13.10.21

The Meeting of the Waters

 

This is the third time I've read Margaret Simons' account of the Hindmarsh Island affair, The Meeting of the Waters. It's a long and complicated story, and it all happened over twenty years ago -- I'm not sure if many people retain a clear memory of what went on. Essentially, developers were seeking to build a bridge between the South Australian town of Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island at the mouth of the Murray River, where they wanted to set up a marina. The local Aboriginal community (principally the older women) were dismayed at the idea of a bridge, because this trampled on the sacred nature of this particular site; however, the precise knowledge about the stories that made the site sacred were deeply secret. Eventually another group of women emerged who denied any knowledge of the sacred secrets. The original group were accused of fabricating 'secret women's business' (that's where the phrase came from!) and after much legal and political wrangling, the bridge was built.

There is so much meat in this story, which deals with the clash of two incompatible cultures, different kinds of power, respect and knowledge and pain.

... it is like an opera. There are so many voices, all singing their own songs with such conviction. the emotions are huge, the narrative grand, almost everyone is infected with a sense of wounded righteousness, and sometimes it seems like a thousand small tragedies harnessed together.

The case dragged on for years, through court cases, inquiries and a Royal Commission. It ripped a community apart, destroyed relationships and ruined careers. The phrase 'secret women's business' was used to discredit Indigenous heritage, despite the last inquiry finding that the stories were not invented. There was a fundamental conflict between a Western European culture that ostensibly values transparency, openness, an adversarial legal system where the strongest argument and the loudest voice often wins, and an Indigenous culture that prizes sacred knowledge by restricting who can know what, and keeping the most precious information secret. As Simons points out:

Information follows the lines of power. Aboriginal cultures make this explicit. Western European culture... likes to pretend that it isn't necessarily so.

It was difficult for politicians and judges to understand that the women were prepared to withdraw evidence and keep their knowledge secret, even at the cost of losing their case and the bridge going ahead. Protecting the sacred secrets was ultimately more important than protecting the country they were linked to. The women insisted that the part of the story they were prepared to share should be kept in a sealed envelope, to be read only by a few women if absolutely necessary. But a judge held that Australian law required that the relevant government minister himself must be able to read the material. (He could have appointed a woman to act for him for this purpose, but he refused to do so.) In desperation, the women gradually revealed more and more; but it was never enough.

There was no recognition of the fact that all Aboriginal women in the same community might not have access to the same level of knowledge. Indeed, most of the 'dissident' women didn't actually deny that such sacred knowledge existed, only that they didn't know about it, but such subtleties were lost in the media outcry about 'lies' and hysteria over land rights. Part of the sacredness of the area centred around the resemblance of the area of the river mouth to a woman's body. Some politicians scoffed at this notion: how could traditional Aboriginal people have seen this resemblance without access to an aerial view? This argument is plainly nonsense to anyone who has seen the map-like conception of country displayed in Aboriginal artworks.

You'd hope that our understanding has improved in the years that have passed since. When I was first researching for Crow Country, this book taught me a lot about how Indigenous cultures work, how they intersect and can fail to connect with white expectations, and the searing pain that this disconnect and misunderstanding can cause. It was the beginning of what has been a long and rewarding journey toward a deeper understanding.

10.10.21

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

 

I acquired this book from my good friend Chris, and I almost laughed when I started reading it, because if you were writing a book calculated to appeal to Chris, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox would be that book. For a start, it's set in Scotland, Chris's ancestral home and a country where she lived for several years; and it's also concerned with madness, and the way notions of madness and hysteria have been used to oppress women, which is a topic which has fascinated her for decades.

Our contemporary protagonist, Iris, discovers to her dismay that she has a elderly relative whose existence she has never known about: Esme Lennox, her grandmother's sister, who has been held in a mental hospital for over sixty years, since she was just sixteen years old. Through Esme's memories and the dementia-affected musings of Iris's grandmother Kitty, we gradually learn the story of how Esme ended up in Cauldstone, uncovering some dark secrets along the way.

I haven't read any of Maggie O'Farrell's fiction before but The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is well-crafted story-telling. I wasn't a massive fan of the subplot concerning Iris's step-brother Alex, which I felt didn't add much to the central story, but otherwise I really enjoyed this novel.

7.10.21

The Holiday Murders


Robert Gott's The Holiday Murders (together with The Autumn Murders, The Orchard Murders, The Port Fairy Murders) are a kind of parallel series to the comic Will Powers Fiascos. Also murder stories set in wartime Australia, the Murders series is much more serious and darker in tone.

We have a different set of protagonists: Inspector Titus Lambert, overlooked Constable Helen Lord and insecure detective Joe Sable. I appreciated the appalling parallels with the present day -- the rise of ugly fascism, the toxic masculinity of the disenfranchised, the simmering anti-Semitism, the atmosphere of crisis that serves to veil or to excuse actions that might be unforgivable in ordinary times.

Robert Gott is a terrific writer and he does a wonderful job of weaving in his period detail with the twists and turns of the mystery. However, in this book I found the sheer grisly cruelty of the murders themselves so horrific that I couldn't enjoy reading about them. I think I prefer my murders more on the cosy side! So I'm not sure, despite their strengths, that I'll be retuning to the rest of the series.

4.10.21

Position Doubtful


 What an incredible reading experience this was! Belinda Probert alerted me to Kim Mahood's Position Doubtful in her own book, Imaginative Possession, and I'm so glad I tracked it down. Probert's book was a  reflective musing on her experience of trying to belong in what she experienced as an alien landscape; Position Doubtful covers similar territory, but in a more rigorous fashion and from a different perspective.

Mahood grew up on a station in the remote Tanami desert; she is now an artist and poet who draws on her own memories, uneasy sense of place, and collaborations with Indigenous friends and fellow artists to inform her creative work. (Initially I thought Mahood sounded like a Middle Eastern name, but it's actually Irish in origin.) She is deeply reflective and analytical about her art and her relationships with her Aboriginal colleagues. She is particularly close to the older women of the communities of Balgo and Mulan, who share her memories of station days, and she is unsentimental about her ambiguous place in the towns. By virtue of her childhood, she has a skin name and thus a role in the complex genealogy of the local people, a trusted confidant and friend; but she is also a kartiya, a white fella, an outsider, a resource to be made use of. 

Mahood traces her own personal history and the troubled history of the region through map-making projects that involve the whole community, seeing the landscape from multiple points of view, overlaying stock routes and traditional Dreaming sites. She notes that navigation, memory and motion are all located in the same area of the brain:

It is common now to treat the journey as metaphor, but there was a time when the journey and the traveller and the story were the same thing... There was a time when we walked into consciousness through our journeys, when our awareness was brand new... Maybe this is how language began, as a journey and a poem.

Mahood notes a shifting relationship to country in some of the younger generation, partly as a result of mining royalties:

There is an underlying tension that attaches to "ownership," a term that seems to have displaced the older concept of custodianship. It would be interesting to trace that shift, to discover the point at which the subtleties of meaning were transferred from the emphasis on looking after and being responsible for country, to the more Western inflection of owning and gaining benefit from it.

There is so much food for thought in Mahood's account of her twenty-year plus experience of working and visiting these communities. Position Doubtful is highly recommended.