Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria in the New York Times

This week’s New York Times Book Review carries an essay by Jane Perlez, unfortunately headlined “Aboriginal Lit,” profiling Alexis Wright’s masterpiece, Carpentaria(Giramondo, 2006). The bad news is that the book still hasn’t found an American publisher, but maybe the attention focused on it by its appearance in the Times will help to rectify that situation.

Perlez gives good coverage of the attention and awards that Carpentaria has garnered, including the Miles Franklin and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She provides a few lovely quotations to give the prospective reader a teasing taste of Wright’s vivd prose style, and hints at the magnitude of the story enclosed in the novel’s pages.

In the second half of the essay, Perlez provides some context for this achievement. She references the “first” Aboriginal novel, Mudrooroo’s Wild Cat Falling (Angus & Robertson, 1965) and mentions other contemporary Indigenous authors, some of whom are new to me, including Samuel Wagan Watson and Tara June Winch. 

In the concluding paragraphs, Perlez notes the irony and the importance of Carpentaria receiving national and international attention as the Howard Government attempts to reconstruct Indigenous society. Necessarily brief, the characterization of both the causes and effects of the Intervention are presented in a simplistic manner that doesn’t begin to hint at the complexities involved. Nonetheless, Wright has the last words on the matter. In assessing Howard’s election eve motivations, Perlez quotes Wright quoting Angel Day, the novel’s matriarch, asking “Where is the trust, anyone mind telling me that?”

Wright ends on a hopeful note:

There are a lot of Australians of good will who are wanting to find out more about the indigenous people of this country and who want to be more grounded in the indigenous story…. There’s more worry in the country about climate change. People want to know: How did the indigenous people survive? Australians are saying, ‘This meanness towards other people is not us.” I’ve had to rethink how I think of my own country.

After reading this short piece I began to wonder just how much coverage the Times has given to the events of the last five months in the Northern Territory. So I search their archives and discovered a brief news note reprinted from the Associated Press’s wire service on June 22, the day after Howard and Brough announced the Emergency. Two months later, on August 24, “Papunya Journal: Far-Reaching Policy for Aborigines Draws Their Fury,” originally published two days earlier in the International Herald Tribune, documented reactions in that community. The piece led with a photograph and quotations from Long Jack Phillipus, but never mentioned his status as a painter, one of the first to take up the brush and revolutionize Australian artistic history. 

And that was all the coverage. Mal Brough’s name has never been printed by the Times. Clearly, there are holes in these stories you could drive the proverbial truck through. All the more important that a passionate, articulate, and intelligent voice like Alexis Wright’s is given the chance to be heard. 

Wright says that she has been traveling extensively in the support of the book and will be heading off overseas in 2008. Touring has slowed down work on her next novel, but she says that the response from readers to Carpentaria has been great. Perhaps we’ll get to see her here in the United States, where I will guarantee a warm East Coast reception should that come to pass.

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