Tag Archives: Aboriginality

The Roving Party (2011) – Rohan WILSON

When Rohan Wilson won the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award last year for The Roving Party, it heralded a change in the way the award functioned. No longer would we have to wait months between announcement and publication – it was available to buy the very next day in all good bookstores. Of course, it has taken me more than a year to get around to reading it, but there you go. I’ve had other things to do.

John Batman has been charged with rounding up rebel tribes of Aboriginals in Van Diemen’s Land. Given a small band of convicts, along with two black trackers – and a man named Black Bill, an Aboriginal man born and raised as a white man. As they make their way around the small island, there is one man they all want to find – Manalargena, a powerful tribal leader who has a personal connection to Black Bill.

There is a deeply violent streak at the core of this novel. It is not far from the beginning that we are given a glimpse into the kind of people we are following – convicts desperate to do anything to escape their conditions have accepted a job for which they are deeply unsuitable. None of them seem to like each other, and this bubbles over when one young man makes the mistake of insulting the youngest member of the team – a teenage boy, barely able to shave. The boy responds by brutally beating him. When this doesn’t deter the man from further taunts, the boy attacks again. These two incidents give us an insight in to the kind of people tasked with tracking down and killing Aboriginal tribes – they are hardly pleasant.

At the same time, though, Wilson goes out of his way to highlight the stark beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness. We get gorgeous descriptions of the bush in all seasons – from the intense (well, for Tasmania) heat of summer, to the brutal cold of an unforgiving Tasmanian winter. It seems perhaps ironic to have this beautiful landscape as the backdrop for some heinous abuses of both morality and human rights, but it seems somehow grimly fitting. I like that characters refer to Indigenous Tasmanians as Vandemonians – it took me far too long to realise this was a corruption of Van Diemen’s Land. It’s a nice touch.

Wilson’s style is worth mentioning, too. Though I am far from expert in this field, there is an evocation of McCarthy in it – whether this is just because they seem to share an intense dislike of commas and quotation marks, or because of the similarly violent concerns, I’m not sure. I’m not alone in thinking this (don’t click on that link if you haven’t read the novel – there are giant spoilers), and it’s nice to see some stylistic experimentation in Australian fiction – there’s such rich opportunities in the Australian tradition for a kind of “Australian Gothic” in response to “Southern Gothic” I’m surprised it’s not taken up more often.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Black Bill is the most interesting. There is a long line of Aboriginal characters raised as white folk in Australian literature, and what is fascinating about Wilson’s character is his clear decision to reject his black identity. He does not struggle with who he is, he knows. For him, there is no question about his cultural identity – he is a white man, despite the colour of his skin. Of course, this causes a wide range of problems when he comes up against people who are less sure about him, whose world consists of good white people and bad black people. What I like even more is that we are never allowed in to his inner thoughts – Wilson denies us the opportunity to explore whether or not this surety is a façade, or whether he truly thinks everyone around him is an idiot for not playing along. This isn’t some take on the inscrutable Other, I should point out – many main characters are denied internal monologues.

I’m genuinely surprised The Roving Party didn’t make it to this year’s Miles Franklin longlist – I thought it was a shoe-in. It takes historical fiction in Australia – so often tired and worn out from overuse by mediocre authors – and gives it a swift kick up the arse. It is brutal, unforgiving and tiring, but it is an excellent novel. I’m excited to see where Rohan Wilson goes next.

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Sarah Thornhill (2011) – Kate GRENVILLE

Kate Grenville’s follow-up to The Secret River and The Lieutenant has no doubt been anticipated by many people, though it appears to have been released to not a great deal of fanfare. And with a terrible cover. Why this is, I don’t know. Grenville is one of the best Australian novelists working at the moment, and her stuff – particularly her historical stuff – always provides an interesting view on Australian history, and what it means to be an Australian now.

Sarah Thornhill has grown up on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, with her rather large family. Her father, William Thornhill, has made a life for them, despite being a former convict, and wants his children to be better than he could ever be. But when Sarah realises she loves Jack Langland, a friend of her brother’s, a man whose mother was Aboriginal, she doesn’t realise the implications this relationship will have on her family, on Jack, and on the way she views the world.

Readers be warned: as opposed to The Lieutenant, which picks up some of the themes and ideas, this is a direct sequel to The Secret River, so while you probably don’t have to have read the first in order to enjoy this, certain events in the former are vitally important to understanding the message that Grenville is trying to get across here.

