Having discussed in this week’s Monday Musings Margaret Merrilees’ essay on white authors writing about indigenous Australians, I’m now getting to my promised review of her debut novel, The first week, in which she does just this. It also, according to Wakefield Press’s media release, won the Adelaide Festival’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2012. I can see why it did.
The plot is simple. It chronicles the first week in the life of Marian, after she hears shocking news about something her adult son Charlie has done, news that would chill the heart of any parent. Marian is a middle-aged, widowed countrywoman who jointly manages a farm with her oldest son, Brian. She holds the conservative views that would be typical of her demographic. The setting is south-west Western Australia, the Noongar country of Australian author Kim Scott whose That deadman dance (my review) tells of early contact in that very region, but Marian understands little of that. She’s about to learn though, because, standing at a fence that she used to clamber through, she realises
… it was different now. There was a claim on it. This fence, a fence she’s ignored for years, had taken on new meaning. Where she stood was her land. The other side was theirs. Someone’s. Those Noongars from town.
What would they do with it? Any more clearing would be a disaster. The salt was already bad down there.
This comes early on day one, Monday, before she hears the news about Charlie, but already Merrilees has introduced us to Marian, the land she works and her attitudes. She clearly has little respect for “those Noongars from town” and yet she knows the land has been damaged. Merrilees also describes other aspects of Margaret’s life that will help inform our understanding of the week to come – guns, the family’s dynamics including her relationship with her troubled late husband, a dependence on a more savvy friend. It’s all lightly, naturally done through a well controlled third person voice.
By day two, Tuesday, Marian is in Perth, where the first order of the day is to attend Charlie’s arraignment in court. Here she meets Charlie’s housemates and is invited to their home to talk about what has happened – and there she meets Charlie’s neighbour and friend, the indigenous woman, Lee. In addition to the reference to “those Noongars” on Monday, Merrilees leads us up to this meeting with other suggestions of Marian’s prejudiced attitudes to “other” (to Asians and Aboriginal Australians). Needless to say, her meeting with the educated, political Lee does not go well.
This is where Merrilees confronts the issue she addresses in her essay, because for Marian to develop she needs to hear from indigenous characters. Marian meets Lee cold, that is, she doesn’t know Lee is indigenous: “No one had mentioned that. They wouldn’t think it mattered, probably. But it did.” Lee tells her about the Reserve in her region, about the treatment of indigenous people there and in the town. Marian doesn’t want to know – or believe – what she hears. She uses those patronising words “you people” and leaves in rancour. However, she is a woman still in shock and, knowing that all this has something to do with Charlie’s actions, her better self starts to realise that “she had to know whatever there was to know”. She reads Lee’s paper, attends Lee’s talk, and converses again with Lee. Lee is presented as fair but determined. She doesn’t go easy because Marian’s in pain, and when Marian admits that Lee has made her think, and that she’s ready to learn, Lee tells her:
Then you owe me … I won’t forget. Salvation doesn’t come cheap.
To my white Australian mind, Merrilees handles her indigenous characters well. They ring true to what my experience and reading tell me, but, as Merrilees also says in her essay, “it is not for a white writer or critic to decide what is appropriate.” I would love to know what indigenous readers think.
And this segues nicely to what I most enjoyed about the book – its humanity and lack of judgement. Merrilees lets her characters be themselves, warts and all. Lee, for example, is rather fierce but open to discussion and sad about the direction Charlie took. Marian is conservative, in great pain and feeling a failure as a mother, but is open to change. I particularly liked the way Merrilees captured the physicality of Marian’s pain – she can’t eat, or sleep, or remember her son’s phone number, her chest tightens, her heart races. From my own experience of an awful shock, I related to the point where she really has to face her changed circumstance:
Getting out of the car and leaving it behind suddenly seemed difficult. Her last tie with home and normal.
