Melissa Lucashenko’s title for her latest novel Too much lip conveys a lot about what she is trying to do here. Superficially, the title refers to protagonist Kerry’s refusal (or inability) “to swallow her opinions”, but there are layers to the title which reflect the layers in the novel. Kerry is female and indigenous, and she is lippy, which gets her into trouble, sometimes rightly because she’s not always sensible and measured in her responses, but sometimes there’s a political layer. Sometimes she has something relevant to say but because she’s a woman, or because she’s indigenous, or because, “truesgod”, she’s a woman and indigenous, her “lippiness” is ignored or put down. I’d venture to say – and I don’t think this is a long bow – that this political layer extends to imply that all indigenous people can be seen by white Australians as having “too much lip”. It is this clever, wicked multilayering in Too much lip that makes it such an engrossing and confronting book to read.
Essentially, Too much lip is a contemporary story about an indigenous family living in the small fictional country town of Durrongo in Bundjalung country, in northeast New South Wales. The family struggles to keep it together – and, as the book progresses, we come to see why. And it’s no surprise: colonial dispossession, the massacres, the stolen children policies, not to mention the ongoing racism, result in poverty and dysfunction, in unemployment, drug-taking, violence and withdrawal from wider society. Lucashenko does not shy from exposing violence and conflict within the novel’s indigenous community but she also makes clear that the cause can be found in long-standing, intergenerational traumas experienced by the community – as individuals and as a group.
Now this might all sound very earnest, but it’s not. This is a ripping read with a strong plot about vibrant, beautifully differentiated characters. After a somewhat mysterious opening chapter whose import is not clear until well into the novel, we meet protagonist Kerry, the 34-year-old daughter of Pretty Mary. She’s coming home, riding into town on her stolen Harley, no less. It’s to be a quick trip. She wants to say goodbye to her dying grandfather and then get out of there. It’s clear there’s not much love lost between Kerry and her remaining family in town. However, she is at a bit of a personal crossroads. She’s fleeing a botched armed robbery which resulted in the imprisonment of her partner Allie, who has broken their relationship. Kerry is grieving this. When she and her family catch wind of plans to develop Granny Ava’s island, a sacred place for their people, she decides to stay a bit longer and fight the fight.
So, this becomes, also, a story about land and connection to country versus greedy developers and corrupt politicians who, in this small town, combine in the form of one man, Mayor Jim Buckley. There’s enough thrills and action in the novel, not to mention a romance, to keep lovers of exciting plots engaged, but there’s also enough about characters and their relationships, to keep us more character-oriented readers interested.
This is a confronting novel for non-indigenous Australian readers – but it’s a confrontation we need. It shows (not, didactically tells) what colonial settler societies have done to indigenous inhabitants and how this reverberates through the generations. My back cover blurb calls the novel “gritty and darkly hilarious” – and that’s a perfect description of its tone. Lucashenko privileges us to sit in on an indigenous family’s life. We get to see the world from their perspective, their pain, their frustrations, but also the jokes they make about white people’s ignorance.
Kerry had managed, on the surface anyhow, to rise above the racism she experienced at high school, but
her indifference – part pretence, part real – meant the insults quickly found their targets elsewhere, in the small handful of other Goories who usually decided to fight back, and who were quickly expelled for expecting a bit of common decency in their lives.
Disgusting, isn’t it? Examples of racism abound in the book, but there are also times where Lucashenko’s Goories critique white culture. One of these occurs when policemen, Jim Buckley’s henchmen, turn up at Pretty Mary’s home. The family retaliates by suggesting, at one point in the confrontation, that white people need a refresher on their old ways, and more:
‘How to invade other people’s countries and murder em, and call it civilisation …’ Ken couldn’t remember when he’d enjoyed himself this much.
‘Child stealing 101,’ Black Superman nodded enthusiastically. ‘Interventions for fun and profit.’
‘Globalised capitalism for the one per cent,’ Zippo called out.
Eventually they force the police to retreat, and feel a great sense of victory. They rework the story, savour and analyse it, embellish it, agreeing that “Glenrowan had nothing on Durrongo”. Haha! It’s a wonderfully written scene that makes us whitefellas squirm.
It’s not all hilarious though. The dysfunction is serious. There’s heavy drinking and violence. Brother Ken is irrational, violent, and neglectful of his adolescent son Donny, who is struggling to find his way. Kerry sees this, but is struggling with her own demons, including living in a gendered world where her word counts for little. Even her mother, Pretty Mary, is more likely to turn to Ken than to her daughter. It’s tough. There is hope though, and it comes mainly in the form of two characters – Ken and Kerry’s younger, successful city-dwelling brother, Black Superman, and Uncle Richard.
Uncle Richard, in particular, embodies both strength and wisdom. He’s not a push-over, but he exerts leadership when it’s needed. He says to the incendiary Ken:
‘Yeah, okay. We need to fight. But first I think you’d better come to Men’s Camp this weekend. Get yer head clear, neph. Manage your anger so you use it, not it using you.’
It takes some talking, but he eventually prevails. A little later, Uncle Richard brokers a reconciliation amongst the family, encouraging past hurts to be put into context rather than poison their futures:
‘History’s made us all hard … We had to grow hard just to survive, had to get as hard as that ol’ rock sitting there. But the hardness that saved us, it’s gonna kill us if it goes on much longer. People ain’t rocks …’
Pervading all this is a strong sense of indigenous culture. Connection to the land is palpable, as is its power to revive the family. Birds, particularly crows, play a subtle role. There’s the “king plate” with a power “too dangerous” to leave lying around. There are references to totems, including tongue-in-cheek jokes that suggest indigenous people are serious but not humourless about their culture. And then there’s the Doctor, a shark which swims around Granny Ava’s island, waiting for a blood debt to be paid.
There are some books you read that you just really want to write about. Too much lip is one such book. I so looked forward to writing this post, but I was challenged at the same time. How to do justice to Melissa Lucashenko’s achievement? By wrapping a rich contribution to truth-telling inside an entertaining story guaranteed to keep you turning the page, she has pulled off something impressive. I really hope I’ve been up to the task. Perhaps you’d better read the book – if you haven’t already – to judge for yourself!
Lisa at ANZLitLovers was also impressed by the book.
(Review copy courtesy UQP)