Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2011

Legacy, by Larissa Behrendt

LegacyIndigenous readers please be aware that this page contains the names of deceased persons.

Larissa Behrendt has been in the news lately*, so it seemed timely to read her second novel which I bought last year.  Behrendt is an indigenous author from the Eualeyai/Kamillaroi people, and this book traces the impact of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in more ways than one.

The novel is strongly autobiographical.  Like Behrendt – the daughter of Paul Behrendt and Raema Behrendt –  the central character, Simone Harlowe, is the daughter of a high-profile Aboriginal activist and a non-indigenous mother strongly supportive of indigenous rights.  Simone is a young lawyer studying at Harvard where Behrendt herself achieved a Master’s Degree and a doctorate on how Aboriginal ideas of sovereignty differed from the concept in British law.  There is a strong female Aboriginal role model called
Patricia Tyndale reminiscent of Roberta Sykes (a mentor to Behrendt) who counsels Rachel, (a young woman struggling with hostile perceptions of her identity):

What I want to say to you is that you do not need the approval of other people to be Aboriginal.  Don’t let others make you feel that you are, as they usually say ‘not Aboriginal enough’ or a ‘coconut’ – you know, brown on the outside and white on the inside’.
….
Don’t let anyone tell you that because you are educated, because you are middle class, because you were adopted out or because you do not know who your father is that you are not Aboriginal.  It’s an insidious unkind way of trying to bring our own people down.
(p207)

The novel is about the struggle for reconciliation at a personal level, a metaphor for political reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander peoples and non-indigenous Australians.  Simone’s father Tony, a hero of the Tent Embassy, is perennially unfaithful to his wife Beth-Ann, and Simone struggles to reconcile her support for her (rather idealised) mother and her charismatic father.  At Harvard she confronts the legacy of filial judgementalism against her beloved doctoral supervisor and sees its hollow victory; she fears that she herself will be the loser if her relationship with her father breaks down irretrievably and yet she finds his behaviour unforgiveable.  Simone loves her mother unconditionally and suffering relationship breakdown herself, feels her pain.  Yet Simone’s success and that of others like her is the legacy of her father’s activism, and her belief in herself derives from his determination that Aboriginal people can take their rightful place in Australian society as equals.

At times, the message is a little heavy-handed.  Perhaps writing with an eye to the world stage and certainly with a distance that comes from having lived overseas where Australian issues are insignificant, Behrendt backgrounds events at the Tent Embassy and its legal, political and moral significance with explanatory detail that verges on homily sometimes.  Some of the characters are a bit weighed down by their symbolism: the Aboriginal women are either strongly assertive (Patricia, Tanya the best friend) or patient-but-quietly strong (Beth-Ann, Melanie grandmother of Simone) and they are uniformly wise.  The men in the novel (Tony, Professor Young) have more overt power but don’t use it wisely.  Darren the drop-out law student is wasting his opportunities fawning on the past and Arthur instead of acting decisively to achieve what he wants and should have had, has wasted half his life waiting patiently for someone else to stand aside and let him have it.

Despite these flaws, the novel is very readable and I enjoyed it.  The narrative voice ranges across the characters bringing them to life, and there is an authenticity about the depiction of Aboriginal life in Australia that is compelling.   Behrendt has used her fiction to share her awareness of indigenous issues in contemporary urban life that is grounded in the need to belong, to a place and to a family.  For Simone, the place that matters is the Old Aboriginal Mission where her grandmother lives yet is the home to which her father can never return.  For Rachel the damage is done: dislocation and loss of family is a part of her life that she has no option but to accept.  For both these women, reconciliation is a personal choice that offers hope and fulfilment in an imperfect world.

Legacy won the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Prize for Indigenous Writing.  There is a profile of Behrendt at the SMH and another at the Courier Mail but the only review I could find online was a brief snippet at Mosman Readers.

* See Chris Graham and Andrew Crook at Crikey.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Larissa Behrendt
Title: Legacy
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2009
ISBN: 9780702237331
Source: Personal library, purchased at Readings $24.95

Availability:
Fishpond: Legacy


Responses

  1. […] 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 […]


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