On Howard Goldenberg writing about indigenous matters

Howard Goldenberg, Carrots and Jaffas

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishing

It’s funny how reviews go, at least how mine go anyhow. They sometimes head me off in a direction quite different to the one I started and I feel powerless* to change it. That happened with my recent review of Howard Goldenberg’s novel, Carrots and Jaffas. I started by mentioning the issue of white writers writing on black subjects but ended up focusing on the main issue in the novel that grabbed me – suffering and loss. But this is where it’s great to be a blogger: I can just write another post. I am my own boss after all! Consequently, in this post I plan to return to that opening point and discuss how Goldenberg writes about indigenous issues. I’m a bit anxious about it, however, as here I am, a white blogger writing about a white writer writing about black subjects. How far removed is that? You must read, therefore, what I say from that point of view – a non-expert who thinks the issue needs to be kept on the table.

Goldenberg has tried a tricky thing. He has taken the issue of the stolen generations and spread it out in a few directions. He’s taken the universal issue of traumatic, sudden loss (of children, siblings, parents), which is what I focused on in my review, and used it to provide readers with an entrée into the very particular loss experienced by those affected by the stolen generations policy. He has revolved his plot around the abduction of a white child to provide a parallel with the large-scale abduction of indigenous children. And he has placed the abducted child in an indigenous setting, enabling him to explore different responses to land or country, which is what I want to discuss here.

Three of the book’s characters are significant to this aspect of the novel. Goldenberg takes pains early in the novel to individuate the twins, describing Jaffas as interested in music, dance, beauty, as an “infant aesthete”, while Carrots is active, “exuberantly physical”. It is Jaffas who is abducted, the one more likely to be responsive to what Goldenberg has planned for him! Then there’s the indigenous woman, Greta. Goldenberg introduces us to her before she meets Jaffas, establishing her as a nurturing woman. She has brought a very sick baby, her great-niece, to see Doc, our third character. He observes her with the baby, noticing that she “crooned soft words in language, words to hold her safe”. As for Doc, we meet him just before we meet Greta. He too has suffered a loss, when his loved young sister was taken overseas by his father as the result of divorce. He’s been researching bowel infections for decades and has now gone bush to help prevent Aboriginal babies dying from diseases like dysentery.

Through these three characters, Goldenberg explores different ways of relating to our land, specifically in this case, the rock country of the Flinders Ranges:

The doctor set out early. The sun blessed its morning favourites – western peaks, taller treetops, selected folds of hill. Here and there, narrow beams probed gaps in the ranges and dowered the lower slopes with gold.
Greta shows Jaffas how to make fire, and catch goannas. She teaches him about her Dreaming by telling stories that were passed down to her:
Warraiti, you call him emu, you know? Very strong spirit. Warraiti, he the Law Man. He protect the Law. Plenty mob – blackfella mob, whitefella mob – eat warraiti, but not me. Never me. Warraiti, he my dreaming, my father …

Doc tells Jaffas that he is in the Flinders “to learn the stories of this country”. His perspective is broad. There is, he says, only one story, which is: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” And so, over the two months that Jaffas spends with Greta and Doc, he learns their stories. Greta tells him about her country, about how to live in it and how to relate to it, while Doc tells him his stories. He talks of fossils, telling Jaffas that “it’s a story of ‘Where do we come from?'” He tells him about the geology – about the hills that are older than time – and about the first people, the Adnyamathanha, who lived off the land for thousands of years. And he tells him that the new people, the settlers, have stories too. At times, it verges on the didactic, but then Doc is “teaching” Jaffas, and Goldenberg’s hand is light, so it works.

Jaffas, for his part, absorbs what he is told, and wants to share what he has learnt. He “needs Carrots to understand the important things”. He wants Carrots to hear Greta’s stories, and the Doc’s “many stories that are one great story”.

So, what is Goldenberg doing here? Well, he is writing a story about stories – about sharing stories with each other, about respecting each other’s stories, and, most importantly, about the role stories can play in healing the division between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures in Australia.

Carrots and Jaffas has several themes, but is, essentially, a modern story of abduction that conveys truths about the stolen generations, and about the wrongs, in general, done to indigenous people. It’s not, however, admonitory in tone. Instead, Goldenberg offers a prescription for healing. To do this, he has presumed to “speak” through an indigenous character (not to mention through white children, an immigrant woman and white men). I believe he has done it with respect and on the basis of personal knowledge. I found it honest and effective. I look forward to hearing what others say.

* Of course I have the power, but often I like the way I’m going while mourning the way I’ve left!

