Sarah Kanake and Down syndrome in literature

Sarah Kanake, Sing Fox to meIn the media release accompanying my copy of Sarah Kanake’s Sing fox to me (my review), we are told not only that Kanake’s brother has Down syndrome but that she has a PhD in creative writing from the Queensland University of Technology “on the representations of Down syndrome in Australian literature”.

As far as I know her thesis hasn’t been published. However, she has written about her interest elsewhere, including, most accessibly for us, at The Conversation. Her essay, which I’ve just found today, is titled “On telling the stories of characters with Down syndrome” (and you can read it online.) It’s an excellent essay, and I’ll come back to it in a minute.

When I wrote my review of Sing fox to me, I referred to Samson’s Down syndrome but I didn’t feature it. I chose to focus on other elements of the novel, namely the Gothic aspect, and the theme of loss. However, I did note that I’d like to come back to her characterisation of a person with Down syndrome, so I’m very pleased to have found her essay, which was published, in fact, the same day I published my post.

In the novel, Samson is presented as being very aware of his difference. He feels weighed down by his “heavy extra chromosome” which is how he characterises the impact of the syndrome on his life, particularly when he feels that impact is negative. It’s negative when his movements are limited (you can’t go beyond the fence, your brother must hold your hand when you cross the road, you can’t make toast for yourself); when people talk about him, in front of him, as though he isn’t there; when people ignore him, assuming he’s got nothing to contribute. All these happen in the book. But Samson does think, feel, know things. Just because he’s disabled doesn’t mean he’s stupid; it’s just that “the extra chromosome … sometimes slowed him down.”

By using multiple (third person) points of view, Kanake also portrays the responses of others to Samson. Jonah is resentful of his parents’ expectations that he’ll care for and be responsible for Samson. Mattie’s mother Tilda, kind as she is, doesn’t want Mattie to be introduced to Samson, she doesn’t want Mattie to be “stuck with disabled kids just because she’s deaf”.

In her essay, Kanake discusses our culture’s low expectation of people with Down syndrome, and how this translates in literature depicting them. She talks about how literary representations too often use characters with Down syndrome as plot devices, as points of conflict for the narrative. Indeed, she quotes Mark Haddon, author of that book featuring a character with autism, The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, as saying that he uses disability “as a way of getting some extremity, some kind of very difficult situation”. Kanake also discusses how narratives involving characters with Down syndrome are mostly told through the perspective of the parents not the person him/herself. Characters with Down syndrome, in other words, rarely have “a voice and agency within the narrative”.

Consequently, in writing Sing fox to me, Kanake says

I was extremely conscious of representing and dissolving boundaries around my protagonist with Down syndrome, Samson Fox, in order to create a narrative where Samson was free to move, evolve and change.

At the end, without giving anything away, Samson, overlooked by others, decides, quietly but determinedly, to take matters his own hands:

Quietly, and without asking Murray or his granddad, he gathered up everything he would need and packed it carefully into his school port […]

Samson crossed the lawn to the gate. He was going to find his brother. No one would stop him or tell he couldn’t. Not Murray or Clancy. This time Samson could choose, and he chose to go beyond the house and beyond the fence and beyond the gate …

Breaking down barriers in other words!

While the novel resolves some of the challenges faced by its characters, the ending is not simplistic and much is still left unresolved on the mountain (as you’d expect in a “true” Gothic novel, I think.) Samson is just one part of this. Down syndrome does, yes, define, and sometimes limit, him, but it is not the crux of the novel – which is why, really, it was not the focus of my review. I think that means Kanake has achieved her goal?

Sarah Kanake, Sing fox to me (Review)

Sarah Kanake, Sing Fox to meBack in late 2011, I wrote a Monday Musings post on 19th century Australian Gothic. I’ve always intended to post more on the topic, including one on Tasmanian Gothic. Well, here’s a start, because Sarah Kanake’s debut novel, Sing fox to me, is a good example of modern Tasmanian Gothic. I wrote in my first post that “Australia had (and has) plenty to inspire a Gothic imagination: strange unforgiving nightmarish landscapes, weird vegetation and imaginary creatures”. I was referring then primarily to the outback, but Tasmania, while not exactly “the outback”, has plenty to excite the Gothic imagination.

Why does pretty, verdant Tasmania work so well for a Gothic sensibility? To start with it has some forbidding (albeit beautiful) landscape – remote mountains, dense bush, mist and cold – and it’s an island, which provides an added layer of isolation. Then, there’s its violent history. Tasmania had some of Australia’s most brutal convict prisons. Many escaped, many died, and there are all sorts of horror stories, including those concerning the alleged cannibal, Alexander Pearce. It’s also infamous for the near-genocide of its indigenous population. It’s a place, in other words, in which ghosts and spirits are easy to imagine. But this is not all. Tasmania is home to the world’s only carnivorous marsupial – the small but ferocious and appropriately named Tasmanian devil. And, particularly relevant to this book, it was the last home of Australia’s most famous, most controversial, extinct animal, the Thylacine aka Tasmanian tiger.

