Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 29, 2018

True Country, by Kim Scott #BookReview

True Country, Kim Scott’s debut novel first published in 1993, has been on my TBR for ages, so I was happy to join a readalong with Emma at Book Around the Corner.  But unlike Kim at Reading Matters, I did not love this book.  It is powerful writing, and innovative in design and intent, but it is also deeply depressing because it paints such a vivid picture of the dysfunctional behaviours that we are told still plague indigenous communities today.

True Country is a kind of bildungsroman, but one that has been creatively adapted to serve a new purpose.  The central character, Billy Storey, does not ‘go out into the wider world’ in search of the self, becoming educated in the ways of the world while the reader looks on.  Billy’s search for identity takes him out of the White world that he knows, to the intimate world of a (fictional) remote northern Australian indigenous community, where everything that he already knows does not apply.  His confused identity, shaped by more than two centuries of assimilationist policies and family denial, is confronted by the confident assertion of identity from the local indigenous people, who know who they are even though their culture is changing.  So while Billy is there ostensibly to teach at the school, what actually happens is that the teacher finds himself being taught – learning a whole new culture and lifestyle, along with different values and ways of behaving.  He learns a history more ancient than any he was familiar with, and he learns in ways that are unconventional in westernised societies.  He is on a challenging learning journey, and the text brings the reader along with Billy to learn about Aboriginality at the same time.  (It’s important to note that although there were increasing numbers of indigenous memoirs, there were not many novels written by indigenous authors at that time in the late 20th century).

In the beginning, Billy and his wife Liz identify with and are identified as Whites, differentiated by their education, their jobs, their clothes, by having air-conditioning in the house and easy access to a cool beer after work, and most of all by their prospects.  The respect they are shown is also differentiated: the other Whites treat them with the same professional respect they reserve for themselves, while the indigenous people (mostly) treat them with a kind of amused tolerance for their lack of understanding and ignorance about the community’s heritage and lifestyle.  But there are also instances of behaviour towards Billy and Liz that most Australians would consider disrespectful – such as having their home invaded by a horde of kids and their clothes and possessions used and ‘borrowed’.  But this is not considered disrespectful by some members of the indigenous community, while other mission-educated Aborigines are furious about it.  This is indicative both of a shift in cultural values from communal ownership to the idea of private property, but also confusion about Billy’s identity.  Billy has the money to buy a boat and if he’s a whitefella, he isn’t obliged by kinship rules to share it.  But if he ‘belongs’, then he should be willing to lend it to anyone who asks.  The position of his wife (who the reader assumes to be White) is subsumed in Billy’s, as far as the community is concerned).

This portrait of comparative privilege shifts, as Billy falls in love with the land, enjoys aspects of living off the land such as fishing, and finds himself captivated by the stories of an Elder called Fatima. About half way through the book this change is signalled by two events…

On a night out of Somerset Maugham or something […] living in the tropics, living in more privileged circumstances than the locals, sweating and drinking whisky, Billy is asked about his project to write up the stories he is being told by Fatima, and he acknowledges his Aboriginal heritage for the first time.  He forestalls any derogatory responses by using a common insulting epithet himself, though there is some ambivalence in reconciling his interest in indigenous story-telling with his Westernised self.

Liz explained.  Murray raised his eyebrows. ‘Why bother?’ You want to encourage them?  They’ll lie to you you know. Still, I guess you could fix up their English when you write it up for the kids or whatever.’
‘Not necessarily, not just that.  Look… I’m not finding time to write them up anyway.’
‘No one’ll thank you for it.’
‘Ha! Ah well.  What else can I do?  I like that sort of thing. And I’m Aboriginal, of Aboriginal descent.  A bit of tarbrush in me.’  Oops.  he gave a derisive snort of laughter.  Too many whiskies for Billy maybe.  ‘So I’m interested.  That must be part of the reason I asked to come here.  Most chalkies only come here if they’ve got no choice. I dunno.  Maybe it’s stupid any of us being here, if we look at it.’ (p.117)

Just a few pages later, he explicitly identifies with the Karnama mob when he asks if any of ‘our mob’ are going to be employed when a new building project starts.  He is tackled about that straight away:

‘They starting Monday then?’ Billy asked.  Gerrard nodded.  Billy continued ‘Any of our mob working with them?’
Gerrard leaned forward.  ‘You’re joking,’ he said.  ‘And whaddya mean, “our mob”?  No, this lot don’t know how to work.  (p.127)

