December’s Books: a miscellany

My selection of readings this month started with a footnote. The note, in Inga Clendinnen’s article on W. E. H. Stanner’s life of Durmugam, led me back to the bookshelves and a volume of essays originally published in 1988, Past and Present: the construction of Aboriginality (Aboriginal Studies Press), edited by Jeremy Beckett. Although any writing on Aboriginal politics from the days before Mabo and Wik must seem slightly out of date now, I found that much of what was contained in this book was still engaging and insightful. It could hardly be otherwise with contributors are distinguished and varied as Kenneth Maddock (“Myth, history and a sense of oneself”), Gillian Cowlishaw (“The materials for identity construction”), Basil Sansom (“The past is a doctrine of person”) and Tim Rowse (“Middle Australia and the noble savage: a political romance”). In fact, some of the writing seems positively contemporary, showing how little things have changed, despite events like the Mabo decision. Here is Cowlishaw on identity and land rights, for example, with a lesson to be pondered when thinking about the potential for the abolition of permits to enter Aboriginal land:

The very notion of what Aborigines are has been constantly intruded upon by white authorities.  The meagre material from which an Aboriginal identity could be constructed, such as a niche in the pastoral economy, has been regularly snatched away at the point where it appeared to be a solid foundation for building.  Land rights appears to be rapidly going the same way (p. 90).

An essay on quite a different topic–Aboriginal literature–brought new insights for me. In my post on Aboriginal biography, I complained about the scattershot feel of the narrative in The Town Grew Up Dancing, Wenten Rubuntja’s autobiography with Jenny Green. Shortly after publishing that assessment, I was surprised one morning to find myself in an Instant Messenger conversation with David Nash of the Australian National University. As we chatted online, he asked if I had ever met Rubuntja, and I replied that I had not. He told me that the book’s style, in his experience, was very much like Rubuntja’s own conversational manner: lively, unpredictable, and not at all linear. I thought of that conversation later when reading Robert Ariss’s contribution to Past and Present, entitled “Writing black: the construction of an Aboriginal discourse.” In a discussion the difficulties of reading Robert Bropho’s The Fringedweller, and of the differing responses to it from black and white readers, Ariss has this to say:

The diversity of the reader’s experiences and expectations, black or white, is an important influence in the response.  It may be argued that the penchant for experimentation in European literature is well suited to accommodating challenging new styles and indeed readers should not be too surprised to be challenged themselves.  [Lyndall] Ryan has likened Aboriginal oral histories to the broken narrative, “flow of consciousness” styles of Joyce and Proust.  Indeed it is precisely through breaking with conventional styles that European literature has continually sought to recreate it audience–to challenge its perceptions and to win allies.  With this in mind, I would argue that it is through entering written discourse that the social and political objectives of Aborigines take on exciting new possibilities in terms of self-definition and the reorientation of white perceptions to increase receptivity to the Aboriginal presence (p.139).

With ten years of tertiary studies of modernist literature, including Joyce and Proust, under my belt, I found it somewhat embarrassing to need to be “re-oriented” to the need to be open to unusual narrative structures and what they can tell us about an individual’s perceptions and the mental connections that underlie them. I guess I ought to give Rubuntja and Green and second reading.

Ironically, comparisons to modernist narrative fragmentation were much on my mind as I struggled with the early pages of Revolution by Night, or Katjala Wananu (The Son after the Father): A Story of the Central Deserts together with the monograph, written by Jack Terrence Dutruc and entitlted “Interior” an analysis of Hieroglyphs in Australian Art, and its perspectives (Local Consumption Publications, 1991). Despite a title that sounds like that of an eighteenth-century novel, this is a contemporary work of fiction and winner of the 1991 Premier’s Literary Award. Its author is James Bardon, Geoff’s brother. I am still struggling through it, and can’t quite tell you what it’s “about” yet. The jacket blurb describes it as “a great song falling into breathlessness.” Here is an excerpt from an early chapter, in which the unnamed narrator sits near a campfire with a group of Aboriginal men.

