Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light (Review)
It’s silly I know, but I had a little thrill at the end of Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light, because not only was the last story set in a place where I spent six of the formative years of my childhood – Sandgate on the northern edge of Brisbane – but one of the characters learnt to swim in the same pool there that I did, and her brother has a beagle, just as we did. Ah, childhood. Enough, though, of readerly nostalgia. Time to properly discuss the book.
Heat and light won the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writer in 2013, and has been on my TBR for several months. I hadn’t prioritised it for reading, but its longlisting for the Stella Prize last week convinced me to squeeze it in before two works I had to complete by 21 and 24 February. I hope I won’t regret it. No, let me rephrase that: I know I won’t regret having read it, but I hope I don’t regret my decision to read it right now!
The first thing to say is that Heat and light isn’t a novel. It has, in fact, an intriguing form, something that’s not unusual with writers from an indigenous background. Simplistically speaking, it comprises short stories organised into three sections titled Heat, Water and Light. However, each of these sections is quite different. Heat comprises interconnected short stories (5) about three generations of the Kresinger family, while Water is longform short fiction (54 pages in my edition) in the speculative fiction genre. Light, on the other hand, is more like a “traditional” collection of short stories (10). Together, the three sections, including the future-set Water, create a rich picture of contemporary indigenous life and concerns.
And here I confront again the challenge of being a non-indigenous Australian reviewing a work by an indigenous Australian featuring indigenous people. It always makes me a little anxious: I fear sounding earnest or, worse, patronising; I fear making what’s different sound exotic; and, I fear missing the point. And yet I love reading indigenous writers, because their perspective is different and because they (see, I’m generalising, aren’t I?) tend to be adventurous in their story-telling, often taking risks with voice, form, chronology, genre, and more. Van Neerven, as I’ve already implied, is such a writer.
The titles of the three sections – Heat, Water, Light – make me think of the elements. They are not quite the classical elements (fire, air, water, earth) but they convey, it seems to me, the essence of what’s needed for life. The focal character in Heat, though we don’t see a lot of her, is Pearl, the grandmother of the narrator of the first story which is titled, in fact, “Pearl”. Pearl is a bit of a free spirit – earthy, hot (in its sexual meaning, with “her siren eyes”), and likely to appear or disappear with the wind. Over the five stories in this section we learn about Pearl, her sister Marie, and the two succeeding generations. Van Neerven’s writing is confident, moving comfortably between first and third person narrators, all of whom are members of a complex extended family. Loyalties – to their indigenous background and to their blood relationships – are tested. As the narrator of “Pearl” says:
So much is in what we make of things. The stories we construct about our place in our families are essential to our lives.
And this is true, whether or not the stories so constructed are “true”. The implication is you need to know what you are doing. Colin, for example, finding himself, through his own actions, disconnected from his indigenous heritage, wants to return, but
she told me if I was going to make my way home I’d better do it soon before the dust had covered my tracks.
The third section, Light, explores similar issues to those in Heat, but through ten separate stories, ranging from 2 pages to 30. The characters in both sections both move between city and country, but, while Heat is set in southeastern Queensland, the stories in Light are set in Sydney, Western Australia and Queensland. The protagonists tend to be young, and female. They also tend to be in formative stages of their lives, or at crossroads; they are sorting out their relationships, their sexuality, their identity. They confront racism and face conflict, but they also experience and give love. There’s humour, some of it wry, such as the young girl noticing that the tag on her pants states that “this colour will continue to fade”.
Water, the longform story that occupies the middle of the book, is very different. For a start, it’s set in the near future, the 2020s, when Australia is a republic with a female president. There’s a new flag and Jessica Mauboy’s song “Gotcha” is the national anthem. There’s also a social media ban! I reckon Van Neerven enjoyed imagining this. However, life isn’t perfect. Our narrator Kaden has a new job as a Cultural Liaison Officer and was initially pleased because she thought she’d be working with “other Aboriginal people” which would provide a “way of finding out about my culture and what I missed out on growing up”. But, she discovers she’ll be working with “plantpeople” who are sort of mutant plants with human features created during “islandising” experiments. Kaden’s job is to evacuate them in preparation for the Australia2 project.
I don’t want to give any more of it away, but you’ve probably guessed that it’s a story about how we treat other, about segregation, discrimination and dirty politics. It’s also about connection to country and about the importance of controlling one’s own art. Artist Hugh Ngo says:
I don’t make art for galleries. Or for money. I make art that speaks the truth.
This is a clever (and true!) book. The bookending sections Heat and Light present stories of Australian people going about their lives, and most of them happen to be indigenous. Their indigeneity is evident, and it affects the issues they confront, but there’s no specific advocacy. The middle section, on the other hand, is more overtly political. It picks up issues that appear in the shorter stories and provides a coherent, ideological context for the whole.
Heat and light is one of those really satisfying reads: it combines engaging writing with stories that make you feel you’ve got to the things that matter. So no, regardless of whether I meet my other deadlines, I’m not sorry I bumped this book up in my reading priorities.
Note: One of the stories in Light, “The Falls”, is available on-line at Kill Your Darlings