Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2013

Mullumbimby, by Melissa Lucashenko


MullumbimbyMullumbimby 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 an interview with the author at the SMH, Daniel Browning’s thoughts about the novel at Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily, and reviews at The Age and at the Newtown Review of Books.

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!

Aust Lit Month logoAuthor: Melissa Lucashenko
Title: Mullumbimby
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780702239199
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP

Availability

Fishpond: Mullumbimby
Or direct from UQP


Responses

  1. Great review Lisa … I didn’t realise when I read the short story that it was part of a novel. Or maybe it wasn’t back in 2009, maybe she decided to develop it later.

    Anyhow, you’ve made some interesting points. I wonder about the “sexism” suggestion. I’m not sure I’d see it like that. I think it is a feature of powerless and/or disenfranchised groups that women are often the ones to hold it together, to knuckle down, to keep the family going. Even Mama (was that what she was called?) in Harp in the south provides the strength, the backbone to the family – and hers is a poor white family. It happens in Black American culture too. The men often just aren’t there when it really counts. This is not the only reality, of course, but I think it’s there, and I think writers should call it as they see it? You never know, they might contribute to change …

    A great post that will makes us think! I like how you’ve drawn some conclusions and put them out there.

    • Thanks, Sue, I’m sure you can tell that I put a great deal of thought into this one so I’m relieved to get positive feedback.
      What you say about women often holding things together is true: I can think of examples where men couldn’t stand the stress of multiple births/disabled children etc – and abandoned their wives to deal with the stress alone. And I know plenty of examples of single women raising generations of children alone. But I am also very mindful of a man I saw being interviewed not long after the Rudd government decided to continue with the Intervention, and he was so distressed by it. He said that his was not a dysfunctional family and he was a sober hard-working man who had lost his right to self-determination, and had had his salary quarantined for no other reason than his Aboriginality. I have never forgotten him because he would have been a role model for any young man in any society. *rueful smile* I’d like to see a bloke like him get a gig in a novel sometime!

      • I sure could tell you’d put a lot of thought into it, Lisa … it’s good.

        You are right of course about there being men out there who are doing their best, supporting their families, etc. But I guess I don’t think fiction has to be balanced. It’s about writers expressing their experience of the world, isn’t it. The men will just have to get out there and express their experiences of life as a hardworking indigenous man in a difficult world – because I bet it is hard for a lot of them. Tricky, tricky area.

  2. You obviously enjoyed this book much more than I did. I read about 80 pages and then decided that I just didn’t want to be inside the narrator’s head, brimming with all those thoughts and observations, for the rest of the book. But even though I only gave it 80 pages, I recognize from what I did read the observations about the worthlessness of the men, the importance of land and the cynicism about politics that you write about here. I think that I just became overwhelmed by so much talk in her head.

    • Yes, I can understand your reservations, Janine. At times it wasn’t easy to read such negativity about non-indigenous people, and to know that it’s possibly how a whole lot of Aboriginal people feel about us. But for me, it was worth it overall …

  3. What an unusual ethnicity the writer has – “Russian/Ukrainian and Aboriginal Goorie heritage”, This is the sort of book I tend to dislike – just too laden with messages, political and gender-political. To what degree can a writer take-on the injustices suffered by his/her forbears and still retain a fresh, contemporary voice of their own? I have just read a book set in Native American culture and the author seemed to feel that being 25% from that culture she could write with the injustices suffered by the tribe on her shoulders despite her position as a noted author and academic. Sorry, I’m ranting a little! Your review is excellent as always.

    • *chuckle* Rant away, Tom, you’re welcome.
      But what you might not understand about the situation for Australia’s indigenous people is that the injustices are certainly not all in the past. Australia has a program in the Northern Territory called The Intervention, for which they had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act. To this day, I do not understand how succcessive governments have got away this legally and electorally.
      And there are still plenty of people who were removed from their families when they were children. They were re-named, moved thousands of miles away from their families, and told that their parents were dead. Some of these people are still – now in the 21st century – trying to re-establish their family connections.
      I think I can assure you that Lucashenko’s voice in this book is indeed a fresh and contemporary voice even as it challenges readers like me to deal with aspects of it that are disconcerting.