The love story central to the beginning of the novel is quite well done, and I like the idea of what’s going on here. I mentioned when I reviewed Caleb’s Crossing, I was glad Brooks didn’t go for the obvious “white girl falls in love with untouchable native man” story. But that feels more comfortable here, particularly when their love does come out – the idea that Jack is a good man, up until the point of sleeping with a white girl, is vital to the story here, and fits in with Grenville’s explorations of the white/black Australia relationship. Jack leaves Sarah when he is told something by her mother, something that enrages him so much, he can no longer stand to be around Sarah or her family, and he disappears off into the river, assumingly never to be seen again.

Rachel – the girl “rescued” from her New Zealand family, and brought kicking and screaming into white Australia is interesting, too. The bastard daughter of Sarah’s older brother, she is brought to the Hawkesbury on the whim of William Thornhill who, as it turns out, is a man wracked with guilt over the events of The Secret River. He wants to atone for his mistakes, and for him, the best way to do that is to take this girl, and give her a “proper” life, away from the savages of her maternal family. Unsurprisingly, this is not a good idea, and the attempts to “civilise” Rachel will be familiar to those who are in any way familiar with the history of the Stolen Generation. Sarah is uncomfortable with this course of action – having seen what= happened to Jack, who in many ways is a precursor to Rachel – but is unable to do anything about it, caught up in her own worries.

We eventually discover what Sarah’s mother said to Jack, forcing him to leave the picture – that William Thornhill is responsible for the massacre that killed his family and tribe – Grenville’s message begins to come into focus. Sarah’s reaction to this, the fact that she is part of a society built on a cruel and unusual turning point, is perhaps what we, as modern Australians should feel when we, too, realise the same thing. Sarah’s grief at hearing about the massacre is tangible, and forces her to consider what it means to be a white Australian – as someone born to English parents in New South Wales, she has never known any other home, but at the same time, her feelings of guilt force her to question her place in this land.

Her reactions to this guilt will no doubt be familiar to many of us – she begins to hand out food and clothing to the Aboriginal tribes living around her property, as though this one act of charity will absolve her of all past wrongs. Of course, this has no effect on anything, and deep down, Sarah knows this. The only way forward is to right the wrongs for which she is directly responsible. In this case, it means doing something to absolve herself of the problem of Rachel. Sarah’s actions may be surprising to some readers, but I think it makes a lot of sense, and her own turmoil – whether to stay with her happy family, or be a part of something much bigger – plays a large part in this final act.

So much in Sarah Thornhill is about guilt – the guilt white Australians feel about . And this is what historical fiction at its best should be – a story about the past that informs and comments on contemporary society. Grenville offers some answers to this guilt, but nothing so concrete as to preach. Her message of understanding, and of truthfully telling the past, is one that resonated with me, and hopefully will resonate with the wider Australian, and international, readership.

Oh, and there’s a hilariously bitchy comment in the afterward, where Grenville snipes at her critics (no doubt Inga Clendinnen at the front of her mind), and reminds us all that this is a work of fiction, not of historiography. Amazing.

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That Deadman Dance (2010) – Kim SCOTT

In a shameless act of bandwagoning, I bought this on Thursday morning, just after the announcement, and proceeded to read it over the weekend so I could sound intelligent at work this week. Which is, of course, a legitimate reason to read anything, no? Granted, it also interests me because it comes from the first Indigenous author to win the Miles Franklin Award, so I was curious to see what made the judges think Kim Scott was good enough to win the Award a second time.

On the southern coast of Western Australia, a small, intrepid band of British settlers are trying to make a life out of their new circumstances. Perhaps contrary to other settlements, the local tribe – the Noongar – are happy enough to help where they can, both sides interested to learn about the other’s culture. In the middle of this cultural exchange is Bobby Wabalanginy, a Noongar boy educated by the British. Is he the prototypical Australian? Or just an historical anomaly?

It’s easy to see why this won the Miles Franklin. Historical novel – check. Indigenous issues – check. Beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape – check. This flippant remark, however, is slightly unfair for two reasons. One – the Miles Franklin hasn’t gone to an historical novel for a good four years. Two – Kim Scott’s book does do things with these themes that are a bit different to what has gone before him.

