I have reviewed many individual short stories by Americans (through the Library of America), but not by Australians. Time to rectify that a little, and why not with a short story by Melissa Lucashenko, an Australian writer of European and indigenous Australian heritage. She is an award-winning novelist and an essayist, but I hadn’t read her – until now.
You might be wondering why I chose her and this story? But it’s obvious really. I was pottering around the web and came across this:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, Jo decided, that a bored teenager with a permanent marker is a pain in the bloody neck.
How could I go past it? I had to read it to see what it – and Lucashenko whom I was keen to read – was all about. It’s a short, short story, well suited, I suppose, to publication in a magazine like the Griffith Review. Jo is a single mum of indigenous heritage and during the course of the story is mowing the grounds of the cemetery in the small northeastern NSW town of Mullumbimby. Her teenage daughter Ellen is supposed to be babysitting her young nephew Timbo while Jo does her mowing but, like a teenager, gets bored and “tags” Timbo with slogans such as “Better Conditions or I ring DOCS*” and “Pay me a living wage”. The daughter is needling her mother, but there is of course double meaning for the reader in these slogans, messages about the conditions many indigenous Australians face.
The story mainly comprises Jo’s thoughts as she gets on with her mowing. She reflects on those who lie in the ground beneath her – the Protestants and Catholics, in their separate sections. They are the literal “silent majority” of the title, and she wonders about their stories, now lost with the erasure by time of their details on the gravestones. Jo wonders about
These stories that had once been so important to the town, that had needed carving in granite: where were they now.
Stories, though, are important to Jo – and, in my experience, are an important treasured part of indigenous Australian culture. Jo is a little worn by her “previous life and its discontents” in which an Eeyore-like man Gerry kept dragging her into “his tight white world”. In fact, she appears not to have much time for people, with her “favourite humans living in the pages of books” and her preferred living creatures being horses. She quotes Walt Whitman – I found that interesting – on horses:
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
… not one is demented with the mania of owning things.
Hmmm … this certainly conveys to me a sense of cynicism about humans, of all colours. But the real point of the story comes in the third last paragraph, with her pondering on what the land was like before, when it was
not yet doomed by the axes and greed of men who – months and years from anything they thought of as home – had tried to slash and burn their way to freedom here.
So what we have here is a meditation, in a way, on stories and their importance, on animals and land, and on walking a line between white and indigenous culture. It’s not all melancholic, as what I’ve said here might suggest. There are some touches of humour. Overall, I was intrigued by her writing and I liked the story, though it felt a little undeveloped. I understand that Lucashenko’s next novel is set in the Mullumbimby area. I wonder whether this story is part of it – or, at least, whether Jo appears in it. I hope so.
*The Department of Community Services which is feared by struggling parents for fear their children will be taken away.