review by Josie Arnold
This novel provides a powerful view of alienation and its consequent positioning of Aboriginal blackness as always other. Whatever the terms of surrender, whiteness dominates and fairness remains an impossible goal. This novel opens with a strong narrative voice, including black jail-style dialogue. The ongoing observations are insightful and humorous, complementing the characterisation. The action and plot emphasise that the novel is the story of outsiders.
Throughout, there is immediacy as the authorial presence and the protagonist’s voice make close observations. From the start we know that something is being searched for in the unnatural sameness of the suburbs, as the two Aboriginal men and their white driver cruise in a stolen car. The journey they take is threatening to them and to the smug self-satisfaction of white Australia. It is a chastening narrative and a challenging read.
There are some hopeful resonances of a powerful past that reside in contemporary cultural memories and Dreamings. Blackie’s dead grandmother’s presence and the warnings from nature, enable a different dance. The implications of the main character’s nickname of Blackie provide a central leitmotif: the study of self and the problem of being are embedded in blackness.
The many metaphoric references in the black man’s story remind us of the loss of peoples, nations and culture caused by white invasion. As Blackie takes drugs, he is transported physically and spiritually: to Wiradjeri country. All along the way, Blackie and Rips dodge the cops: the black underbelly of white Australian privilege is shown and we see Rips and Blackie as not only dark-skinned but also as dark characters. They are Kooris in a Commodore in country towns and in landscapes that they have lost, but are retained in their yearnings.
We learn about Blackie’s promise when he is given a scholarship to a posh white school and we see his pain at the lack of inclusivity and acceptance. Blackie senses too much. When Blackie is drugged up, painted up, barefoot and dancing, he feels for a short time that ‘the Wiradjeri warrior felt beautifully alive’ as he is ‘Dancing for his life’ (56).
There are Dreamings from his grandmother that visit him but do not calm him because ‘white fellas sure fucked’ his country (17). Blackie is a broken man: financially and in his selfhood, where he feels ‘grim and lonely’ (22). His one challenge is to find, and kill, the white policeman who sent him away. His life and death are entwined as he sees a landscape without the old traditional dancers in it any more. The losses call for payback. Not only are the dancers missing but, throughout Bathurst, Blackie sees blood where whites slaughtered blacks.
The breaking of self in today’s Australia is shown through numerous metaphors. There is a black swan being savaged by a white one. Whilst this is unrealistic, it is an evocative symbol and should perhaps be shown as unreal or a mythic vision. For Blackie, even roadkill and the crying rock faces are mourning loss, as they are part of mother earth (another recurrent motif).
Blackie sees the Aboriginal bloodstains that remain from the massacres in the dispersal of the blacks. In the same way, the policeman McWilliams’s absent presence represents the jealousy of whites towards the blacks … a jealous white boy becomes a dangerous white man of power. Blackie’s characterisation shows the terrible rate of Aboriginal incarceration and evokes the ghosts in the landscape as the stolen car cruises towards an inevitable denouement. The great wound of loss is in Blackie and he is open to ghosts from the past as race memory is evoked in the storyline, characterisation and dialogue.
Existential questions arise early and these reveal the laconic humour in this novel. The insertion throughout of poems and songs from the white culture provides a powerful image of the useless impact of an English education, whilst Blackie’s claims for his grandmother’s songs, poems, stories and country go unheard.
Scenes of larceny, drunkenness and drug use, as well as other sexual and physical violence, highlight cultural conflicts. There are powerful scenes, such as those in the cemetery, that lead to family interactions and male / female interactions focusing themes of morality and need. These scenes lead to family meetings that sit in stark contrast to the inherent violence in much that is narrated and enacted in this novel.
The two black men, Rips and Blackie, are bonded in a land full of ghosts who have been displaced and destroyed by whites. The dialogue throughout is in the argot of the Aboriginal others, the dispossessed and alienated, and this – as well as descriptions of Aboriginal bar brawls and family interactions – is a significant and important part of this narrative. Alcohol, hatred of self and others, blackness, drugs, women and sex inflame one strand of the basic storyline of police versus blacks. Yet in the character of Dot, Collis shows how the females hold everything together both literally and metaphorically. In her home the young, black, boy twins provide a stark comparison between Aboriginal childhood and the black wounded adult.
Even as Blackie paradoxically calls upon his English poetry, the inevitable end is enclosing him and his companions. There are plenty of meaningful events in nature to warn them that come from their tribal memories: there are ghosts and hauntings everywhere and Dreamings are forever. The supernatural warnings and premonitions dominate the final enactment of cultural alienation. They also indicate Blackie’s sense of responsibility: his need to fix things even while he takes more drugs for comfort.
As the novel draws to a close we are reminded that Blackie is proud to be Aboriginal, that love is a dangerous drug for him, and that lawlessness is the law in his eyes. All of his interactions with the police come to a head, and McWilliams is there to incarcerate and finally destroy Blackie. His destruction is representative of so many young Aboriginal men and women who have lost cultural ties and found nothing to replace them: ‘Terra nullius’ is ‘terror shit’ (60).
Blackie shows the yearning for the grandmother – indeed his Grandmother’s spirit acts to show him as a generous man towards vulnerable women, not just a gassed up ‘crazy nigga’ (102). The storyline demands attention as characters come and go: all with solemn significance. Always there is dispossession: Blackie can’t even visit his mother’s grave unless he’s a member of the Radjiri Land Council! There is black on black angst and alienation.
While throughout there is white music, the land also speaks and at the end Blackie is not listening to the wind and thunder, not recognising their power over his life in this moment. The inevitability of tragedy stalks this journey as the black underbelly of Australian culture is revealed in all of its hopefulness and hopelessness. Blackie dreams and wishes for the unattainable: ‘a place of me own’ (152). He wants to belong, but not to the whites: ‘fuck the gubbas’ (168). Yet when the cops take the white man, Fingers, as a trap, Blackie doesn’t hesitate. Blackie from Bourke saves Fingers, his white brother-in-law. Police procedures are not followed; Blackie’s death is inevitable. The end comes quite swiftly as it has for so many black deaths in custody. The blasted tree reveals all in a powerful ending.
It is no surprise that this novel won the 2016 David Unaipon Award for a previously unpublished Aboriginal writer, for it blends tragedy and irony, disaster and humour, life and death in telling stories that have been hidden for far too long.
Josie Arnold is the inaugural Professor of Writing Swinburne University of Technology, she has published over forty-five books including poetry, drama, novels, textbooks, e-games and memoirs. She established Swinburne online journal Bukker Tillibul; the Master of Arts (Writing); and the PhD by artefact and exegesis for which she has won National and University Teaching Awards. Josie has supervised twenty PhD students to a successful completion and currently supervises another ten in the artefact and exegesis model and two in the traditional model. She is currently researching the decolonisation of knowledge and making biofilms with two Wurundjeri Auntys.
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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker