Mullumbimby is Melissa Lucashenko’s fifth book but the first that I have read by this author. She is of Russian/Ukrainian and Aboriginal Goorie heritage, identifying with the Ygambeh/Bundjalung people of the Byron Bay hinterland around Ocean Shores. (See her author page at UQP). Previous books have won all kinds of awards, most notably Steam Pigs (1997) which won the 1998 Dobbie Prize for Australian women’s fiction, and was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Awards and the regional Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.
Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed Lucashenko’s short story called ‘The Silent Majority’ the opening lines of which I now recognise almost word-for-word as the opening lines of Mullumbimby, and while liking the story very much as a meditation on stories and their importance, Sue noted that the character Jo – who’s the central character in Mullumbimby – ‘conveys … a sense of cynicism about humans, of all colours’. That sense of cynicism is overt in Mullumbimby too, and if you read this novel as a non-indigenous person, you may find it somewhat confronting.
Perhaps because the last book I read by an indigenous author was Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing (see my review), I am starting to see a divergence in the indigenous literature that I’ve read. I would be the first to admit that I haven’t read extensively in this area, so my thoughts here are still tentative, but it seems to me that the politics of indigenous writing influence a significant difference in perspective which in turn influences the style of writing.
Novels such as Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (see my review) or Larissa Behrendt’s Legacy (see my review) offer the idea of reconciliation as a personal choice that offers hope and fulfilment in an imperfect world. These novels, while not sparing the reader the discomfiting facts about Australia’s Black History, and perhaps having a somewhat melancholy tone, focus on strongly asserting the merits of Aboriginal heritage, values and lifestyle, and their adaptability. We see the complexity of Aboriginal life: the diverse skills of both traditional and contemporary indigenous people; their resilience; and their instinctive ways of living in harmony with the environment. These novels offer some kind of hope or yearning for reconciliation, recognition, acceptance, forgiveness and peace. These novels feel inclusive of all Australians in their intended audience.
But Every Secret Thing and now, Mullumbimby come from a different perspective. Both are entirely unsentimental, and both evoke a keen sense of being written for insiders, not outsiders. The style mocks, and is hostile to non-indigenous Australia, with anger clearly discernible beneath the black humour. (I’m using the term ‘black humour’ in its literary sense not as a descriptor of their authors. I would use a capital letter to denote that.) These novels convey a catalogue of wrongs committed by non-indigenous people, and they are highly critical with little or no acknowledgement of any positive aspects deriving from white colonisation. (That may well be a valid perspective from an indigenous point-of-view, and I’m not trying to deny that in drawing attention to the overtly critical stance of these novels). One-upmanship over or circumventing the dominant culture is a feature of both these books as well. The effects of this less accommodating authorial approach can be confronting and alienating, even to readers of good will.
The other pattern that I’ve noticed in indigenous writing by women, is that they are somewhat sexist. In Legacy, as in Mullumbimby, women are strong, resilient, wise and forward-looking, while men, whether love-interest or not, tend to be marginal to the life that women lead. This may for all I know be an accurate depiction of how things are, and it’s true that in the media we often see inspirational Aboriginal women in modern Australian culture – but it’s the dismissive attitude towards men that troubles me a bit in these novels. In Purple Threads (see my review) Jeanine Leane’s characters live in a world of women, and Aunty Boo often holds forth about the general worthlessness of men. In Legacy men have more overt power but don’t use it wisely. In Mullumbimby men are mostly offstage and the love-interest Twoboy is shown as lacking in the common sense and supportive behaviours that define women.
So all of this makes Mullumbimby a very interesting book indeed. Jo, the central character and would-be Wise Woman shows us what a struggle her survival is. She has a very earthy style, laced with the language of the Bundjalung and Yugambeh and Aboriginal English. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but I find it exciting to be negotiating languages so ancient that they almost transcend time. (There is a glossary at the back but after a while readers won’t need it. Words have been chosen very skilfully so that they can be deduced from context, and then they’re repeated often enough to become familiar). Jo – because she has been denied her cultural genealogy though not her cultural connections – has sidestepped the dominant issue of Land Rights by using a divorce settlement to buy a hobby farm with her (offstage) brother in Indonesia, and Lucashenko writes lyrically about this woman’s connection to land. I don’t think I’ve ever read any book which has so forcefully explained why land matters so much, and I found it interesting that Jo’s visceral need for this land seemed more convincing that Twoboy’s. Twoboy, a ‘blow-in’ from the north whose family was forcibly removed from their land in the past, is fighting for ‘his’ land against a rival local Native Title Claim, and while the novel shows just how draining such a struggle can be for those involved, there is something dry, remote and lawyerish about Twoboy trawling through old documents to prove his claim. On more than one occasion he can’t be there to help Jo when she really needs it and these events hint that his passion for the land is more of a ’male’ contest than Jo’s deeply felt emotional connection to the place she now belongs.
Here she is when she has been thrown from her horse, and she hears the talga (music) of what she believes is the spirit of the land:
Maybe, she suddenly felt, maybe it’s not a warning at all, but some other kind of message. Not a sign to stop on pain of death – No Trespassing – perhaps instead, the tree was just a means to slow her down, stop her mad rushing about, to get through to her: Wait here a while, girl. Stop with us.
Heartened by this thought, Jo slowly winched her way to the vertical, using the branch stub. She sat and looked about her. There was nobody visible, from this century or any other. The talga belonged to the trees, the wind, the earth, the charcoaled ground where fire had passed through, the lantana thickets and the tree ferns that clustered at the base of the strangling figs and camphors. And was the chant fading now? Growing fainter?
Struck with longing to hear it continue, in fact for it never to end, Jo felt tears rise up in her eyes. (p. 98)
And then she does a very modern thing – she records this Bundjalung talga echoing all around her with her mobile phone …
The love story is interesting too. Jo has given up on ‘testosterone-poisoning’ men, especially very good-looking ones with tickets on themselves. She is focussed on rebuilding her life, and on negotiating the tricky teenage years with her daughter Ellen. But Twoboy is too gorgeous to resist, and her head at war with her lusty heart is central to the plot line of this novel. Jo has spent a long time believing that ‘horses and dogs were the people for her; her favourite people all lived within the pages of novels’ (p. 5) and even though Twoboy earns her interest because her first sight of him is when he’s coming out of a bookshop with a book under his arm, she tells herself firmly that he’s just an hallucination brought on by two years of celibacy. And if he’s not an apparition, then he must be trouble because ‘for sure he’ll be married up or have a good reason not to be’. (p.13) Some of this is very funny indeed, and the ups and downs of this relationship sustained my interest in a way that romcoms never do.
I really liked the way this novel explores big picture contemporary issues: the love story is used to confront the issue of Native Title claims, bringing it sharply into focus by siting the novel in a place well-loved by many Australians. Twoboy is shown to be all-consumed by the years of struggle to prove his identity and rights, to the point where it now risks his new relationship. Sometimes, he has to be in court, or lose everything he’s worked for. But this unavailability has a cost, and the cost is Jo’s scepticism about his love for her. Competing Native Title claims are also shown to be divisive within the community, and although Jo stands outside this because (despite her painful poverty, sometimes unable to buy a litre of milk for her daughter’s breakfast cereal) she can afford to. She has her own land, and it is this land that enables her to ‘learn’ the gaps in her cultural knowledge.
Mullumbimby also depicts the fragility of the culture: Jo keenly feels the absence of Elders to help her. She is not like many other indigenous women, she has a small network of friends, but she is not surrounded by a large and supportive extended family and she has to make her own way. Her parents died in a car accident, and her Aunty Barb is now dead. Within the community, Old Humbug is an Elder, but he isn’t respected by anyone, and his cynical determination to take whatever he can get in recompense for what he’s lost doesn’t help. His abrogation of his responsibilities as an Elder means that men like Twoboy are floundering around in a bit of a vacuum, clutching at cultural straws that Jo knows won’t cut any ice with the Native Title Tribunal. There is a painful honesty about all this, because I think that everyone of goodwill cherishes the idea that the resilience and courage of our indigenous people will ensure the survival of their culture and heritage. Amongst all the losses, it is awful to contemplate that precious knowledge may still be lost because of the damage done (and still being done) to old blokes like Humbug.
You can read more about Melissa Lucashenko at her website.
PS If you’re planning to join Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers during NAIDOC Week 2013 in July – this would be a great choice!