Craig Cormick is a Canberra-based writer whom I’ve seen at various literary events around town, but not read until now, so I was especially glad when Allen & Unwin sent me this book to review. Titled On a barbarous coast, it was written collaboratively with Harold Ludwick, “a Bulgun Warra man whose traditional lands lie west of Cooktown”.
On a barbarous coast offers something a bit different for reviewers. Besides its collaborative nature, there’s its form or genre, which is that sub-genre of historical fiction called alternate (or alternative) history. In this case, it involves looking at a period of Australian history and asking “what if things had happened differently?” Those things, for Cormick and Ludwick, relate to Captain Cook’s exploration of Australia.
The story springs, then, from Captain Cook’s 1768-1771 voyage to Australia to observe the Transit of Venus. During that expedition, in late 1770, the Endeavour was seriously damaged around the Great Barrier Reef, but managed to limp on to Batavia. However, Cormick and Ludwick posit a different scenario, suggesting that the Endeavour was shipwrecked and that only a small number of the crew survived – including Cook, though he remains comatose though much of the story. The survivors make their way to land, and … the question is, as the cover states, “What if there was an alternative ending to Captain Cook’s story?” Would Australia’s history have been different, and how?
While I’ve not read many, I do quite like alternative histories. They encourage us to look at the past from different angles, which can illuminate the implications of decisions made and actions taken.
So, this is how it goes …
The story is told in two alternating first-person voices, Cormick’s being that of American Midshipman James Magra, and Ludwick’s being the young Indigenous boy, Garrgiil.
Magra chronicles the actions and fates of the shipwreck survivors, who very quickly break into two antagonistic camps, while Ludwick shares the thoughts and actions of the local Guugu Yimidhirr people. For the bulk of the narrative, the two cultures remain apart. There is quite a bit of humour in watching Garrgiil’s people trying to decide whether these strange “spirit things” are ancestors or just men. Initially, they feel they must be ancestors, but the way they stumble around, starving while “walking past food every day”, not to mention behaving incorrectly in sacred or special areas, suggests that this may not be the case.
… their presence gives our people great stories of their stupidity and clumsiness to tell around the fire at night. Like the one who stood in the river and let Gandhaar [crocodile] eat him …
Meanwhile, we watch Magra and his co-survivors bickering amongst themselves, trying to plan a solution to their predicament, and sensing the “natives” are out there but not seeing them. The stage is set for a meeting. The question is: how will it go? You will have to read the book for yourselves to find out.
So, how does it all come together?
Magra gets the lion’s share of the story, which could be seen as giving the invaders the upper-hand (yet again) in story-telling. However, I’m going to assume that this was all discussed and agreed between the two authors. Also, I think we could argue that the unequal number of physical pages doesn’t necessarily mean that the emotional impact of the two narratives is similarly unequal. Garrgiil’s voice is strong enough, and compelling enough, to be in our minds, even when he’s not centre-stage.
In the Authors’ Note at the end, Cormick says they “tried to stay as close to known history as possible, both within the known and imagined paths of the story”, which requires a bit of mind-bending but I get what they mean. They drew upon “many existing knowledges” including several journals, such as those of James Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, and an anonymous journal believed to have been written by James Mario Magra, whom Cormick uses as his narrator. They also looked at the work of Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians, journalists and academics, and at historical accounts of several shipwrecked individuals who had lived with Indigenous people. Cormick notes that while their story divides easily into the two narratives, “it is not so easy to unpick how each of us influenced each other’s work”.
Ludwick adds that his aim was to pull readers into “the world of Guugu Yimidhirr language (which was first recorded in 1770 by Sydney Parkinson and Joseph Banks)”. He says that many of the practices and knowledge he describes in the book are still used by his people. He also says that he wove Dreamtime stories into his narrative to help readers understand his people’s traditional explanations of how the land became what we see today.
The end result is the sort of book I like to read, one that entertains me with its story, while also engaging my mind as I consider what the authors (plural, in this case) were trying to do, how they were trying to do it, and whether they pulled it off. It is an earnest book. Sometimes this comes a bit close to the surface when we are “told” things to make sure we get it (such as “I know the Captain controlled how the stories of our journey would be told”). This – and the strange though interesting little “magical realism” interludes where Magra talks to Gandhaar, the crocodile – creates a little unevenness in the narrative. Also, the use of parenthesis to translate the local language used by Garrgiil felt clunky. Yet, I applaud the book’s extensive use of this language. We need more of it in contemporary Australian literature. As Gandhaar tells Magra:
You create the landscape in your own words. If you don’t know the right words, you will never know the land properly.
But these are minor “picky” things. Cormick and Ludwick have attempted something significant in terms of story, intent, and process, and they pulled it off in a way that engaged me, right through to their considered ending which suggests possibilities, while being realistic about probabilities. Without irony, we could call this book “a grand endeavour”. It is certainly exciting to see such Indigenous-non-Indigenous collaborations happening in our literary sphere.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also found this book intriguing.
Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick
On a barbarous coast
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)