Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light (Review)

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverIt’s silly I know, but I had a little thrill at the end of Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light, because not only was the last story set in a place where I spent six of the formative years of my childhood – Sandgate on the northern edge of Brisbane – but one of the characters learnt to swim in the same pool there that I did, and her brother has a beagle, just as we did. Ah, childhood. Enough, though, of readerly nostalgia. Time to properly discuss the book.

Heat and light won the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writer in 2013, and has been on my TBR for several months. I hadn’t prioritised it for reading, but its longlisting for the Stella Prize last week convinced me to squeeze it in before two works I had to complete by 21 and 24 February. I hope I won’t regret it. No, let me rephrase that: I know I won’t regret having read it, but I hope I don’t regret my decision to read it right now!

The first thing to say is that Heat and light isn’t a novel. It has, in fact, an intriguing form, something that’s not unusual with writers from an indigenous background. Simplistically speaking, it comprises short stories organised into three sections titled Heat, Water and Light. However, each of these sections is quite different. Heat comprises interconnected short stories (5) about three generations of the Kresinger family, while Water is longform short fiction (54 pages in my edition) in the speculative fiction genre. Light, on the other hand, is more like a “traditional” collection of short stories (10). Together, the three sections, including the future-set Water, create a rich picture of contemporary indigenous life and concerns.

And here I confront again the challenge of being a non-indigenous Australian reviewing a work by an indigenous Australian featuring indigenous people. It always makes me a little anxious: I fear sounding earnest or, worse, patronising; I fear making what’s different sound exotic; and, I fear missing the point. And yet I love reading indigenous writers, because their perspective is different and because they (see, I’m generalising, aren’t I?) tend to be adventurous in their story-telling, often taking risks with voice, form, chronology, genre, and more. Van Neerven, as I’ve already implied, is such a writer.

The titles of the three sections – Heat, Water, Light – make me think of the elements. They are not quite the classical elements (fire, air, water, earth) but they convey, it seems to me, the essence of what’s needed for life. The focal character in Heat, though we don’t see a lot of her, is Pearl, the grandmother of the narrator of the first story which is titled, in fact, “Pearl”. Pearl is a bit of a free spirit – earthy, hot (in its sexual meaning, with “her siren eyes”), and likely to appear or disappear with the wind. Over the five stories in this section we learn about Pearl, her sister Marie, and the two succeeding generations. Van Neerven’s writing is confident, moving comfortably between first and third person narrators, all of whom are members of a complex extended family. Loyalties – to their indigenous background and to their blood relationships – are tested. As the narrator of “Pearl” says:

So much is in what we make of things. The stories we construct about our place in our families are essential to our lives.

And this is true, whether or not the stories so constructed are “true”. The implication is you need to know what you are doing. Colin, for example, finding himself, through his own actions, disconnected from his indigenous heritage, wants to return, but

she told me if I was going to make my way home I’d better do it soon before the dust had covered my tracks.

The third section, Light, explores similar issues to those in Heat, but through ten separate stories, ranging from 2 pages to 30. The characters in both sections both move between city and country, but, while Heat is set in southeastern Queensland, the stories in Light are set in Sydney, Western Australia and Queensland. The protagonists tend to be young, and female. They also tend to be in formative stages of their lives, or at crossroads; they are sorting out their relationships, their sexuality, their identity. They confront racism and face conflict, but they also experience and give love. There’s humour, some of it wry, such as the young girl noticing that the tag on her pants states that “this colour will continue to fade”.

Water, the longform story that occupies the middle of the book, is very different. For a start, it’s set in the near future, the 2020s, when Australia is a republic with a female president. There’s a new flag and Jessica Mauboy’s song “Gotcha” is the national anthem. There’s also a social media ban! I reckon Van Neerven enjoyed imagining this. However, life isn’t perfect. Our narrator Kaden has a new job as a Cultural Liaison Officer and was initially pleased because she thought she’d be working with “other Aboriginal people” which would provide a “way of finding out about my culture and what I missed out on growing up”. But, she discovers she’ll be working with “plantpeople” who are sort of mutant plants with human features created during “islandising” experiments. Kaden’s job is to evacuate them in preparation for the Australia2 project.

