I had feared that Joni Mitchell’s rhetorical question would be dead on once again when I heard that Campbell Newman was slashing the arts budgets in Queensland. In particular, I was mourning the axing of the Premier’s Literary Awards and chief among them the David Unaipon Award, given to an unpublished Indigenous author. Some of the best reads of recent years saw the light of day thanks to this prize, including Vivien Cleven’s Bitin’ Back, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman and Fleabag, Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing, and Nicole Watson’s The Boundary.
(As an aside, anyone wanting to take up the Australian Women Writers Challenge could make a good start with the list above.)
Luckily, all was not lost, as the Queensland writing community banded together to establish the Queensland Literary Awards, and the splendid University of Queensland Press agreed to continue publishing the winners of the Unaipon Award as well as Emerging Queensland Author Manuscript Award beginning in 2012.
But Newman put the fear of the big yellow taxi in me, and I vowed to catch up on some of the Unaipon Award winners I had missed. In 2013, I read The Boundary, and later week I finished the 2010 prize winner, Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads. (The novel also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing and the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2012, the year after its publication.)
Leane is a Wiradjuri woman from Gundagai on the Murrumbidgee River in southeastern New South Wales, about midway between Canberra and Wagga Wagga. This is the country that forms the novel’s setting in the 1960’s, and there is plenty of recognizable local color, including the famous memorial to the early pioneers known as “The Dog That Sits on the Tuckerbox” and the Prince Alfred Bridge, once the longest span in Australia, and the site of many a devastating flood.
Another aside: “local color” is one of those minor literary genres we were introduced to in secondary school, and in America, one of its pre-eminent practitioners, an obscure 19th century author named Sarah Orne Jewitt, authored The Country of the Pointed Firs, perhaps the pre-eminent example of the genre. I have to admit that halfway through Purple Threads I found myself remembering Jewitt’s tiny masterpiece, a series of loosely connected vignettes full of interesting characters and splendid landscapes.
In another way, the story reminded me, in the end, of Melissa Lucashenko’s debut novel Steam Pigs, although the tone and the incidents could hardly be more different. But each, in its own way, is a bildungsroman based on the author’s own life that ends with the heroine leaving the family that has taught them independence to pursue her education, an education that will lead to the writing of the novel that you hold in your hands. In Leane’s case, that education led first to a doctorate, and she is a scholar of serious repute, which the video I’ve linked to at the end of the post testifies to; her field of study is the representation of Indigenous people in novels authored by whitefellas. How fitting, therefore, that Purple Threads, like many another Unaipon prize winner, offers its own repudiation of those representations.
The narrator of Purple Threads is Sunny, short for the Sunshine she brings to her extended family. She and her sister Star are the children of Petal, the youngest of a large family of many sisters named after flowers (they ran out of flower names by the time Petal came along) and a couple of brothers. Petal, the spoiled, headstrong child, has taken off from the homelands to seek style and pleasure where she may find it, leaving her two young girls to be raised by their Nan and by two aunties, Boo and Bubby.
Each chapter in the book can stand on its own as a short story. The longest of them, “Coming Home,” tells of two homecomings intimately linked. Early in the chapter, Petal re-appears, much to the Aunties’ delight—she has always been the favorite, the baby who is indulged in every whim. But Petal arrives this time with her current boyfriend, Dinny, a handsome cowboy from Queensland, announcing her intention to take her two daughters with her as she and Dinny return to his family’s country and cattle ranch to start a new life together.
This turn of events causes considerable consternation, not least of all to the two small girls who find themselves taken away from all that is warm and familiar, safe and secure, and thrust into a dry, alien landscape under the watchful eye of Grandma, Dinny’s mother, one of those Queensland Catholics that Nan and the Aunties are suspicious of. The Aunties can’t help but acquiesce to Petal’s demands, and the blow of losing their Sunshine and their Star is softened only by the certainty they hold that Petal never sticks with anything for long, and the assurance that belief brings that sooner or later, the girls will be returned to the country of the Murrumbidgee. And indeed, in the chapter’s second homecoming, Petal escapes from her prospective mother-in-law’s iron rule, boards a southbound train with the two girls, and reunites them with their Aunties before disappearing “off on another whim.”
