Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Book Group and That Deadman Dance

Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance (Picador 2010)

Having enjoyed the movie Red Dog in spite of its erasure of Aboriginal people from the Pilbara, I was glad to turn to the Book Group’s pick of the month for a bit of counterpoint. Sadly, I turned to it too late to finish it before the group met over soup, bread and cheese on 17 August. So here we are, reversing the usual order of my Book Group posts: first the meeting and then the book.

The meeting:
We had a good turn-up, and more than half had read the whole book. All but one of us were big fans, and the dissenter – who was about a third of the way through – was prepared to keep an open mind. I’d read only 110 pages or so myself, but at that point was finding it exhilarating. Discussion was animated, emphatic, mostly good humoured.  I won’t try to summarise beyond saying that there was a shared sense that the novel made us see the British settlement of Western Australia with fresh eyes. Also the whaling industry, but I hadn’t read to that point, so tried not to listen. I had read the short chapter where a convict who has been speared by Noongars in payback for wrongs done by someone else – though smarting with the injustice, he understands that it’s necessary for the whites to accept the payback without further retaliation if there is to be peace in the small settlement. In terms of the plot, he feels like a powder keg waiting to explode, but I love Kim Scott’s open hearted portrayal of him as a complex individual (as opposed, say, to the equivalent lower-class ‘bad whites’ of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River). No one would engage with me on this line of discussion because they didn’t want to give the plot away – true gentlemen every one.

The subject of Red Dog was raised, and those who’d seen it were even less impressed than I was, regarding the praise lavished on it by Margaret, David and Julie as symptomatic of misguided and misleading advocacy for the local product. We had brief but sharp differences of opinion about The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) and The Riders (Tim Winton), and some disparagement of The Unknown Terrorist (Richard Flanagan) and the literal minded TV adaptation of Cloud Street (Winton again).

I came away looking forward to the rest of the book.

After the meeting:
I took nearly two more weeks to finish, but that’s no reflection on the book. (See previous post for partial explanation of my reduced reading time.) While I was reading it I  heard on a podcast of the Book Show that Melbourne University currently doesn’t offer a course in Australian literature – one enterprising student has organised monthly lectures by poets and others who are willing to talk for free (apparently without input of any kind from the academic staff!). One justification for this state of affairs is that students in general think Aus Lit is boring, conservative and ‘white’, so the course wouldn’t be popular enough to justify itself. I guess this is what happens when the profit motive holds sway in education. But, stepping down from my media-generated-outrage soapbox, I’d have to concede that That Deadman Dance does make some other much-praised Aust fic look fairly timid and vanilla. It tackles the same general area as Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers: the first, hopeful contact between Aboriginal Australians and white invaders and the seeds of the subsequent tragic genocidal history. Where  Clendinnen wrote history, excavating the journals of early settlers in Sydney to reconstruct a hypothetical account from the point of view of the Indigenous Australians, Kim Scott tells what his narrator calls a ‘simple story of Bobby and his few friends’ about the settlement in south west Western Australia, confidently taking us into the minds of black and white, young and old, male and female. I’d be surprised if he hadn’t read the Clendinnen book, but it’s very much its own work: joyful, funny, superhumanly broad in its sympathies, challenging, vivid and in the end heartbreaking.

The central story tells of Wabalanginy/Bobby, a  Noongar man born after the arrival of  whites, who finds friendship among the new arrivals, studies them, at times acts as an intermediary, is virtually adopted into a white family but remains firmly connected with his Noongar community. He’s a brilliant character – admired as a clever mimic by the whites and held in awe for his artistry in song and dance by the Noongars. His engagement with both cultures is enacted beautifully: a number of times we’re taken inside his way of perceiving and responding to the world in wonderfully lyrical writing.

At one stage, the desecration of a grave is described as ‘deliberate and careless all at once’, a phrase that resonates like a gong through the last, darkening chapters, when the logic of capitalism and colonialism asserts itself, and we gradually lose any sense of the inner lives of the settlers as they become more completely incomprehensible to Bobby and appear to forget the almost reasonable relationships of the recent past: deliberate and careless, intentional and oblivious.

Maybe one day even the hallowed halls of Melbourne University will encourage its students to read this, and other books that will help them wrap their imaginations around the history they inherit.

I once more smell the dew and rain …

… and relish blogging.

Three main things have kept me away from the blog for such a long time, all of them involving earning of money and all of them now done with and money all but in the bank. All of them were interesting, but I’m only going to talk about one: I was a collector for the Census.

