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.