If my review has seemed a little vague about detail, that’s partly because the book is too. There’s a lot we aren’t told about what exactly happened, about why Charlie did what he did, but that’s because he is not the book’s main subject. Early in my reading, I was reminded of Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin. This, though, is a different book. Yes, both books are about a mother and a terrible act by a son, but Merilees’ compass is broader. It’s both personal and political. And so, on the personal level, Marian realises that she can – she will – survive. But it’s the political lesson that is dearest, I think, to Merrilees’ heart, and it is simply this, “that she, Marian, was ready to listen” to Lee’s story, to listen to it “wherever and in whatever way” suits Lee. The first week is a compelling read with, dare I say it, an important message. I hope it gets out there.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also recommends this debut.
(Review copy supplied by Wakefield Press)
Mr Gums and I spent last weekend in the lovely historic town of Beechworth staying with two other couples in the gorgeous 1890s Indigo Cottage (owned by one of the couples). Quite coincidentally, we discovered that this weekend was Beechworth’s WRAP Festival. That’s Writers, Readers and Poets, an annual event that has been sponsored by the Beechworth Arts Council since 2011.
Of course, some of us wanted to check it out. I didn’t manage to get to sessions with Tony Birch, author of the Miles Franklin short-listed novel Blood. However, Eric, of Canberra Jazz blog, and I did get along to Poetry at the Post Office where, under umbrellas protecting us from the welcome drizzle, we heard several, mostly local poets read from their work.
They were a varied bunch, some more experienced readers than others, but they all gave us something to think about, from Geoff Galbraith’s political pleas to Lisa Ride’s satires on modern living, from Jean Memery’s tribute to janitors to Amy Brown’s moving poem in the voice of the infant saint Rumwold from her epic poem, The odour of sanctity (published by New Zealand’s Victoria University Press). The odour of sanctity sounds intriguing. She explores “six candidates for sainthood” from the 300s to the 1990s. What a fascinating topic! Anyhow, the session was relaxed, nicely em-ceed by Estelle Paterson, and showed what a local Arts Council can do to support and encourage literature in country towns.
Eric, who juggled note-taking in the rain better than I, has written up the event in more detail on his blog – with photos. Do check it out. Thanks Eric for doing the write up and for standing in the rain with me!
Over the years I’ve read many books written by white Australian writers on indigenous Australians*, including Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never, Nene Gare’s The fringe dwellers, Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Kate Grenville’s The secret river, Peter Temple’s The broken shore, and several books by Thea Astley. Later this week I’ll be reviewing another, Margaret Merrilees’ debut novel The first week. I avoid reading reviews of books before I write my own, but I did want to find out about Merrilees, who is new to me. My research uncovered an essay written by her in 2007 titled Tiptoeing through the spinifex: White representations of Aboriginal characters.
In it, as the title implies, Merrilees tackles the dilemma faced by white writers in Australia:
To write about Australia, particularly rural Australia, without mentioning the Aboriginal presence (current or historical) is to distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie. However, for a non-Aboriginal writer to write about Aboriginal people is to run the risk of “appropriating” Aboriginal experience; speaking on behalf of … There’s been too much of that already.
I don’t think this dilemma is confined to writers, but writers occupy a particularly visible and influential position which heightens the challenge for them. Thomas Keneally has said that if he wrote his 1972-published The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith today he would not write in the voice of Blacksmith but from a white perspective, because “the two cultures are so different in their maps of the world that it was reckless to do it”’. Kate Grenville, whose The secret river was published in 2005, wrote in Searching for The secret river that:
I’d always known that I wasn’t going to try to enter the consciousness of the Aboriginal characters. I didn’t know or understand enough – and felt I never would. They – like everything else – would be seen through Thornhill’s eyes.
Fair enough. However, as Merrilees realises, it’s not always that simple. She looks broadly at the history of white representation of indigenous Australians in literature, suggesting it has often been well-intentioned but fraught nonetheless. She “listens” to what indigenous writers such as Jackie Huggins, Melissa Lucashenko and Kenny Laughton have said about “whites writing on blacks” and the resultant distortions and misconstructions. She explores some examples of fraud and theft of indigenous stories and culture by white Australians, such as Elizabeth Durack painting as Eddie Burrup and Patricia Wrightson using Aboriginal mythology. And she discusses the dangers of the opposite of appropriation, that is, the complete absence of indigenous people. She recognises that the situation hasn’t been helped by the paucity of indigenous writers, although this has started to slowly improve in recent decades.
