Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 1), Australia: This country anytime anywhere

Over the past decade, I’d like to think that my reading has broadened in scope. I used to scour and select books from mainstream literary reviews, major award longlists, and end-of-year round-ups. Reading works in translation, turning to smaller independent publishers, seeking more experimental writing, and allowing myself to follow my own idiosyncratic fancies have all served to expand the borders of my attentions (and the limits of my bookshelf real estate). But every now and then it doesn’t hurt to take stock and think: What are the gaps I might want to fill? What voices am I not listening to?

This year, when my friend Lisa of ANZ LitLovers announced her annual Indigenous Literature Week, I immediately thought of a book I picked up in Alice Springs this May: This country anytime anywhere: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing from the Northern Territory. However, if I was going to read and write about an Australian publication, I promised myself that I would balance my efforts with the work of an Indigenous writer from Canada. That review will follow in a few days.

Published in 2010, This country anytime anywhere is a joint project of the NT Writer’s Centre and IAD Press. The initial phase involved workshops and consultations with over 100 Indigenous people—some established writers, but the majority beginners interested in telling their stories. The resulting collection of poems and stories is diverse, featuring writers who range from teenagers to elders and hail from urban, rural, and remote backgrounds. Critically, eight Indigenous languages and English are represented. There are several bilingual offerings and two submissions for which no comfortable English language translator could be found. This is an indication of the precarious state of some of these Indigenous languages.

The range of offerings in this slender volume is impressive—from family histories, to traditional folktales, to poetic expressions of anger, and narrative songs and stories. The variety of styles and subject matter is impressive. Many evoke a simple, unadorned voice. Magical, or more accurately, spiritual elements are often woven into the fabric of mundane, everyday life, speaking to the connection to a heritage and land that extends back centuries, millennia. But, as one might expect, these poems and stories echo sadness, loss and grief. Fallout from the Stolen Generation, the years (1910-1970) when many children were removed from their families, is still very present. The ravages of alcohol, mental illness, injury, and suicide are not ignored. But there are also stories of hope and survival.

One of the most widely known contributors, writer and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, is represented with two bilingual (English/Pitjantjatjara) poems and two stories. “Spirit Gate,” which she describes as a “satirical work of fiction based on hope,” imagines the sudden disappearance of all the Aboriginal people from Alice Springs. The main character, Trevor, is awakened in his Melbourne home by the disembodied voice of his grandfather. The Song he hears is a summoning and he promptly leaves for Alice. Light-skinned, he arrives without attracting attention, to a community distraught by the disappearances. At a café, he listens to the clientele—“artists, social and youth workers, hippie-types and government ‘yuppie experts’”—debating the strange circumstances:

Snippets of conversation confirmed that all Aboriginal people had vacated the township region about a week ago. There had been no warning of the exile, no specific signs to the exodus, and most people had failed to notice the blackfellas had gone for several days. People had just assumed they’d gone for another funeral, or collecting royalty money somewhere.

Trevor learns that the non-Indigenous population feels “jilted and hurt.” Business and the tourist trade are threatened. Unruly behaviour on the streets and drinking on public lawns indicate that the Dry Town rules are being violated. It is a world turned upside down. Though the tone is tongue-in-cheek, Cobby Eckermann is taking a pointed stab at the industries that benefit from the Aborginal presence. In the end, the protagonist goes out to join his own people who have gathered beyond a spirit “Gate” to be renewed and regain the dignity they have lost.

Having just been out and spent time in Alice Springs and beyond (observing the town as an outsider but having an opportunity to engage with those who live and work there), this and a couple of the other pieces set in the community had an extra resonance. The desert imagery was also especially poignant for me—even after a short stay, the land gets into your system. The natural world is a common theme in much the poetry in this collection. For example, “Red Desert” by Maureen Nampijinpa O’Keefe opens:

See the thorny lizard walking along the red desert dunes.
See the snake slithering across the red desert sand.
See how high the eagle flies, hovering above the desert.

The spinifex glistens golden in the sun,
as the desert winds blow softly amongst the ghost gums.
See the leaves swaying to the desert wind.
Listen to the leaves rustle as the squawking of the white cuckatoos
breaks the desert’s silence.

