Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2017

Taboo, by Kim Scott

Almost the first thing Kim Scott talked about, when I had the good fortune to meet and have more than a brief chat with him at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards night in 2011, was language…

Australians are getting comfortable with the meaning of the word ‘language’ in Australian Aboriginal English: like ‘country’, it is spoken without an article or a descriptive adjective. ‘Talking in language’ means speaking the indigenous language of a particular place and ‘being on country’ means being on the land on which they belong.  I like this adaptation of the English that I speak (which is neither British nor Australian English, making me one of many here who have a hybrid language of our very own) because it means (amongst other things) both the language and a language and the country and a country.  In a land like ours where there have always been multiple languages across multiple countries inhabited by multiple nations, the use of these words in this way is a reminder that for upwards of 60,000 years, the languages spoken by the Noongar or the Wiradjuri or the Bunerong did not need to be differentiated from a dominant, mainstream, default language, nor from the multiple languages other than English, which have been imported via European settlement and have flourished in greater variety since postwar migration. ‘Language’ and ‘country’ have an historic and cultural significance when used in this way.

Source: Wikipedia, see attribution* below

On that night in 2011, the year that Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance won every award you can think of including his second Miles Franklin Award, Scott talked to me not about his book but about his involvement in the project to revive the language of the Noongar peoples from the southwest corner of Western Australia.  I went home thinking about language in a different way (and I bought two of the bilingual children’s picture books that Scott had mentioned, and read them with the kids at school).   Huge progress has been made in the revival of the Noongar language, (and I do urge you to check out this website to learn more about it) but Scott, in the Afterword to Taboo – noting that Noongar has been upgraded from ‘extinct’ to ‘living’ in a linguistics catalogue – still describes it as fragile, spoken at home by only 369 people in 2011, the year of our conversation.  He says it is stronger than that, but still endangered.

So it is not surprising that language is central to the preoccupations of this novel.  Languages matter.  In the Afterword in which he talks about Taboo as a narrative of identity, Scott references an Irish author called Tim Robinson who says of Ireland and its indigenous language:

‘In talk about land and language, there is always a whiff of a third element, blood.  The three have historically made up a deathly stew.’ (Tim Robinson, quoted by Scott on p284)

The ‘deathly stew’ in Taboo takes place in a world away from the redemptive possibilities of That Deadman Dance.  Taboo takes place in a grim contemporary Australia where the town landscape is littered with grubby buildings and neglected gardens and where the indigenous characters are all emotionally scarred by their encounters with racism and prejudice.  But just as ancestral lands have a healing quality, language is also central to identity: it is how relations identify one another and there is more than pride in being able to use it:

Gerard walked towards [Aunty Nita, who is blind], his footsteps softly crunching, stopped a few metres away and bid her good day in the old language.

‘How are you Gerry?’

In the old language, he told her he was well.

She tilted her head to one side. ‘You talking language, now.  Proper blackfella, unna.’

He agreed with her, again using the old people’s tongue.

‘You reckon that’s our lingo?’

He said he did, and went to her.  They embraced, lightly.  She accepted his peck on the cheek. (p.15)

Denied his language when he was a youngster on a mission, Gerard has learned his language in prison.  Like the Palestinian prisoners that I read about in Nir Baram’s A Land without Borders, the Indigenous prisoners of Taboo made profitable use of their time inside:

He’d only been inside a few weeks this time.  A parole issue, that’s all.  It had been a disappointment in a way, because on his previous stint his cousin had been running ‘culture classes’, ‘workshops’; whatever you wanted to call them.  A long timer, Uncle Jim.  Wirlomin boys looked up to him, and those attending the classes had been mostly his nephews and cousins and grannies. Another member of the extended family sent Jim wordlists, genealogies, language and songs and stories and photos and stuff he was putting together with the old boy, Jim’s dad.  One of the screws was helping, even.  Jim had that knack of enlisting people, women particularly.

They were teaching themselves, in prison of all places.  They’d memorised vocabulary, and listened to recordings of family, most no longer alive.  (p. 14)

It is Jim’s death that gives Gerard a sense of purpose:

It was true what people said: every old one left a hole in the world when they died, when they took language with them.  That old language was a world itself, and one by one the words let you in.  But individuals who could connect you to it, re-introduce you, they were necessary too.  Someone needed to step into Jim’s shoes. (p.14)

Scott in the Afterword calls his characters survivors:

Taboo offers a little band of survivors following a retreating tide of history, and returning with language and story; a small community, descended from those who first created human society in their part of the most ancient continent on the planet, provides the catalyst for connection with a story of place deeper than colonisation, and for transformation and healing. (p.287)

The catalyst for the healing is the return of the Wirlomin people to their ancestral country, where a massacre once took place.  A Peace Park is being established as an act of reconciliation, and the Elders are asked to participate in the ceremony.  Dan and Malcolm Horton now own the land on which the massacre took place, and Scott skilfully renders the difference between them.  Dan, whose wife Janet has just died, wants to honour her memory through redemptive gestures, but Malcolm is not so sure.  He doesn’t even like the word ‘massacre’ to be used, even though as children they had found skeletal evidence of it on the property.  Malcolm is more comfortable with the place remaining taboo to the Wirlomin, whereas Dan offers hospitality at the old homestead in the hope that the taboo can be resolved.

