The second third of the novel feels a bit baggy and seems to lose direction after a solid, intriguing and page-turning first third.

That said, this is by far Scott’s most accessible novel — the language is slightly pared back compared with the complex Benang, for instance — and it feels particularly modern and relevant.

Despite the sometimes oppressive nature of the story, it brims with optimism. Scott is careful not to make this a revenge story — “Our people gave up on that Payback stuff a long time ago” — and instead chooses to focus on how it is possible for people to “claim back” their identity, largely through the use of the Noongar language (see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers for her excellent dissection of this issue).

He’s also not afraid to highlight, tongue-in-cheek style, the ignorance of some white Australians about Aboriginal culture. For instance, when Tilly meets her Aboriginal Support Officer for the first time, the officer is shocked that Tilly is Aboriginal. “Gee, with some of you it’s hard to tell,” she says. And later when Tilly tells her that the Noongar don’t play didgeridoo, the officer is dismissive: “Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely.”

For another take on this novel, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This is my 3rd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 4th for #20booksofsummer. It also qualifies for ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week(July 8-15 2018). I bought this one from Readings.com.au last year because I suspected it would never be published here in the UK and, having read Scott’s earlier work, I wanted to read it as soon as I could. Alas… it took me eight months to get around to it.

2018 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Claire G. Coleman, dystopian, Fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘Terra Nullius’ by Claire G. Coleman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Australia; 304 pages; 2017.

Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius is a damning portrait of colonial settlement in Australia.

Told through a series of intertwined narratives, it seems to mimic the history of aboriginal dispossession at the hands of white settlers, but a clever twist about a third of the way through indicates the story is about something else entirely — and the revelation is unsettling if you’re not expecting it.

(I’m not going to be more specific than that; I already fear I’ve given too much of the plot away.)

Shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, this novel gets full marks for originality, but I’m afraid I didn’t really warm to the story. Whenever I put it down, I was loath to pick it up again. And yet I so wanted to love this book. I bought it long before its prize listing because it had received such great reviews and I had saved it up for months, waiting for the right time and place to begin reading it.

Why I didn’t love this book

I think my main issue is that I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, even those I liked and would normally want to cheer on, such as Jacky Jerramungup, the fugitive on the run from the homestead where he’d been held as a slave. Perhaps it’s because all the characters were poorly drawn; they lacked depth and had little to no interior life, making it hard to understand their motivations or beliefs. Some were even horrendously clichéd, such as the horrid bad nun, Sister Bagra, who treats the stolen children in her care with cruelty and inhumanity.

And for a book that has an important message to impart — about “otherness” and subjugation of indigenous peoples — a message that needs to be told, it just felt too heavy-handed, too obvious. I suspect that was deliberate because the author thought there was no room for nuance in the story she wanted to tell.

I also thought the novel was too long, too repetitive and the pacing was too slow. The bulk of the narrative is a chase story — a man on the run from the law — but it seems to take forever to get to the climax. The editor in me reckons it could easily have been told in half the number of pages and perhaps it might have been even better as a short story.

What I did appreciate

But what I did like was Coleman’s writing, which is stripped back and almost devoid of adjectives unless they’re absolutely necessary. Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, and the Australian climate are vivid and wonderfully alive. She describes dawn as “tentative tendrils of light”, rugged woodland as full of “dripping trees and scratching, tangling, grabbing bushes”, the heat as being strong enough to “melt the new paint off your walls”.

And I appreciate the way she takes history — including all the ugly bits that have shaped white and black relations in Australia — and presents it as something new, as something revelatory, as something that should make all of us sit up and listen: what if this had happened to us and not them?

So yes, there’s no doubting that Terra Nullius is a powerful book and an important one, but while I appreciate the author’s aims and her motivations, it just didn’t work for me.

This is my 6th book for #AWW2018 and my 2nd for the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘True Country’ by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott

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 that 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 is 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 poetical 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 of Aboriginal descent. 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.

Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scribe, Setting, Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 240 pages; 2016.

“What does it feel like to be an indigenous person in Australia?”

This is the question journalist Stan Grant wrestles with in a radio interview upon his return to Australia after a decade working overseas. It’s the same question he wrestles with in Talking to My Country, a heartfelt and deeply personal memoir about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

His response?

I tell Richard [Glover, the interviewer] how vulnerable we can be. I tell him of the little boy I once was who felt so ashamed of his colour that he tried to scrub it off. I tell him of the ache of poverty and how my family had roamed the back roads looking for a home in a land we had lost. I tell him of how a sideways glance or a snickering child could steal our souls. I tell him how we learned to measure our words and lower our voices for fear of being howled down. I tell him that even now despite carving out a place for myself I could so easily be crushed by rejection.

