Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2018

Tracker, Stories of Tracker Tilmouth, by Alexis Wright #Bookreview

Cultural warning: Indigenous readers please be aware that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

With the Stella Prize due to be announced the day after tomorrow, I’ve realised I’m not going to finish the shortlisted book I’m currently reading, so I’ll share my thoughts about Alexis Wright’s Tracker, Stories of Tracker Tilmouth now.  (It’s 615 pages long, and I’m only up to page 250).

***

Tracker, a tribute to the Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth, is not your ordinary sort of biography.  As Alexis Wright explains in the introduction, the subtitle ‘Stories of Tracker Tilmouth’ is the form of this book.  Story-telling is the Aboriginal way, and Tracker was a man who…

… created stories wherever he went.  He was amongst the most extraordinary contemporary story-makers in the Aboriginal world.  He was the story. The stories about what he said or did are legendary.   (p.4)

So the book begins with one of Tracker’s stories.  It’s called ‘The Warlpiri Invasion of Europe’, and it’s about the time that Tracker decided to escort a bunch of Warlpiris to attend the United Nations with their own version of the usual talkfest where the Australian government gets up and tells the world how good they treat the blacks.  The story is both deadly serious and wickedly funny, and that, apparently, was Tracker’s style.  He achieved major things for his people by analysing the real issues, by having good ideas, and while not mucking about with waste-of-time protocols, he charmed people into listening by being funny while at the same time having something important to say.

The stories are grouped into five sections:

  1. Trying to Get the Story Straight
  2. Becoming Dangerous
  3. The Inspirational Thinker (I’ve read up to page 250 of this section)
  4. The Vision Splendid
  5. The Unreliable Witness.

The book also includes a list of People, Places and Organisations, Contributor Biographies, and Acknowledgements

‘Trying to Get the Story Straight’ begins with stories from mission where Tracker was brought up.  When his mother died in Alice Springs in 1957, welfare authorities split the family, sending the older light-skinned ones south, and the younger, dark-skinned ones north to Croker Island.  There is a photo of these three little fellows William (aged about two), Patrick (aged about 18 months)  and Tracker (about three or four), which is enough to break your heart.  The two younger ones are dressed smartly in colourful play suits while Tracker is in blue shirt and shorts, and they are smiling for the camera, but they are so very small, and as the stories from their ‘cottage mother’ Lois Bartram reveal, they were three of twelve children in ‘Victory Cottage’ taken from their families.  Lois Bartram seems to have been an enlightened woman who knew and cared about the effects of being deprived of maternal care, but she had huge responsibilities for a woman of 25.

William: Mind you she was a really brilliant, brilliant woman; she was the only medical person on the island.  So she was not only dealing with the sick and issuing medication, fixing people’s wounds and boils, or sores and also skin rashes.  She was also the coroner and midwife. She did everything from go to whoa, whatever medical.  If someone had died in the camp she was the one who dealt with it.  If a woman gave birth she was the one who dealt with it.  She was just an amazing, amazing, amazing woman.  On top of that she had twelve kids to look after. (p.34)

Yet as a contributor to this book, Lois Bartram has regrets about being too strict, and says that although she tried to read to each one of them at night so that we had a bit of time when it was just them and me sometimes there wasn’t time for that.  (William says that Tracker was a good reader and she would make him read to the kids too. He used to read bedtime stories to the kids.)  She didn’t always get support from the authorities about keeping siblings together either, and Tracker ended up in Darwin for high school while his brothers stayed on Croker Island until it was eventually closed down in 1967.

Tracker says that the island was paradise in comparison to later on… Because they were Stolen Generation, the boys had no country:

Getting back to Alice and getting back to Central Australia, it was extremely difficult finding out where you belonged.  It was difficult because you did not know where you came from.  Simple as that. People look at me and say, Righto, he can speak the language, he has been able to do this, he knows this and knows that, but it has been a long, long journey.  And that journey, like every other journey, never starts off on the right foot.

It is hard getting back to where you fit in the scheme of things as well as acceptance.  Alice Springs was a wild place to say the least, it still is.  The conflict between urban and non-urban, bush, whitefellas, blackfellas, is extremely fraught. (p.83)

Tracker’s clear-sighted discussion of these issues makes it obvious, if you haven’t realised it before, that deciding who is Aboriginal and who is not, is nobody’s business but theirs.