So what are white Australian writers to do? Merrilees argues that
a novel which attempts to capture the Australian consciousness, and in particular a novel with a rural setting, or in which landscape plays a part, is impoverished if it does not address in some way the question past and current Aboriginal presence.
The question is how to do this. Taking herself as an example, Merrilees suggests that while she would decide not to write in the voice of an Aboriginal character, she wouldn’t want Aboriginal people to be silent. However, as soon as she made her indigenous characters speak, she writes, she’d be “tramping about” inside their heads “even though I said I wasn’t going to. A character who speaks is generally doing so in first person. So speech is just a form of first-person narrative after all … How am I going to explain this to all those Aboriginal writers who don’t want me speaking for them?”
Australian academics Kenneth Gelder and Jane Jacobs, she says, state that appropriation is implicit in fiction. If we accept this, we are then confronted with assessing the authenticity of the representation, but this raises more questions:
In the present political climate it is not for a white writer or critic to decide what is appropriate. Only Aboriginal people can decide. And of course, there is never going to be a unified Aboriginal view, any more than there is a unified white view. There is no such entity as “the Aboriginal people” to provide answers.
She therefore argues that “questions of appropriation become issues of personal ethics, conscience issues” and that there can be no definitive conclusions. She’s right, I believe. The only answer, I think, is something she says very early in the essay:
the best thing I [we] can offer Aboriginal Australians is to shut up and listen to them, actually find out what they think.
Genuine, thoughtful trial-and-error seems to be the way to go. Listen, give it a go, and listen again. What do you think?
* I will primarily use the term indigenous Australians to refer to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
I’m not going to write a long post on the Stella Prize longlist because Paula Grunseit has written a good rundown of the books on the Australian Women Writers’ challenge website. Do check it out if you are interested to know more about the books (which I’ll list below).
The Stella Prize, regular readers here will know, is a new Australian literary prize for women writers, this being only its second year. One prize is awarded for a book that can be fiction (literary or genre, novel or short stories, poetry or prose) or non-fiction.
This year’s longlist was announced yesterday. It includes three books I’ve read and reviewed. (An improvement for me on last year when I’d read none at the time of longlisting, though by the end of the year I had read a few!) As last year, it’s a diverse collection, which includes debut novels, novels by indigenous authors, a short story collection, memoirs, a biography, and social analysis non-fiction (I have no idea what else to call books like Night games and The misogyny factor).
Anyhow, here is the list, in alphabetical order by author:
- Letter to George Clooney, by Debra Adelaide (Picador): fiction, short story collection
- Moving among strangers, by Gabrielle Carey (UQP): non-fiction, memoir
- Burial rites, by Hannah Kent (Picador): fiction, debut novel
- Night games, by Anna Krien (Black Inc): non-fiction, see my review
- Mullumbimby, by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP): fiction, novel
- The night guest, by Fiona McFarlane (Penguin): fiction, debut novel
- Boy, lost, by Kristina Olsson (UQP): non-fiction, memoir
- The misogyny factor, by Anne Summers (New South): non-fiction
- Madeleine, by Helen Trinca (Text): non-fiction, biography, see my review
- The swan book, by Alexis Wright (Giramondo): fiction, novel
- The forgotten rebels of Eureka, by Clare Wright (Text): non-fiction, history
- All the birds, singing, by Evie Wyld (Random House): fiction, novel, see my review
Three books published by UQP (University of Queensland Press)! Good for them.
For those of you who are interested, this year’s judges are:
- Kerryn Goldsworthy, critic and writer (chair, and on last year’s panel)
- Annabel Crabb (journalist and broadcaster)
- Brenda Walker (author and academic)
- Fiona Stager (bookseller, and on last year’s panel)
- Tony Birch (writer and lecturer )
The winner will be announced on March 20.