Drawing his index-finger against the grains of sand and making the story more whole, “There,” he whispers, he begins to sing of Honey-Ant making the earth he has drawn. The shadowed saw-toothed mountains massing to the sun, shadowed now, you take another look at what they have said, the black whispering painters’ faces flowing about as they breathe and sigh upon the outlined dark, sleep within the dream, someone yells, the power rises out of the body of the earth upon the sand, this Billy Titus-Mindah is saying, listen to it say, this is the mark, this is the track, and someone says, “Create it now,” there’s a massive roar of warrior’s voices from the great second moiety. The singer sings and the object of the song sees the singer in his sleep, Titus Mindah says, the Nungala old-words quicker and Tjapaltjarri himself just sometimes looking up in the direction the children are, for they have set their proverbs and epigrams before you (p.28).

This is a book that demands to be taken almost paragraph by paragraph, an exercise for meditation, a run of images and shifting perspectives that accumulate and accrete meaning rather than explicating or narrating. I am reminded more of Virginia Woolf than James Joyce, although this is clearly not the English seaside that we are being plunged into here. I’m grateful to Adrian Hyland for putting me on to this novel, and to repay his kindness let me suggest once again that you enjoy Hyland’s Diamond Dove (Text Publishing 2006), which really is quite an enjoyable mystery of an entirely different flavor.

Notions of Aboriginal narrative and identity led me next to Kim Scott’s beautiful, sombre True Country (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993). Scott is a Noongar man whose search for his indigenous heritage has been the subject of two novels and a work of non-fiction (Kayang & Me) to date; True Country was his first novel. Although there are many voices to the narrative, most are mediated through the awareness of Billy, a young schoolteacher who comes to work in a fictitious town called Karnama in the north of Western Australia. Karnama is both an Aboriginal community of long standing and a mission village, and it is full of the tensions between the two cultures. It is a story of loss in many dimensions. Billy begins to record the life story of Fatima, the old woman in the community who was the first born after the establishment of the mission and who comes to represent the hinge between the two cultures, and the displacement that is at the heart of the community.

As Billy comes to know the people in the community he begins to awaken to his own heritage, slowly and in ways that are often more physical than psychological. There is a beautifully written short chapter in which Billy takes a group of school children swimming in the river behind the mission. Taking the notion of voice as a metaphor for identity and encapsulating Billy’s confusion, the adventure begins with a description of his charges. Along the way, the boys

threw rocks at the coconuts as they went past them, then at the mango trees, at birds, into the river. They spoke of cars, ninjas, of whether Russia or America would win a war, of Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles. They quoted whole lines of dialogue from the videos the camp was watching this week, role-playing with their voices. For their first few months here all teachers understand them clearly when they repeat lines from videos in American accents but are puzzled by the local English.

Once they reach the pool that widens out before the river’s rapids, though, the boys begin to teach Billy how to navigate this small portion of the country. They dare Billy to shinny out on a branch overhanging the pool and dive into it. They play games in the river reeds, and show him how to pull himself along under the current by grasping at reeds and branches. But the moment is short-lived, and the fault lines in the community begin to break it apart, and along with it, Billy’s sense of identity. He does not so much regain an indigenous place as lose his bearings in the world of class lessons and school administration. At the conclusion of the book the currents and rapids of the river are the scene of Billy’s final transfiguration. Leaving the school, he walks to the river again, but this time he slips and falls, and is taken up by its current. He is bounced through the rapids in the grip of the water, which seems to him to be a snake, coiling, roiling, tossing him along. In a passage of delirium he is dragged out of the river into a vision of his long-dead grandparents, but also of the people of Karnama. At the end there is an ambiguous transition to a new existence, welcoming but somehow still unresolved.

See? Now it is done. Now you know. True country. Because just living, just living is doing downward lost drifting nowhere, no matter if you be skitter-scatter dancing anykind like mad. We gotta be moving, remembering, singing our place little bit new, little bit special, all the time.

We are serious. We are grinning. Welcome to you.

Finally, I came full circle back to Inga Clendinnen, whose latest book, Agamemnon’s Kiss: selected essays (Text Publishing, 2006) arrived on the library’s shelves this month. Its nineteen short pieces range from the giddy to the solemn, from Aztec warriors to Holocaust survivors, from meditations on death to memories of childhood on the beach. Two of the essays address Aboriginal issues.

The first, “Postcard from Townsville,” makes good reading these days with Palm Island so much in the headlines. It is a story of race relations writ small. It tells the tale of Hanran Park in Townsville, where Aboriginal people camped in 90s before being squeezed out, ultimately in favor of a $30 million housing development. It is a short, sad story, of public drinking and boozed-up rednecks. The essay is sharp-eyed and sharp-edged, and Clendinnen spares no one, even herself and her liberal illusions. In chronicling the intransigence of the park’s denizens (and without being pejorative in her use of that characterization of them), she sets the stage well for the second of the two essays, “Plenty Humbug.” The title of this latter piece once more refers back to an essay by Stanner (reprinted in White Man Got No Dreaming), an assessment of white Australians by an old Aboriginal man: “Very clever people; very hard people; plenty humbug.”

