“Queensland” and “comedy” aren’t concepts that usually lie side-by-side in my mind, except for the old joke that runs something like “XXXX: how Queensland spells beer.” But they will be strange bedfellows no more now that I’ve had the pleasure of being introduced to the work of Vivienne Cleven and Gayle Kennedy.
Cleven’s Bitin’ Back (University of Queensland Press, 2001) is a hallucinatory romp through gender confusion, maternal devotion, boxing tents, family history, and disorganized crime. (That description alone ought to be enough to make you close your laptop and head for the library to borrow a copy, don’t you think?) Cleven, who was born in 1968 and raised in western Queensland, won the David Unaipon Award for best unpublished manuscript with Bitin’ Back in 2000; she has since published a second novel Her Sister’s Eye(UQP, 2002).
Bitin’ Back begins as Mavis, who tells the story, tries to rouse her son Nevil from bed one morning.
‘Jesus Christ! Get outta friggin bed will ya! … Come on, Nevie, love’ I soften my voice to a low crawly tone. ‘Mum’s got bingo. Might hit the jackpot, eh?’
‘Who’s Nevil?’ he ask …
‘Wha …? What’s wrong whit ya? Ya sick?’ I peer at his face.
‘I’m not sick. And don’t call me Nevil! … Call me Jean’, he whispers… ‘Jean Rhys, that’s my real name … Just remember! I’m Jean Rhys, the famous writer …’
‘A writer! A woman writer! Jesus Christ Almighty! Next you’ll be telling me yer white!’
‘Yep, sure am’, he answers, throwing his leg over the side of the bed … ‘I need a frock. A nice one.’
Mavis, understandably, panics.
And things get worse as Nevil does indeed procure a frock, and make-up. Mavis doesn’t understand what’s happened to her boy, and isn’t sure if someone can just wake up one morning…..gay!….but her determination to get to the bottom of whatever Nevil’s up to is matched only be her determination to protect her boy at all costs from exposure, ridicule, and worse.
Of course, the whole town seems to conspire against her. Nevil’s football team, the Blackouts, are depending on him for the championship game that’s coming up shortly. Her brother Booty can’t be kept in the dark without keeping him out of the house. And how can she explain this to her best friend Gwen (who herself wears a “white, sweat-stained n beetroot-splattered dress that’s tight to her body like gladwrap round a sandwich”)? Things get more complicated when Nev’s city mate Trevor shows up, and Mavis fears the worst when she sees the fellow wearing….sandals! And keeping a secret from neighbor Missus Warby is just about impossible, especially as the old lady spends most of her day perched on a kerosene tin, leaning over the backyard fence with a pair of binoculars around her neck.
Not unexpectedly, the misunderstandings come to a head when the coppers mistake the ruckus at Mavis and Nevil’s home for hostage crisis, resulting in a farce of Shakespearean proportions in which tiny Missus Warby threatens to come to the rescue with a shotgun.
And yet underneath all this there is a serious attempt to explore the vexations of identity, to ask what it means to be a white woman novelist, or a black male football champion. Or both.
To say more would be to give away too much of a delicious plot, so I’ll leave you there, on your way to the library.
And while you’re there, pick up another Unaipon prize winner from UQP: Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman, and Fleabag (2008). Kennedy has given us a collection of tales, family portraits, and observations about how the races get along in modern Australia, out bush and in the cities, that is by turns riotous, laugh-out-loud funny, sombre, and touching. Much of the book’s charm and vitality stem from the author’s unabashed exuberant delight in language as well as in her fellow humans.
The stories are all quite short, some a mere page, and therefore just the kind of yarns you might hear around the campfire, over a glass in a pub, or when bouncing down a country road. As a reader, I had the constant urge to run into the next room shouting, “Listen to this one!” As befits their oral character, these are stories that want to be told, not read. The only hitch was that I often found myself reduced to hapless giggling and guffawing that spoiled the delivery. Perhaps with practice. Many of these tales would make superb monologues for the stage and in fact Kennedy has a sideline in lectures and radio broadcasts.
I can’t resist sharing at least part of one of these stories, just to give the flavor of the irreverent joy they brim with. The very first tale in the collection, “How ta drink in the park,” won me over instantly, and thus seems a good choice. Kennedy’s storyteller alter ego is a bush girl from the NSW desert; Antman’s mob are “river people.” But they’re both living in Sydney, and the copper’s don’t take to blackfullas drinking out of doors. Luckily, Antman’s cuz, Damien, is a lawyer with a solution. The quest for “respectability” begins with getting Fleabag a collar (in the Koori colors) and a bath, and….
Then we got an esky and a couple of fancy bottles of wine. Damien reckons no casks or flagons. Besides, the bottles got twist tops now, so once ya finished, ya fill em up with cheap stuff for next time. We pack a nice blanket and a picnic. Nothing fancy; bread, cold meat, tomatoes, a big old lamb bone for Fleabag. We pile in Damien’s car and head to Balmain. Damien lives there.
We pull up at this deadly park right on the harbour. Antman and me are a bit nervous, but Fleabog’s outta the car and beltin cross the grass like there’s no tomorrow. There’s heaps of other dogs there, but that’s okay cos he got his nuts cut out a couple a years ago so he don’t go bluin no more.
We git the stuff outta the car, spread the blanket with the tucker, glasses and wine on the grass and sit down, still nervous. Then we see all these whitefullas. They’re all sitting round with wine, beer and tucker too! They’re havin a laugh. Kids and dogs are runnin round. There’s no trains, the harbour’s shinin, boats everywhere. We pour drinks, make sandwiches. People smile at us. They pat old Flea and fuss over his collar. He laps it up.
And there’s no coppers in sight!
Antman grins. ‘Makes ya wanna sing, aye tidda?’
‘Sure does,’ I say, and whack old Slim in the CD player.