What can I say but that it was wonderful to be in the presence of the man who is arguably Australia’s greatest living poet, Les Murray. Poetry at the Gods is a monthly event which has been run for many years by local poet Geoff Page*. (The Gods is a cafe-bar attached to the Australian National University’s Arts Centre.) I have only managed to get to a few readings over the years but, having had to miss Murray in the past, I was darned sure I was going to make it this time. Not only did I get there, but I got my copy of his Selected poems (Black Inc, 2007) signed. Woo hoo!
Before continuing, I should briefly explain Murray for non-Australians who may not have heard of him. His career has spanned over forty years. He has won multiple awards, has published many volumes of poetry (not to mention verse novels and prose works), is on the National Trust of Australia’s 100 Living Treasures, and is often spoken of, here at least, as a Nobel Laureate contender. I must admit that I don’t always get his poetry – but I enjoy the challenge. That’s poetry isn’t it?
Now to the evening. Murray read in two “sets” both lasting around 30 minutes. The first set comprised unpublished (I believe he said) poems written in recent years, while the second came from The best 100 poems of Les Murray published by Black Inc in 2012. (I am currently reading their Best 100 poems of Dorothy Porter).
I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about the reading. As much as I love attending poetry readings, because it is special to hear poets read their own poems, I find it hard to report on them. No sooner is one poem read, than the next one starts. It’s impossible – for me anyhow – to process the poems and say something meaningful about them as a whole. I will however make a few scattered observations.
I’m not sure how much Murray, now 75 years old, had planned in advance what he was going to read, but it looked pretty impromptu. In both “sets” he simply (simply?) flicked through the book he was reading from and chose poems he seemed to feel like reading. Sometimes he provided a few words of introduction to the poem, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he gave a little chuckle before or after, and sometimes he didn’t! In the first half, the poems ranged across such diverse subjects as an apartment block in Beijing, English as a second language, and the challenge of writing haiku. I wish I had them before me. The variety spoke to an active, curious mind, to the poet’s ability to draw something beautiful, meaningful, from pretty well anything, which is what we want our poets to do, isn’t it? Oh, for such a mind.
In his second set, he read some poems that I do have before me, poems such as “The future”, “Postcard”, Lyrebird” and “Dead trees in the dam”. One that has stuck in my memory is the poem about his son who has autism. Titled “It allows a portrait in line scan at fifteen”, it was written when his son was fifteen, and perfectly conveys what I understand to be the experience of living with autism:
Giggling, he climbs all over the dim Freudian
psychiatrist who told us how autism resulted
from refrigerator parents
The poem conveys the split between the person and “it”, the condition. There’s humour, frustration and anger, as much the son’s as the parents’. Murray conveys the fascination with facts and rules, the focus on objectivity, the prodigious memory, that can be typical of autism. The final lines are heart-rending:
He surfs, bowls, walks for miles. For many years
he hasn’t trailed his left arm while
I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the
years. I gotta get smart.
Religion is important to Murray. In fact, the two books of his that I have are dedicated “To the glory of God”. However, his poems are not, overall, self-consciously religious, are not dogmatic but many are informed by a faith in and an understanding of religion. In this context and as one who likes thinking about words and truths, I enjoyed poem “Poetry and Religion”. Here are the opening lines:
Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture
into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said until it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.
And that, I think, is as good a place as any to end on, don’t you think?
*I’ve reviewed his verse novel The scarring.
Since last week’s Monday Musings post on Melbourne’s curious, but now defunct, Bread and Cheese Club, I’ve been doing further research into its various activities, and have found it to be an amazingly vibrant organisation. The club’s motto was “Mateship, Art and Letters” and a major focus seemed to have been Australian writers. Certainly its first Knight Grand Cheese, JK Moir, was a significant book collector, and it did publish around 40 or so books. However, its activities spread widely across what they would have described as Australiana. I might come back to them again, but today I want to write about their relationship to indigenous Australian culture.
