In my last review – that for Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight – I shared the following lines:
Jack knows the remainder of the conversation
before it was spoke ya see any blacks roaming
best ya kill ’em disease spreading pests
(“Visitor”, from Ruby Moonlight)
Quite coincidentally, this point I was making, that it was not “the blacks” who brought disease, turned out to be the subject of my second choice for Lisa’s 2016 Indigenous Literature Week, Larissa Behrendt’s short story, “Under skin, in blood”. I chose it because I wanted to read at least something by Behrendt.
The story is told in first person by an older woman – called Nana Faye by Merindah, the granddaughter she’d raised – and is divided into three parts. The first and third parts are set in the present while the middle part flashes back to Faye’s past as she tells us why she no longer has her husband and son (Merindah’s father).
In the present, Faye (and Merindah) live in Faye’s grandmother’s country, Gadigal land, around Sydney. But Faye spent her married life, the place where Merindah was born, in Baryulgil on the land of the Bunjalung people. Faye’s flashback is inspired by a discussion she has with university student Merindah who is researching the Northern Territory’s Kahlin Compound, a place to which “half-caste children” (members of the Stolen Generations) were taken between 1911 and 1939. It had – and here you’ll start to understand my introductory paragraph – high rates of leprosy. Merindah is researching claims – claims which have indeed been made and researched – that children there were used as guinea pigs for leprosy drugs. Whether or not these claims are true – they may never be fully resolved due to lack of records – the case causes Faye to comment that the most lethal things white settlers brought to Australia were not guns and alcohol but “microbes” which were “flowing through their veins, floating in their blood, under that skin like bark from a ghost gum tree”. Leprosy, in other words, and malaria, small pox, syphilis, influenza. These killed more indigenous people in the first year of white settlement than bullets.
But these microbial-based diseases are not the main focus of Faye’s memories. It’s the mine in Baryulgil, the mine that opened in 1944 and which everyone thought made them lucky. Having lost their land to the pastoralists, but having decided to stay to be close to their country, the people suddenly found they had jobs – but, what were they mining? Asbestos! Faye tells of the tragic impact asbestos had on her husband Henry and son Jack:
… the mine we felt lucky to have, that gave us the benefits of work and kept the community together was slowly but surely killing us.
The scandal is that there was awareness of deleterious health effects of asbestos in the early 20th century, and certainly by the 1960s its relationship to mesothelioma was recognised. Australia’s best known asbestos mine, Wittenoom, was closed in 1966, ostensibly for economic, not safety reasons. It is telling though that Baryulgil was not closed until 1979. Faye says that the official enquiries that came later found
the mine was barely profitable and only continued to operate to prevent permanent unemployment among the Aboriginal workers in the area. Turned out this employment that was supposed to be doing the community a favour was actually a death sentence.
So, Wittenoom was closed more than a decade earlier because it wasn’t profitable, but different decision-making was used for Baryulgil. Now, normally, I’d approve of decision-making that took into account social values but this one is a bit suss.
This is, I have to say, a fairly didactic story. It could almost have been an essay, except that Behrendt has clearly thought, as she in fact says in her interview with Annette Marfording, that telling it as a story, showing the impacts of policy on human beings, would be the more effective way to go. So, while the story imparts a lot of factual information, Faye shares the devastating impact on her of losing her husband and son. She also tells how indigenous cultural practices work to their disadvantage in a white world. She says:
The hardest thing is to trust these people. These people who have the power of life or death over you, and use that power carelessly. These people we are mute to argue against. And our words never seem a match for what they wrote down, even though we have good memories and they make mistakes.
Now, that is probably the most important message in the story.
“Under skin, in blood”
in Overland (203), Winter 2011