This collection offers an interesting insight into contemporary writing from the Northern Territory. The poetry tends to have a plaintive, political undertone, while the prose pieces showcase the legacy of the long storytelling traditions of the Indigenous cultures. However, these are very much stories of the 21st century. And they are often brutal. Of note is “The Tree” (Gloria Daylight Corliss), a short piece that shifts between a third person narrative recounting a man’s memories of playing, camping and fishing beneath a large banyan tree, and a first person tale of personal loss and environmental degradation. What begins with a boy playing on the branches of the tree ends with the grown man hanging from the same tree. The urban-set “The Irony of that…” (Jessie Bonson) is a darkly playful tale of a teen-aged would-be writer who creates horrifying scenarios only to routinely erase them: “Edit – Select All – Delete.” But woven into the tapestry of her fantastic scenes are the very real domestic terrors that haunt her and her mother.

For the participants in this project, writing is healing. Since I traveled to central Australia to take part in a fundraising event in support of an Indigenous Women’s Council, this collection (which happens to feature female writers by a ratio of about 3 to 1) is a fitting complement to that incredible experience.

Consumed by the landscape: The Plains by Gerald Murnane

There is a certain futility in setting out to write a review of Gerald Murnane’s classic novel, The Plains. Like the world in which it is set, it eludes concise description, or, rather, any attempt to contain it fails to capture its rare and strange beauty.  An otherness is apparent from the earliest pages. The narrator’s account of his arrival in the vast, open lands of the central region of Australia is measured, performative. He is a filmmaker who originally traveled to the plains to gather research for a project titled The Interior. Looking back, twenty years on, he recalls his first evening in the town he has chosen as a base:

Late that night I stood at a third-storey window of the largest hotel in the town. I looked past the regular pattern of streetlights towards the dark country beyond. A breeze came in warm gusts from the north. I leaned into the surges of air that rose up from the nearest miles of grassland. I composed my face to register a variety of powerful emotions. And I whispered words that might have serve a character in a film at the moment when he realised he had found where he belonged.

He has come prepared with a stack of folders bulging with notes relating to the script he is working on, confident that “no one has seen the view of the plains that I am soon to disclose.”

The landscape—definitive and incomprehensible—shapes the singular society that has evolved there. But this is an allegorical, alternative Australia. Wealth is tied to the ownership of land, longstanding and rooted in the history of exploration. But it is maintained through a currency of ideas. Every “cultivated plainsman” has an ever expanding library to accommodate the growing disciplines of thought and speculation that occupy this idiosyncratically intellectual world.

Our protagonist takes time to listen to other plainsmen and build an understanding of the history, trends, and competing concepts of the plains and their relation to the coastal areas (or “Outer Australia”) that have come and gone. It is a complex mythology. His goal is to secure the patronage of a landowner who will support his work on his film project. He succeeds, or so it seems, but the cost, if in fact that is how he ultimately would see it, is extracted gradually and steadily over time.

The prose is intoxicating. Words seem to emerge out of the shimmering stillness. The narrator’s simple account carries a sense of foreboding that continually builds and dissipates. He describes a society obsessed with its own arcane introspection, so inward looking that the direct light is a distraction, where experience of the world is mediated, filtered, and reduced to minute, intricate exploration of the smallest details isolated and abstracted from the whole. Relation to the land is one of primacy of the ideal over the real. The landscape of the plains defines the thinking, aesthetics, and values of the inhabitants—shapes their arts and sciences—but the plainsmen themselves rarely travel and never speak of life as a journey. They are, rather, more concerned with time and memory disassociated from physical experience:

Of course, the literature of the plains abounds in accounts of childhood. Whole volumes have expounded in profuse detail the topography of countries or continents as they were descried under faltering sunlight in the only hour when they were said to exist—some fortunate interval between almost identical days before they were engulfed by events too trivial even to be remembered. And one of the disciplines that most nearly resembles what is called philosophy in far parts of Australia is known to have originated in the comparative study of scenes recalled by one observer alone and accounts of those same scenes by the same observer after he had acquired the skill to attempt a fitting description of them.

Murnane is a difficult, but compulsively readable, writer. He falls quite comfortably into the company of Kafka, Calvino, and Borges, but with his own distinctive (and essentially Australian) quality. He is also slyly funny. At one point, after his would-be filmmaker has been on the plains for over a decade, still no further advanced on his plans for his project but continuing to fill file after file with notes and research, there is the intimation of a potential attraction between him and his patron’s wife. The latter comes to the library to read, day after day, sitting near the shelves where the philosophical tomes dealing the question of Time are kept. As an energy seems to develop between them, unspoken in this silent space, the narrator contemplates the possible ways he might let his feelings be known—write a book she might read, write a book and catalogue but not shelve it, and so on. In the meantime, more texts about Time continue to arrive, filling up the space between them. Ultimately, his intentions proceed no further:

I may take pleasure occasionally in the sight of her so close to the crowded shelves that the pallor of her face is momentarily tinted by a fair multiple glow from the more hectic of the jacketed volumes around her. But I myself prefer not to be seen in the places given over to Time, no matter how nearly I might seem to approach the plainsman’s view of all that might have happened to me. I have a fear, perhaps unreasonable, of finding myself beguiled by images of what almost came to pass. Unlike a true plainsman, I do not care to inspect to closely those other lives lived by men who might have been myself.