I wrote ‘comparative privilege’ above, because by most standards of Westernised life, this would be a hardship posting.  This naïve young couple, and the new principal Alex, (with wife Annette and child Alan) have no real idea what they are in for.  The teaching day starts with collecting sleepy children who’ve been up all night watching videos, and even very intelligent children are barely literate and way behind where they should be educationally.  The narrator puts it succinctly:

So.  They have a hard time here in Karnama. Maybe this is not the place for them (p. p113)

They hold a meeting to debrief about the problems.  Indigenous employees employed to do various jobs such as gardening and cleaning aren’t punctual, don’t turn up at all or don’t finish the jobs.  Alex is frustrated because he wants them to come to work often enough to learn some skills.  The school children often haven’t been fed or cleaned, and they fall asleep in class. There is nostalgia from some for the mission days when Father Paul could issue vouchers for food and clothing but that can’t be done under new policies of ‘self-determination’.   There is a suggestion that if the employees are paid daily so that they see the immediate consequences of coming to work, either being paid or having their pay docked.  Gerrard’s response shows his frustration with constant changes of government policy:

‘Can’t do it.  Ab Affairs, DAA – whatever they’re called this week – fly money out once a month.  We’re accountable, and it’s for the previous month. Anyway, we can’t. (p.111)

Annette’s exasperation boils over:

‘It’s just not good enough, that’s all.  We work like slaves for their kids, and they’re just leaving it all up to us.  They don’t care.  And what about the power? The powerhouse breaks down – every second day or whatever it is – and there’s no air-conditioning. It’s hell in those rooms then.  Talk about hot.  And the smell! And the school seems to be the first to lose power as well, and last to get it back.  how come?  It’s all wrong.’ (p.112)

And the narrator observes wryly:

Ah yes.  So they have this big meeting so they can get things off their chest?  They gunna have big chests then.  And that Annette, she have biggest milk.  Big ones out here, eh?  She look like little tank withy big guns right out front then. (p.113)

That sexism also expresses itself in appalling violence against women.  Parts of this book depict hopelessness and degradation and there is no authorial attempt to deny or justify it other than to make it clear that colonisation and subjugation lies behind it: there is the pathological drinking, petrol-sniffing, the self-destructive behaviours, the damage to property and cars, and the neglect of children and brutality towards them, including old men ‘initiating’ young girls.  There are attempts by some members of the community to adapt by blending old traditions with modern opportunities and to control access to alcohol – but they are up against resentment and refusal to cooperate, especially among young men whose attitude is ‘why should I cooperate when so much damage has been done to our culture?’ ‘why shouldn’t I drink myself silly when there is no place for me in White society anyway?’ ‘why should I obey White laws when there is a murder, committed almost casually by a couple of White bouncers, and the outcome in court is that Aborigines are expected to live by White laws but are not protected by them?’ ‘why shouldn’t I stay at the beach with my mates instead of putting on a phony corroboree for a bunch of tourists looking for an exotic experience?

While I think I understand this cynicism, I did find it depressing.  Billy’s ‘welcome’ into the community isn’t enough to make me feel that there is any prospect of improving the situation in the foreseeable future.  I would like to see the ‘big’ things achieved: a treaty, formal recognition in the constitution, a Truth and Justice Commission, Land Rights and reparations, and a formal Reconciliation process culminating in a change of date for an Australia Day we can all respect and enjoy, but I would dearly love to see a united effort to improve living standards and genuine prospects for young indigenous people.  But it would be naïve to suggest that I can see way that any of this could be achieved, and I don’t get the impression from True Country that Kim Scott feels optimistic either.

Update, the next day: Here’s the link to Emma’s review of Le Vrai Pays, (True Country) which she read in French, translated and with annotations by Thierry Chevrier and Marie Derrien.

Author: Kim Scott, a Noongar/Nyungar man from the southwest of Western Australia.
Title: True Country
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 1993, this reprint 2010
ISBN: 9781921361524
Personal library: purchased from Dymocks, $22.95

Available from Fishpond: True Country or direct from Fremantle Press where it is also available as an eBook.