I don’t want to give any more of it away, but you’ve probably guessed that it’s a story about how we treat other, about segregation, discrimination and dirty politics. It’s also about connection to country and about the importance of controlling one’s own art. Artist Hugh Ngo says:

I don’t make art for galleries. Or for money. I make art that speaks the truth.

This is a clever (and true!) book. The bookending sections Heat and Light present stories of Australian people going about their lives, and most of them happen to be indigenous. Their indigeneity is evident, and it affects the issues they confront, but there’s no specific advocacy. The middle section, on the other hand, is more overtly political. It picks up issues that appear in the shorter stories and provides a coherent, ideological context for the whole.

Heat and light is one of those really satisfying reads: it combines engaging writing with stories that make you feel you’ve got to the things that matter. So no, regardless of whether I meet my other deadlines, I’m not sorry I bumped this book up in my reading priorities.

awwchallenge2015Ellen van Neerven
Heat and light
St Lucia: UQP, 2014
ISBN: 9780702253218

Note: One of the stories in Light, “The Falls”, is available on-line at Kill Your Darlings

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air (Review for Indigenous Literature Week)

Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch (Courtesy: Friend of subject, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air is another book that has been languishing too long on my TBR pile, though not as long as Sara Dowse’s Schemetime. For Swallow the air, it was a case of third time lucky, because this was the third year I planned to read it for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. Like the proverbial boomerang, it kept coming back, saying “pick me!” Finally, I did.

Winner of the 2004 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writers, Swallow the air made quite a splash when it was published in 2006, winning or being shortlisted for many of Australia’s major literary awards. (See Tara June Winch’s Wikipedia entry). I believe Winch is working on another novel, but it hasn’t appeared yet.

Now, though, to the book. The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English. At the novel’s opening, she is living in coastal Wollongong, which is not her mother’s country, in a single-parent household with her mother and her brother, Billy, who has a different and indigenous father. Absent fathers are, I should say, disproportionately common in indigenous families.

In fact, one of the impressive things about this debut novel is how subtly, but clearly, Winch weaves through it many of the issues facing indigenous people and communities. Poverty, loss of connection to country, the stolen generations, mining and land rights, alcoholism, drug addiction, racism, rape, child abuse by the church, imprisonment and the tent embassy are among the concerns she touches on during May’s journey. Listing them here makes it sound like a political “ideas” novel but, while Swallow the air is “political” in the way that most indigenous writing can’t help but be, its centre is a searching heart, for May has been cast adrift by the suicide of her mother. Life, which was tenuous anyhow, becomes impossible to hold together as her brother and aunt, both loving, struggle with their own pain.

This is where I become a little uncomfortable as a non-indigenous person making a generalisation about indigenous literature, but I’m going to do it anyhow, because I think I’m on firm ground. I’m talking about story-telling and what I understand to be its intrinsic role in indigenous culture. It imparts – or can do – a different flavour to the writing. Marie Munkara’s David Unaipon Award winning Every secret thing (my review) has some similarities in form to Swallow the air, and covers some similar thematic territory, but is very different in tone. Munkara’s novel also presents as a bunch of stories, with a uniting narrative thread. Swallow the air is more subtle, but nonetheless it’s the idea of stories that underpins the narrative.

What particularly impressed me about Winch’s writing is the way she manages tone and structures her story. She understands the Shakespearean imperative to offer some light after dark. For example, there’s a lovely little chapter/story called “Wantok” about family closeness which occurs after a story about a difficult work experience. In another situation, with just one word at the end of a story (“Mission”) – “Seemed [my emphasis] all so perfect, so right” – she prepares us for the opposite in the next (“Country”).