Sarah Kanake calls on these, together with the archetypal Australian lost-child story, to write a novel that’s fundamentally about loss. All sorts of loss – people, animals, homes, and love. The novel commences with a brief unlabelled prologue describing the disappearance of 14-year-old River Snow Fox on a rainy night (of course!) On the same night one man’s home is lost, another man’s leg is permanently injured by a falling tree, and the kookaburras cackle. We then jump twenty years. It’s 1986, and River’s older brother David Fox is returning to his childhood mountain home – Fox Hill or Tiger Mountain, take your pick – with his twin sons, the biblically named Jonah and Samson. He plans to leave them with his father Clancy Fox – the man with the injured leg – who is still grieving, still looking for his missing daughter. Relationships are fraught. Clancy and his son don’t get on; angry, hurt, lonely Jonah is resentful of his loving Down syndrome twin Samson; Samson, with his “extra heavy chromosome”, often feels overlooked; and Clancy doesn’t know how to be a grandfather. The scene is set …

There are three other people on the mountain: Murray, son of the indigenous George, who was Clancy’s friend and the man who lost his home; Murray’s partner, the pregnant Tilda; and Tilda’s daughter Mattie, who is deaf. Depending on how you look at it, there could be a fourth person on the mountain, because George, now dead, regularly appears to Clancy.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if you were starting to think this is all laid on a bit thick – gothic setting, a hermitic old man, a ghost, a missing girl, unhappy twins, a Down syndrome boy and a deaf girl, a pregnant woman and an indigenous man. What I found though was that while my mind (my rational self) was questioning this, my heart (my emotional self) was becoming more and more engaged. It works, I think, because Kanake doesn’t play to melodrama, as the original Gothic novels did. She keeps it psychologically real, even when unexplainable things happen. She also knows of what she writes. The brief biography provided by Affirm Press says that Kanake grew up with “a brother with Down syndrome and two Aboriginal foster brothers”. This reassured somewhat my modern concern about dominant-culture writers presuming to write for “other”.

“We love a version of the tiger, and it’s not real”

So Jonah remembers his father once telling him. What’s real is, in fact, one of the book’s underlying challenges. Readers have to make a leap of faith and accept that what we read is “real” for the characters. The characters, on the other hand, need to work out their “reality” and come to terms with it.

Sing fox to me is one of those books where the structure, the narrative form in particular, supports the meaning. In other words, Kanake’s use of alternating points of view for the three main characters – Clancy, Jonah and Samson – mirrors the separation of their lives. Of course they are together sometimes, physically, but there’s little meeting of minds and hearts. Meaning is also supported by strong, sustained imagery. Nature works on both physical and metaphorical levels. Clancy’s tiger pelt, worn by Clancy and then stolen by Jonah, seems to live and breathe. The mountains, rivers and trees are similarly active.

… he [Clancy] wanted to tell Murray that something had changed on his mountain. The boys were waking things up, stirring life back into old death. (Part 3)

The trees relaxed and the leaves swayed, almost as if they could finally breathe. The creek rushed, not because it was chasing anything, but because it longed to feel the smooth and stable rocks underneath … (Part 6)

Kookaburras act as a sort of malevolent chorus. Their “cackling” laughter resounds throughout the book as a commentary on the misguided quests going on below them. They are there in the beginning when Clancy realises River is lost – “the laughter turned to cackling as the kookaburras gathered in the branches overhead” – and they are there when he realises the futility of his obsessive twenty-year long obsessive quest:

Finally he understood the kookaburras, those buggers at the end of their fucking tethers. Those damned birds knew he should have been laughing with them all along.

“Feeling sorry was in every real Tasmanian’s blood”

Kanake packs a lot into her imagery – and I haven’t begun to tease out all the permutations. I haven’t talked about Jonah’s love of another tiger, Shere Khan, for example, or of the fox motif. There’s also a lovely portrayal of disability in the novel, which I might explore another day. Most of it does, however, come back to loss. Children go missing, parents leave, a friend and a wife have died; animals are lost or killed or extinct. These losses are personal, but there could also be a political reading. Am I being too fanciful to suggest that Clancy’s loss of River, the girl who “said she could sing the tigers to her”, and his futile, obsessive search, could be read as Tasmania’s loss of the Tiger, and the desperate hope that the next claimed sighting will be real? Or that through telling a story about loss and personal ghosts, Kanake is also calling attention to the ghosts of Tasmania’s past?

A step too far? Perhaps. But this book is such a rich read that it invites a very personal response. I’d love to hear from others who have read it.

awwchallenge2016Sarah Kanake
Sing fox to me
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781922213679

(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)