The Census Collector’s Sacred Oath of Confidentiality guarantees that I won’t subject you to any gossip of even the most abstract kind, but I can tell you that it was a very interesting and – actually – heartening experience. I was variously hailed as ‘the Census man’, mostly greeted warmly both when dropping off material and when picking them up. The vast majority of the people I had dealings with were either pleased or uncomplainingly willing to be part of the Census: ‘I want them to know I was here.’ Once or twice I thought I was being fobbed off when someone told me to come back ‘on the weekend’ or said they ‘should be able to get it done by Monday’ (this was on a Thursday), but each time I was smilingly proved wrong.

I started out feeling like an intruder in people’s lives: ‘Here are your forms. How many males and how many females will be here next Tuesday night? Just you and your partner? So that would be one of each, or … ?’ I progressed to a sense of myself as a personification of our interconnectedness: ‘Here’s your chance to contribute .’ And then towards the end as I was going back for the fourth or fifth time and finding no one home or forms not yet completed (‘Sorry, mate, we’ve been busy/haven’t got around to it/lost the form’), I realised I was the little man from the government.

I was offered one cup of tea, told two life stories, given three helpful suggestions for improving the census (all involving the need for more questions), reproached once for not knowing the completed form had been left under the mat, attacked by no savage dogs. I walked in on one tragedy, in a  household that gave me a form with good grace. I left my phone number when I didn’t make contact, and had half a dozen calls or text messages that all made life easier. It was a sustained reminder that we are a cooperative species, that Australians, at least on my four blocks, are clear that at least some government agencies are to be trusted.

I’ve handed over my record book and passed in my ID card. There are no longer stacks of blank and filled forms taking up shelf space in the spare bedroom. I’m back to being a private citizen. The pay isn’t great, but I recommend the experience. Keep your eyes peeled for the job ads in 2016.

Pathetic blogger

Pathetic, that’s me. But just to keep some kind of action happening on these pages, here’s a snap from my local supermarket which is a bit of an object lesson in the importance of line breaks.

I really thought they were offering a new kind of schnitzel made of calves’ hearts (urk!) until I saw the similarly worded ad for beef schnitzel with the line break after ‘beef’.

That’s all for now.

By Swapna Dutta

Swapna Dutta and Geeta Vadhera, The Sun Fairies (National Book Trust, India 1994, 2001)
Swapna Dutta, Plays from India, illustrated by Baraan Ijlal (Rupa & Co 2003)
Swapna Dutta, Folk Tales of West Bengal , illustrated by Neeta Gangopadhya (Children’s Book Trust 2009)
Sucitrā Bhaṭṭācārya, The Arakiel Diamond, translated by Swapna Dutta and illustrated by Agantuk (Ponytale Books 2011)

My friend Swapna Dutta is a writer, translator and editor, mainly of children’s literature, who lives in Bangalore, in southern India. The School Magazine published some of her stories when I was editor, and she and I have kept in touch over the intervening years. Swapna mentioned in a recent email that she had translated a children’s book, The Arakiel Diamond, from Bengali into English, and asked if I’d like a copy. Of course I was interested, and a couple of days later it arrived in my letter box, with three other books. It’s been a treat and an education to read all four.

The Sun Fairies is a tiny picture book that plays around with science and fantasy. That is to say, it’s a fanciful account of the origin of clouds – some fairies who live in the sun build castles in the sky so it won’t be so bare and empty – that ends up being a decorative but accurate account of how the water cycle works: the cloud castles are made from water, air and dust, and when they get too heavy they fall to the earth as water. The fairies have discovered ‘a never-ending game’. The illustrations, by Geeta Vadhera, are fabulous. I see from the Internet that Ms Vadhera has gone on to international renown. This may be her only children’s book.

In some ways each of the other books is a work of translation. In Plays from India three episodes from Indian history are shaped into dramas suitable for performance by school students. In my ignorance I don’t know whether the stories would be familiar to most Indian students, so I can’t tell whether the history or the theatre is the main point. I was interested in both.

Folk Tales of West Bengal retells sixteen tales. Swapna has an article at papertigers from which I learned that what the Grimms were for Germany, and Moe & Asbjørnsen for Norway, the imposingly named Dakshinaranjan Mitra-Mazumdar was for what is now Bangladesh and West Bengal. At least some of the tales here were collected by him in the first decades of last century. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has entered the woods of Re-enchantment, there’s a lot in these stories that’s familiar to a reader brought up on European-origin fairy stories: kings and princesses, talking animals, metamorphoses, riddles, lost and found children, supernatural beings who reward the humble and punish the greedy. There’s also a lot that’s different: the heroine of the first story, for instance, is not a seventh child but a seventh wife. This blending of familiar and unfamiliar makes for a delightful read.