This flow – with shifts in tone that are sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, and with a narrative that is mostly linear but with the occasional flashback – kept me reading and engaged until the end. As did the writing itself. It’s deliciously poetic. Sometimes it is tight and spare, as in:

I do not cry, my eyes are hardened, like honey-comb, like toffee. Brittle, crumbling sugar. He puts his hand out toward me; we shake hands, a pact that I won’t be here digging up his past when he gets back.

And I’m not.

And in this description of life in the city: “Suits and handbags begin to fill the emptiness of the morning”. Other times it is gorgeously lyrical (a review buzz word, I know, but sometimes there’s no other word):

The river sleeps, nascent of limpid green, tree bones of spirit people, arms stretched out and screaming. And at their fingertips claws of blue bonnets, sulphur-crested cockatoos and the erratic dips and weaves of wild galahs, grapefruit pink and ghost grey splash the sky.

But back now to the story. As May makes her journey, we meet many characters – her brother, aunt, women like Joyce who care for her but also know when to push her on, men with whom she hitchhikes, to name a few. None of these characters are developed to any degree, but we learn what we need to know about them by how they relate to May. Most are kind, generous, nurturing. May’s journey, in other words, is not challenged so much by human barriers, but by emotional, social, political and historical ones. It is a generous thing that when she starts to understand her place, it’s an inclusive understanding, one that encompasses all of us who occupy this land:

And it all makes sense to me now. Issy’s drawing in the sand, boundaries between the land and the water, us, we come from the sky and the earth and we go back to the sky and the earth. This land is belonging, all of it for all of us.

However, while May comes to a better understanding of the land and her relationship to it, there is no easy resolution to the ongoing struggle of living in a place in which there is still “a big missing hole” created by the loss of connection to culture. It will take a long time to refill that hole, if indeed it can be done, but books like this will help communicate just what it means, and how it feels, to be so disconnected.

awwchallenge2014Tara June Winch
Swallow the air
St Lucia: UQP, 2006
ISBN: 9780702235214

* One chapter/story, “Cloud busting” was published in Best Australian Stories 2005.

Jeanine Leane, Purple threads (Review for Indigenous Literature Week)

What I especially like about Jeanine Leane’s book, Purple threads, is how well she draws the universal out of the particular. That she does this is not unusual in itself. After all, this is what our favourite books tend to do. The interesting thing about Purple threads, though, is that the particular is an indigenous one. Even as I write this post my mind is flicking back-and-forth between thinking about the indigenous themes in the book and the more universal ones about family and relationships. More on that anon. First, I want to say a little about the book’s form, because ….

I’m not sure whether to call Purple threads a novel or a book of connected short stories, except I don’t think it matters much. What is significant is that the stories revolve around a mostly female-only indigenous family living on a small piece of land in the Gundagai area of New South Wales in the 1950s to 1960s. The main characters run through the whole book, and the stories are told pretty much chronologically. There could even be a plot line or two, but they are not strong and are not what drive us to read on. This form had an eerie familiarity as I was reading and I realised it was because it reminded me of another David Unaipon Award winning book I have reviewed here, Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing. Is this a coincidence – after all, there are similar books by non-indigenous writers – or should I go out on a limb and wonder whether this form reflects an indigenous way of story-telling? In addition to this similarity in form, these two books share a particular style of humour. Munkara’s is probably more belly-laugh, and is definitely more gut-wrenching, but both have a self-deprecating element, a willingness and ability to laugh at themselves, to see the absurd. It’s a form of humour we also see in Alexis Wright‘s Carpentaria. Okay, enough of that, back to the book itself.