If you have lived in the plains, as I have, this novel will have a special resonance. You will recognize the ineffable qualities of space and light (although for those of us in the northern hemisphere, there are southern peculiarities—warm winds don’t come from the north here). What it means is another matter. It is a tribute to the book’s shifting opaque character, that you sense you cannot quite observe it in the right light. But this is an intelligent, provocative, fascinating work. For an Australian reader there are likely themes others might not notice and yet it does not matter. This is a book that has to be experienced to be appreciated and, I would argue, best met without preconceptions.

Nothing will quite prepare you anyway.

Last minute solstice check-in: The gift of the outback

With one hour left, in my timezone, to the longest day of the year, I have decided to forego the solstice updates I have written for the past three years. On this day in 2014, I found myself unable to work and facing the fact that I had become very ill under extreme workplace stress. A job I loved was no longer mine and years of living a deeply closeted existence left me without a close friend to turn to.

Three years later, I have a job interview tomorrow morning for a position that, should I be fortunate to get it, would involve outreach and advocacy within and beyond the LGBTQ community.

When I left for Australia in May I carried three personal objectives. One was to challenge myself physically. The second was to open channels to the grief I am carrying. The third was to seriously reflect on my ongoing disconnection from queer community. Each one of these goals was met, albeit in ways I had not anticipated. I returned changed in small but profound ways.

I came back carrying the outback in my soul. There is hardly a day that I wake up without dreaming about being in the red centre. It is in my system and the experience of the place and the people has coloured the way I see and want to live here, back at home.

Today, on summer solstice in the north, winter in the south, that is all I want or need to say. Except that, appropriately, this is also Aboriginal Peoples Day (renamed Indigenous Peoples Day) here in Canada.

The weight words carry: Napoleon’s Road’s by David Brooks

I read Napoleon’s Roads, Australian writer David Brooks’ most recent collection of short fiction, as I made my way to Australia a little over a month ago. Looking back through the pages of this book to gather my thoughts to write these words, certain adjectives keep floating through my mind: shimmering, translucent, affecting, reflective, wise. There are sixteen tales here, written over a span of nearly twenty years: fragmented journeys, fables, and allegories that slip through the contemporary “real” world, wander imaginary landscapes, and explore the inner realms of the heart and mind. Taken as a whole, these stories reflect a few key themes, rather like light refracted through a multi-faceted crystal—ideas moving outward, layered and recombined to create a series of experiences that make for a most satisfying travel companion.

His prelude, “Paths to the City,” sets the tone, asking:

Why do we write? What are we groping for? Are words able to penetrate the night? Are they able to go down the road we only half recall, along which we see only our own back receding in a heat-shimmer of memory? Can they truly take paths we have not ourselves taken? Bring back the lost? Such weights they carry, these things that arrive as if unbidden, or that sometimes we think we summon from nowhere, you would think they were beasts of burden, each line a caravan, setting out by moonlight over pale trackless sand, guided by half-forgotten stars.

 What we can know, what we can say about what we know, and what is better left unknown, are questions that surface, explicitly and implicitly, throughout this collection. Brooks allows for gaps and spaces in his narratives, reinforced by the sharp, broken, fragmented style of many of the pieces. There is an evanescent quality that lingers, leaving a sense that many of the stories cannot be rewound and retold for fear of crushing them under the weight of pedantic description.

Many of his stories have a fable-like quality. There are echoes of Calvino, Borges, Kafka. But some of the most interesting pieces are multi-leveled meditations that spin out from a central subject in a sequence of fragmented reflections. The title story takes the long, straight tree-lined roads constructed in the French countryside under Napoleon. The narrator travels along these roads with his daughter, his account framed and interrupted by reflections on the history of the roads, their relation to the landscape, and memories from his own past. At one point he asks, “How to say that these roads are about what is not road, this text is about what it is not?” This a is a sentiment that resurfaces again and again—how much of any one of these stories is about what it is not?

