Miles Franklin Award 2019 Winner announced!

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipWell, good news for me (because it’s all about me of course!) Not only had I read more of the longlist and the shortlist than is my usual achievement, but one of those books is the winner – and a wonderful winner it is too, Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review)!

Really, as much as I liked the other contenders I’d read, I did hope this would win – because it is truth-telling of the most honest sort. Indeed, Lucashenko has said that she expected backlash (which didn’t come) from indigenous communities for her no-holds barred story about a rather dysfunctional indigenous family in which violence and substance abuse, in particular, is no stranger.  Lucashenko, does, of course, underpin this squarely with references to/evocation of the causes, that is, the intergenerational trauma indigenous people have experienced after two centuries of dispossession (and all the policies and practices that have ensued to deny them equality, dignity, and thus the health and security that we all deserve as citizens of this country.)

But, in addition to this honest, real story about contemporary indigenous lives and culture – about the challenge of marrying traditional beliefs and values with contemporary life – is the fact that it’s a rip-roaring tale. Humorous, page-turning, with colourful, individuated characters. If you haven’t read it yet, you surely will now!?

Jason Steger, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, says

It’s not surprising that Melissa Lucashenko says Too Much Lip was her most difficult book to write. After all, it deals with physical and substance abuse, violence, marginalisation, displacement and dispossession, racism and incarceration within the experience of one Indigenous family.

He quotes the judges as saying that she “weaves a (sometimes) fabulous tale with the very real politics of cultural survival to offer a story of hope and redemption for all Australians”. Exactly!

I apologise for the delayed announcement – I was at reading group last night, and was distracted by our exciting discussions!

But, woo hoo! This is an inspired and inspiring choice! Well done judges, I say.

What do you think?

Melissa Lucashenko, Too much lip (#BookReview)

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipMelissa Lucashenko’s title for her latest novel Too much lip conveys a lot about what she is trying to do here. Superficially, the title refers to protagonist Kerry’s refusal (or inability) “to swallow her opinions”, but there are layers to the title which reflect the layers in the novel. Kerry is female and indigenous, and she is lippy, which gets her into trouble, sometimes rightly because she’s not always sensible and measured in her responses, but sometimes there’s a political layer. Sometimes she has something relevant to say but because she’s a woman, or because she’s indigenous, or because, “truesgod”, she’s a woman and indigenous, her “lippiness” is ignored or put down. I’d venture to say – and I don’t think this is a long bow – that this political layer extends to imply that all indigenous people can be seen by white Australians as having “too much lip”. It is this clever, wicked multilayering in Too much lip that makes it such an engrossing and confronting book to read.

Essentially, Too much lip is a contemporary story about an indigenous family living in the small fictional country town of Durrongo in Bundjalung country, in northeast New South Wales. The family struggles to keep it together – and, as the book progresses, we come to see why. And it’s no surprise: colonial dispossession, the massacres, the stolen children policies, not to mention the ongoing racism, result in poverty and dysfunction, in unemployment, drug-taking, violence and withdrawal from wider society. Lucashenko does not shy from exposing violence and conflict within the novel’s indigenous community but she also makes clear that the cause can be found in long-standing, intergenerational traumas experienced by the community – as individuals and as a group.

Now this might all sound very earnest, but it’s not. This is a ripping read with a strong plot about vibrant, beautifully differentiated characters. After a somewhat mysterious opening chapter whose import is not clear until well into the novel, we meet protagonist Kerry, the 34-year-old daughter of Pretty Mary. She’s coming home, riding into town on her stolen Harley, no less. It’s to be a quick trip. She wants to say goodbye to her dying grandfather and then get out of there. It’s clear there’s not much love lost between Kerry and her remaining family in town. However, she is at a bit of a personal crossroads. She’s fleeing a botched armed robbery which resulted in the imprisonment of her partner Allie, who has broken their relationship. Kerry is grieving this. When she and her family catch wind of plans to develop Granny Ava’s island, a sacred place for their people, she decides to stay a bit longer and fight the fight.

So, this becomes, also, a story about land and connection to country versus greedy developers and corrupt politicians who, in this small town, combine in the form of one man, Mayor Jim Buckley. There’s enough thrills and action in the novel, not to mention a romance, to keep lovers of exciting plots engaged, but there’s also enough about characters and their relationships, to keep us more character-oriented readers interested.

This is a confronting novel for non-indigenous Australian readers – but it’s a confrontation we need. It shows (not, didactically tells) what colonial settler societies have done to indigenous inhabitants and how this reverberates through the generations. My back cover blurb calls the novel “gritty and darkly hilarious” – and that’s a perfect description of its tone. Lucashenko privileges us to sit in on an indigenous family’s life. We get to see the world from their perspective, their pain, their frustrations, but also the jokes they make about white people’s ignorance.