Dealing with issues such as these, authors cannot not bring their own politics into the world they create. And I don’t think they should try to be some kind of impartial arbiter of history – much as Inga Clendinnen wants them to be. As a Noongar man, Scott brings his own biases and whatnot to the table when he talks about these incidents. But rather than go for the thoroughly depressing (though probably fairly accurate) tales Kate Grenville gives us in her (soon to be completed) trilogy of tales set in early Sydney, Scott shows us a society where, for the most part, both sides get on. There is no talk of ‘blackfellas’ and ‘whitefellas’ – just simple curiosity on both sides, each eager to learn more about the other. And as this cultural exchange slowly becomes more concrete, bits and pieces flow between. The eponymous Dead Man Dance is the dance of the white men, as envisaged by the Noongar people.

Bobby, of course, is the focal point of this cultural syncretism. At once a loveable rogue and deeply intelligent young man, he is, I think it’s fair to say, a symbol of what Scott wants Australia to be. Having recently reread Remembering Babylon, it’s interesting to compare Gemmy with Bobby – two characters that are set up as symbols of a mixed Australia, of Aboriginality and Britishness in one. While Gemmy is set up as a tragic figure, caught between two cultures to which he doesn’t really belong, Bobby is almost the polar opposite. His ability to speak multiple languages, to converse easily with people on both sides of the divide about important issues, is what makes him to valuable, and so important. And so if we track Bobby’s character arc, it’s pretty easy to see Scott’s vision for his own perfect Australia – one that seems quite nice, to be perfectly honest.

Of course, it’s difficult to tell any story about Indigenous Australians and British colonisers getting along for too long, because we all know the story turns to shit pretty quickly. For the mob here, this idyllic Australian utopia is brought crashing down when the whaling industry, at that time vital to the economic growth and well-being of these small coastal towns, collapses because of overfishing (are you listening, Japan?) Since they provided help with the industry, the Noongar people – quite rightly, to be honest – want to share in the spoils during the leaner times. Of course, this does nothing to endear them to the British, and the inevitable story begins to unfold.

This is a hopeful novel, though. Without giving too much away, Bobby’s speech in the closing pages of the novel is at once funny and didactic. Scott is clearly speaking through his creation, and message is clear. People can live together, and not want to kill each other. There is a way. And together, it can be found. Yes, to reduce it down to something like that makes it sound like cheesy hippy crap – which is no doubt why Scott won the Miles Franklin, and nothing I’ve ever written has been published. He makes you believe that there is a way. And then, that sting in the final paragraph – well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

To paint both sides of the battle for Australia in the late 1700s/early 1800s as bloodthirsty, doing everything they can to protect their lines, is reductive and demeaning. There was a time and place in Australian history, no matter how brief or small, where both sides managed to coexist peacefully, indeed, to the point of becoming better by learning from the other. This is the take home message of That Deadman Dance – that there is hope. There has been hope before, and there will be again.

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The Secret River (2005) – Kate GRENVILLE

This book appeared on my reading list for English this semester, and it has been such a long time since I read it, I decided to reread it – something I don’t do very often these days. So, yes, this is the first reread on this blog, and there will probably be a few more before the year is out. I remember referencing The Secret River a lot when I reviewed The Lieutenant, so we’ll see how those comments match up now.

In England, William Thornhill is a man condemned to death. Waiting to be hanged for a petty crime, he is saved by his wife, and the two of them, with their young son, are shipped out to the fledgling colony of New South Wales. When they arrive, William is caught up in the beauty of the land, and decides to move his growing family to the Hawkesbury to make a living. When local Aboriginal tribes cause them problems, however, everything starts going horribly wrong.

I remember loving this book the first time I read it – about two and a half years ago. I was expecting it to be overrated, considering the hype around it at the time, but I do remember loving it a lot. Is that love still there? I think maybe not as much as before. Reading this in the context of the work I’m doing at university about Aboriginal perspectives in literature, I can’t help but feel this book fails to realise it at all. What it does do brilliantly, though, is create a character you sympathise with totally, understand perfectly his motives for doing what he is doing, and by the end of the novel, you just want him to be happy. William’s history in London and the way he was treated by society there gives him the impetus to want to be an independent person when he comes to New South Wales but, of course, there are other people already there.

Other than this excellent central character, Grenville gives us a plot that unfolds perfectly. To be fair, the beginning is very slow, and I personally found the first two parts, set in London, to be pretty uneventful and stock-standard historical novel fare. It does, however, make sense in the course of the novel for her to go this far back to explain what happens later. The book really kicks off, though, in the later parts, where William is desperately trying to keep his sanity, family and new farm under control, along with the threat (real or imagined) of Aboriginals, and the craziness of the other people that live on the river. The psychological games between the two sides of this story grow and grow in complexity, until everything comes crashing down. Grenville devotes an entire section to the confrontation between the settlers and the Aboriginals, and it, more than anything else, is the reason you should read this book. It’s so beautifully done, you feel sorry for everyone. This gives the ending a sense of uneasiness, of incompleteness – while William has ‘won’, and becomes a successful settler, he is haunted by what he has done, and there is this sense of deep unhappiness. William himself realises that he can never be truly connected to this land as the original owners were.