The same fragmentary form is used to powerful effect in “Kabul.” The city the narrator is in exists in the past and the present at once. It is a place of horror and violence. It is the people he encounters. It is more:

It is not always the body, not only. Kabul is within us, but it is also a landscape of the days, a positive to their negatives, a trace. Weeks marked by craters, explosions of shells. Months marked by lies and betrayal. A field of engagements, tracks leading inland. (There, on those ridges, a hide-out. And if you could get to it, a view of the city. The minarets, the domes, convoys in or out. The land dry. The puffs of smoke where the shells hit. Or in winter, when it is covered with snow …)

In a series of single paragraphs, set apart by font and font size, a multi-dimensional, experiential vision of a city under siege is constructed.

Cityscapes are important. The allegorical story “A.” is an guide to the City, as an ideal and a real destination, a place we are ever moving towards—borne of our memories and our dreams: “… A. is distinctive, also entirely one’s own.” Calling to mind Calvino’s Invisible Cities, A. is “a different city for everyone who reaches it, a different memory for everyone who leaves it.” In the hauntingly beautiful “The Dead,” an angelic experience of the City is imagined. Wandering the streets, the angels visit the City of the Dead and the City of the Ruin, but again, the negative is evoked:

The City is what the City was. If we are taught to see by the stories we see or hear or read, if our vision is always the product of texts – the texts we have seen, and those seen by those who have written what we have seen – then the City that is is a hole, an absence, a possibility, beyond us as we ourselves are, as our friends are, our lovers. An edge which we think we glimpse through accident, irruption, exposure.

Reflections on time, memory, and loss also reverberate through this collection. The fragmentary piece “Grief” is the story of the death of an old woman, a relative of the narrator’s partner. It’s about the pain of losing a loved one. And, because grief has its strange trajectories, it’s also about a cat that keeps entering the narrator’s thoughts. The fractured narrative captures the disjointed experiences, hitting, at moments, the raw essence of grief:

A nausea perhaps. The overwhelming weight of being. But also something more, surely. The heart was wrenched, as if something had prised it open. The opposite of nausea. Not closed in by things, but offered them, in their depth. Or drawn by them, rushed into them. As if one were being sucked out of oneself. A force. A kind of gravity. The cat at its centre, there in the boot-room.

An entirely different mood is evoked in “Lost Pages,” a wonderful piece that employs a wide range of fonts and formats to play out a writer’s fear of losing those middle-of-the-night ideas, the hastily recorded texts, the unbacked-up electronic musings, and the memories that aging brain cells can no longer contain. There is unlikely to be a writer who can’t relate.

If, at the outset, Brooks asks why we write and questions the power of words, he comes at an answer most directly in the penultimate piece in this collection: “A Traveller’s Tale.” The writer who is about to begin a long story is, he suggests, akin to someone setting off on a voyage. The preparatory measures one would take for a journey and the nervousness that one feels about the uncertainties ahead are played out as the writer sits down with pen and paper or computer. And, although the technicalities of this preparation are typically removed from the finished narrative (except in this case, the one we are reading), the nervousness cannot be entirely erased because the journey, the journey of the storyteller, is too important, the heart too involved:

And when I say the heart, of course, I’m not sure that I’ll be understood – well, no, what I mean to say is that, to be understood, I feel I need to explain that what I have in mind when I say the heart is a very durable thing that stretched over a whole lifetime, that is one of the most stressed and yet most constant, toughest, most durable organs of the body; the heart that has to get up in the morning and take up the often heavy – often very heavy, often too heavy – burden of being, let’s call it, and carry it, somehow, to the day’s other end.

As he goes on to examine the emotional challenges of the journey, from the beginning of a story to the ending, he will touch at the heart of what words, memories and experience—the tools the writer must rely on—can accomplish. The nervousness is never resolved, and, he decides, the tale he is trying to tell is untellable.

But that can’t be the end. After all, there are fifteen other rich and varied tales that prove him wrong. Brooks is a consummate storyteller. Perhaps it’s all that nervous energy that makes his stories shimmer.

Another year of roughghosts has passed, my blog is three years old

“be a ghost gum rising from the waterhole in each heart”
— Rico Craig

Birthday Waterhole, in the photo above, is perhaps the most stunning and isolated campsite we stayed at along the Larapinta Trail. The line, quoted from Rico Craig’s newly released collection Bone Ink, seems to me to capture so much of the past three weeks—from my own peculiar challenges with walking (or more often, not walking) the trail, through to lunch with the poem’s author on my final full day in Australia. But more about all of that later. The key word at the moment is birthday.

A few days ago, WordPress kindly reminded me that my blog is three years old.

The past three years have been marked by tremendous growth for myself as a writer, amidst loss, trauma, and great adventure. What continues to amaze me is the degree to which the internet, for all its shortcomings, is able to connect people across the miles. Over this past year, many of my casual blogging and Twitter contacts have grown to form a rewarding and productive creative environment that I value very deeply. But it is always a special treat to meet an online friend face to face.

