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Madelaine Dickie, Red can origami (#BookReview)

February 20, 2020

Book coverSome writers, I understand, suffer from a thing called “second novel syndrome”, which describes the fear of writing a second novel after a successful first one. Well, it’s clear that Madelaine Dickie, who won the TAG Hungerford with her first novel Troppo (my review), hasn’t suffered from this particular disorder, because her second novel, Red can origami, is not only another good read but it presents as a confident work from an author who knows exactly what she wants to do.

A confident work

Let’s start with the plot. Red can origami is set primarily in a town in Australia’s north-west called Gubinge, to which Melbourne-based journalist Ava has gone for a job as a reporter. Fairly soon, though, she is offered a significantly better paid job as an Aboriginal Liaison Officer by the Japanese uranium mining company, Gerro Blue, who wants someone to help them negotiate an exploration licence with the local native title owners. Already you can see, I’m sure, some red flags, because this plot is going to require Dickie to create Indigenous Australian characters and, thus, to speak for them. This, of course, raises once again that thorny question of who can write what.

Now, I attended this novel’s New South Wales launch at the south coast just before Christmas (and just before the bushfire situation got out of control). I hadn’t met Dickie before, but her mother-in-law, who held the launch, is a good friend and one of my reading group’s original members. Dickie gave a wonderful speech in which she addressed this question head-on. She quoted Anita Heiss’s statement that the Australian novel needs to be inclusive; she reminded us that there were many Indigenous writers, like Alexis Wright in Carpentaria and Tara June Winch in The yield, who are telling their stories well; and she quoted non-Indigenous author Stephen Hawke who writes Indigenous characters and argues that you need to write well and be respectful. In addition, she, who has lived in the Kimberleys where the novel is set, described some of the work she’s done in recent years for traditional owners, including going “on country with old people”. Her arguments and credentials seem fair enough to me – though of course, in the end, it’s up to each reader, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to decide for themselves.

The other point I want to make about the confidence of this work is its voice, because it is told second person. This too Dickie confronted in her speech. She was leaving no stone of potential contention unturned. I was impressed. Anyhow, essentially, she said that she’d tried writing it third person but it flowed better when she switched to second. That was her writerly judgement – and certainly I found it easy to read. However, she also had a political reason for this choice, and it’s this, she wanted to involve if not implicate the reader in what’s happening. Second person does this very effectively – at least it does in this book. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ll just say that the second person voice makes the last line an inspired one.

About the book

So now, I’ve talked a lot around the book, but not a lot about it. Another thing Dickie said in her speech was that she wanted the book to be a page-turner – and that it is. The novel moves at a good pace, as did Troppo, and covers a lot of ground in its 220 pages. It starts with Ava arriving in town and building up a little band of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends and aquaintances. These characters include Lucia, an Indigenous reporter on the same paper as she; Ash, a non-Indigenous local TAFE lecturer who is soon attracted to Ava, and who shows her the ropes, taking her fishing and to the local bars in particular; and Noah, an Indigenous station-manager and local Indigenous leader, to whom Ava is attracted. Ava quickly falls in love with the land and the life of the Kimberleys, but equally quickly she becomes aware of local politics – and, with her reporter’s eyes, she notices some suss things going on. Is Gerro Blue already working on the land they haven’t yet obtained the licence to do? What are those bones they’ve disturbed?

It is in this environment that Ava, who has already shown sympathy towards the Indigenous owners, is wooed by Gerro Blue’s smooth CEO, Yuma Watanabe, to be their Aboriginal Liaison Officer. If there is a plot fault in the novel, it could be this – why would she take such a job – but Dickie makes us believe. Not only is Watanabe a shrewd employer, but Ava genuinely, albeit uncertainly, believes she can help the local Burrika people. After all, she thinks, “better you, with your olive-green heart, than someone else”. However, she also admits that being paid real money rather than a reporter’s salary, would set her up. She is, then, a real or flawed character, just as we like our characters to be.

As the book progresses, conflict increases. The traditional owners disagree over whether to grant Gerro Blue the licence, particularly given it’s for uranium mining, with all its implications. (Dickie has specifically set her novel around 2011, the year of the Fukushima disaster.) They don’t all trust Ava either. Protesters, from within and without the Indigenous community, make their own waves. Dickie navigates well this tricky, but real – and not at all unusual – situation in native title negotiations. She clearly knows whereof she speaks. Anyhow, while all this is going on, Ash is keeping an eye out for Ava, while Ava is keeping her eye on Noah. It all, of course, comes to a head, with a powerful ending that is entirely appropriate to the story being told.

And then there’s the writing. This is a novel written in the voice of a young woman living in remote Australia. The voice is, thus, earthy, but also fresh and authentic. Dickie’s writing is expressive, and has been pared to the essential, which is not the same as saying it is bare and plain. It is anything but. Here is Ava describing her sophisticated Melbourne sister:

Imogen’s voice is all sparks. It holds the drunken sequin shine of a Melbourne night.

And here a boab tree in Perth, far from its home (like Ava):

The boab’s bark is cracked, its leaves are withered, and its roots strain from the soil, as if it’s planning on splitting town, hitching north.

