346 p. 2012
I’m nearly always disconcerted by film footage of aboriginal settlements- the dust, the rubbish, the band of kids clustering around. Yet I sense, despite the many deficiencies that can be picked out so easily, that there’s another way of living there with priorities and resiliences that I can’t see. Alexis Wright gave us a glimpse of it in Carpentaria, as did Maria Munkara in Every Secret Thing.
Red Dirt Talking is a whitefella perspective on this landscape. The small town of Ransom is in outback Western Australia; eight kilometres out is the ex-mission station Eight Mile Creek, smaller still; and 370 kilometres further out again the Aboriginal communities of Yindi and Breakaway. Here are all the set pieces of what we understand of outback life today- the smelter and its fly-in, fly-out workers that distorts the economy of small towns; the art centre co-op that teeters uneasily on the line between exploitation and entrepreneurship; the whitefella managers; the Toyota trucks; the Flying Doctor Service.
The book opens with the first-person narrative voice of Maggot the Garbo whose job takes him round the camps and pubs, the haunts of hard-bitten men and women, hoarders and crazies. An eight year old Aboriginal girl, Kuj, has disappeared. He doesn’t know what’s happened to her- no one does- but they all have their theories and suspicions. The second narrative, told in the third-person voice, is set some months earlier, focussing on Annie, a 40 year old anthropology postgraduate who arrives at Ransom, tape-recorder in hand and thesis in sight, hoping to collect some quick oral history interviews about a massacre some decades earlier. Of course, such earnest whitefella briskness is completely the wrong approach. Annie finds herself drawn into a diffident but increasingly complex relationship with the laconic Mick Hooper, one of the white project officers, and is gradually forced to let go of all the objectives, timelines and academic protocols that the university is trying to impose on her research. Kuj is one of the constellation of children who swarm around the community, and as time elapses, the narrative takes us up to her disappearance but this time through the web of relationships- marriages, deaths, breakdowns, fosterings- that blur the boundaries between long-term black and white inhabitants of Yindi. Finally, there are the transcripts and contextualizing introductions to her interviews, printed in a different font on coloured paper: white-fella academia that stands apart both visually and as knowledge, from the rest of the book. The book is called Red Dirt Talking, but it’s even more about silences and listening.
I must admit to becoming rather jaded at all the historian-as-protagonist stories that I seem to have read this year. There’s a whole string of them- Candice Bruce’s The Longing; Paddy O’Reilly’s The Factory; Anne Summers’ The Lost Mother and Eliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper. What’s going on? Is it the influence of all these creative writing courses in universities, so that ‘writing what you know’ starts and ends with an academic? Is the academic hunt an upmarket version of the ‘journey’ narrative that we all seem to be on these days? With the increase in tertiary education levels, are we all academics and historians these days? Or am I hyper-aware of this because my own thesis-clock is ticking away in the background? I suppose that it’s a common framing device, but it’s wearing a bit thin for me at the moment- and so, I put A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale back onto the shelf until I can read it with fresher eyes.
Red Dirt Talking was written as part of a creative arts doctorate, it won the T. A. G Hungerford award for an unpublished debut West Australian manuscript, and the author Jacqueline Wright has worked as a teacher and linguist in outback Aboriginal communities. I think that you can detect all three influences in the text. As a debut book, it is probably fifty pages too long and it has far too many characters to remember. She has acutely depicted the politics and protocols of academia, and I suspect that she has observed other Annies, ( if, indeed, she was not an Annie herself when first arriving in the outback). I found it hard to keep track of who was black and who was white (in fact, I don’t think that Wright did identify in terms of black/white anyway)- which is probably a good thing; her descriptions of landscape are evocative, and she captures dialogue particularly well.
But most importantly, she cuts through the visual imagery of outback life- the mess, the flies, the rubbish strewn yards, and the people gathered under trees- and picks up on the humour, the complexities of relationships and histories, and the uneasy coexistence of wariness and generosity in a community where she is an outsider. I found myself perfectly happy to pick up the book to keep reading, and I was drawn along by wanting to know what happened to Kuj.
My rating: 8/10 maybe 8.5
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: Lisa at ANZ LitLovers reviewed it, and I read a good review of it somewhere (although I can’t remember where!)