But Talking to My Country is more than just a memoir. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. If, as Grant argues, Australia is a “great country”, it should also step up to the mark and be “held to great account”. He has a point.

Sobering facts

Here are some of the sobering facts peppered throughout Stan’s frank and eye-opening narrative:

  • Aboriginal people represent fewer than three per cent of the population, yet they represent a quarter of the prison population
  • Half of those in juvenile detention centres are indigenous
  • One in five indigenous prisoners try to kill themselves
  • There were 99 deaths in custody in nine years in the decade before 1987. Despite a Royal Commission into black deaths in custody, this figure has increased by 100 per cent in the past two decades
  • Acute depression affects one-third of indigenous people over the age of 15
  • Aboriginals are three times more likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts
  • 50,000 aboriginal children were stolen from their families by the federal and state governments in a misguided attempt to assimilate them
  • Since 2008, when then Prime Minster Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology about the Stolen Generation, the number of aboriginal children removed from their families has increased by 400 per cent
  • Compared with white Australians, Aboriginal Australians have a much lower life expectancy, much higher levels of unemployment and a higher infant mortality rate
  • Six out of 10 white Australians have never met an Aboriginal Australian

But while Grant paints a shameful portrait of a nation divided, he is quick to point out that he is one of the lucky ones. He left school early, but he managed to find a route out of poverty through further education and journalism.

Many of you may know him as a broadcast journalist — he was a correspondent for CNN for a decade covering all kinds of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, but I mainly remember him as the host of the current affairs program Real Life in the mid-1990s. He was the first Aboriginal journalist to be on mainstream TV.

I’m not sure his book offers any solutions to Australia’s troubled past, but what it does do is show how we got into this mess. Grant does not point the finger at white people per se, but at the “system built on white privilege”. He shows that it is only by understanding our past — the shared history, the massacres, the unjust treatment of his people — that we can reconcile what has happened and move into the future together as one united people. Grant states that Aboriginals are constantly told to let it go, but he says it’s not quite as easy as that:

… our history is a living thing. It is physical. it is nose and mouths and faces. It is written on our bodies. […] It is there in the mental scars you often cannot see.

It doesn’t help that Grant, having grown up in the margins of society, still feels a stranger in his own country. “When an anthem is played and a flag is raised we are reminded that our country is no longer ours,” he writes.

Sadness and shame

I came away from this book feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness — and shame. It’s the exact same reaction I had when I read Kim Scott’s confronting novel Benang: Straight from the Heart, about a man who realises he is “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with Aboriginal blood.

Talking to My Country is eye-opening and informative. It’s fuelled by anger and shame. I read it feeling my heart breaking with every turn of the page. It’s exactly the kind of book that every Australian should read, but it has wider appeal in showing what happens to people when they are treated differently because of the colour of their skin. In the current political climate, its message seems more important than ever.

This is my 46th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Australia, Book review, Cal Flyn, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, travel, William Collins

‘Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn

Thicker than water by Cal Flyn

Non-fiction – hardcover; William Collins; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water is a remarkable — and readable — travelogue-cum-historical-biography about her great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837.

McMillan, a proud and pious man, was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland’, having opened up the rugged south-east of what is now the state of Victoria — and where, I must point out, I am from, hence my interest in the book.

Up until quite recently, history has been kind to McMillan. He has plaques and cairns recording his achievements, streets are named after him, the rural education centre in my home town is called the McMillan campus. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as “courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country”, a man who “took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aborigines”.

But McMillan lead another less honourable life that history has failed to record. He was a murderer — a mass murderer — responsible for the deaths of hundreds of aboriginals massacred at places now largely known by horrible names, such as Slaughterhouse Gully, Butchers Creek and Skull Creek. Unsurprisingly, he has also come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.

A journey into the heart of darkness

Thicker Than Water  is not a standard biography of a historical figure. Flyn writes in an engaging way by taking us on her journey — both figuratively and literally — to discover the story behind her ancestor and his achievements. To her credit, she does not shy away from the harsh realities of what she unearths along the way.

Indeed, her initial pride in McMillan’s discovery of Gippsland is soon usurped by a growing sense of unease when she stumbles upon a 2005 news story:

A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.

She later learns that the Gunai people, who had inhabited Gippsland for 20,000 years, were decimated by McMillan and his “Highland Brigade”. At the end of a decade-long “war of attrition”, there were just 126 Gunai left, down from about 1,800.

