Today’s headline may not be the most politically correct of my career, but it does capture a spirit of the female bildungsroman that seems appropriate to two novels that I’ve recently read, Melissa Lucashenko’s brilliant Steam Pigs (University of Queensland Press, 1997) and Anita Heiss’s Not Meeting Mr Right (Bantam, 2007). The two books could hardly be more different in tone and in the experiences described, but they are both about young women finding, if not a place in the world, at least a sense of direction and future.
Brisbane native Lucashenko is the author of four novels, two for young adult audiences, and two others, including Steam Pigs. Like many of the other novels published by UQP in their Black Australian Writers fiction series, Steam Pigs is an award winner. Shortlisted for both the NSW Premiers Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, it walked off with the Dobbie Prize for Australian Women’s Fiction after publication. And also like other novels from UQP that I’ve read over the years, it was nearly impossible to put down once I started on it.
A “steam pig” is a slang term for a person who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, a round peg in a square hole. Sue Wilson didn’t fit in in her north Queensland hometown, and her outsider status is confirmed in her own eyes when she has an abortion before she turns seventeen years. She heads south to the Logan City suburb of Eagleby, where she finds a home of sorts with her brother Dave, whose de facto has just split, leaving him in bewildered charge of his two young boys. Sue’s natural mothering instincts give her an immediate sense of purpose and despite the hardships of unemployment, too much grog, and too little preparation for the adult life she suddenly finds herself living, she begins to feel that life holds some promise.
Things get better when she meets Rog, another light-skinned Murri, and a university student who does seem to have a future (in addition to a totally flash red ute). But conflict is never far from the surface, and when Dave’s lackadaisical approach to living infuriates her one time too many, Sue jumps out of the domestic frying pan into Rog’s life and dreams.
She finds a job driving a delivery truck and begins to believe that she can make a new life for herself. She also encounters Kerry and Rachel, whose feminism, lesbianism, and political savvy shake up her Townsville prejudices.
Despite all its promise, though, life with Rog turns dark. Sue worries about his casual dope-dealing, while still believing herself to be capable of mastering intoxicants ranging from marijuana to grog to jealousy. Rog doesn’t have the same degree of control, or even belief in the need for it, and when the relationship begins to turn violent, Sue looks to escape.
Her first flight takes her back home to Townsville, to her mother, who spends too much time and money on the grog, and her youngest brother Mick, who has turned into a fulltime thief as well as a drug addict with money problems. She encounters once more the casual racism and endemic violence of her hometown; her self-discipline and her study of martial arts gets her through a few scary scrapes, but she comes to remember why she left home in the first place.
There’s a terrifying episode that takes place about two-thirds of the way through the novel, while Sue is back in Townsville and out on the town of a night with Mick and a couple of their mates. Stoned and a little drunk, the mob is considering the designs in a tattoo parlor window when a police car pulls up to a nearby phonebox and one of the cops approaches the unfortunate fellow who’s using it.
It starts off as a case of possibly mistaken identity; the cops are looking for the bloke’s brother, and don’t believe his protests.
“I just told you, I’m not him, that’s me brother and he’s in Kowanyama.” The Murri man protested, getting frightened. “It’s not me. Whaddya want him for anyway, e didn’t do nothing—”
“Are you resisting arrest, are you? How dya expect us to tell you apart, boy, you coons look the same to me at night.” The pig stiffened, bunging on the outraged aggro.
“Nuh, I’m not resisting nothing, butya got the wrong bloke, it’s not me!” The man was sounding desperate now. “You got no warrant for me, ya can’t fucken arrest me, I ain’t done anything, it’s not me, it’s me brother I keep telling ya, ya–”
“Indecent language in a public place,” said the cop, smiling triumphantly, “come on, you’ve got an appointment in the city.”
“Ah what do ya want me for, ya funcken cunt? Ya all the same, fucken captain cook cunts, ya got nothing on me, ya can fuck off ya gutless pricks–” The man bit and swore as the cop manhandled him into the back of the paddywagon and slammed the grille door shut with a comment.
“You’re for the high jump, pal, you don’t watch out, whatever ya fucken name is!”
Seven years before Cameron Doomadgee met Chris Hurley, this was written. But Lucashenko has captured the random blow of fate, the sudden escalation, the intimidation of power, the mortal threat as though she were writing the story today.
Appalled by treachery and violence, Sue returns to Eagleby, but the romance with Rog sours under the blows from his fists. She escapes once more, to shelter provided by Kerry and Rachel. Kerry talks Sue into applying to university and helps Sue get set up in a small flat in the city. There’s scant respite from trouble, as her brother Mick lands in prison, her white roommate Melinda poses new challenges to Sue’s understanding, and Rachel and Kerry confound her with their kindness and strangeness. But the course at the university proves something to hang onto, and an encounter with Murri literature opens Sue’s eyes to her place in the urban landscape. In the end, there is still hope, and there’s a promise in that growing awareness of herself and the world around her. As many a first novel concludes, literature offers both understanding and hope.
Ah, Christ, she thought, it’s a funny bloody world, isn’t it? All you’ve gotta do is learn how to get along in it. And as for that–life–well, it’s a fucken blackclass, poorclass, jailclass form, innit? Unreal, eh.
Sue burst out laughing. A person should write a book.
Koori Sydney in the 21st century seems more than a world away from Murri Brisbane in Anita Heiss’s comic chick-lit adventure Not Meeting Mr Right. Heiss’s heroine, Alice Aigner, is single and happy–except when she has to listen to the interminable boastings of her friends who are caught up in being “married, mortgaged and motherly.”
But all that changes at her tenth high school reunion when Alice decides that she can find Mr Right, get married by the time she’s thirty, and keep her career and her friends. Not so easy, as it turns out, but you expected that to be the case, didn’t you? Here’s what Heiss herself had to say about writing the novel:
As a Koori woman living in Sydney, home to the largest gay population in the world, finding a man to marry – black or white – was always going to be a challenge. After a decade of dates from hell, the challenge was well and truly set, but analysing and researching that challenge was fun! And exciting! It also gave me lots of material for a book that I know single women the country over will relate to, as well as women who have ever been on the hunt for a good man! I have written and published about the politics of identity, the Stolen Generations and Indigenous issues generally. But I also want to write with humour and make people laugh. And sometimes, I just want lie on the beach, read, escape, and smile, so I wrote a book that I’d like to read, in the hope that women everywhere will chuckle and nod in agreement over how very hard it can be to meet a decent man!
I suppose that my earlier characterization of Not Meeting Mr Right as a coming-of-age novel might be a little hifalutin’. Perhaps “picaresque” is the more appropriate literary genre to slot this one into. Alice comes up with her own ten-point plan (nothing at all like the former PM’s) and proceeds to track her way through more than twenty chapters, each devoted to a man who violates at least one of the principles she’s set for herself. In truth, the utter predictability of failure is part of the fun of the book.
And I won’t spoil the ending by letting you know whether Alice is ultimately successful or not: even Hollywood needs a little suspense to keep the story going.