So, Red can origami is a good read, as Dickie intended, but it also has an underlying purpose. Dickie is passionate about northwest Australia, and about the challenges faced by Indigenous Australians – and she wants all Australians to understand this better. Red can origami sits within that contemporary literature space comprising works which explore Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian relationships and interactions. Like Lucashenko’s Too much lip, and similar novels, Red can origami works beautifully as a consciousness-raiser, because it wraps authentic situations and issues in an engaging, page-turning story. In doing so, it teaches us about the beauty of northwest Australia, about the complexities of native title legislation and practice, about the nastiness that happens when politics and business get together, about direct and indirect racism, about dispossession, and, above all, about the diversity of human beings and the challenges we face in getting along together. A book for now.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by the book, and teases out some different angles.

Challenge logoMadelaine Dickie
Red can origami
Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781925815504

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Louisa permalink
    February 20, 2020 00:37

    Yours is the second review I’ve seen of this, it piqued my interest the first review, now I have to read it.

  2. February 20, 2020 04:40

    Sounds really well done. And how cool that you are good friends with the author’s mother-in-law and got to attend the book launch!

  3. February 20, 2020 06:02

    Wow ! Ripper of a review, ST.
    In the second person, eh ? – I had to look that up, and found it to be .. well, like when you’re telling someone how to do something – did I just write a phrase in the 2nd person ? 😀

    • February 20, 2020 08:29

      Why, I think you did M-R. I should have included a good quote showing it, but the review was getting long. However, the quote in the paragraph where I mention her decision to take the job, is an example.

  4. Meg permalink
    February 20, 2020 07:26

    Hi Sue, the word has got around I am now the ‘third person’ to reserve it at my library.

  5. February 20, 2020 08:28

    You lucky thing, hearing her talk about it at the launch!
    I think it’s great that finally a contemporary author has tackled this subject in fiction. I wonder what she will write next?

    • February 20, 2020 08:40

      Thanks Lisa, she did a marvellous job at the launch, fending off all the questions in advance.

      And yes I agree. And, from my experience in the late 2000s of working with an indigenous-focused organisation (CEO was non-indigenous but Board was indigenous) in the Pilbara, she has got the complexity of native title practice and politics right.

      In my post last year on the Neilma Sidney Travel grant, she is a recipient for work on a biography of an indigenous elder (I think) so that’s next I presume. Hopefully there’s more fiction coming too.

      • February 20, 2020 08:48

        That will be good… she’s an interesting thinker:)

        • February 20, 2020 09:01

          She is, I agree, and passionate about people and place, and about political issues.

  6. February 20, 2020 10:13

    Lovely review Sue! I also found it a compelling read. And she’s well aware of the messiness of life and the politics. She writes beautifully about the landscape and environment.
    I have to say I would not have noticed it was in the second person, it flowed really well.
    And great to see her confidence and strength as a writer.

    • February 20, 2020 14:58

      Thanks Kate. Glad you liked the review – and of course, the book! She does write beautifully about place – there was so much to say about this book. I’m glad you made a point about that.

  7. February 20, 2020 10:59

    Great review Jonathan – I’ve just purchased it. I have distant distant kinship connection to someone now quite a few years in the north-west of WA (engaged in connecting Stolen Generations back to families – still an on-going matter of concern) who went there originally as an ABC journalist…and then there is the complicity of Australia in the pre-Fukushima selling of our uranium to that land – Richard Broinowski has written of that since the great tsunami Tepco disaster… Jim

    • February 20, 2020 15:02

      Thanks Jim – Sue, here, not Jonathan! But I completely understand getting us bloggers mixed up. I do hope you like the book, and am really glad my review has encouraged you to buy it.

      One of the points Madelaine made in her launch speech was about the indigenous response to Fukushima. I only refer to the issue in passing here, but it is one the issues Dickie was particularly concerned about. There’s so much to write about re this pretty short but packed book!

  8. February 20, 2020 22:07

    I think Australian non-Indigenous fiction with strong Indigenous characters (as distinct from protagonists) is a good thing, but … I haven’t read Dickie or Hawke or Mahood, so I guess I’m voting with my dollar – I’d rather my Indigenous characters had Indigenous authors.

    • February 20, 2020 22:58

      Thanks Bill, but here’s the conclusion I’m taking from this: you are essentially saying you won’t read any non-Indigenous novelists (or other writers like Mahood) who live in and set their books in communities or towns like Broome or Alice Springs or Darwin because if they DO have Indigenous characters you don’t want to read them, but if they don’t have these characters you wouldn’t want to read them either because that would not be true to life in those places? In other words, the implication is that the only non-indigenous Australian writers you’re really happy to read are those who live in (or set their books in) big cities and towns because they probably don’t meet many Indigenous people so it’s OK if they don’t include them in their books. That sounds a bit limiting to me.

      Still, I’m very glad you agree that Dickie was OK to do what she did, even if you won’t read it!

      • February 21, 2020 06:12

        Obviously something is making me uncomfortable. More thought needed!

        • February 21, 2020 08:11

          Probably, because taken to it’s logical conclusion I don’t think it’s what you truly believe or would do?

        • February 21, 2020 08:12

          PS, I. Don’t think it’s a bad thing to be a bit uncomfortable – as readers or writers.

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