 


Responses

  1. Excellent summary of the book, I agree that it’s depressing because you don’t see how things could improve.
    My billet doesn’t point at the same things because I’m not Australian and it’s my first book about this topic. I’m new to it and I was more fascinated by the landscapes.
    It felt very colonialist in its way of treating people. I thought Aborigines had trouble combining their culture with contemporary Australia and that the lack of job prospects in their area makes it difficult to move forward.
    There’s this form of passivity that you describe. I don’t know if it’s the weight of history and the consequences of Australia’s history or if their ancestral culture has some sort of incompatibility with Western standards.

    • I think it’s fascinating to see how our interpretations differ because of our different cultural backgrounds. I think you’re right about that fundamental incompatibility… there are thousands of Aborigines living successful middle-class lives in Australia, having found a way of integrating their culture into a Western way of doing things. Sure, they may have problems with racism, and as I say in my last paragraph there are significant political reforms like a Treaty that are long overdue. And yes, we need much better political leadership to deal with ‘the weight of history’ and to lead a sincere reconciliation process. And some would say that they are ‘successful’ because they have assimilated into the dominant culture, which they shouldn’t have to do because it’s their country, after all.
      But the difficulty arises when they want to live a semi-traditional lifestyle in remote areas because that is where the values clash as you can see in the book. (And of course there’s the lack of jobs in these isolated places – it would be the same in small rural communities all over Europe and the US as well, even where there’s a shared value system ). Australia spends billions trying to improve the situation (the latest initiative is called Closing the Gap) but the situation remains a national shame.

      • I’m going to ask a candid question: why should they necessarily integrate Western culture in these remote areas where there’s no real place for Western way of living? The climate is terrible, nothing grows out there and there are no factories. There will never be any job prospects in the Western sense of it.
        The real issue is education and giving the children the opportunity to choose their life.

        But in the end, what says that our way of life is better? (except for medicine)

  2. PS: I hated that none of these white men with their supposedly superior culture didn’t lift a finger to protect these two wives from their violent husband.

    • Yes, but I think the book shows how their hands are tied. Culturally it is not their place to intervene… it is another example of the different value system, they’re damned if they do and they’re damned if they don’t.
      The police are far away in the next big town, and even if the man is arrested and charged, he will soon be back doing it again. The community tries to prevent alcohol being brought into the town, but the fly-in, fly-out workers bring it with them. And why shouldn’t they? As the book shows, relaxing after a day’s work with a beer or a glass of wine helps to make working in such a place bearable.

  3. You and I are different I think, Lisa. I can LOVE a depressing book. It can hit me in the guts and make my heart sink, can lower my mood for some time, but I can love it for its power to do that. One day I will try to read this.

    • Maybe we just mean something different by ‘loving’ a book. For me it means not wanting to get to the end of it, wanting to re-read it, getting a warm glow when I see it on my shelf afterwards.
      ‘True Country’ makes me respect it, not least for the courage it took to write it, but no, I didn’t love it.

      • Yes, then that’s it, Lisa. A warm glow has nothing to do with whether I love a book. It’s not something I think about specifically though the books that do it are lovely. For me, if it moves me strongly – in any direction – I’ll love it.

  4. That’s where I draw the line. There are some rights that are universal and some behaviours that cannot be accepted as cultural differences. Beating women or children is one of those.
    And how can they be out there without law enforcement? The right to be protected is a fundamental right of a democracy. There should be someone having a police function, even if it’s just to isolate people until the “real” police arrive.

    • Fair point, and I agree with you, but there are cultures out there that don’t share our PoV (all through the Middle East, and Pakistan for a start), and it’s one of the problems, trying to reconcile respect for cultural difference with absolute norms of behaviour and insisting that these ancient cultures change.
      As for law enforcement in these remote communities, I don’t know. Perhaps some of my Aussie readers who’ve visited similar communities today will have some info about how it works.

      • That’s my cultural heritage from the French Revolution. Universal rights and all…

        • Yes, and I share those views through the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. I’m an active member of PEN and (including just today, with a letter to Iran) I’m always writing letters to leaders of oppressive regimes that have no respect for those rights.
          But it doesn’t alter the fact that achieving cultural change on these issues is very difficult to actually do.
          Everybody knows that domestic violence is a massive problem in indigenous communities, but we have not found a way of solving it, with approaches ranging from self-determination where communities themselves are supported to effect change, to the heavy-handed imposition of outsiders as with the federal government’s Intervention program in the Northern Territory. Locking the perpetrators up brings up a new suite of problems because of the high rate of indigenous suicide in prisons, and removing children to a place of safety brings up problems of those children losing connection with their family and community if a suitable local foster home can’t be found.
          People like me, far away from all this trouble, feel powerless which is partly why I found this book so depressing.

