New Books: Australian Stories

The new books shelf at the library has featured a number of titles on matters Australian that caught my attention in recent weeks. Although only one of them is devoted entirely to Indigenous themes, all of them offer something of interest to students of Aboriginal culture. All of them are also the kind of works that you can dip into and out of at your leisure, which is precisely what I’ve been doing during my lunch hours lately. So, with the caveat that I’ve read none of these in its entirety, here is the roundup.

By the Book: a literary history of Queensland (University of Queensland Press, 2007, 390pp), is edited by Patrick Buckridge and Belinda McKay, both of Griffith University. It is organized primarily by geography, with sections devoted to South-East, Central, Western, and North Queensland. The final section is given over to “statewide themes” and includes chapters on travel writing and children’s literature, along with “‘Biting’ Back’: Indigenous Writing in Queensland” by Maggie Nolan, lecturer in Australian Studies at Australian Catholic University.

Nolan’s chapter reveals what is both good and bad about this book as a whole: it needs to cover a large amount of material quickly. As a result, it offers a broad introductory survey, and thereare sure to be several titles in any section that a reader will want to add to a reading list. Enough is said about each title to whet the interest (or not). But someone looking for insights into the character of Indigenous writing in Queensland, for critical appreciation of an author’s artistry, or for new insights into works already read will need to look elsewhere.

A quick preamble discusses oral literature and the difficulties of transferring it to the printed page, noting as an exception The Legends of Moonie Jarl (Jacaranda Press, 1964), whose author/compiler is an uncle of Batjala artist Fiona Foley. Nolan then examines poetry, “life writing,” and fiction. Being not much of a connoisseur of poetry since my undergraduate days, I will offer no commentary on the coverage of the first of these three categories, other than to note the obvious prominence it affords Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

The section on biography and autobiography ranges from Elsie Roughsey’s stories of Lardil culture in An Aboriginal Mother Tells of the Old and the New (McPhee Gribble, 1984), through a number of works that offer insight into the mission years and Stolen Generations in Queensland (Jackie and Rita Huggins’s Auntie Rita (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994) look most promising), to the unconventional Black Hours (Angus & Robertson, 1996) by Wayne King. 

Black Hours was the first book I picked up on By the Book‘s recommendation. It is the autobiography of gay Aboriginal man from the country town of Ipswich who achieves a cosmopolitan career with the United Nations, working in New York, Egypt, and Thailand among other places. Oddly, Nolan makes no mention of the book’s strongest chapters, in which King recounts, in his mother’s voice, the stories of families broken by government policies and racism in Queensland. I was growing impatient (perhaps unfairly) with King’s woe-is-me chronicle when he suddenly took his story back to Ipswich and let his mother speak. Those thirty pages were heartbreaking and wonderful, and worthy of a wide audience.

The final section on fiction was completed before Alexis Wright’s majestic Carpentaria (Giramondo, 2006) was published, although Noland enthusiastically recommends the earlier Plains of Promise (Univeristy of Queensland, 1997). Novelists I’m look forward to discovering thanks to Nolan’s quick reviews include Melissa Lucashenko, an author of serious, sweeping political ambition, and Vivienne Cleven, whose eponymous Bitin’ Back promises to tackle many of the themes from Wayne King’s Black Hours, but as comedy rather than pathos.

Indigenous life stories are the focus of Speaking from the Heart: stories of life, family and country, edited by Sally Morgan, Tjamlaminu Mia, and Blaze Kaymullina (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2007, 319pp.) There is a decided bias towards authors and stories from WA in this collection, along with a focus on what Kaymullina, in his introduction, calls “survival.” Given that many of the authors or their parents emerged from the infamous Moore River Settlement in the 1930s, survival is an apt term. But it portends perhaps too much of a militant tone for the voices contained in this short collection.

There are horror stories aplenty, of all sorts, to be sure. But the worst of them are not grand narratives; they are instead replete with small details, the seemingly throwaway observations of many of the authors who casually describe the cruelties and controls inflicted on Indigenous people for most of the twentieth century. (Many of the writers inSpeaking from the Heart are now well advanced in years.)

There is Bill Prosser, who matter-of-factly tells us that “Mum and her sister came to Perth after the station manager’s wife wrote to the Native Welfare saying they had these bright young girls who they believed would be an asset to the Department” (p. 136). This is how a six-year old girl came to Moore River. His parents married at the age of twenty-three: “Dad wrote to the Native Welfare for permission–you had to do that in those days–but permission was refused. The rector of the Church of England church in Gingin married them anyway, and was nearly put in prison for it” (p. 138).

Prosser’s father was a veteran of the Australian Imperial Forces in the Second World War, a legacy that no doubt influenced his own decision to enlist in the late 1950s, although again not without difficulties. 

My father couldn’t give the approval at the time because we were still under the Native Welfare Act, so I had to get permission from them first. So Dad and I went and met the Native Welfare’s area officer on a Saturday morning in front of the Commercial Hotel in Northam. When the man came out of the hotel, pissed, I signed on the bottom of the card and my father was allowed to sign as a witness to my signature (p. 139).

And when Prosser proceeds to tell his tales of service in the jungles of Vietnam, the stories of encounters with cobras or collecting dismembered remains of Vietnamese soldier to compile a body count are far removed from any consideration of race in Prosser’s telling. He is just a soldier, and a frightened one.