The club was quite an active publisher and among its publications were some rather significant works, for the time in particular, to do with Australian Aboriginal culture:
- Art of the Australian Aboriginal by Charles Barrett and Robert H. Croll (with a foreword by anthropologist AP Elkin), in 1943. Charles Barrett was a naturalist and journalist, and R.H. Croll an author and public servant. Both travelled widely throughout Australia. Barrett was passionate about protecting ancient Aboriginal art, writing that its protection “should be a national concern: white morons have already disfigured many”.
- The art of Albert Namatjira by C. P. Mountford, in 1944. Albert Namatjira is one of Australia’s best known Aboriginal artists, a pioneer. Mountford was a mechanic and public servant turned anthropologist who, by the 1920s, was developing the interest in indigenous Australian culture that stayed with him the rest of his life. He was particularly interested in art, but I was intrigued to read in the Australian Dictionary of Biography that “in 1935 he was appointed secretary of a board of inquiry to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, at Hermannsburg and Ayers Rock”. He also travelled with Norman Tindale who is famous for his detailed map of indigenous Australia.
Interesting, I think, that it was this “little” club which published these books.
Donation to the Adelaide University’s fund for Aboriginal research
This one intrigued me, and is what inspired this post, in fact. I read in The Argus, 19 May 1951, that Albert Namatjira had donated £1000 to the Adelaide University’s fund for Aboriginal Research. But, apparently, the story goes, he did not make the donation himself because “as Australian law now stands, an aborigine cannot control an income of his own”! Enter Bread and Cheese Club founder JK Moir who made the donation on Namatjira’s behalf out of the proceeds of the book by CP Mountford. Moir is quoted as saying:
Albert, as an aborigine, cannot control his affairs, but I know what we have done has his enthusiastic endorsement. There is no precedent for this anywhere. An aborigine raising £1000 through his work for the cause of his own people is unique. I can assure you it will not be the last donation if we can help it.
Coranderrk and the Barak Grave
The final story activity I want to share is more in the style of those working bees that groups like Rotary and Lions have often done. It concerns the cemetery at Coranderrk. Coranderrk was an Aboriginal reserve established by the government for dispossessed indigenous Australians. It operated from 1863 to 1924. It’s quite a story that I won’t detail here, but in 1950 the land was handed over to the Soldier Settler Scheme. The cemetery, which of course contained graves of the previous indigenous residents, was by then in disarray. In a letter to the editor of the Healesville Guardian on 19 May 1951, naturalist David Fleay wrote of being “shocked at its state of absolute neglect and ruin”. Only two graves, one being that of, Barak, the last king of the Yarra Yarra tribe, were distinguishable he said. He also refers to the marble monument to Barak that had been in a significant position in the town of Coranderrk but was now in a depot. He argued that money should be put aside to renovate the cemetery and that the Barak monument go to its “rightful place”. He also suggests that “it is possible that the Melbourne Bread and Cheese Club, champions of Australiana would take a decided interest”.
And so, in fact, they did. A Healesville Guardian column by Oswald C Robarts on 11 November 1955 writes of their contribution. They seem to have become involved in 1952 and carried out at least one working bee in 1955. It’s not clear what else they did. A report in the Club’s journal, Bohemia, states that “we did a good day’s work and those who remember the terrible state of the Cemetery when we saw it on our first visit would be surprised. Much remains to be done.”
I will conclude though with Oswald C Robarts:
On January 23 this year, several members of the Club travelled from Melbourne, bringing with them the necessary materials and equipment for handling the heavy parts of the memorial. Working throughout the day in near-century heat, they completed the job. It should be scarcely necessary to add that these men, like others who have previously urged that something should be done about Coranderrk, were not concerned with public kudos nor material gain.
Basically, interest in the “old” Australians who have gone, and wise, firm and considerate care for those that remain, are matters of public conscience. There is by now fairly wide general agreement that far too often in the past, as well as today, they have been handed the seamiest side of Western civilisation. Here is a paradox to be removed, for Australia today is spending millions on the Colombo Plan, and bending over backwards to assure our Asian neighbours that there is no such thing as a “White Australia” policy in a racial sense.