Flyn, shocked and ashamed by these appalling acts (it is believed there were more than a dozen massacres all up), feels the need to atone for her ancestor’s sins. And so she packs in her newspaper job, bids farewell to her boyfriend, and heads Down Under to meet with local historians and Gunai elders in a bid to put things right.

Atoning for past sins

The narrative follows Flyn’s travels from the Highlands to Australia, weaving in excerpts from McMillan’s own diaries and including facts and snippets about him that she unearths along the way. Through this deftly woven narrative that mixes personal reflection with detective-like journalistic research, she’s able to build up a fascinating portrait of a man — hardworking and civic-minded, but also prone to bitterness and jealousy, especially with his rival, the Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki, who, from my own childhood was always held in higher regard than McMillan.

What results is a highly entertaining narrative that feels more like a novel than a dull biography. (Some of the passages describing her travels into the Gippsland bush are full of beautiful, descriptive language about the plants and landscapes she encounters; I’d like to see Flyn tackle a nature book next, I think it’d be brilliant.)

But Thicker Than Water also feels like a deeply personal story, for on almost every page you can feel Flyn’s own moral compass going slightly haywire: how on earth can she ever come to terms with McMillan’s horrendous deeds knowing that she’s related to him? Her shame and anguish over this is palpable. The book does present an interesting dilemma, for at what point do you atone for the sins of your ancestors? And what happens if they committed something so atrocious and so appalling that it turns your stomach to think about? Is it really your responsibility to apologise?

I’m not sure Flyn found any answers — perhaps because there aren’t any. Apologies are fleeting acts; they do not address the ongoing inequality that so many indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis. But in giving voice to McMillan’s extraordinary history, she has at least helped to paint a more truthful picture of the man that history has for so long lauded. And in telling that story the door opens to allow similar ones to be recorded that have not yet been told.

And finally…

Unfortunately, I can’t include Thicker Than Water in my #ReadingAustralia2016 project because the author is Scottish. But the story is so focused on Australian history and so revealing of an aspect that has, for too long, been ignored or rarely spoken about that I couldn’t resist reading it.

Please note it hasn’t been published in the US or Canada, but secondhand copies are widely available.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller

Coal-Creek

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Coal Creek, published in the UK earlier this year, is typical of what I have come to expect from Alex Miller’s writing: quietly understated prose, slowly paced narratives, characters who are deep thinkers and themes which are universal.

Outback life

This story, set in the Queensland outback in the 1950s, unfolds gently but culminates in violence.

The narrator, Bobby Blue (short for Robert Blewitt), is a simple man with a strong moral compass, who finds it difficult to express himself so usually says nothing — occasionally to his disadvantage. He left school as a 10-year-old (“my mother never did get the chance to teach me nothing”) and became a stockman with his father and two others. Later, after the death of his father, he decides to work for the police, putting his horsemanship and knowledge of the bush to good use, tracking thieves and stolen stock and helping to settle the odd property dispute.

His boss, Constable Collins, is an ex-soldier who survived World War Two’s New Guinea campaign. He grew up on the coast but has accepted a bush posting, dragging his wife and daughters with him. He’s a bit out of his depth and is struggling to adjust to the scrub — he’s no natural bushman, which means he is increasingly reliant on Bobby’s skill and knowledge, although he is too arrogant to admit it.

There’s not much crime to investigate apart from the odd family feud and a bit of cattle rustling. Indeed, the previous constable used to turn a blind eye to much of this because he preferred to let people sort things out for themselves, but Collins is different: he only ever sees things in black and white, and believes his job is to police the community in the strictest possible sense. So, when an old aboriginal woman claims that Ben Tobin, an old school friend of Bobby’s, has hit Deeds, his aboriginal girlfriend, Collins is ready to throw the book at him — despite a lack of evidence.

And so Miller sets up his key theme — that of the stranger in a strange land (Collins) doing a job for which he’s ill-equipped — and pits him against the seemingly naïve and silent local (Bobby), who knows the landscape intimately and feels, if not at one with it, certainly a part of it.

First person narrative

The narrative, told entirely from Bobby’s point of view, is written in the voice of a simple, uneducated man — complete with grammatical errors —  who desperately misses his late mother and is starved of female company until Collins’ wife, Esme, encourages him to share meals with her family. Through this, Bobby develops a close friendship with the Collins’ 12-year-old daughter, Irie, who teaches him to read. But while these were simpler times and Bobby seems strangely asexual, this relationship between a man and a prepubescent girl threatens to destroy everything that Bobby holds dear.