Kerry had managed, on the surface anyhow, to rise above the racism she experienced at high school, but

her indifference – part pretence, part real – meant the insults quickly found their targets elsewhere, in the small handful of other Goories who usually decided to fight back, and who were quickly expelled for expecting a bit of common decency in their lives.

Disgusting, isn’t it? Examples of racism abound in the book, but there are also times where Lucashenko’s Goories critique white culture. One of these occurs when policemen, Jim Buckley’s henchmen, turn up at Pretty Mary’s home. The family retaliates by suggesting, at one point in the confrontation, that white people need a refresher on their old ways, and more:

‘How to invade other people’s countries and murder em, and call it civilisation …’ Ken couldn’t remember when he’d enjoyed himself this much.

‘Child stealing 101,’ Black Superman nodded enthusiastically. ‘Interventions for fun and profit.’

‘Globalised capitalism for the one per cent,’ Zippo called out.

Eventually they force the police to retreat, and feel a great sense of victory. They rework the story, savour and analyse it, embellish it, agreeing that “Glenrowan had nothing on Durrongo”. Haha! It’s a wonderfully written scene that makes us whitefellas squirm.

It’s not all hilarious though. The dysfunction is serious. There’s heavy drinking and violence. Brother Ken is irrational, violent, and neglectful of his adolescent son Donny, who is struggling to find his way. Kerry sees this, but is struggling with her own demons, including living in a gendered world where her word counts for little. Even her mother, Pretty Mary, is more likely to turn to Ken than to her daughter. It’s tough. There is hope though, and it comes mainly in the form of two characters – Ken and Kerry’s younger, successful city-dwelling brother, Black Superman, and Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard, in particular, embodies both strength and wisdom. He’s not a push-over, but he exerts leadership when it’s needed. He says to the incendiary Ken:

‘Yeah, okay. We need to fight. But first I think you’d better come to Men’s Camp this weekend. Get yer head clear, neph. Manage your anger so you use it, not it using you.’

It takes some talking, but he eventually prevails. A little later, Uncle Richard brokers a reconciliation amongst the family, encouraging past hurts to be put into context rather than poison their futures:

‘History’s made us all hard … We had to grow hard just to survive, had to get  as hard as that ol’ rock sitting there. But the hardness that saved us, it’s gonna kill us if it goes on much longer. People ain’t rocks …’

Pervading all this is a strong sense of indigenous culture. Connection to the land is palpable, as is its power to revive the family. Birds, particularly crows, play a subtle role. There’s the “king plate” with a power “too dangerous” to leave lying around. There are references to totems, including tongue-in-cheek jokes that suggest indigenous people are serious but not humourless about their culture. And then there’s the Doctor, a shark which swims around Granny Ava’s island, waiting for a blood debt to be paid.

There are some books you read that you just really want to write about. Too much lip is one such book. I so looked forward to writing this post, but I was challenged at the same time. How to do justice to Melissa Lucashenko’s achievement? By wrapping a rich contribution to truth-telling inside an entertaining story guaranteed to keep you turning the page, she has pulled off something impressive. I really hope I’ve been up to the task. Perhaps you’d better read the book – if you haven’t already – to judge for yourself!

Lisa at ANZLitLovers was also impressed by the book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMelissa Lucashenko
Too much lip
St Lucia: UQP, 2018
ISBN: 9780702259968

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Melissa Lucashenko, Sinking below sight (Review)

In this week’s Monday Musings about the Walkley Awards, I noted that Melissa Lucashenko had won the award for Long Feature Writing for her essay “Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan” in the Griffith Review. I’ve now read the essay, and thought I’d share it with you. I’ve reviewed Lucashenko before, an essay and a short story. I really must get to one of her novels one day!

With her mixed European and indigenous Australian heritage, Lucashenko is well placed to tackle significant contemporary issues and see them from multiple perspectives. The last essay of hers that I reviewed, “How green is my valley”, dealt with stewardship of the land and the threat imposed by climate change. In “Sinking below sight” her subject is poverty. Lucashenko’s essays make engaging reading. Instead of dry reportage, she starts from the personal, and from that draws conclusions that make sense. And so, while “How green is my valley” drew from her experience on a farm in northern New South Wales, this essay draws from her return, after losing her farm through divorce, to the town of Logan, one of Australia’s ten poorest urban areas.

You’ve probably noticed that her subtitle alludes to Orwell’s autobiographical work Down and out in Paris and London which chronicles his experience of poverty. Similarly, Lucashenko writes that she’s been poor before, so “I had the skill set”. But, this essay is not about her. She starts by setting the scene, describing this “Black Belt” region as one in which

Welfare recipients and the working poor … don’t necessarily realise they are hard up. More accurately, many don’t realise just how poor they are, since everyone in their lives is battling.

