Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 28, 2011

Benang, by Kim Scott

I was about to start reading Kim Scott’s latest book, That Deadman Dance and before beginning, I decided to refresh my memory of Scott’s previous book Benang by reading my journal notes from 2002 about it because I had fond memories of reading it and wanted to be able to compare the two.

Benang was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 2000, sharing it with Thea Astley for Drylands – and having read both I can see why the judges couldn’t split them.  But although I could find some ‘teaching notes’ about Benang, I couldn’t find a review on the web and since I think there will be renewed interest in Kim Scott’s work because of That Deadman Dance I’ve decided to share my journal notes even though I’ve moved on so much as a reader since 2002 – and with the 2007 Apology to the Stolen Generations, Australian-Aboriginal history has moved on too.

So, with apologies for the naiveté of some of these responses to a very fine book, here are my thoughts about Benang:

30.9.2002

This is a most interesting and challenging book, the sort of fiction that simmers in one’s consciousness, changing one’s view of long-held ideas and assumptions.

The prose is beautiful.  Oceanic, as the blurb tells us.  The lyricism enables us to see the landscape through different eyes – the seas, the bush, the caves and rocks and creeks.  Better than Winton, I reckon, and about more interesting people than the self-indulgent losers than Winton writes about.

The Aborigines of Benang are certainly not losers.  The novel, a work of fiction,  reads like an autobiography of a family since white settlement.  Scott, who might or might not be the narrator, seeks to explore his antecedents and the family history which has labelled him ‘the first white man’.

A.O.Neville was  the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in the early 1900s, and was notorious for his stated intentions to ‘breed out’ the Aborigines.  By systematically selecting fair-skinned Aboriginal children for removal from their families to ‘institutions for education and training’ he hoped to sever their links with traditional Aborigines and eventually through successive breeding (like dutiful cattle) integrate Aborigines into white society.

It didn’t work, of course.  The institutions were rampant with abuse of all kinds and the children grew up barely educated, fit only to work as domestics or as manual labour.  Inconveniently for Neville, they did not forget who they were, even if they lost all contact with their families, and furthermore, the white community still made offensive references to their Aboriginality such as ‘having a touch of the tar brush’.

Benang however is not a litany of complaints.  Rather, it focusses on the absurdity of the notion that there can ever be a ‘first white man’.  Neville’s theory implies that there can be – he thought that at some point in the generational scheme of things, a child, ‘the first one’ will be ‘white’, and his descendants would be ‘free’ of the power of the Aboriginal.  Such a child would not be subject to any disadvantage or discrimination, legal or otherwise.  (The assumption that any of this is desirable is unbelievably offensive; it embarrasses me to be repeating these racist ideas.)

Anyway, the narrator of Benang is said to be such a child.  Contemporary Aborigines, however, welcome him.  Ah yes they say, you belong.  We know who you are.  Your relations are so-and-so, and your family comes from such-and-such.  These are the stories of your family history. 

Such a ‘white man’ is said by the white community to be a fraud if he claims Aboriginality, trying to get a handout from the government, they say.  But the same man will be a ‘throwback’  if he ‘regresses’.  This is also called ‘backsliding’.

So this narrator, ‘dangling on the end of a family’ embarks on a journey.  Some of it is in the magical realism style of which I’m not fond, but Scott uses it here to fill in the gaps where the historical record does not go.  His narrator flies, floats, soars above in the sky to see the truth and also to identify with a totem.  Whether it works in this fiction is one thing, whether the identification with the curlew is genuinely spiritual is another, about which I cannot know.

Anyway, the narrator/Scott traces the way his family has interleaved between Aboriginality and whiteness. From the beginning, the fair ones (first traced to Sandy One, the product of rape by whalers) were accepted by the whites as and when it suited them.  The fair skin counted for nothing if ‘behaviour’ was judged as Aboriginal, and greed and exploitation also led to being subjected to unwanted ‘protection’ by the white authorities.

Some ancestors applied for exemptions from the various restrictions on Aborigines, on the grounds of fair skin and ‘white’ behaviour.  Registering a marriage or the birth of a child was an attempt to claim white rights and protection against unexplained deaths being ignored by the authorities.  Such exemptions were fragile, and more often than not, were really an attempt to be left alone, living on the fringes of both societies but at least free from interference.  There’s a slight hint that some Aborigines blame those who tried this, but Scott sees it as pragmatic.

Some stories reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in which Russian migrants to Chicago are routinely sabotaged in their attempts to integrate economically and socially into their chosen society.  For the Aborigines in this book, attempts to adapt were only ever made to try to survive and they were routinely frustrated by bad luck, bad management, human nature (both black and white) and the intransigence of laws applied by bureaucrats living thousands of miles away.  Decisions about the lives of these people were made via slow-moving correspondence and by a local policeman called Hall who used Aboriginal women as sexual playthings.  Many men did so too, it seems.

‘I saved her for you’ says one young rapist to the narrator.  ‘She’s one of your relations, isn’t she?’  So casual…so understated, and all the more shocking for that.

By letting his characters (including Neville) speak for themselves, Scott avoids didacticism, blame or victimhood.   While not claiming to speak for the Nyoongar people he shows their remarkable resilience, optimism and tenacity. It is a book that looks to a future enlightened by an understanding of the past.

Benang is a very powerful story for all Australians.  I wish lots of people would read it, and I welcome comments about aspects of the book that I missed when I read it all those years ago.

Author: Kim Scott
Title: Benang
Publisher: Fremantle Arts Centre Press
ISBN: 1863682406
Source: Personal library, purchased from Reader’s Feast, $19.95 AUD.


Responses

  1. Lisa, I found a pristine copy of this in a second-hand book store in Warwick yesterday, for the grand total of £2. I snapped it up, of course, and look forward to reading it in due course.

    • £2!!! Now that’s a bargain.
      Tho’ I did well on the weekend, I found one of those lovely ‘coffee table’ Thailand the Beautiful Cookbooks for $5 in the op shop and in all our 200+ cookbooks chez T & L not one featured Thai food. So we will now be experimenting with another cuisine:)

  2. […] Scott is the novelist whose stunning novels Benang (see my review) and That Deadman Dance (see my review) have won the Miles Franklin Award and many other awards […]

  3. […] For another view on this book, please see Lisa Hill’s thoughts. […]

  4. […] in 1972, see my review; and she was a co-winner for Drylands along with Kim Scott’s Benang (see my review) in 2000).  Astley (1925-2004) is one of Australia’s great writers, notable not only for the […]

  5. […] Lisa at ANZLL posted her impressions on first reading Benang (here) […]


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