The stories are told first person by Sunny (Sunshine) who lives with her sister Star, and her grandmother, Nan, and aunts, Boo (Beulah) and Bubby (Lily). Her mother, father, grandfather, more aunts and uncles, and others in the community, also appear in the book, but these five named characters are the focus. They are well differentiated. Nan is the down-to-earth matriarch of the group who doesn’t know how to read but “sure as hell know[s] how ta think”. Boo is independent and feisty, the one who takes action when action is needed. She loves the ancient Romans, particularly Empress Livia “who knew how to work behind the scenes”. Bubby, on the other hand, is the gentle, romantic one, who loves Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. The stories chronicle the first two decades of Sunny’s life in this female-dominated household. There are anecdotes about walks with Aunty Boo, about spoilt Petal (Sunny and Star’s mother), and about interactions with neighbours, teachers and others in the community. Most of the stories are light, albeit with a good degree of bite, but some are dark, such as the story of the young white neighbour, Milli, who is regularly beaten by her husband. This story, in fact, forms a minor plot line in part of the book.

The universal themes are about the way families comprise different and sometimes conflicting personalities and yet manage to love and support each other to ensure their joint survival. The particularity, though, has to do with being indigenous, with being lesser, in a rural community. Leane handles this cleverly, using, for example, the Christian symbol of “the black sheep” throughout the book to tease out the ironies and complexities packed into this idea when it is played out in a sheep-farming community. The symbol is explicitly introduced to us in “God’s flock” where Sunny talks about going to church and being taught the story of “the black sheep”:

‘ … But Jesus, if we pray to him [the priest says], will find all the lost sheep and return them to the fold, even the black sheep that no one  else wants or loves.’

At least this bit made sense to us. Apart from Jesus, we didn’t know any other sheep farmer who loved black sheep. Most hated them, in fact. That’s why every year my Aunties always ended up with a few black lambs to raise ….

Leane shows how Nan and the Aunties navigate life in a world where “black was not the ideal colour” and in which “women livin’ by themselves are always easy targets”. They navigate it with dignity, often by pretending to go along with white society’s ways while staying true to their own values, which involve respecting and caring for other people and creatures and for their little bit of land.

Purple threads, apparently drawn from Leane’s life, provides an engaging but uncompromising insight into a life most Australians know little about. I hope I’m not being too pompous when I say that we need more books like this, and they need to be read by more people, if we non-indigenous Australians are to have a chance of truly appreciating the experience of being indigenous in our nation.

Read for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, for which Lisa has also reviewed it.

Jeanine Leane
Purple threads
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780702238956

(Review copy supplied by University of Queensland Press via ANZLitLovers blog giveaway. Thanks Lisa. Thanks UQP)

* I have assumed copyright permission for this cover on the basis that the book was provided by UQP

Marie Munkara, Every secret thing

They all nodded, not knowing what the hell curry* was but getting gist of the story all the same.

Marie Munkara leads us a merry dance with Every secret thing, her first book, which won the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer. What exactly is this “thing” she presents to us? A novel? A short story collection? Well, I think it’s a bit of both. It looks like stand-alone short stories, and can probably be read that way. But, the same characters keep reappearing in the stories and there is a chronological thrust to it with a conclusion of sorts in the final story, so I’d call it connected short stories.

Form, though, is not the only way in which she leads us a merry dance. This is a genuinely funny book – sometimes slapstick or ribald, sometimes more bitter, satiric and/or ironic, but pretty well always funny. However, her subject matter is desperately serious – the destruction of indigenous culture through contact with white culture, specifically in this book through contact with missions and missionaries.

Bathurst Island (Tiwi Islands)

Approaching beautiful Bathurst Island (Tiwi Islands)

Marie Munkara was born in Arnhem Land and spent the first few years of her life on Bathurst Island in the Tiwi Islands. She left there when she was 3 years old, and didn’t return until she was 28. These stories, she says, are drawn from those told to her by friends and family, and are set, I think, in the early to mid twentieth century. She explores a wide range of issues reflective of indigenous-white contact at that time, including education and religion, the stolen generation, sexual abuse, the introduction of alcohol and disease, and anthropological research.