The Arakiel Diamond is the only book in my swag that is not Swapna’s original work. It’s a detective story for young readers, one of a series featuring a Bengali housewife and her niece. A wealthy man dies. His most precious possession, the eponymous diamond, has gone missing, and almost everyone in his household – and there are many – has had motive and opportunity to steal it. The plot has exactly the twists you’d expect, but the detectives’ relationship and the details of their domestic life are well captured, and I learned a lot about the Armenian community in Calcutta, in a way that reminds me of grown-up detective writers (Sarah Paretsky comes to mind) who take us to a new subculture in each novel.

The four books had me reflecting on multiculturalism in children’s literature. We used to make fun of the way US children’s publishers, apparently believing that their intended readers would shrink from anything not immediately recognisable as of the US, would re-edit books from elsewhere in the English-speaking world to remove unsightly exotica. They weren’t just wanting a world where British characters spend dollars and cents, or Australians walk on a pavement, weird as such a world might be. I remember hearing of a New Zealand novel whose publisher suggested the book’s Maori issues might be more accessible to US children if the setting was changed to California – that author held firm and the book still found readers, even got made into a movie.

I wish now to acknowledge that I’m a bit of a kettle to the US publishers’ pot. Though I enjoyed the slight cultural disorientation I felt as I read these books, I caught myself thinking young readers would be put off by it. To make the books accessible to Australian 11-year olds, the unexamined internal argument went, you’d have to do something about lakh and crorelunghi, salwar shameez and rakhi, not to mention the nitty-gritties of the game of chess or a casual use of thrice in conversation. On reflection, I think that argument profoundly misunderstands how young people read. The only thing that universally distinguishes young from adult readers is that the young ones are younger. One result of this is that they know they don’t know everything about the world, and mostly when they read there are words they don’t recognise but have to guess from the context. (I loved and understood pulverise and invulnerable in Superman comics long before I could define them.) So you might not know what a lunghi is, but the context tells you it’s an article of clothing, and there’s even an illustration to help. Likewise, lakh and crore are obviously big numbers, and that’s all you need to know. As I remember back to my own childhood reading, I think such things would have added spice to the book: if I was young now, I might even have fun googling them. As for nitty-gritties and thrice, I do think we can trust young readers to recognise when a word or a turn of phrase belongs to a different place. (Both my sons say zed in spite of seeing quite a lot of Sesame Street when young.)

Still here!

I’m shocked, shocked at how long it is since I last posted. That’s what a bit of paid work and visitors from out of town will do to a blogger’s practice. I’ve signed a confidentiality agreement about at least part of the paid work, but I can blab about the visitors.

Will Owen and his partner Harvey live in North Carolina and are enthusiastic collectors of Aboriginal art. I met Will almost exactly seven years ago when he emailed me after reading my blog post about an exhibition of art from Aurukun, from which he and Harvey had purchased a piece, and we’ve met a number of times in the non-Web world since. Will’s blog, Aboriginal Art and Culture: an American eye, is fabulously erudite, funny, insightful, and broad-ranging. Will in person is all of that and much more ( for example, he can quote slabs of Ezra Pound and knows a lot about Finnegan’s Wake). He and Harvey are in Australia just now, and were in Sydney for nearly a week, flying out this morning. The Art Student and I managed to see quite a bit of them, and it would be hard to imagine two more delightful visitors.

Will gave a brilliant talk about his and Harvey’s collection at the Art Student’s TAFE. We ate at Revolver. We went to Bangarra’s Belonging at the Opera House (Will has already posted a characteristically thoughtful review) and Roxanne McDonald in Windmill Baby at the Belvoir. We ate Italian in Newtown and Lebanese in Surry Hills. We accompanied them to Danks Street where Christopher Hodges of Utopia Gallery took us to the back room and showed us (well, showed Harvey and Will, with the Art Student and I as open-mouthed collateral beneficiaries) more than a score of brilliant work from Papunya Tula artists, rolling the canvases out on the floor. Last night we dragged them off to see Red Dog, a genial outing, though reviews might have warned us that if it’s not a children’s film it could easily pass for one.

After the cold, wet, dull and unprofitable weather of recent weeks, Sydney managed four or five days a deep blue skies and T-shirt weather for their visit (thanks for that, Hughie!). Today it’s grey again.