Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2020

Red Can Origami (2019), by Madelaine Dickie

Madelaine Dickie is the West Australian author of the award-winning Troppo, which I read last year. Red Can Origami is her second novel, set closer to home in the fictional Kimberley town of Gubinge (actually an Indigenous name for the latest superfood, the Kakadu Plum).  Written on Balangarra country in the Kimberley and at Youkobo Art Space in Tokyo, it’s an ambitious novel, tackling the contentious issue of uranium mining on traditional lands, and pulling no punches when it comes to depicting the complexity of the situation.

The novel is narrated by Ava Kelly, an adventurous journalist from Melbourne who falls in love with the remote country and its way of life.  I didn’t like the choice of a second-person narration, I never do because I find it jarring.  However its use to address the reader has both a confessional aspect, when Ava questions her own behaviour, and also the effect of universalising the experience, as if the reader is also complicit in whatever is going on.

From the safety of the office it seemed kind of crazy, the idea that country can ‘watch’.  But out here…
Maybe you shouldn’t be here.
Maybe it’s time to go back.
Nah, you’re keen to find a pool clear and croc-free for a dip.  So you follow the creek’s curve up through stone, climbing waterfalls, until finally you come across a cave.  (p.12)

As it turns out, Ava is not the only person who has transgressed in this sacred place.

Before long, Ava is fed up with the lazy attitude of her editor, and she is embarrassed when her text is altered to make an Indigenous tragedy into tabloid fodder.  She’s previously spent time in Japan and is fluent in the language, so when the Japanese businessman Watanabe offers her the opportunity to work for the Gerro Blue mining company as a liaison officer, she takes it.  She wants to get ahead financially and the chance to work with Noah, the Indigenous Burrika man she fancies, is a bonus.  But working for ‘the dark side’ entails all kinds of ethical dilemmas.  She justifies it to herself and others by pointing out that if she didn’t take the job, someone else would.  However as the plot progresses, the ethical dilemmas she faces become more and more disconcerting when she finds she has to juggle severe penalties for breaching confidentiality against public safety.

Dickie shows that there are multiple perspectives at play when decisions like this one have to be made.  I’m not familiar with the complexities of native title and traditional ownership in different states of Australia, but in this novel, the traditional owners can negotiate terms of access to their land but not veto mineral exploration.* (See explanation below).  But in Gubinge, rival Indigenous groups are competing for the right to negotiate; and some are in favour of job creation while others don’t want their sacred places touched.  The Gubinge Greens and their out-of-town supporters think that the land (though inhabited by Indigenous people) should be protected as ‘pristine’ wilderness; and the townsfolk don’t think it’s fair that Indigenous people can make a decision that, in the case of uranium mining, could affect the safety of them all.  The Japanese company wants a profitable venture at the lowest cost; and is keen to suppress the damage they have caused with premature exploratory work.  And the government in far away Perth of course wants to encourage investment.  As you’d expect in a small place, things get personal.

For Ava, her relationship with Noah is personal too, complicated by his hostile ex-wife Katherine and his love for his children.  She has a carping mother who tries to make her feel guilty about being far from home, and she has a love-hate relationship with her flighty sister Imogen as well, particularly since Imogen seems to need frequent financial help and isn’t above poaching Ava’s boyfriends either.  But there are much nastier characters than Imogen, who’s really only thoughtless and immature.  The station owner nicknamed The White Namibian is a violent, racist man, but a good many conversations in the pub are racist as well.

Dickie is masterful at striking metaphors: Ava’s sister Imogen wears men down like high heels, grinds them until all you can hear is the sound of conflict, nail on cement. (p.146) OTOH she has an earthy style, reproducing the kind of language that our mothers wouldn’t like us to use.  As to the thorny issue of writing about Indigenous issues, she addressed this in the launch of the book:

Madelaine spoke of her anxiety of writing as a non-Aboriginal about Aboriginal matters. But issues like caring for country, climate change and mining affect us all and there’s space for different voices.  She agreed with author Steve Hawke that The important thing is to write with great respect, write well and with a good heart.  (John Hicks reporting on the launch at Madelaine Dickie’s blog.)

On her About page she also says the  Youkobo Artspace in Tokyo was courtesy of an Asialink residency, and while she was there she travelled through parts of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear exclusion zone to witness first hand what a nuclear catastrophe looks like.

The title, and the enigmatic cover, refers to a WA brand of beer that comes in red cans, and the symbolism of 1000 Japanese origami cranes meaning hope and healing (at least, I think so).

