Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2021

Imaginative Possession by Belinda Probert

Tucked up in the LH corner of the book cover, Helen Garner sums up the impact of this book so well:

‘A wonderfully friendly and likeable book.  It put me in a good mood for days, and taught me a thousand important things.’

A friendly book.  A likeable book.  These are not words we hear too often about the books we read, but in this case they’re true. I’ve been reading Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession at lunch time, a chapter each day, and as I’ve bonded with the author through the words on the page, it’s furnished me with interesting things to think about and new ways of looking at my world.

You might remember from a previous post when this book was a giveaway from Upswell Press, that I liked the subtitle Imaginative Possession, Learning to Live in the Antipodes because it makes it clear that migration takes effort and humility.  As a newcomer in many places, a migrant in others, and an outsider in all of them, I know this, and am sometimes impatient with the current narrative about migration being so much a matter of pain, loss and resentment against the host country.  Migrants, as distinct from refugees, choose to come here, and they have an entitlement to go home again if Australia doesn’t suit them.  When refugees can’t go home because it’s not safe, and so many displaced people around the world have nowhere to go at all, it’s a privilege to have a secure homeland.

Humility is not just about recognising that extraordinary privilege, it’s also about recognising a responsibility to learn about the new country. Born in England, Belinda Probert has the humility to recognise this, and this book explains her efforts to learn about Australia, and her enthusiasm for the journey.  Over many years, and through periods of time in Victoria and WA, she explores landscapes; plant, animal and bird life; the concept of distance, space and scale; and Indigenous culture and storytelling.  She recounts amusing anecdotes about her first bullant bite and about learning not to be sentimental about some of the creatures on her bush block.  She tries and fails to develop some expertise in identifying species of eucalypts, but has more expertise with birds because there’s an App for that.  She wrestles (as we all do) with the issue of native plants versus exotics, the topic becoming more urgent than academic as climate change limits what can survive into the future.  She reads voraciously, everything from Don Watson’s The Bush, to Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.

In the last part of Imaginative Possession, Probert tackles the issue of ‘belonging,’ and what it takes to ‘belong’.  For her, grown to adulthood with English concepts of landscape, becoming comfortable with Australian landscapes matters, though it’s hard to do because they vary so much across the country, and here in Victoria, even across the state.  For others — although aware of and concerned about Australia’s colonial history and its impact on Indigenous people — belonging is rooted in social relations, not geography or history.  It can be about getting used to the night sky being different and finding the Southern Cross.  But it can also be about ‘getting’ the Australian sense of humour, or giving birth to their first Australian child…

One of Probert’s friends, Marivic from Cuba, says ‘she belongs to Australia because she can take part in its conversation and because she believes in its virtues.’  She insists that…

…her sense of belonging has ‘not much to do with gum trees, light or space’, but rests on her sense of Australia as a ‘decent society’ — a society which people who have not seen ‘the horrors of the rest of the world’ fail properly to appreciate. (p.152)

Another friend, Manik from India, belongs in Australia…

…’because she has consciously grafted herself here; because she likes the look of the land; because it gives her space as a non-Anglo-Celtic Australian; because she feels accepted by its people; because she holds a commitment to its democracy; because of her memories and because occasionally… she feels an ache for the land’ from her Canberra suburb.  Like Marivic, she knows that Australia must be multi-centred so that everyone can belong, and thinks it is a mistake to place too much emphasis on memories of place.  The key to belonging, for her, is social connectedness. (p.143)

She says that you can belong ‘by intellectual engagement, through affinity, through one’s acceptance by the place, by the local people; and one can belong through contribution to the place.’  

The only thing I would add to that is that ‘belonging’ is not something that is decided by someone else.  It is a state of mind.

Highly recommended.

Author: Belinda Probert
Title: Imaginative Possession, Learning to live in the Antipodes
Cover design by Peter Long
Publisher: Upswell Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9780645076301, pbk., 173 pages
Source: Personal subscription to Upswell Publishing

 


Responses

  1. Oh, I have THOUGHTS but I need to read the book first. My own experience is the reverse of the author’s so I’m really looking forward to diving into this one and making comparisons.

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    • Yes, it’s that kind of book. I love what she writes about the great landscape writers like Winton…and then, gently musing, wonders if he is a masculinist eco-warrior? I love it when she talks about the problems of ‘privileging’ landscape and country in the narrative about belonging, because there are so many Australians who ‘belong’ and yet don’t have any particular attachment to its landscapes.
      #DuckingFor Cover I like the green grass and trees parts, but not the red dust parts, and actually I’d rather be indoors anyway. Is this because I’m an import, or is it because I’m like lots of people who think long straight roads of nothing are boring?
      OTOH I do think that European trees en masse are terribly boring… all those straight trunks! Our trees have *attitude.*

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  2. Oh I think I need this … I’ll come back when I’ve read it …

    I’ve just seen your response to Kimbofo. It reminds me of my contrary youth – which I might have mentioned on my blog at sometimes – which was, on road trips, saying to my parents “hate trees, love bumpy roads”. You can guess what my parents were saying! These days I don’t find much about road trips boring – and when there isn’t much, though usually there is something to interest me, I love the peace that some time in emptiness brings.

    But, you are right, Australian trees do have “attitude”. That’s a great description.

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    • You will not only love it, you’ll like the way it’s written because you will be able to dip into it from time to time when Life is getting in the way of sustained reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] just read Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession, I have to quarrel with the last part of The Monthly’s summation which claims that […]

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  4. A likeable book–what a thing. Heheh
    Am very curious, as the theme of belonging is a fundamentally important one for me!

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    • It’s not for me, because I learned to do without it in childhood. But I think it is for a lot of people…

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