“Write what you know” is the advice commonly given to new authors – and it’s something Cassie Flanagan Willanski, author of Here where we live, seems to accept. Set in South Australia, where Willanski lives, this debut collection of short stories reflects her two main interests, creative writing and the environment. The book won Wakefield Press’s Unpublished Manuscript Award a couple of years ago, and I can see why.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the book. Adelaide author and creative writing teacher Brian Castro is quoted on the front cover as saying “I was moved and I was haunted” and on the back “Her stories are as spare and understated as the harsh landscape she describes…” I’d concur. Her stories are not your typical short story. That is, they don’t have tight little plots, nor do they have shock (or even just surprising) endings. They are more like slices-of-life, or like chapters of a novel, in the way they tease out moments in people’s lives that you can imagine continuing into a larger story. And yet, they are complete in themselves and absolutely satisfying.
However, there is more to these stories than “just” slices of life. Willanski writes in her author’s note that they were written as part of her Master of Arts degree, in which she explored “the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”. She introduces the notion of “Indigenous invisibility” which she describes as “ignoring Indigenous Australian people’s current existence, and mourning them as extinct”. She then talks about the issue we’ve discussed here before noting that as white writers became aware of this “Indigenous invisibility” they started to “write about them as characters in their books”. She says she has tried to reflect in her stories the various attitudes she found in her research. I found them authentic and sensitive, but the real judges of whether she’s been successful are indigenous people, aren’t they? There’s a reference to indigenous elder and activist Sue Haseldine in her acknowledgements, which may suggest some acceptance?
There are nine stories in the collection, three told first person, and the rest third person, except for the last and longest story which has two alternating voices, one third, the other second. Her protagonists include a young girl, a young male teacher, a 70-something woman, and a woman grieving for her late female partner. A few stories are connected, but this is not critical to appreciating the collection. Several of the stories, Willanski says in her author’s note, were inspired by real events but in each her imagination has created something new and fictional. Some of these real events are matters of history, such as the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy and the Maria shipwreck, while others draw from personal experiences.
Despite the historical inspiration behind some stories, they are all set in contemporary South Australia. The first two are told first person: “This is my daughter’s country” opens the first (“My good thing”) and “The night my husband told me he was going to leave me we were in the middle of a heatwave” starts the second (“Drought core”). Straightaway we are introduced to Willanski’s nicely controlled, pensive tone, and her ongoing themes: family relationships, indigenous issues, the environment and climate change.
The first story is told in the voice of a white woman who has an indigenous husband and a daughter. They are going back to country to clean rockholes. No-one is named – “this is my daughter”, “this is my husband”, “my daughter’s grandmother” – which gives the story a universal, almost mythical sense. There are hints of challenges – subtle references to the Stolen Generations and to environmentally destructive tourism – but it’s a short, warmhearted story about the drive to connect with land and people, and sets up the collection nicely.
I can’t describe every story so I’ll jump to the fourth one, “Stuff white people like”. It is lightly, self-mockingly satirical. It tells the story of a young couple, Oliver and Clay, visiting Ceduna where Oliver is considering a job as a “Nature School Teacher”. They are both earnest, Oliver particularly so, in wanting to understand and relate to indigenous people, so they decide to attend a “healing ceremony” for “‘Maralinga, climate change, feral animals, you name it,’ said the principal vaguely.” It’s an uncomfortable experience, and Oliver doesn’t know how to react to the event which isn’t what he expected. He doesn’t want to be “like the other white people” but how should he be? Clay is able to go with the flow a bit, but not Oliver. Later, on their trip home, she is able to laugh, and take the jokes in the book Stuff white people like, while Oliver is “crippled with self-awareness”. He can’t quite match Clay’s insight. She reads from the book about white people “knowing what’s best” for others:
“Do you think I’m like that?”
“‘Cos you’re excited to get to work with Aboriginal kids? No!” She stopped for a minute, trying to piece together her thoughts. “Well, I mean–” she said and stopped again.
“What?” said Oliver.
“Well it’s just that Aboriginal people already know about having school outside.”
“I know,” said Oliver. “What’s your point?”
Clay looked at him again, then said, almost irritably, “Well, you’re taking something they’ve been doing for thousands of years and putting the white seal of approval on it.”
“But the missionaries took it away,” said Oliver.
He didn’t say it, but it was implied, and they didn’t know what to do with the implication. Oliver would be giving it back.
I love this on so many grounds – the personal and the political, the desire and the discomfort, the sincerity and uncertainty. These underpin the collection.
There’s only one story in which Willanski speaks “for” or “in the voice of” indigenous people, “Oak trees in the desert”. It’s about the First International Woman Against Radioactive Racism Conference, held in Monument Valley, Utah. This is a fictional conference, but “radioactive racism” is “real” and the aforementioned Sue Haseldine is active in this area.
Willanski opens the story with an indigenous Australian woman introducing herself at the conference. It’s a strong story, with the first-person voices of various First Nation conference attendees interspersed with the third-person story of white Australian woman, 76-year-old Bev, whose late husband had worked at Maralinga and had contracted cancer. There’s also a young white woman activist-organiser providing, again, a light satirical touch. Like many of the stories, it’s very personal but also has a big political message. (I also enjoyed it because I love Australia’s desert oaks, and I’ve driven in the stunning Monument Valley.)
This is getting long so I’ll end with the last story, “Some yellow flowers”, which contrasts a mature love, through the grieving Jean whose partner Nancy has died, with the young love of two teenagers, Loretta and Jackson. This story brings together several of the collection’s themes, including developing and maintaining loving relationships, climate change and caring for the environment, and indigenous-settler relationships. There is a big storm – one of those one-hundred-years storms that are occurring more frequently these days:
The roof shrieks and the sea spray pelts against the front verandah. The separation between land and water, sea and sky, past and present and living and dead becomes more obviously a figment of daytime imagination.
Dreams are had, stories are told, relationships are resolved – not simplistically, but with a sense of continuum.
This is the sort of writing I like: undramatic, understated, reflective stories about ordinary people coping with breakups, death, new relationships, but overlaid with a strong set of values and contemporary concerns, in this case encompassing the intertwined issue of respecting indigenous people and caring for our country. While not always comfortable reading, it’s a hopeful book – and I like that too.
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)