Howard Goldenberg, Carrots and Jaffas (Review)

Howard Goldenberg, Carrots and Jaffas

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers

Howard Goldenberg, we are told in “About the Author” at the back of his debut novel Carrots and Jaffas, is the sole practitioner of a literary genre – the rhyming medical referral letter! Wouldn’t I love to see some of those! Anyhow, you’ve probably guessed now that Goldenberg is a doctor, and you’d be right. But he’s a doctor with some very specific experience. Earlier this year I wrote about white writers writing on indigenous subjects. It resulted in quite a discussion. While the overall opinion was that there should be no taboos in subject matter for writers, we agreed that such writing is most effective when done from a standpoint of knowledge (and, it goes without saying, sensitivity). Howard Goldenberg, whose novel Carrots and Jaffas I’ve just completed, has such knowledge*, as he has and still does practise for part of his time in outback Aboriginal communities. Beats me how he could also find time to write a novel, but like all passionate writers, he has!

I hadn’t heard of Howard Goldenberg before, but apparently he was featured in one of the sessions at this year’s inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers festival, about which (the festival, not Goldenberg) Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Jenny (Seraglio) have posted on their blogs. Goldenberg writes on his blog of his session with Martin Flanagan. He says that Flanagan “led a conversation about the book, about my choice to turn from serious non-fiction to the novel, about stolen children – the ultimate wound, about twinness, about the problems and pitfalls of the whitefella writing about blackfellas.” Oh, wouldn’t I have loved to have been there!

This novel, Carrots and Jaffas, is pretty ambitious. It covers a lot of ground, asking us to make the right connections between different experiences of suffering and loss. It uses parallel stories and a frequently shifting narrative perspective to do this. It has the odd awkward moment – a coincidence pushed a little far, an irony that doesn’t quite ring true, an earnestness that gets in the way – but these are minor in a story that totally got me in from the first page. Goldenberg has written two works of non-fiction – a memoir about his father, My father’s compass, and a book of stories about his experiences as a doctor in outback Aboriginal communities, Raft. These non-fiction works have clearly honed his narrative skills.

The main action of the novel occurs around 2004, with the setting split between suburban Melbourne and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, in Adnyamathanha country. The plot starts with the abduction of 9 year-old Jaffas, one of identical twins, by an ex-drug addict, ex-con, who plans to deliver him to an old indigenous woman, Greta, who had two sons stolen from her in the 1960s. Clean now, but with a brain damaged by PCP, he (Jimmy aka Wilbur) sees himself as Golem or the Redeemer. He is going to right a wrong. He planned to take the two boys but it goes wrong and he ends up with just Jaffas, leaving behind a distraught Carrots. The story then flashes back to the story of how Carrots and Jaffas came to be, to the meeting and subsequent marriage of their parents, Bernard, an IT specialist who had lost his father when young, and Luisa, an immigrant from Buenes Aires who, we gradually learn, had suffered significant trauma and loss in her youth. Later, we meet Doc who works in the Flinders Ranges, but who has experienced a loss of his own, a sibling through divorce.

From here the story alternates between Carrots at home, and Jaffas in the outback in a neighbouring state. As Carrots starts to fall apart, Jaffas, who was threatened with the death of his twin if he tells, is introduced to indigenous culture. He is not happy, is biding his time for an opportunity to go home, but in the meantime, over a period of a couple of months, he starts to hear different stories about life – indigenous ones from Greta and scientific ones from Doc – and learns another way of living. I will leave the story at this point … except to say that there is drama alongside reflection. It’s quite a page turner, in its quiet way!

There is humour here, despite the serious subject matter. I particularly loved the chapter on the kindergarten fancy dress parade. It brought back such memories. Even in this lighthearted scene, though, there’s seriousness. One child is particularly diminutive, and Goldenberg writes:

No one in his class considered him abnormal. But already behind him, forever past, were the years of parity with his classmates. This would be his last year of unselfconsciousness, the last year before he entered the big school, where bigger kids would be free with unkind comparisons. Luisa gazed at him, concerned; she realised the child did not suffer from dwarfism – not yet.

Oh, the power of labels!

The characters are engaging, each clearly individualised – from Luisa’s bible-learnt English and understandable fearfulness to Greta’s confident, nurturing nature, from Bernard’s practical approach to life to the Doc’s passionate if somewhat eccentric one.

There are many losses explored in this novel – parents “lose” children, and children their parents, siblings lose siblings – and they are mostly needless, human-induced. Goldenberg examines what happens to the soul, the spirit, when it experiences such pain. Not everyone responds in the same way – some start to disintegrate, some go into problem-solving mode, others respond with increased generosity of spirit – but all suffer.

Carrots writes letters that he clearly can’t send to the abducted Jaffas. In one of them he writes “I am not me without you”. They are of course twins, but most people, Goldenberg shows, are irrevocably changed when they experience loss. For all this, the novel is redemptive. I’d love to know how indigenous people respond to the novel but, for me, it’s a novel written with love from the heart. I enjoyed it.

Howard Goldenberg
Carrots and Jaffas
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000122

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

* Read, for example, his powerful, heartfelt blog post on the current Budget recommendations regarding co-payment for medical treatment.