    • That’s not an unusual ethnicity at all. Tom, in Australia, many people of mixed heritage are of mixed heritage because of the horrific injustices perpetrated by colonisers. Read up a bit more on the Stolen Generations, a deliberate and prolonged programme to “breed the black out of them”, and perhaps you’ll understand a little better.

      • Hello Lauren, thanks for contributing. Please be aware that Tom is far away in England where he could not be expected to know a great deal about these issues. Lisa

  4. A thoughtful review that I’ve been waiting on with interest – because I adored this book. I sat up late to devour it, first time round, and am now keen to reread slowly to just to see how Lucashenko did it. The central character Jo is beautifully and humourously realised and I felt (urban white Australian woman that I am) that she gave me a generous and privileged insight into contemporary indigenous lives (many and varied). And an insight into the lives of contemporary, ordinary women generally (again, many and varied). As you note, Lisa, the use throughout the text of Indigenous language is exciting and lyrical yet the story remains eminently readable and enjoyable. I think, looking back, that it’s really a novel about love. Love between men and women, love lost, love for the animals in our lives, a daughter’s love, a mother’s love, a friend’s love, love for life, love for land, love for culture.
    I loved it!

    • Hello ‘Red Horse’ – and welcome! I am guessing from your moniker that you are fond of horses too? I haven’t had much to do with horses (though I was part-owner of a racehorse for a short time) but I could empathasise how Jo felt when Comet died because I had not long lost one of my treasured little dogs when I read this, and I felt her pain too. You’re right, it is a story about love, and learning to trust again too.

  5. […] reviewers are concerned about Lucashenko’s approach. In a thoughtful and generally positive review, Lisa at ANZ Litlovers says that “the style mocks, and is hostile to, non-indigenous […]

  6. This is a thoughtful and fascinating post that really piqued my interest! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

  7. Great review! You dealt very well with important, uncomfortable issues. Thanks for raising them. I found Swan Book interesting in the anger Wright shows for Indigenous people who sell out—and interesting for many other reasons, too.
    I didn’t know about the Intervention, and looking up about it just confused me more. It seems to resemble the fights here in the US about welfare. But African Americans came as slaves and never had a land base, which I think makes the situation different. In the past, Native Americans were taken from their homes, but I think that ended earlier here. Fewer families are still separated and less land still disputed. But we certainly have created other ways to abuse those we consider “other.” And some of those still suffering still write angrily about whites.

    • It’s interesting that these two very different books are both on the Miles Franklin longlist. Wright, I think, is the more innovative author, more experimental in style and form (though in saying that, it may be that she is writing in a style that emulates indigenous oral storytelling which might make her work traditional rather than innovative amongst her people). But Mullumbimby is culturally innovative in the way that it presents a different kind of indigenous voice. I’m glad I don’t have to choose between them.

      • It’s great that two different books by Indigenous women are being honored. The diversity helps break down stereotypes. Do you know if Wright claims to be emulates her oral tradition? I just got Mullumbimby and am eager to see how the book is “culturally innovative”? Thanks for your on-going help in seeing these books as distinctive and not just lumping them together because of the ethnicity of the authors.

        • Hi Marilyn, thanks for dropping by… I’ve never heard Wright make this claim for her work, I think I read it somewhere else in a review, I hope you enjoy Mullumbimby:)

  8. I just finished reading and reviewing Mullumbimby and I loved it. I never felt it was “political” or “confrontational” as others did. That is part of why I found it so good. For me, the anger was there and bubbled up at times, but mostly Jo wanted to get on with her life–away from European norms and demands. She wasn’t fighting the power structure, just withdrawing. And sometimes she could see beyond the whiteness of others and value them as individuals.

    • I’m so glad you liked it, Marilyn. Your response is interesting – perhaps ‘being away from the fray’ enables a different perspective.


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