          • And of course, we haven’t solved domestic abuse in the whole community have we? But of course there’s added complications within indigenous communities because of their particular sociocultural/socioeconomic issues.

            • No indeed. We have a long way to go on that score.
              But at least there are women’s refuges, and emergency housing, and men’s anger management groups not to mention policing and courts in cities and regional centres, whereas those things are not accessible in remote communities. And if there is no other alternative to leaving home, urban women can do that too, though it’s not easy, I’m not suggesting it is. (Reading Rosie Batty’s A Motehr’s Story gave me window into what that’s like, especially the tussle between wanting a child to have contact with a father and the mother needing protection from him).
              But I suspect it would be a whole lot harder for indigenous women to leave a closely connected community even if it were necessary for her own safety.

          • If it were easy to solve, it would have been done already. (and it remains a problem in a lot of societies)
            Education is still a way to improve things and the fight for women’s rights.

            • Yes indeed. And good role models.

  5. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  6. My view is that universal human rights are just that – by definition they apply to all cultures. So domestic violence and children not going to school are unacceptable in modern Australia. I don’t how to fix these problems, but that doesn’t derogate from the existence of these basic human rights.

    • Well, I think education is a critical issue too. I think every child should have choice about what they do with their lives and education is what offers choice.

      • Totally agree with you on education. It’s the key for the future.
        Billy and Liz’s task reminded me of the army of teachers the Third Republic sent everywhere in France when education became mandatory. Albert Camus’s teacher, the one he mentioned when he received the Nobel prize, comes from this tradition.

        • Yes, but even so there are arguments about how this education should be delivered. Should it be delivered in English, or bilingually, or in their own language? There’s even an argument for a different kind of pedagogy, called The Eight Aboriginal Ways of Learning, see https://www.aitsl.edu.au/tools-resources/resource/eight-ways-of-learning-illustration-of-practice. Should teachers be Aboriginal, and if so, why aren’t there enough of them? There are more punitive arguments about non-attendance: should parents have their benefits docked if their children don’t attend school? Or should there be incentives e.g. a swimming pool gets built if a school’s attendance improves over time, and if so, who pays for it? (And then there’s the argy-bargy about why an Aboriginal school would get funding for a pool when most other Australian schools have to do fund-raising to get one.) Should there be special secondary boarding schools for Aboriginal students? And on it goes, a maelstrom of well-intended ideas chasing after results and there are always naysayers who say they should just be treated the same as everyone else…

          • It is a very complex issue. We had the same kind of issue during colonisation: the school syllabus is centralised and done in Paris, everybody learns the same things. (It still works that way, which makes sense given the size of the country. But this means that people in La Réunion or in African colonied learnt about the Gaulois as their ancestors!!

            I understand why Billy wants to record Fatima’s stories and use them in school. It’s so mich easier to learn when you can relate to the material.

            PS: Here parents have their benefits docked if they don’t send their children to school and nobody needs to rise funds to build a swimmimg pool.

            • Doesn’t that mean that the parents don’t have the money to buy food?

  7. My initial question is, when you say you read this together, did you exchange notes? Loving your and Emma’s conversation now! I think Scott was brave to acknowledge the dysfunctional aspects of the community at this early point in his journey as a Noongar- Wirlomin man. Emma mentions policing, but police have often been part of the problem, and WA and NT governments are attempting to withdraw funding, ie. health and education, from remote communities.

    • We really just read it at the same time, and apart from a conversation (would you believe) about ‘beer bellies’ we didn’t talk about it at all. I love the way we have approached it so differently:)
      I despair at the way politics makes such a mess of things. There should be a bipartisan approach IMO and all the decision-making should include the stakeholders!

    • We kept it simple and read it at the same time and decided about the posting date and time.

      I agree with you: I liked that Scott didn’t try shy away from the problems and didn’t just show the fishing parties and gorgeous nature. He tried to be fair on both parties.

      About the police. I can see how it can be a problem.
      I’m far from a specialist but I think there’s a tribal police force in American reservations. Isn’t there an equivalent ? How does it work?

      • I don’t know, Emma. This is an area right outside my expertise.


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