Because the stories are told by multiple contributors, they go back and forth and they’re not always entirely consistent.  There’s no timeline and no family tree to refer to when the reader forgets the relationship between Tracker and some other person.  Sometimes it’s not easy to form a neat and tidy picture of events.  But it ceases to matter as you realise that neatly chronological sequences don’t necessarily generate a ‘true’ picture of a person anyway.  We are all different people depending on circumstances.  We reveal different aspects of our identities in different contexts, and – just as some contributors say that Lois Bartram was strict while others say she was only pretending to be, and she herself says she was too strict because those were the times, – so the contributors to Tracker’s story, including Tracker himself, create a richer, more complex portrait of this most interesting man.

However, Tracker is not a hagiography.  Some of the contributors found him hard to work with because he was not interested in the detail of some issues, and some found his brashness annoying.  His one-liners were funny and he was good in a scrap, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly and his quick wit could be cutting.  Clearly Indigenous people are entitled to feel resentful about, for example, having to buy back land that was really theirs, but he didn’t always have support for his ideas.

(I recognise that I’m not a stakeholder, but I’m a bit ambivalent about Indigenous land owners getting involved in projects that are environmentally dubious. A proposed logging deal with Tasmanian Forestry is mentioned by Michael Mansell, and while I recognise the complexities of the matter, at some point, I believe, it is the responsibility of all Australians to protect very vulnerable World Heritage environments. I don’t agree with Indigenous hunting and fishing rights that permit the killing of endangered species at all.)

Tracker was firmly convinced of the need for Indigenous people to get an education so that they were equipped to deal with the constantly changing landscape of Indigenous politics. Michael Mansell tells it like this:

… It must have been before the so-called A team of Aboriginal negotiators went to talk to Paul Keating.  It was at one of those meetings that, in the midst of the economic benefits of native title, Tracker made this declaration that stunned me – that he was the only Aboriginal economist in the room!  Aboriginal lawyers were by this time a dime a dozen.  The room was full of us.  I had not seen many Aboriginal doctors, and never an Aboriginal economist.  I had never heard of there being such a beast.  (p.242)

Tracker’s vision was for Indigenous people to own the land so that they could be economically independent, having meaningful work by running cattle stations and so on.  Mansell credits Tracker with Aboriginal landowners having agreements with diamond and bauxite mines in the Kimberley and Cape York, and he says it all began with a little scrap of paper.

The blurb for the book says that the way Alexis Wright has woven together her interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and the politicians he influenced is reminiscent of the work of Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich.  I think it’s more original than that.  It will be interesting to see if it wins the Stella…the book was also shortlisted for the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

To see reviews from critics who’ve read the whole book, visit Giramondo’s product page.

Update 15/4/18 I finished reading Tracker a few days after the book won the Stella Prize. I think now that I’d read the best of it at the time I wrote the review, reading the ins and outs of Aboriginal politics is rather draining and at times I nearly decided not to finish it.

Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Author: Alexis Wright
Title: Tracker
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336337
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Tracker  or direct from Giramondo.


Responses

  1. Thanks for that (partial) review. I’m just finishing The Life to Come and there’s no way I’ll get through Tracker by Thursday night – it’s the first year I haven’t managed to read the whole Stella shortlist 😕 At this stage my tip is Terra Nullius (although not having read Tracker, I can’t really make a call!).

    • Well, you’ll know soon enough!

  2. Well said Lisa. I agree with you about Aboriginal identity being ‘no business but theirs’, and about fishing, forestry (or mining) rights not being absolute. This is in line for the Stella but I’m not clear if Wright does much or any writing. (A shout out to Kate – I read, will review, An Uncertain Grace. Good but TN better)

    • Good point: I hadn’t thought of the writing itself being an issue….

    • Interesting point Bill about the actual writing. I:m guessing part of the interest – besides the content itself – is that this is a different form of work, a “collective memoir” and in that sense she has brought her writer’s sensibility to conceiving it, to editing the oral stories and interviews etc, and to structuring and framing them to make the whole. But, I haven’t read it so am not sure what I’d think after reading it.

      • Yes, I was interested to see the comparison with Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel for doing something similar i.e. harvesting interviews to create something new and innovative. I think this is a bit different because it’s a form of Indigenous story telling that’s front and centre in the book, but I can see that there might be some who have a different view.

        • It sounds like a great challenge to read.

          • I should have said also that in both books there’s an organising principle at work as well, without which the books would make no sense.

  3. […] see my ANZ LitLovers review […]

  4. […] Tracker (Giramondo Publishing) by Alexis Wright, see my review […]


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