Unlike a petal blossom blown away in a breeze, the rest of the family is firmly rooted in their country and in a plethora of histories. It isn’t only the local Aboriginal history that sustains them, although the heroism of Wiradjuri like Yarri, Long Jimmy and Jacky-Jacky, who with their paperbark canoes rescued foolish white settlers from the river’s banks during the devastating floods of 1852 is a firm part of the family’s lore. The Aunties are steeped in the stories of the Bible. Aunt Bubby is devoted to the Brontë Sisters, while Aunty Boo has a penchant for ancient Rome, charming the girls with the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps on his elephants. Boo is also a student of the philosopher Epictetus, who provides the novel with its title.
‘Hey, Epictetus told a good story about bein’ different.’ She paused and took a long whistling breath. She could switch from home talk to flash talk when she needed to. ‘When Epictetus’ mates told him he should be more like everyone else, he came back real smart like an’ said to ’em, Because you consider yourself to be only one thread of those that are in a toga it is fitting that you take care how you should be like the rest of men, just as the thread has no design to be anything superior to other threads. But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright and makes everything else graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like many? And if I do, how shall I still be purple?’ (p. 108 in the Kindle edition).
Being different is itself the thread that binds these stories together and binds the characters to the land. Indeed, one of the almost unspoken miseries that Petal’s decision to take the girls away with her to Queensland is the deeply seated fear of children being “taken away” in the other sense: removed from families thought too poor, too indigent, too—let’s face it—Indigenous, to raise them properly.
Twinned with that fear is the fear of having their land taken away from them. As the girls grow older, the family must send them to school; not to do so would risk reprisal from the authorities and the chance of removal. But Sunny finds herself in a wider world, full of girls who snub her for her poverty and her Aboriginality. The need to fit in, to be accepted by a new group of peers, leads to another crisis: an adolescent shame that makes Sunny yearn to leave the sheep farm, move into the town, and live in a flash house. This desire to shape herself to others’ expectations leads first to the lesson from Epictetus. That is followed by learning more about the family history, about how her industrious Aunties came to secure that tiny parcel of land where they are determined to live out their lives. Learning that lesson and coming to appreciate the importance of her connection to the land is what frees Sunny to become herself, to go on to embrace an education and move to the next phase of her life. Nan and the Aunties will pass on, their ashes scattered among the flowers on the farm that watch as the old homestead itself turns to dust as the years go by. But once she has learned where home lies, Sunny is free to go where she will, safe in the knowledge that it travels with her forever.
Two supplementary lectures to round out this post. First, Leane was among the speakers at the National Library of Australia’s conference on Writing the Australian Landscape back in August, and the text of the paper she delivered (“Writing Landscapes“) is now available online.
(Other lectures from this event that may be of interest include Ros Moriarty on “Crossing the Continent” and Bill Gammage on “The Biggest Estate on Earth.” My friend Adrian Hyland contributed “Droughts and Flooding Rains,” further reflections on his experiences writing about the 2009 bushfires around his home in rural Victoria.)
An earlier lecture in the 2012 AIATSIS Seminar Series, “Threads and Secrets,” is available on Vimeo (below).
AIATSIS Seminar Series 2012/1
12.30pm, Monday 21 May 2012
Threads and Secrets: Black Women re-writing history through fiction
Dr Jeanine Leane – Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University
This presentation will explore the important and invaluable role of Aboriginal women in pre and post contact Australia as both custodians of culture and experience and in the re-writing and representing of the nation’s history. I will draw on my first work of prose Purple Threads (2011) which is an episodic novel. Set in the shifting socio-historical landscape of the 1960s and 70s in rural Australia, the narrative re-visits different historical eras, such as first contact between settlers and Aborigines in the Wiradjuri lands, the assimilation policy and the 1967 referendum to provide an alternative perspective on the nation’s history. With particular focus on three generations of
Aboriginal women, who tell their unique stories in the different historical contexts in which they lived, national myths such as equality, freedom and the ‘workers’ paradise’ are re-written and represented to readers from an Aboriginal perspective. The presentation will include readings from Purple Threads.