Tilly Coolman, once fostered by Dan and Janet, is returning to Kokanarup too.  Brought up by her mother without any knowledge of her Aboriginal father until her teens, Tilly has had an awkward relationship with all the adults in her life, and her fatal misjudgement of character has caused her terrible, appalling harm.  As she travels to the Peace Park to meet with members of her extended Aboriginal family for the first time, fragments of what has happened to her leak into her dreams.   It is confronting reading.

Again in the afterword, Scott talks about the ‘genre-hopping’ within this novel.  It features a trace of Fairy Tale, a touch of Gothic, a sufficiency of the ubiquitous Social Realism and perhaps a tease of Creation Story.  That’s true, those elements are all there, but it was the stark portrayal of poverty, neglect, addiction and atrocity in a devastating form of social realism that has stayed with me since I finished the book.  That’s quite different to the almost euphoric sensation of reading That Deadman Dance, a book which danced its way into my heart.  

* The map of the Noongar Peoples is by John D. Croft at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Author: Kim Scott, a Noongar man from the southwest of Western Australia.
Title: Taboo
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2017
ISBN: 9781925483741
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: Taboo


Responses

  1. The publisher promised me a copy but it never arrived. I’ll have to go and buy one and make time to read it.

    • No, I didn’t get one either. And surprisingly, it’s only available in paperback. Not what I expected for a new book by a dual Miles Franklin winner…

  2. Did you prefer That Deadman Dance?

    • Yes. But that’s no criticism of this one. That Deadman Dance is a masterpiece, like Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s masterpiece.

      • Ok thanks, just curious

  3. That reference to people learning about their heritage and culture while in prison reminded me of the way the anti apartheid prisoners used their time on Roben Island to settle differences between tribes and prepare the way for government.

    • I should have remembered that from Nelson Mandela’s biography.
      I’d like to know how common it is here in Australia. I’ve never heard of it before, (not that I necessarily would have) but we had a Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody a while ago and the subject of indigenous imprisonment is never far from the surface here. While there have been cases of police brutality causing death, the main concern has been the number of suicides and so amongst a whole lot of other preventative recommendations, meaningful education programs ought to be offered, and cultural programs could be among them.

  4. Oh my! A new Kim Scott. I can feel a Readings.com.au splurge coming on and it’s all your fault, Lisa! 🤣

    • But wait! There’s more! Richard Flanagan has one coming out this year too:)

  5. I know. I’ve already “preordered” that one. And there’s an Alex Miller and a Michelle de Kretzer in the offing too.

    • Yes, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Miles Franklin judges handle this, all our major writers producing something new and only one of them is female…

  6. Great review Lisa. Kim Scott’s novel Taboo seems more nuanced in the indigenous language and narrative style. The dialogue between the characters is interesting I find that his previous novels- Dead Man Dance and True Country reflected a gothic-influenced narrative style which reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. Scott’s recovery work with the Noongar language is remarkable. The radio program Awaye has undertaken a new segment on different Aboriginal communities preserving their original languages. Aboriginal author Dylan Coleman has also incorporated original language in her novel, Mazin Grace, which has a glossary of words and phrases. A question to bears relevance to the discussion on the recovery of first nation language and translation – Does an author have a responsibility for providing a glossary, footnotes, endnotes, introduction to explain vernacular speech or verbal expressions to readers who are outside the author’s ethnic group?

    • I think that’s a very vexed question. I’ve read quite a few books that use language naturally within the text, and the best of these enable the reader to work out the meaning from context, gradually increasing the usage until the reader has ‘learned’ some of the words through repetition. But the reader who can do that has had to learn the skill, and I am pretty sure that the reason I can do it well is because I have learned so many other languages. ‘Guess from context’ is something one learns no matter which language is being learnt. So, living in a country where many are monolingual, I can understand people who complain that a glossary should be provided ‘if the author wants them to comprehend the book’.
      OTOH, I also understand the attitude that if the author has to negotiate two or more languages on an everyday basis, why shouldn’t the monolinguist make the same effort? And, especially in the case of a language being revived, where the work of establishing forms for grammar and vocabulary and – most vexed of all – spelling, is still being negotiated, an author may feel that it is a trespass to share a language that is still fragile.


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