*This issue about access for mining is true for all of us BTW. If some valuable mineral is found underneath your land, because it’s under the ground, you can’t stop the exploration but you can negotiate access to it across your land.  Nor do you own the resource that’s under your land. In Australia, coal, petroleum and mineral resources are generally the property of the Crown, rather than the landholder. [Which is why we should have an effective Minerals Resource Rent Tax on profits generated from mining.  What’s under the ground belongs to all of us, not to mining magnates or shareholders in mining companies.] In the case of onshore underground resources, the power to licence and regulate their development lies with the states. See here for general principles, and here for how it works in, e.g. NSW where access over significant improvements such as houses and gardens is denied unless the owner approves it.

There are book group notes at Fremantle Press and you can read a sample chapter here.

Author: Madelaine Dickie
Title: Red Can Origami
Cover design by Nadia Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781925815504,pbk., 218 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from all good retailers and from Fremantle Press, including as an eBook.


  1. I have a copy of this and look forward to reading it.


    • Are you going to the Perth Litfest? I bet Dickie is going to be there…


      • I was considering getting a ticket to see Cloudstreet theatre production but it’s 5+ hours long. Even Shakespeare isn’t that long. Perhaps they’ve never heard of editors ?


        • Really? That’s ridiculous.


          • I know. It’s so long there’s an hour’s intermission so you can go get a meal to sustain you for the next onslaught. 🙄 I really need to check what else is on… I have got at invite to the Dorothy Hewett award announcement but it will mean bunking off work early so not sure if I can accept it yet…


  2. That’s great that she will be here. There is some excellent writing happening here in WA and on those difficult subjects that have been if not ignored, marginalised. Am looking forward to Writer’s Week.


    • From what I can see from a search at she’s in four events:)
      PS I see also that Sisonke Msimang is director, and she is one very smart lady. So instead of a soppy theme like ‘Love’ at the MWF, the Perth theme is Land, Money, Power and Sex. If it weren’t so hot in Perth in February, I’d be on the first plane over!


  3. Well Lisa over here we have enjoyed the most beautiful summer while our poor neighbours in the east have been through hell. But it is usually the humid time of year and can be uncomfortable. Still the venue is beautiful and it’s like a holiday for me. The topics should create some dynamic and interesting moments. Yippee.


    • I’ve been to Perth a few times, and I love it but always in the winter. The Offspring worked at UWA and I would escape Melbourne’s winter and have a lovely time:) But I loathe the summer, and humidity worst of all. It’s a pity…


  4. As I tweeted, I’m reading this next month, and am looking forward to it. Will come back and comment then.

    Is Perth THAT humid ever? I thought its climate was more Mediterranean?


    • I don’t know… The Offspring used to complain that (LOL unlike Melbourne) Perth’s weather had “no personality”, it was just unrelentingly hot day after day in summer.
      How about that hailstorm in Canberra!!!!


      • I can understand that. We lived in LA area for three years, which has a similar climate I believed. I really liked it – as I love the warmth – but sometimes you do with for a bit of variety and there wasn’t really a lot, I admit! There’s some, particularly I think for those who have always lived there, but for people from more varied climates, not so much is my opinion.

        As for that storm, oh yes. We’re out of town and fortunately we were in one of the areas not affected, but some friends and family have been. Unbelievable. Some of the badly affected areas are areas we visit regularly and cars parked there suffered. The insurance companies are having a very bad year – not to mention people.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It is humid at the end of summer (start of the cyclone season in North West) into autumn. I visit Sydney and lived there for a decade and for me Perth’s climate one of the best. The major disadvantage is the isolation from the rest of the country. And poor Canberra. We had a similar event here some years ago in the month of March. Ah climate. We’re at it’s mercy.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never read a book like it. I also found the second person narration jarring, yet confronting in a positive way. I giggled out loud at the raw vernacular, but also found myself reaching the dictionary for words I hadn’t heard of before. Amazing literary techniques and an interesting way to engage the reader in environmental issues. I would love to read more from Madeline Dickie.


    • Hello Kassi, thank you for your comment:)
      She’s an interesting writer, partly because she’s travelled to interesting places and not just as a FIFO tourist, but getting to know the people and the culture though she never deludes herself that she knows it all the way some writers do. But partly also because she experiments with different kinds of writing. If you haven’t already read it, try Troppo (which I reviewed here, I enjoyed that as well, and my Indonesian book group is going to tackle it later in the year so it will be interesting to see what the Indonesians in the group think of it.


  7. […] to the entrepreneurial interlopers who hired foreigners at the expense of the locals, and in Red Can Origami (2019), the novel explored the tensions around mining for uranium on traditional lands in the […]


  8. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by the book, and teases out some different angles. […]


  9. […] Red Can Origami, by Madelaine Dickie […]


  10. […] Red Can Origami (2019) by Madelaine Dickie […]


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