My recent trip to Australia was instigated by an invitation from a fellow book blogger to join his annual “Larapinta Extreme Walk” in support of the NPY Women’s Council in the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, I arrived with what soon developed into a severe head cold that still lingers, tinged once again with jet lag, as I write this. I’m still processing my disappointment at not even being able to know how I might have managed the trail under healthier conditions, but the experience was incredible and invaluable nonetheless, and everyone was so friendly and supportive. I will write about it at greater length in a few weeks time and share more images of the incredible desert landscape.

After two weeks in central Australia I spent a few days in each Melbourne and Sydney. I met with five online contacts during that time, including a long-time friend from the Pentax Forum (a camera as obscure, relatively speaking, as my literary interests tend to be). Every single encounter was wonderful in its own way. Strangely, online banter clears away the space for good solid conversation of the sort one is often at loss to find in the communities we regularly exist in. Naturally, a strong common interest tends to set the course.

So today, as I look back on three years of blogging—and my subsequent forays into Twitter and to a lesser degree, Facebook—I am especially cognizant of how much warmer and richer my world has become. And not only have I been publishing my own original writing beyond this space, but when I suffered a series of losses last year with the deaths of my parents and a dear friend, the outreach of sympathy and support far exceeded anything I received in real life. Which is both heartwarming and sad when you think about it.

I won’t make any predictions or set any goals for roughghosts in the year to come. I don’t want to be reckless or foolhardy in my ambitions. This blog is, first and foremost, a forum where I can call attention to books I read, without necessarily indulging in the rigour I apply to critical reviews for publication elsewhere. It also provides a space to exercise my writing skills and toss out ideas or work through emotions that are troubling me. The beauty of a blog is that you can directly track the response and reaction to your work—you have a sense of the book reviews that draw readers and the musings that resonate with others. That feedback is vital. I imagine that this will remain the primary purpose of this project.

At the moment though, I have four books I’d like to write about here, and a review to prepare for Numéro Cinq. And after months of battling writer’s block, I find that words are starting to flow again, so I am hoping to carve out some time to write and work on ongoing projects of my own.

And that seems as good a way as any to celebrate three years of roughghosts.

 

* Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

Looking ahead to adventure, challenge, and healing

As I write this, it is mid-afternoon on Saturday, April 15, and it’s +3C with light snow. I am truly quite finished with this endless, last gasp of winter. In one month’s time I will be in Australia (where it will already be the 16th and, if all goes well, the “extreme walk” into the outback I have traveled to take part in will be well under way). I am excited and a little nervous about the challenge ahead, but above all I am looking forward to being “off the grid” for the better part of two weeks with plenty of time to process some of the internal baggage I’ve been carrying as I undertake this long and demanding journey into a landscape I never imagined I would have the opportunity to experience.

Some of my regular readers may know that two years ago, following a trip to South Africa, I nearly lost my life. I should have known better, but I was sorely ill-prepared for the effects of extended travel on planes and buses. I did everything wrong and failed to recognize the warning signs of impending danger. After surviving this critical event, I found myself afraid of risking extensive physical activity, even after receiving a clean bill of health on all counts. This is, I learned, a not uncommon, if misguided, response.

One of my first longer training sessions.
Better weather earlier this week. Did not last.

Naturally, I ended up hopelessly out of shape. In pushing myself into an enthusiastic training regime earlier this year, I soon found myself with an inflamed bursa and torn meniscus on my right knee. Cue the physiotherapist. My knee has responded very well—I am walking without pain for the first time in months and now, if only the weather would cooperate just a little, I will be as good to go as I am likely to be.

Which will hopefully be good enough.

This little venture is a mere 223 km/11 day hike over mountain ranges. What could possibly go wrong? (Don’t answer that!) If you are interested, I invite you to check out the site—the Larapinta Extreme Walk is a fundraising event created by fellow book blogger Tony Messenger (Messenger’s Booker) in support of a vital Aboriginal women’s initiative. Donations can be made if desired; every little bit helps.

Where I’m heading to. From: http://www.larapintaextremewalk.com.au/

As much as I am looking forward to this experience as an opportunity to reflect, grieve, journal and, with luck, open up the writer’s block that has dogged me these past few months, I am also very excited to have the opportunity for some serious bookish conversation along the way. And before I head home I will have a few days each in Melbourne and Sydney, where I already have tentative plans to catch up with other readers and literary-minded folk, as well as an online photography friend I have known for years but never met.

So wish me well as I continue to train, and as I get the reading, reviews, and writing I’m presently committed to completed in advance of my trip.