Similarly, Beryl Dixon betrays no special bitterness when she tells the story of going out to work at 15 to help support her ten brothers and sisters. She speaks of poverty as an expectation, not a sentence. And there is a sense of inevitability about her story when she admits that the family failed to inform the Native Welfare that Beryl had gone to work in a nursing home for the aged in Rivervale. When the bureaucrats discover this fact, they deem Beryl’s parents guilty of neglect and send Beryl and her sister off to a convent. The two girls are put to work in the convent laundry, isolated from each other, unpaid, not even allowed to be together when their mother is granted permission to visit them.

Reading these stories I can not get Keating’s question at Redfern out of my head: “How would I feel if this were done to me?”

The third book on my list similarly collects personal stories, albeit much more broadly. A Revealed Life: Australian writers and their journeys in memoir (ABC Books, 2007, 358 pp.) is a selection of forty short reminiscences by a cross-section of Australian authors republished here from the pages of the Griffith Review. The purely Indigenous material in this collection is thin, but the quality of the writing is first-rate throughout and the book is a joy. Andrew McMillan’s portrait of Outback politics in the tiny town of Larrimah, “We’re All Eccentrics Here,” is a classic of Australian writing by any standards.

Other non-Indigenous authors take up a variety encounters with Aboriginal culture. Robyn Davidson, author of the best-seller Tracks, revisits Pitjantjatjara country too late to be reunited with her guide Eddy and experiences a surprising connection with Indigenous culture on a tour around Uluru in “Return of the Camel Lady.” Vincent Plush’s “Black Unlike Me” rambles around the world in its story of the didjeridu’s role as a wind instrument in the context of Western orchestral music ranging from George Dreyfus’s Sextet for Didjeridu and Winds to Peter Sculthorpe’s orchestral compositions, including KakaduEarth Cry and Memento Mori. (Sculthorpe’s compositions are available from both the Australian and American iTunes stores in an inexpensive recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.)

Among Indigenous authors there is Melissa Lucashenko, whose novels were reviewed and recommended in my first title above, By the Book. Here she contributes a slightly surreal meditation, “Not Quite White in the Head,” on being a Queensland blend of Ukrainian and Aboriginal ancestry and reflections on the lure of the sea and the meaning of land. Tara June Winch reflects more astringently on skin color, heritage, and motherhood in her essay, “Mending a Broken Link.”

Winch is the author of an extraordinary novel, Swallow the Air (University of Queensland, 2006), which I read just before the holidays and never got around to writing about here. Briefly, it is a coming of age story, the tale of a young girl looking for family and home after the death of her mother. The story is told in a series of vignettes that hover on the brink of prose poems. The narrative links from one section to the next are slight, and several reviewers at the time of publication seemed unable to decide whether the book was a novel or a collection of short stories. I read it as a single, coherent narrative, episodic, certainly, in which the connections are constructed thematically and through the gorgeous description and metaphors that Winch uses to establish a unitary vision in the story of a fragmented life. It is all the more amazing for being the work of a woman who was all of 23 years old when the novel was published. 

The final book in my collection today is a bit of a puzzlement in that I’m not sure who its intended audience might be. Being Australian: narratives of national identity, by Catriona Elder (Allen & Unwin, 2007, 390pp.) is of the genre “Australian studies,” and might be a text in an introductory sociology class, a book for potential tourists, or something to have around the house and pick up casually for a few moments diversion. It’s a bit of an odd book, but still enjoyable. It’s good for a snack; it certainly won’t fill you up.

The first part tackles classic post-modernist themes in Australian society: class, gender, sexuality, multiculturalism, and indigeneity are key words in the chapter titles of this section. The second half of the book offers overviews of the arts, film, music, politics, and museums. It looks at some uniquely (or peculiarly) Australian traditions: the long weekend, “backyards and barracking,” and Canberra.

I include it in this review primarily because it does offer extended commentary on Aboriginal culture and politics as integral elements of “Australianness.” The long chapter that concludes Part 1, “The myth of terra nullius: Indigeneity and nation” is the sort of overview that one might expect in any contemporary sociological examination of the country. Less expected are the ways in which Elder selects Aboriginal elements to represent other aspects of Australian culture today.

For example, there is the chapter devoted to art, film, and music. Rather than attempt a comprehensive survey of each of these genres in what is, after all, a glancing appraisal of national identity, Elder is selective. In art she focuses on the work of the nineteenth-century Heidelberg School. In cinema she narrows her gaze to films made in the 1970s. When she examines music, she looks at it through the lens of contemporary Aboriginal expressions (and thankfully, meets the didjeridu only on the chapter’s final page). She begins instead with the Warumpi Band and Yothu Yindi before offering a survey of contemporary Indigenous country music and hip hop. 

Elder is clearly attempting to construct a picture of Australia that integrates iconic Anglo-Australian culture–ANZAC or diggers, labor unions or protest marches–with their contemporary incarnations, be they black AFL stars, the Gurindji walkoff, the Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk, or the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Like the other books I’ve discussed today, it would likely give Andrew Bolt apoplexy, and I can recommend it for that reason if no other.

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2 Responses to New Books: Australian Stories

  1. Pingback: Four Short Stories | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  2. Pingback: Local Color Purple | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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