And while I would describe Coal Creek as a proper slow burner — it took me a long time to get into — the story has a funny way of sneaking up on you and then holding on. This is largely due to the strong voice (and the wonderful storytelling), which puts you in the head of a narrator who is relating the story as it happened to him in the past (remember, things happen slowly in the bush). And because he often indicates that he wished he’d done or said something differently, a sense of doom, melancholia and regret begins to build. There’s lot of foreshadowing so that you know the narrative is going to culminate in an unhappy ending or dramatic event.

But what I liked most about this novel is the ways in which the landscape dominates the entire story; it’s beauty and strangeness, the way in which it makes man very small and insignificant, is a metaphor for the conflict between Bobby and Collins — that to survive in this land you need to understand it, or at least respect it.

We are only men. When you live as we had lived our lives in the scrubs you know you are not the boss of nothing and there is the sky and the eagles and the scrubs going on forever into them great stone escarpments. No man knows himself to be the boss of that.

Essentially Coal Creek is a love story — not only Bobby’s love for Irie, but of his mother and of the landscape and way of life. It’s also a very good examination of loyalty, trust, male friendship and the ties which bind mothers and sons. And it’s an eye-opening look at black and white relations, and the way in which remote rural areas are policed.

It is very much typical Alex Miller fare: richly evocative, intelligent and unsentimental, tethered to a strong sense of place and peopled by well-drawn characters. Don’t let the slow pace turn you off: this is one of the most absorbing stories I’ve read all year.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Setting

‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

Landscape-of-farewell

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2008.

Landscape of Farewell is Alex Miller‘s eighth novel. It was first published in 2007 and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2008.

End of a life?

The story is told from the perspective of an elderly German academic, who is grieving over the death of his beloved wife, but finds new hope for his future in a rather unexpected way.

When the book opens, we meet Professor Max Otto as he prepares to die: he has the pills and the bottle of alcohol ready, but first he has to deliver his last public lecture entitled The Persistence of the Phenomenon of Massacre in Human Society from the Earliest Times to the Present — the title and subject matter is important — in front of his peers in the grand library at Warburg Haus.

After the applause has died down, he is challenged by a member of the audience — an Aboriginal Australian academic visiting Hamburg — who says: “How can this man presume to speak of massacre and not speak of my people?”

She was like a bright, exotic raptor spreading her gorgeous plumage in the midst of the ranks of these drab fowls. Her wild cry evidently called me to account. Once she had established an expectant silence, her voice rode upon it, her words filled with scorn and contempt. She was a woman in command of her audience and was clearly intent upon defending territory. In other words, she was young, intelligent and ambitious. With a touch of annoyance, I realised that I was not going to be permitted to slip away without being required to answer for my shoddy paper.

While Max is slightly stunned by the encounter, he’s not too worried by it — his suicide awaits. But on the walk home, his accuser, Vita McLelland (whom I suspect is a thinly veiled version of Dr Anita Heiss) confronts him again and the pair end up going for a drink, which distracts Max from his planned death.

The pair strike up a surprising friendship, and Max is invited to Australia to talk at a conference Vita is organising. During his visit he spends several weeks staying with Vita’s uncle, a cultural adviser and Aboriginal elder, in the Queensland bush, where he finally comes to terms with a past he has long sought to forget.

Sins of the fathers

The most surprising element of this book is the way in which it focuses on the “sins of the fathers” without ever once mentioning the word “Nazi” or term “Jewish holocaust” — and yet, clearly, this is what Max has been struggling with his whole life:

The subject of massacre, however, had obsessed me for a time in my youth, but I had found myself unable to make any headway in it owing to my emotional inhibitions, not least of which was a paralysing sense of guilt-by-association with the crimes of my father’s generation, and after several false starts I had abandoned the subject and fallen silent. It had remained an unexamined silence throughout my life and was my principal regret.

This keeping quiet about troubling events — or, as Vita puts it, “our inability to memorialise the deeds of our fathers” — is something shared by Vita’s uncle, the quiet and hard-working Dougald, whose great-grandfather, the warrior Gnapun, was responsible for the massacre of a white community in which 19 people died*.

When Dougald shares this story with Max, he asks Max to write it down for him so that it can be passed on to others and not die with him. This allows Max to see that there are ways to tell the truth about subjects that are hard to talk about and that shameful pasts are not unique to Germans unable to deal with what happened in the Second World War.

Common links

What I loved most about Landscape of Farewell is the way Miller takes two seemingly disparate cultures — Germans and Indigenous Australians — and shows their surprising similarities. Indeed, the message seems to be that we are all human, are all troubled by past wrongs but that it is up to successive generations to deal with that and to find their own truth in order to move forward.

