Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2018

Dancing Home, by Paul Collis

ILW 2018

The book I read to kick off Indigenous Literature Week 2018 is not for the faint-hearted!

Dancing Home (2017) is the debut novel of Paul Collis, a Barkindji man, born in Bourke in far western NSW on the Darling River. After a career in teaching and Aboriginal community development programs, Collis went on to take a Bachelor of Arts and a PhD in Communications. Dancing Home won the David Unaipon Award as an unpublished manuscript in 2016, and it’s billed as ‘part road-movie, part ‘Koori-noir’.

It’s Collis’s experience in teaching Indigenous men in custody that informs this novel.  The UQP website tells me that he has taught Aboriginal Studies to Indigenous inmates at the Worimi and Mount Penang juvenile detention centres and in Cessnock and Maitland prisons. I’ll be honest: it took me two attempts to complete reading this novel because I turned away: I don’t care for noir of any kind if it involves unrelenting violence, brutality, and lashings of coarse language and racist name-calling along with the objectification of women.  And Dancing Home  has all of that in spades because (according to the author profile at Canberra university) part of the author’s agenda is to explore Indigenous masculinity.  The last time I read a book as unpleasant as this was How It Feels by Brendan Cowell…

Dancing Home is the story of drug-addicted, violent men, just released from prison for a crime that Blackie says he didn’t commit. They are on a road-journey back to his Wiradjuri country, to reconnect with his family but also to have his revenge against the policeman who confected evidence against him and landed him in gaol. Blackie and his mates Rips and Carlos are destined to be losers because all the cards are stacked against them and the reader always knows it.

However…

Turning away is what we so often do when we are confronted by uncomfortable truths, and I did not want to do that.  So the next day I turned back, began again, and found myself noticing other elements of the characterisation.  The central character Blackie is a hard man, but he is loyal to his family and he mourns his grandmother with an ache that never goes away.

He got out of the car and moved towards the unkempt grave of his grandmother.

A sorrowful wind had crept from across the flat plain and wrapped itself around Blackie.  Filled with speed and grog and emptiness he stared at the grave and felt the soft coolness of the wind on his face. Standing crooked like his old mate Crusoe stood bent, out of shape, in his raggedy clothes looking like a scrubby hobo, his face wet from tears.

‘G’day Nan,’ he breathed.

He quieted himself, closing his eyes and imagining her standing in front of him.  Everything else around him faded in the dark.  He couldn’t hear the wind or the music or anything.  He stood in a clouded space in an after-world place.  Slowly her ghost appeared.  He smiled, and she smiled, and they spoke to each other from another place – a silent place, in silence together. ‘My boy, my boy, my beautiful black boy,’ he heard her say.  Tiredness had him unsteady on his feet. (p.72)

Blackie’s curse is that he is caught between two worlds in other ways too.  He flies into a rage when he is confronted by a lack of respect from Carlos (a Spaniard, engaged as a driver whose colour will protect the men from police harassment en route).  Carlos needed to take a piss in the Dubbo cemetery but it’s Blackie’s grandmother’s burial site, and Carlos has shown no respect because he doesn’t know anything about sacred sites.  The irony is that Blackie, back on his own Wiradjuri country, isn’t referring to the ancient sacred sites of his own people.  Between two worlds as he is, he regards his Nan’s resting place as sacred, (as anyone else would, in a cemetery where respect for the dead is a cultural norm around the world, including Spain).

As the plot develops, this curse of belonging and not belonging plays out in other ways.  Having been away so long, Blackie is out of touch with pub culture and the toxic masculinity that thrives there.  He wins a brutal fight to take down a new younger ‘top dog’ but then his own community turns on him.

As Ed Wright in the review at The Australian says (sorry, it’s paywalled) Dancing Home is a story of heroic failure, inverting the tropes of Ned Kelly, Breaker Morant , the Eureka Stockade and Gallipoli.  It is also a raw, powerful, authentic portrayal of the damage done to Indigenous people by policies past and present that have been inflicted on them. But despite this, Blackie retains his essential humanity and proves his loyalty to his family in a way that leaves the reader in despair about how all the well-meaning rules and procedures can so easily be ignored at the local level:

All the police procedures went out the window with Blackie’s arrest and charges.  There was no phone afforded him.  No contact made with the Aboriginal Legal Service.  No Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer available. No medical assessment or treatment offered.  No watch was kept on him in his lonely cell.  Blackie was just another black crim locked up, and society would be able to sleep easily again.  (p.200)

That striking cover image, symbolising a man ‘hung out to dry’ is from Design By Committee.

