Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip (UQP 2018)
Among many splendid things at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter this year was the Mission Songs Project concert featuring Jessie Lloyd, Emma Donovan and Deline Briscoe. Jessie Lloyd has been researching and reviving Aboriginal songs from the mission era (roughly 1901 to 1967) from all over Australia. At the end of a terrific concert Ms Lloyd urged us – mainly non-Indigenous – audience members, to connect, learn and engage with the songs. She wants these songs dealing with the hardships, sorrows and sometimes joys of mission life – to become part of the Australian songbook alongside ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Botany Bay’. She invited us to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures as integral parts of mainstream Australian history and culture. (A choir songbook is available for sale at the Mission Songs Project website.)
Too Much Lip holds out a similar invitation, though with less sweet music.
It’s the story of the Salters, an Aboriginal family in northern New South Wales, a story that includes violence, petty crime, child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, neglect, dark secrets, seething resentments, alienation and general chaos. It’s what many would call a dysfunctional family, but that’s not a term that seems quite to fit. The central character, Kerry, thinks of it as a ‘grassroots family’ – as if their huge ordeals and conflicts don’t mark them out as special so much as make them representative.
I don’t want to say too much about this book. It’s very funny in places. Kerry arrives back home after a long absence – she’s been part of the Lesbian community in Brisbane and has just been dumped by her girlfriend after a failed armed robbery. Her pitiless sarcasm about white people (dugai) and men, not just white men, sets the tone for the opening sequence, and while she doesn’t exactly soften, there’s some delicious counterpoint when she falls for a … white man. This is just one of the brilliant, comic but believable transformations in the book. Sweet Mary, Kerry’s mother, is a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken is a pontificating drunken layabout who bullies his teenaged son; her younger brother, known only as Black SUperman, is a Gay man who lives in Sydney; Steve, the object of Kerry’s lust, is trying to set up a gym in town; Martina, a real estate agent from Sydney, has been seconded to the local office to help the mayor push through a deal that will result in a prison being built on a piece of land that has deep significance for the Salters. And there are a number of children, including the splendidly named Dr No (guess how old he is). In the course of the novel, each of these characters, including the children, reveals something completely unexpected abut themselves, or undergoes a radical transformation. To say that another way: we are invited to make judgements about every one of the characters, and by the end of the book we have revised our judgements radically.
I confess I started reading Too Much Lip with a sense of duty: as a dugai, I really ought to read writing by Aboriginal authors. Well, that’s what got me to page 1, and kept me going through Kerry’s reference to white people as normalwhitesavages, till about page 20, but after that I was there for the joys, sorrows and terrors of the ride.
There are talking birds and a talking shark, a ghost, terrible stories of white-on-black violence and of black-on-black violence (with an afterword asserting that all the incidents have occurred in the author’s extended family or, in a few cases, are drawn from the historical record or Aboriginal oral history). There’s a brilliant extended sequence where the family has a barbecue, and all the threads of the narrative twist together and apart dramatically – I’d say it was chaotic, but the reader is never confused about what is happening and what it means in the lives of each character.
It’s a brilliant book. The last pages sent me back to reread the beginning. Some of the jokes still make me laugh a week after reading them. It puts heart and body into abstract terms like intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, white supremacy. It doesn’t need my recommendation, but I recommend it anyhow.
Too Much Lip was a birthday present. It’s the eighteenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Oh I did enjoy this review!
Yes, to those *ouch!* moments, and yes to “the joys, sorrows and terrors of the ride”.
I think this is Lucashenko’s best one yet, and best of all is that it completely transcends the “ought to read Indigenous authors” tag. It’s like Anita Heiss’s fiction: it’s just good to read, and learning something about Indigenous life and issues along the way is the bonus.
Thanks, Lisa. I haven’t read any of her other books. I’ll put them on my birthday wish list. I loved your review of this (here, for anyone who’s interested).
I agree that it’s a brilliant book. It is so clever the way it tackles indigenous lives, and indigenous-white relations, and all the factors that cause the challenges we all face, wrapped up in a really engaging story. I never like to complain about awards judging, but I would love to have seen this win the Stella.
But, Jonathan, I was there at that Mission Songs Project concert. What a joy it was, eh? The stories, the singing. One of the highlights of the festival for me (well, of the two days I attended.)
I’m glad you agree, Sue. One of the things I enjoyed but didn’t quite mention is the way she plays with identities. Is Kerry still Lesbian, is Steve really white, what about Martina’s identity, and how’s that thing someone says towards the end about Goories never knowing who they might be related to?
It was my first time at the NFF, just two and a half days. All going well it won’t be my last. The Mission Songs Project was definitely one of my highlights, but there were a lot. I also got a lot of innocent joy from some very naff things.
Yes, that was interesting too, that point about not knowing who they are related to has been coming up more and more I’ve noticed. A terrible legacy of the Stolen Generations.
As for NFF, it’s great isn’t it. I’ve been gang for over 20 years now, mostly on Friday and Saturday, as Sunday has tradionally been family Easter lunch day. I love my two days so much.
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