Munkara sees humour in everything (more or less) but her more biting humour is reserved for the “mission mob” because, of course, it is they who wield the power over the “bush mob”. The “bush mob” are shown to be intelligent and resourceful but no match for the power of the muruntawi (white people). Her language draws on a wide range of traditions – including indigenous storytelling, biblical, common clichés – and from these she tells stories that are only too believable. Here she tells us about one of the Brothers:

And so time passed and the natural progression of things came to be and the bullied became the bully, and the bully became the misogynist, and the misogynist became a Brother in a Catholic mission in a remote place in the Northern Territory… (“The sound of music”)

A too familiar story, told in a biblical tone. There is a funny story in which the “bush mob” tries to lead an anthropologist astray by feeding him incorrect information (such as obscene or silly names for ordinary objects), but their victory is Pyrrhic, as the end of the story conveys:

And after all, it was difficult sometimes to tell the difference between the missionaries and the madmen and the mercenaries because their eyes all looked the same and their tongues all spoke the same language of greed. If it wasn’t your soul they wanted, it was something else. Until it became an automatic response whenever a strange muruntani appeared to put out your hand for the specimen bottle to piss into or extend your arm for a blood sample to be taken or for the ungracious thought to pass through their mind that here was yet another who had come to take but as always gave nothing in return. (“Wurruwataka”)

Her stories about the stolen generations are particularly bitter, but again she uses humour. She tells the story of Marigold (née Tapalinga) who’d returned “home” after years away, only to find that she no longer fit, but:

Nor did Mrs Jones want the hussy back as their servant having sprung the little slut underneath Mr Jones in the spare room. The poor man was still traumatised by the ordeal. This wasn’t the first time she’d raped him, he claimed. (“Marigold”)

Only an indigenous writer could write something so patently ridiculous on this topic – and so drive the point home!

Munkara neatly tracks the Bishop’s behaviour and impact on his flock by constantly changing her epithet for him. In the first story, “The Bishop”, he is introduced as “his Most Distinguished” but is then referred to by various names including “his Most Garrulous”, “his Most Impatient” and “his Most Impious”. This changing of names for the Bishop is rather unsubtle humour but it carries a sly comment on the “mission mob’s” disrespect for indigenous culture by insisting on naming indigenous people, completely ignoring the fact that they have their own names. And so, in the first story, we are introduced to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, to Epiphany, Lazarus, and John the Baptist, to name just a few of the cast of characters populating the book.

Another technique Munkara uses is to pepper her stories with white culture sayings and clichés, such as, “misery loves company alright”, “looking on the bright side”, “but you just can’t please everyone”, and this one:

And so it came to be that for the first time ever, the mission mob found themselves sitting where they’d never sat before – between a rock called ‘you didn’t see that one coming did you’ and a hard place called ‘bush mob’s indifference’. (“The good doctor”)

Overall, this is deceptively simple but clever writing that sets up and undermines its premises every step of the way. First “the mission mob” seem to be winning, and then “the bush mob”. However, while it could be said that “the bush mob” were “clever individuals who had learnt to sit on the wobbly fence of cultural evolution without falling off”, the real truth is that

They didn’t have to die to go to hell because the mission had happily brought that with them when they’d arrived unasked on the fateful shores of the place that was their heaven all those years ago. (“The movies”)

A spoonful of sugar, they say, makes the medicine go down, and that’s certainly true of this book. The sugar is not so strong though that you miss the medicine. Munkara makes sure of that – and the end result is a very funny but also very sobering book. I suspect and hope that Munkara has more … because the missions are only one facet of the history of contact in Australia. There is plenty for her to sink her teeth into.

Musings of a Literary Dilettante and Resident Judge have also reviewed this book.

Marie Munkara
Every secret thing
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009
ISBN: 9780702237195

* Reference to the colloquialism “giving them curry”.