But this is also very much a book about silence and the ways in which men find it difficult to open up to one another. It’s a significant turning point in the novel when Max and Dougald finally talk about important matters, because it is only then that the pair — and Max in particular — can reconcile their own individual pasts with the history of their respective countries.

At this point it would be remiss of me not to point out that the landscape of the Australian bush plays a strong role in the novel too, for it is the silence of these wide open spaces that gives Max room to think, which, in turn, aids his “recovery”.

Landscape of Farewell is a wise, knowing and intelligent novel, not only about grappling with history, but of growing old, forging friendships and being kind to one another. It makes me even more keen to read the rest of Miller’s prize-winning back catalogue.

* In his Acknowledgements, Miller says this is based on the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, supposedly the largest-ever massacre of white settlers by Indigenous Australians in Australia’s history. You can read more about this event at Wikipedia.

Australia, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘That Deadman Dance’ by Kim Scott

That-Deadman-Dance

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 416 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

If there was one book I was really looking forward to in 2012 it was Kim Scott‘s That Deadman Dance, which had been published in Australia to critical acclaim in 2010. Prior to its long-awaited publication in the UK last October, it had gone on to win almost every award going in the antipodes, including the 2011 Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2011 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal.

But perhaps that weight of expectation proved too heavy for me, because I found myself struggling to enjoy this book, even though I very much appreciated Scott’s “message” and his thoughtful, often beautiful prose.

First contact between black and white

The story, which is set on the south-west coast of Western Australia in the mid-19th century, charts the colonisation of the land by white settlers and the impact of their arrival on the native inhabitants, the aboriginal Noongar people.

Scott, who is a descendant of the Noongar, is more than authorised to tell this tale, which shows how an initial spirit of co-operation between the two groups sadly erodes over time.

The Europeans, once outnumbered by their aboriginal counterparts, become dominant and all-powerful as the settlement takes shape and new buildings, new roads and new systems of governance are put into place. As the population grows and more people arrive from the motherland, the Noongar are no longer viewed as equals but as a threat — in all kinds of ways.

By comparison, the Noongar, a resourceful and welcoming people who had initially embraced their new visitors and their strange ways, find that the land which had sustained them for thousands of years has now been parcelled off into farms for crop and meat production and they are no longer free to roam it. Their incomprehension is only matched by the white settler’s fury when sheep and other food is stolen from them.

This almost imperceptible shift in power is what makes this book so fascinating, because at what point did it go wrong? What would modern Australia be like if black and white relations had not broken down in this terrible way?

Unusual structure

The book is structured in an unusual way — and I think this is probably why I struggled to enjoy it. It is divided into four parts, which are not arranged in chronological order — for instance, we start in 1835, before going back to 1826-1830, then we move forward to1836-1838 before jumping forward again to 1841-1844.

There’s not much of a plot either (except, of course, the breakdown in black and white relations) and there’s not really a main character with which the reader can identify. While much of the narrative revolves around Bobby Wabalanginy, a young aborigine, who has a remarkable gift for mimicry and learning new languages, Scott provides a range of perspectives, so we get to see things through the eyes of a vast array of characters, including Dr Cross, Bobby’s uncle Mendak, the Chaine family from Britain and former soldier Alexander Killam.

It is this constant jumping around (many of the chapters are very short) from person to person and from one time frame to another, that complicates the narrative. And despite this almost schizophrenic approach, I did occasionally find that the storyline lagged.

Portrait of Australia’s past

Of course, it’s not a bad novel and I’d urge anyone who is interested in Australia’s early history and its landscape to give it a try. Scott’s prose is wonderfully evocative, particularly of the bush and the ocean, and his descriptions of the whaling ships and the whaling industry — which becomes such a dominant force along this part of the coast — is rich and eloquent.

The strength of the story lies mainly in its examination of how the values of the colonisers were at odds with that of the Noongar — a dilemma that remains unreconciled to this day. But Scott does this in such a gentle, nuanced way that the full force of his detailed portrait of white arrogance and ignorance, coupled with black incomprehension and despair, doesn’t fully hit you until you come right to the end of the novel.

I came away from the last page feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness, best summed up in this quote (from page 109):

We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we
took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything
of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew
you didn’t want ours…

For a different take on this book, please see the reviews at ANZLitlovers, Tony’s Reading List and Book Sexy Review.

A note of warning: the blurb on my edition suggests this novel is a romantic tale between an aboriginal man and a white woman, but that paints a false premise. While there is a short romance between Bobby and Chaine’s daughter, this is not the central focus of the novel.