“Plenty Humbug” is a difficult essay to read: not in the sense of being hard to understand, but in the sense of being hard to look into the mirror Clendinnen holds up. Her abiding theme, well developed in Dancing with Strangers, is the profound divide that separates indigenous Australians from the assumptions of Western society. She begins by asking the reader to put aside two of the words most commonly deployed in white discussions of Aboriginal people: community and culture. (And here the author has his first uncomfortable look in the mirror.) Too often our own understandings of community are of a relatively homogeneous and cheerful nature that implies “common cause” rather than the “primary, visceral loyalty” to family (p. 132) that characterize “agglomerations of tribes” in remote Australia. Likewise, our notions of culture too often reflect a preoccupation with high culture, or perhaps culture as reified by anthropological discourse. The photographic sentimentality of The Family of Man further obscures our vision with a promise that we are all essentially the same. This masks what is a different and real truth for Clendinnen: “We are not the same. We are different. That is our burden, and our glory” (p. 133).

Clendinnen builds her case for profound difference from three situations wherein she sees the application of highly commendable Western ideals to indigenous situations with disastrous effects for the people subjected to them. The first is drawn from Basil Sansom’s The Camp at Wallaby Cross, an in-depth examination of mechanisms of social cohesion among the fringe-dwellers’ camps around Darwin. Sansom’s book investigates in great detail the creation and maintenance of order in the camps and does so by paying close attention to the drinking, gambling, and violence that are characteristic of daily life in them. The culture of the community (and I use the words deliberately here) depends for its stability on a successful control of economics in the post-colonial environment: strong men who muster the pension checks of the elderly, widows, and young mothers to maintain local control–control of prestige, of alcohol, of violence. Sansom’s research was conducted in the 1970s, and Clendinnen’s speculates that the introduction of an “uncontrolled inflow of money” from unemployment benefits shattered what had been a successful cultural adaptation to “the white man’s irresistible gifts of alcohol, radios, guitars, flash stockman’s gear, store provisions, tobacco” (p. 137).

Clendinnen’s other two case studies also involve the grog, and attempts by indigenous groups to control its destructive influence at Tennant Creek and in the vicinity of the Curtin Springs roadhouse on the way to Uluru. In the former case the Julalikari Council, forged of an alliance of all the local groups clustered around Tennant Creek, and in the latter case a group of Anangu women–mothers, Clendinnen reminds us–successfully campaigned for a local reversal of anti-discrimination laws (that permitted access to alcohol in the first place) to effectively ban the sale of alcohol near their homes. 

What unites all three examples is the manner in which local indigenous people repudiated seemingly “universal principles” of welfare and equal access to the benefits of Western social compacts in order to preserve, not “indigenous culture” but indigenous lives. The notion of equality before the law that informs universal welfare and undiscriminating access to grog is part of European culture, and its application to “Australian” people in these cases proved deadly. Clendinnen argues that we must give local initiatives a chance to work, even when they seem to violate our universal and self-evident truths.

I think we must wait on local Aboriginal initiatives, because only local Aboriginal initiatives are sufficiently informed by local knowledge of the particular historical experience and the particular balance of pressures and personalities in a particular place, at a particular time.

We will find the waiting hard. Like the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, we ‘naturally’ favour clean, across-the-board solutions, and–like the Minister–we have a mighty urge to intervene. I think Aboriginal Australia has suffered enough from our impatient, or ignorant, or careless interventions–like the families tumbled off their country when equal wages came in, or Wallaby Cross, with unemployment relief disrupting that delicately calibrated moral economy. We will also have to learn to practise an unfamiliar virtue: to tolerate uncertainty. Understanding a profoundly different culture is a slow business….

Clendinnen’s essay was written in 2004. Events of this past year have not shown much evidence that her words have been heard. To take just a single example from the news reports, the elevation of the concept of private ownership of property as the “way out” of the morass of misery in remote Australia threatens, when examined from the perspective of this essay, to compound problems rather than to resolve than. “Plenty Humbug” might be a good meditation text for 2007. Happy New Year to all.


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