Paul Collis is a Barkindji man, from far western NSW on the Darling River.

PS Later the same day: by coincidence, a review of We Real Cool, Black Men and Masculinity by Bell Hooks appeared today on Darkowaa’s African Book Addict blog.   It’s not about Indigenous men, but it makes interesting reading in the context of the issues raised by Dancing Home. 

Author: Paul Collis
Title: Dancing Home
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780702259753
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Dancing Home


Responses

  1. […] See my ANZ LitLovers review […]

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  2. Another honest and perceptive review Lisa – these stories are hard to read especially if well-written and believable – the images don’t leave for a long time, if ever, but they are important to help cross that great divide that is our society and more evident in some places than others. Endemic racism/sexism in authorities has resulted in horrific damage to people, families and communities (look at the high ranking Victorian police officer who had his alternative FB persona say the vilest things). Belonging is something we all seek and some are lucky to never have to question where they fit in – powerful subjects that are often able to be understood or explained better in novels and made more accessible than all the academic and government reports issued.

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    • Indeed yes, and I agree that a well-written novel can do more to educate us about these issues. I can’t let go of the image of this violent, angry, vengeful man mourning his grandmother in the graveyard, reminding us that those statistics about Aboriginal life expectancy translate into impacts on the real people left behind to grieve.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good luck with Indig.Lit week, this is is a fine start, and I’ll look out for it. Not sure I agree with the reviewer in the Oz about inverted – the examples mentioned were all ‘heroic’ failures. Hopefully I’ll have a review for you by next weekend.

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    • Unfortunately because it’s paywalled I could only look at that review once, and now I’ve forgotten what he said!

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  4. Sounds like a challenging read, Lisa. I guess the point of the graveyard scene is to show that even the most hard hearted, violent men are still human and still grieve. And, surprisingly, it always seems to be matriarchal figures that hard men (for want of a better description) grieve for most, probably because they’re the only people that showed them love and tenderness.

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  5. Hello Blog Readers,
    It’s Sonia. Thank you for your review of Paul Collis’ debut novel. I initially considered reading his novel in observance of Indigenous Literature Week. But due to some time constraints, I decided to wait later to read it. I agree with Lisa that there are many uncomfortable truths concerning issues of racism, misogyny, violence, police brutality, familial and cultural loss that are difficult to contend with but in order to work towards dealing with such issues, as a reading community and citizens of the world, we must confront them through reading and dialogue.

    Indigenous masculinity is a very important subject that Collins has decided to explore in its complexities and dynamics. What Collins seems to convey in creating his novel is that issues of police corruption, violence, systematic and internalized racism, poverty, environmental loss, and cultural erasure projected against Black Australian indigenous men is not a simple, cut-throat matter. These issues are intersectional and have existed since the indoctrination of western colonialism of indigenous communities and land. Lisa’s commentary on the novel reminds me of fictional works produced by Australian Aboriginal writer Tony Birch and North American Indian writers Sherman Alexie, Simon J. Ortiz, N. Scott Momaday, and James Welch. This is a critical topic on indigenous masculinity that I look forward to become more informed about by reading Dancing Home.

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    • Hello again Sonia… I’ll be revisiting this very sensitive topic of toxic masculinity with my review of Once Were Warriors by Maori author Alan Duff. When these issues are raised in fiction, it’s difficult… not just because it’s confronting reading, but also because there’s the risk of stereotyping and blaming and of perpetuating assumptions about gender and race. I find it especially difficult because the only indigenous men I’ve ever met have been gentle, dignified, respectful people.

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  6. This won the ACT Writers Centre Fiction Award last night, with Paul Collis in attendance. I have ordered it – so if I don’t read it straightaway I’ll add do it for the 2019 ILW.

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    • That’s great news, I’ve retweeted your tweet about it.
      It must have been a terrific night, were there other awards as well?

      Liked by 1 person


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