It is still somewhat controversial for non-indigenous Australian authors to include indigenous characters and concerns in their fiction, as Catherine McKinnon does in Storyland. But there are good arguments for their doing so. One is that not including indigenous characters continues the dispossession that started with white settlement. Another is that such fiction brings indigenous characters and stories to people who may not read indigenous authors, which is surely a good thing?
However, such writing requires sensitivity, or empathy, on the part of non-indigenous writers. Indigenous author, Jeanine Leane says that this can only be achieved by social and cultural immersion (which can include informed reading of indigenous writing). McKinnon addresses this in a couple of ways. In her author’s note, she refers to discussing “stories and ownership” with local Illawarra region poet and elder, Aunty Barbara Nicholson, which resulted, for example, in her telling a brutal story from the convict perpetrator’s point of view rather than from the indigenous victim’s. She also acknowledges Nicholson “for reading, local knowledge and generous advice both early on in the process and nearing completion”. But now let’s get to the reason for all this …
Storyland is set in the Illawarra region south of Sydney, and tells the story of the Australian continent, post-white settlement, from 1796 to 2717. It has a nine-part narrative arc that takes us through five characters and six time periods: Will Martin 1796, Hawker 1822, Lola 1900, Bel 1998, and Nada 2033 and 2717. These form the first five parts of the novel. The final four parts return through Bel, Lola, Hawker, finishing with Will Martin, each picking up its character’s story where it had been left first time around. Got it? Two of these characters – Will and Hawker – are based on historical figures, while the rest are fictional.
… a tricksy plot
Will’s employer, the explorer George Bass, says early on that “the land is a book, waiting to be read”, and this, essentially, is what the book’s about. Will is a 15-year-old who sailed with Flinders and Bass in 1796 on their search for a river south of Sydney. On their trip they meet “Indians” whom they fear might be cannibals. We leave them at a nervous moment in their encounter to move to 1822 where we meet the convict Hawker. He’s a hard man, who believes you need “a mind like flint and a gristly intent”. He has his eye on a young indigenous woman, but also on improving his future. From him, we jump again, this time to 1900 and young hardworking dairy-farmer Lola who lives with her half-sister and brother Mary and Abe, both of whom have indigenous blood. There is racism afoot, with a neighbouring farmer suspicious of Abe’s friendship with his teenage daughter Jewell. We leave this story, with Jewell having gone missing, to meet Bel in 1998.
Bel, the youngest of our protagonists at 10 years old, spends her summer rafting with two neighbourhood boys on a lagoon that features in each of the stories. They befriend a couple, Ned and his indigenous girlfriend Kristie. Bel is a naive narrator, but adult readers quickly see the violence at the centre of this relationship. Meanwhile, down the road lives the slightly younger Nada, who is the pinnacle of our chronological arc, featuring in 2033 and 2717. In 2033, climate change has created havoc in the land, and a dystopia is playing out …
Country and connection
I hope this doesn’t sound too confusing – or fragmented – because in fact Storyland is a very accessible book. Superficially, it seems disjointed, but McKinnon connects the stories through links that gradually register as the narrative progresses. For example, the transitions between each story all feature birds, such as this one from Hawker to Lola:
The women are disappearing into the forest. And then they are gone. Lost in the dark trees. An owl
calling boo-book, boo-book.
(My html skills aren’t up to replicating the layout I’m afraid.) Other links include the aforementioned lagoon, a creek, a cave which most characters reference, a big old fig tree and an ancient stone-axe. None of these are forced, or feel out of place. Instead these places and objects naturally connect the stories, despite their very different narratives, to provide a continuity that transcends the people to focus on the land itself – because, ultimately, this is a story about the land and our ongoing relationship with it.
McKinnon, the author bio says, has been a theatre director and playwright, as well as a prose writer. This is evident in the voices (all first person) and dialogue which beautifully capture the rhythms, vocabulary and grammar of the different characters and their times. Will Martin talks of “Indians”, Hawker talks of “forest”, while turn-of-the-century farmer Lola uses structures like “Jewell and me carry buckets of skimmed milk” and “When he were done”. Ten-year-old Bel is language-proficient, with a good vocabulary, but she sees things through a ten-year-old’s eyes, such as this on the abused Kristie, who “has her big black sunglasses on” and “looks funny, her lips look bigger or something”. (In a delightful in-joke, her father Jonathan is writing his PhD on unreliable narrators).
The real star of the novel, though, is the land. McKinnon traces its trajectory from an almost pristine state at the dawn of colonisation through being farmed by Hawker and Lola to climate-change-caused destruction in 2033 followed much later by a mysterious post-apocalyptic world. She similarly traces our relationship with indigenous people from early caution, uncertainty and tentative goodwill, through 19th century brutality and ongoing dispossession, to the continuing racism and exploitation of the twentieth century.
The question to ask here is why did McKinnon structure the story the way she did, starting and ending with 1796? Here is Will at the end, exploring a beach on his own:
The white sand curves around the land; the dunes in the late night are dark mountains and valleys; the forest behind is thick and green to the sky. This is a wild place. Too wild for civilisation. It is a place for adventure.
And “the water is fresh” to drink! Is McKinnon, by ending with this more idyllic picture of the land, suggesting that there’s still hope? This is how it was, this is what could happen. Does it have to? Can we yet turn it around? Well, yes, perhaps. As Uncle Ray says to Bel, “it’s our job to look after all this land around here. If we don’t, bad things can happen.”
“To dare is to do”, George Bass tells Will, and this is what McKinnon has done in Storyland. She has combined historical, contemporary and speculative fiction to tell us a story about our land – and our relationship with it and with the people who know it best. This land, these mountains, creeks, lagoons and trees, were here first, Uncle Ray says, and this makes us “part of their history, not the other way around.” The message is clear.
Storyland is a beautiful book physically – in cover, design and construction – as well as being a moving and relevant read. I dare you to read it today.
(Review copy courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)