Some 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.
Red can origami
Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2019