She then moves on to the main topic of her essay, which is to find out “How do my Black Belt peers manage? How do single mums, in particular, get by on current levels of welfare? And what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013?” To answer this interviews three women currently living in poverty – Selma (27), Marie (38) and Charmaine (49) – and discusses their situations.

Selma, a Yugoslavian of Serbian and Croatian parents, has four children under ten and a partner who is in and out of jail. Having been a refugee and then involved with an abusive Aboriginal man, Selma has some clear views on her situation:

What I don’t like in society … is the judgments put on Indigenous and refugee and domestic violence people. I was in that situation for nine years. They say you make a choice, but I don’t ever remember choosing to be beaten up! From the age of seventeen ’til about two years ago, domestic violence was part of my everyday life.

She blames poverty for violence, saying that “poverty breeds hate”. Lucashenko suggests that the abuse she experienced “had roots also in the trauma and racism of the refugee experience.”

Marie is also a mother of four, with an “on-again, off-again partner”. She is a member of the “working poor” so not quite as poor as Selma. She grew up in a troubled home, had been sexually molested as a child, and was living independently by the time she was 14 years old. She, like Selma, had a history of “severe emotional and physical abuse from her previous partners, who were all, bar one, Anglo-Australian men”. Lucashenko writes:

Marie spoke to me of feeling enormous rage about the past abuses in her life, rage which sits constantly just beneath the surface.

The third woman is Charmaine, “blond, slim and still able to laugh despite a life that would crush most of us [and] the white Australian mother of four Aboriginal kids”. She too was raped and molested as a child, and ended up in a violent relationship in which she stayed too long.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeWhile recognising that her examples are more anecdotal than statistical, Lucashenko nonetheless draws some conclusions. They include:

  • Underclass expectations, which see people who grow up with nothing, expecting little
  • The importance of public housing in providing some “minimal prospect of safety”
  • Loneliness and isolation, which drive single mums back to “untenable situations”
  • Violence and mental illness in parents and partners, which entrench poverty for women
  • Childhood molestation and/or rape, which all three women had experienced
  • Women seeking relief in drugs, which of course can initiate new downward trajectories

Her three women, Lucashenko finds, have hopes for the future. Selma and Charmaine are studying, because, as Lucashenko writes

Realising that poverty is a creation of society and its choices, these two women also know that their lives might shift through higher education.

Pragmatic Marie has a saving plan. Their situations though are tenuous. To achieve their goals, they’ll need strength. Better still, though, would be if they got effective financial and other practical support.

Lucashenko opens the essay with the epigraph that “the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. It’s justice”. Her essay may not be statistically significant from an academic perspective, but anyone who reads contemporary social commentary knows that what she writes rings true – and this, clearly, is why she won the Walkley.

Melissa Lucashenko
“Sinking below sight”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 41, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Melissa Lucashenko, How green is my valley (Review)

Almost a year ago I reviewed a short story, “The silent majority”, by Melissa Lucashenko. It was published in the Griffith Review of November 2009. I enjoyed the story and so, in honour of NAIDOC Week and ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, I thought I’d review another of her Griffith Review contributions. This one, “How green is my valley”, is described as a memoir, and was published in Winter 2006.

I love how Lucashenko, with her dual Aboriginal and European heritage, traverses both in her writing. She commences “The silent majority” with the famous opening words of Pride and prejudice – “”It is a truth universally acknowledged”. The title of this piece immediately brings to mind Richard Llewellyn‘s classic novel How green was my valley, and clues us into her themes: beauty under threat, complicated relationships with land, and the precarious balances involved in maintaining it.

Lucashenko starts her memoir – though, really, I’d call it a personal essay – with a Mark Twain quote, which has a prescience now that he could not have guessed:

Everybody talks about the weather/but nobody does anything about it.

She then describes the experience of torrential rain in Bundjalung country, the coastal regions of north-east New South Wales/southeast Queensland. She’s moved, she says, to “one of Australia’s wettest shires”. The first half of the essay describes how residents manage – or don’t – the rain. She talks of students being let off school, of the weather not distinguishing between rich and poor, and of how community is fostered as people with 4WDs deliver food to the stranded who don’t. “The information we receive from land”, she says, “is tightly nuanced”. Farmers watch closely and know how the days will pan out once the rain sets in:

We who live on Bundjalung land know that eventually the rain will stop, the mould will retreat and the mud will dry. Whatever climate change is going to mean for our kids, in the short term life for us will return to normal.