There is an element of paternalism in “the wise, firm and considerate care for those that remain” but this seems to be to be pretty strong stuff for 1955. Thanks once again to Trove for making these papers available.
Quite by coincidence, I read Evie Wyld’s second novel All the birds, singing straight after Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries. I was intrigued by some similarities – both have a mystery at their core, and both use a complex narrative structure – but enjoyed their differences. Wyld’s book is tightly focused on one main character while Catton’s sprawls (albeit in a very controlled way) across a large cast. Paradoxically, Wyld’s 230-page book spans a couple of decades while Catton’s 830-page one barely more than a year. And yet both convey, through their structures, an idea of circularity, of the close relationship between beginnings and endings. But, enough prologue. On with All the birds singing.
The book opens powerfully:
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring our their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.
And so we are introduced to Jake and the things that dominate her life – Dog, sheep and birds. Soon, we learn there’s another thing – fear. But fear of what, or whom, we don’t know. From this opening, Wyld tells her story in alternating chapters: the odd ones, set in England, move forward, and the even ones, in Australia, move back to what started it all. It’s an effective structure that explores the ongoing impact on Jake of whatever it was that happened. We see what’s happening now, and we slowly see how she has got to this point.
Jake, at the start of the novel, is in her 30s. She’s a loner, capably running a sheep farm on a remote British island. Her nearest neighbour, Don, keeps a bit of a fatherly eye on her, and tries to encourage her to engage with the local community, to go to the pub for example, but Jake is not interested. As we move back in time we learn snippets about various significant people in her life – a lover while she was a shearer, a controlling man whom she’d initially seen as her rescuer, a female friend and co-worker. We also learn that she’s estranged from her Australian family, and we discover that she has scars on her back, but how they were caused are part of the mystery.
Wyld’s writing is marvellous. The imagery is strong but not heavy-handed because it blends into the story. The rhythm changes to suit the mood. The plot contains parallels that you gradually realise are pointing the way. There’s humour and irony. I love the fact that our Jake, on the run from whatever it is, smokes “Holiday” brand cigarettes.
There’s a bleakness to the novel, but it’s not unremitting. Jake, always the outsider, is tough and resourceful. She sleeps with a hammer under her pillow, but she has a soft side that is revealed mostly through her tenderness towards her animals. She talks to Dog, and losing a sheep always brings “a dull thudding ache”. The imagery is focused. Black, shadows, and fire in various permutations recur throughout the novel. They provide possible clues to what started it all; they contribute to the menace she feels now; and they help create an unsettling tone for the reader. We are never quite sure whether the shadow she sees out there, watching, following her, is real or a figment of her imagination. Jake is not an unreliable narrator, but we see through her eyes, and her eyes are influenced by her very real fears. She is “damaged goods”, though not in the sense meant by the paying customer (if you know what I mean!) offended by her scarred back.
And of course, there are the birds. They’re omnipresent. Sometimes they reflect her mood (“the birds sing and everything feels brand new”); sometimes they break tension; sometimes they suggest death. There are specific birds – butcher birds, night jars, galahs, merlins, currawongs and crows – and there are birds in general. The imagery references the real and metaphorical, from the crows hovering over the dead ewe in the opening paragraph to the birds near the end that attend the defining event:
[...] and the birds scream, they scream at me, Chip, chjjj, cheek, Jaay and jaay-jaay notes, Tool-ool, twiddle-dee, chi-chuwee, what-cheer … Wheet, wheet, wheet, wheet [...]
The trees don’t want me there … There’s not a single bird to make a sound.
All the birds, singing is about how the past cannot “be left alone”. “We’ve all got pasts”, the shearers’ boss tells Jake early in the novel, but for some people the past must be dealt with before they can move on. The novel is also about redemption. It’s not the first novel about the subject, and neither will it be the last, but it is a finely told version that catches you in its grips and makes you feel you are reading it for the first time.
John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante loved the book too. Thanks to my brother and family for a wonderful Christmas gift!
All the birds, singing
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013