Kate Grenville has come under fire for grafting 21st century sensibilities onto her characters in this novel. I’d just like to dispel that myth now. While Thornhill is perhaps more likely to question whether or not the extermination of an entire race is necessary, he still participates fully in the eventual acts, and the end of the novel places him firmly in the ‘killer’ camp.

Questions, also, of this novel providing justification for the genocide of the Australian Aboriginals are, however, more tricky. Certainly this book provides us with a sympathetic white main character, without providing balance on the other side. But perhaps that’s the whole point of the novel – there was never any chance for dialogue between the two sides. It was always a matter of the settlers inducing violence, it was a just a question of when it would start to happen. And with Thornhill, the pressure from the people around him (who are also very nicely drawn, and are perhaps your more typical white settlers of the time) to act in response to what is going on meant that he was always going to be murdering. This, more than anything, is, I think, what this book is about.

So, yes, this book is still almost as good as I remember it. It certainly made some waves at the time, and hopefully will continue to do so. Definitely a future Australian classic.

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Plains of Promise (1997) – Alexis WRIGHT

And so the march of contemporary Australian novels continues at university, and so, therefore, do my reviews. I read about half of Carpentaria a little while after it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2007, and I’ve always meant to go back to it. When this came up, though, I was pretty interested – not least because it is much, much smaller than the epic that is Carpentaria.

Plains of Promise is the story of a mother and daughter – though they never meet. Ivy Koopundi is a child born into St Dominic’s, a missionary for Aboriginals in the Northern Territory, and her life there is far from perfect. She is subjected to constant torture, because it is believed her presence in the camp is a curse. When her daughter, Mary, is born under unfortunate circumstances, the newborn is whisked away to be looked after properly. Years later, Mary returns to the camp, in the hope of finding out who she really is.

This is very much a novel of two halves. Not just when we talk about the plot, but I think stylistically as well. And there’s one half I thought was much better than the other. The first half of the novel concerns itself with the treatment of Ivy in her youth, and let’s be fair, it’s not very nice. She is tormented by the other Aboriginal tribes who are in charge of the camp, because her people are unknown to them. Similarly, because she is a half-caste, she has caught the eye of the superintendent of the camp, and is being raped. After Mary is born, she snaps, and we get a really good little section between the two main stories about her time in a mental institution. There’s this feeling throughout the novel that no one really knows what to do with Ivy, and as such, she is bounced back and forth through so many different situations, none of them are any good for her. Clearly Alexis Wright has a point to make about the treatment of Aboriginals in the twentieth century – and she pulls it off surprisingly well. She doesn’t have to resort to melodrama or trying to falsely pulling at our heartstrings – the facts are staring us right in the face, and they are pretty brutal by themselves.

The second half of the novel, though, is where we really get going. Just throwing it out there now – I much preferred the second half. Mary Koopundi has grown up, and the parallels begin to cascade around us. She, too, has a daughter with a man who leaves her pretty quickly, and works for an organisation trying to organise some kind of pan-Aboriginal political action so their voice is recognised by the Australian public, and the government. This insight into the way they work, the blocks they constantly face, and the in-fighting that is such a huge part of the Aboriginal community was, for me, some of the most interesting facets of the novel. I wonder how much of Wright herself is in Mary, as she seems to be a heartfelt character that one instantly feels for, and her daugher is lovely as well. And while Mary and Ivy meet, they do so in circumstances that mean they never know. The Stolen Generation has been in the news quite a bit lately, and this look at how these people are treated by Aboriginal communities trying to forget the past is also a fascinating insight. I did feel a little dumb reading this beook, because there’s so much about these issues I just don’t know. It is intersting that Wright is one of the few successful Aboriginal authors in Australia – I’m really struggling to think of any more.

While people may remember Carpentaria as Wright’s epic, Plains of Promise gives it a run for its money. While not physically big, it is thematically huge, and essentially gives us a history of the Aboriginal peoples in the twentieth century. The ending is not, I think , particularly optimistic, and while this was written at a time of conservative government policies, despite the Apology, we are still at the same place, 12 years later. This is not a happy read, but it’s getting close to essential reading for Australians.

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