Then, halfway through the essay, comes the sting in the tail: she reminds us that the inhabitants of Tuvalu will lose their home in the next few decades as their island is submerged, and the semi-traditional hunting lifestyle of the Inuit of the Arctic Circle “will be shattered by global warming even sooner”. She wonders whether indigenous people like the Inuit will be able to translate “the clan, the traditions of egalitarianism, stoicism and intensely valued community, to life in suburbs and towns.”

Lucashenko’s thesis is that it can be done, that it is possible to be “bicultural”, to span the chasm “between industrial and indigenous views of the ‘good life’ and what constitutes a proper society”. She argues that the egalitarian ethic espoused by Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson

the traditions of mateship that faithfully mimic the brotherhood of initiated Aboriginal men and the myriad skills of surviving from and maintaining the land – were learned by some colonial whites from Aboriginal people.

Hmm … I haven’t heard that before. I suspect Australia’s mateship tradition has rather multi-pronged origins but this could certainly be part of it.

Lucashenko’s point though is to draw a parallel between white Australians’ love of land and indigenous people’s. She says that any Australian who has holidayed at the same beach every summer, or “diligently looked after” their own little patch, has “walked in Aboriginal footsteps” whether they know it or not. Hmmm … again I think this is a little bit of a long bow, in the sense that there are people all over the world who love their bit of land. But it doesn’t spoil her argument that it would have been good had the influence of Aboriginal knowledge and practice been greater, because then

More Australians might have learned not just to love the place (as some indisputably do) but to listen to the land more seriously. Had more Aboriginal philosophers been valued rather than shot or packed off to missions, all Australians might have learned the careful and intense attention to detail that many of us in the valley are still forced to practise as a matter of course.

With climate change breathing down our necks, will we all “be rooned”, she asks (alluding to one of my favourite old ballads “Said Hanrahan“). Will our “valley” be destroyed by our inability to tame our capitalistic consumerist urges, or will we learn in time how to be true custodians of our land?

Melissa Lucashenko
“How green is my valley”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 12, Winter 2006
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

Melissa Lucashenko, The silent majority (Review)

I have reviewed many individual short stories by Americans (through the Library of America), but not by Australians. Time to rectify that a little, and why not with a short story by Melissa Lucashenko, an Australian writer of European and indigenous Australian heritage. She is an award-winning novelist and an essayist, but I hadn’t read her – until now.

You might be wondering why I chose her and this story? But it’s obvious really. I was pottering around the web and came across this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, Jo decided, that a bored teenager with a permanent marker is a pain in the bloody neck.

How could I go past it? I had to read it to see what it – and Lucashenko whom I was keen to read – was all about. It’s a short, short story, well suited, I suppose, to publication in a magazine like the Griffith Review. Jo is a single mum of indigenous heritage and during the course of the story is mowing the grounds of the cemetery in the small northeastern NSW town of Mullumbimby. Her teenage daughter Ellen is supposed to be babysitting her young nephew Timbo while Jo does her mowing but, like a teenager, gets bored and “tags” Timbo with slogans such as “Better Conditions or I ring DOCS*” and “Pay me a living wage”. The daughter is needling her mother, but there is of course double meaning for the reader in these slogans, messages about the conditions many indigenous Australians face.

The story mainly comprises Jo’s thoughts as she gets on with her mowing. She reflects on those who lie in the ground beneath her – the Protestants and Catholics, in their separate sections. They are the literal “silent majority” of the title, and she wonders about their stories, now lost with the erasure by time of their details on the gravestones. Jo wonders about

These stories that had once been so important to the town, that had needed carving in granite: where were they now.

Stories, though, are important to Jo – and, in my experience, are an important treasured part of indigenous Australian culture. Jo is a little worn by her “previous life and its discontents” in which an Eeyore-like man Gerry kept dragging her into “his tight white world”. In fact, she appears not to have much time for people, with her “favourite humans living in the pages of books” and her preferred living creatures being horses. She quotes Walt Whitman – I found that interesting – on horses:

They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
… not one is demented with the mania of owning things.

Hmmm … this certainly conveys to me a sense of cynicism about humans, of all colours. But the real point of the story comes in the third last paragraph, with her pondering on what the land was like before, when it was

not yet doomed by the axes and greed of men who – months and years from anything they thought of as home – had tried to slash and burn their way to freedom here.

So what we have here is a meditation, in a way, on stories and their importance, on animals and land, and on walking a line between white and indigenous culture. It’s not all melancholic, as what I’ve said here might suggest. There are some touches of humour. Overall, I was intrigued by her writing and I liked the story, though it felt a little undeveloped. I understand that Lucashenko’s next novel is set in the Mullumbimby area. I wonder whether this story is part of it – or, at least, whether Jo appears in it. I hope so.

Melissa Lucashenko
“The silent majority”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 26, November 2009
Available: Online at the Griffith Review

*The Department of Community Services which is feared by struggling parents for fear their children will be taken away.