Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 352 pages; 2012.
Life in an outback Aboriginal community in the northwest of Western Australia comes alive in this impressive — and totally immersive — debut novel by Jacqueline Wright.
The manuscript for Red Dirt Talking won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award* in 2010 and later, upon publication, it was longlisted for both the Dobbie Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.
It’s set in 1994 and focuses on what we might now call “white saviour syndrome” in which an educated white woman goes to a remote community to help give its Black inhabitants a “voice” on the international stage. But she goes about it completely the wrong way, not only because she’s naive but because she lacks cultural understanding outside of her own experience.
Intertwined with this narrative is the story of an eight-year-old Aboriginal girl who goes missing, believed to have been “stolen” by her white uncle and removed to Perth, but there are rumours she might actually have been murdered. A body, however, has not been found, and the police don’t seem to be particularly interested in locating the girl in the first place.
The novel is told from two perspectives in two different time frames: Maggot, the local garbage collector, whose first-person account explores what might have happened to the girl after she is reported missing; and Annie, a 39-year-old anthropology graduate from Perth, who becomes friends with the girl before she disappears and whose experiences are recounted in the third person.
While these two different narrative threads are intertwined, the novel features at least twice as much of Annie’s story than Maggot’s. And probably with good reason: as a character, there’s more room to develop Annie, to take her on a “journey” from the innocent do-gooder to a much more experienced, sympathetic and understanding person who has grown and changed — for the better.
Remote Aboriginal community
The story is set in the fictionalised community of Yindi, outside the (fictionalised) town of Ransom, at least two days’ drive north of Perth. (The Aboriginal language is Muwarr, which I believe is spoken in the Pilbara, a region that is twice the size of the UK, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact location, although it does appear to be somewhere near the coast.)
Annie has received funding to research a “massacre story” on the condition that she will present her findings at the United Nations South Seas Forum for Indigenous Peoples in just over three months’ time. She plans to record the oral history of what happened at a local cattle station by interviewing Aboriginals who were there or know what happened. She wants to use this knowledge to “advocate for those who do not have a strong enough voice of their own”.
But, of course, no one wants to talk to a white academic, who doesn’t understand their ways and doesn’t speak their language — even if her intentions are wholly honourable.
It’s her housemate Mick who warns her that she needs to change her working practices if she’s to make any headway at all:
“It’s not what you’re doing that’s the problem here, Annie,” Mick says gently. “It’s how you’re going about it.”
The novel charts how Annie slowly becomes “integrated” in the community, building trust with local men and women, learning about their art and their language, and helping out in ways that have nothing to do with her research. Her three-month deadline passes, a romance with Mick develops and she begins to see herself as a “local”, not an outsider. This change in her perspective is abundantly clear when she is introduced to Johanna, a white lawyer, who says:
“They’re fascinating peoples, wouldn’t you say, Annie?”
Her comment catches Annie off guard. She looks at Johanna blankly.
Johanna must be used to blank looks because she continues without missing a beat: “An ancient and extremely complex culture. If anyone can get a chance to get close to Aboriginal people, they should, because it’s a life-changing experience.”
It’s only when Annie really opens up with the women she befriends, admitting she’s a single mother who has lost custody of her teenage daughter, that proper inroads are made. Her insightful interviews with community members are included in the narrative as transcripts, helping to add flavour to the story.
Life in the remote northwest
Red Dirt Talking is a wonderful evocation of life in the northwest. From its major weather events, such as cyclones, to the unreliability of water, power and fresh food supplies, it’s all brought to life on the page in vivid prose.
More thorny issues, such as poor health, violence, gambling and family breakdown, are also explored, but in a sympathetic way.
It’s the kind of novel, with its ring of authenticity and wry sense of humour, that you can really get lost in, learn from and emerge feeling as if something within you has irrevocably shifted — in a good way.
For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.
* The City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award is given biennially to a full-length manuscript of fiction or narrative non-fiction by a Western Australian author previously unpublished in book form.
I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author has been a teacher/linguist in the northwest of Western Australia working on indigenous Australian Aboriginal language and cultural programs. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.