Review: ‘Home’ and ‘Smoke Encrypted Whispers’

Anita Heiss reviews some new Aboriginal literature: Larissa Behrendt’s novel Home and Samuel Wagan Watson’s poetry collection Smoke Encrypted Whispers.

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I haven’t met one Indigenous Australian who hasn’t been affected by the policies of protection that lead to what we commonly refer to as the Stolen Generations. Coupled with having read extensively and written a novel on the same subject myself, Larissa Behrendt’s award winning novel Home was a disturbingly familiar read for me.

Beginning with Candice arriving at “the place where the rivers meet” the reader is taken on a journey with this young law student, who feels more at home with the Aboriginal Law Bulletinthan the company of her family. We learn, through Behrendt’s well-crafted story, of a family history riddled with pain, of the loss of connection to family and country, and are given painful insight into three separate incidents of removing children.

We learn the story of stolen Garibooli (renamed Elizabeth) whose own son Euroke, conceived through rape is taken from her at birth, adopted by an Irish family, renamed Neil O’Reilly and told he’s Italian. Elizabeth’s brother Euroke is also stolen and becomes Sonny Boney.

Elizabeth marries Grigor Brecht, has six more children and finally has a family of her own, creating a ‘home’ for herself and her kin. When she dies of a heart condition her three youngest children are taken by welfare and we read of their journeys, in and then out of an orphanage. It’s a depressing, yet compelling read. There were moments in the text where my eyes welled as memories of my own family were brought to the surface.

Revealing an obvious talent for the creative form, the rich writing in Behrendt’s Home was only hindered by the slabs of lectures that appeared throughout the book, as the author fell into her ‘other role’ as academic. There were too many obvious history lessons thrown in along the way and a noticeable change of language as we were lectured on the role of the Church, Aboriginal involvement in the war, the Aboriginal Protection Board and Acts, W.C. Wentworth, Cary Grant films and more. It is a common flaw in Indigenous literature, one I am guilty of as well, as Indigenous authors often feel the need to get every Indigenous issue they can into the one text. Steven McCarthy’s Black Angels-Red Blood is an example of a novel with too many issues being listed and none adequately analysed.

I also found the bottom of the page ‘glossary’ for Indigenous words off-putting for a novel, and I don’t believe Indigenous writers should be using them in fictional works. Instead of complementing Behrendt’s unique creative style, they made the book feel like a non-fiction text. I’ve heard Maori author Patricia Grace state that she refuses to add such footnotes when publishers request them. It is the English language that is the foreign language. I also believe that Australian audiences have matured which is, indeed, the very reason that books like Homeare now being published, and it should be left to the reader to determine what particular words and phrases mean. In some instances, the clarity was given in the text anyway, so there was also a lack of consistency there.

Having said that, and although there are already a number of non-fiction books on the issue (Forcibly Removed by Albert Holt, Aunty Rita by Jackie and Rita Huggins, Wandering Girl by Glenyse Ward), Home’s uniqueness is in having some of the story set in the 1990s, which will assist the reader in understanding the way in which policies of the past continue to impact on Indigenous people in a contemporary setting today.

A rare talent for the spoken and written word, Samuel Wagan Watson’s new collection brings together the best of his previous published works and some new unpublished poetic prose.

Obviously autobiographical, the work follows the journey of Watson as a writer, a traveller, a lover, and as an urban dweller in Brisbane. His journey covers miles of bitumen, observes numerous muses, includes a number of writer’s festivals and delves into the poet’s life as a child.

This collection also provides an insight into Watson’s creative processes and the inspirations he draws from his everyday life. He writes in “The Postman’s Privilege” of his early days and the anxiety of:

for the knock-backs from editors

He speaks of the writer’s graveyard shift and long nights of attempts to pen adequate descriptions, to the emptying of “The Writer’s Suitcase” where:

pages scatter amongst the breeze
the writer dies lying in a pool of his words

From a reading in a Wellington (NZ) bar to another in an art gallery on the Gold Coast, it is the aftermath of performing in the “Literary Festival Bump-Out” that brings reality home for Watson and the reader:

these painters of words prepare
to return
to the rigmarole that
land them here…
statues in a world of observations
and intensity
now with little thought [?] or care

for emotional good-byes.

But it is the suburban landscape that he uncovers and dissects so well. The reader walks, drives, flies and takes “The Night Train from Newcastle” with Watson as he treks mentally and physically, searching for the perfect creative inspiration. He finds it in Boundary Street West End, and at the Berlin Wall, and everywhere in between (Brunswick Street, Musgrave Park in Brisbane, and Tigerland, the home of the East’s Leagues Club and its supporters). And he describes each space intimately, all the while acknowledging the consequences of colonisation on his native tongue in “Jaded Olympic Moments”:

We’re city people without a language

And some of us have even less

He writes of “Abandoned Factories” and drag racing, and in “Deo Optimo Maximo” describes the:

curvaceous segments of road
like black smiles and frowns
either gazing in the direction of the Pacific or the hinterlands,
dark horses upon the clearing of the dreamtime tabernacles

Much Indigenous poetry is written and indeed read because of what it has to say (rather than how it is written), because it provides the political voice that Indigenous people are denied in other areas of Australian society. Watson’s writing is different though. He has mastered the craft of writing and also says what needs he needs to say as a blackfella. He is not guilty of what he charges other writers with in “Author’s notes #2”, Some writers never cross beyond the second or third dimension of a page.

Watson’s insights and anecdotes are personal, almost voyeuristic to the reader, his topics universal and accessible, and his language is deliciously seductive. This reader wants more.

Dr Anita Heiss is writer in residence at Macquarie University. Her most recent title is Dhuuluu Yala (talk straight): Publishing Aboriginal Literature. [see Greg Lehman’s review of Dhuuluu Yala in this issue of Australian Humanities Review]

Larissa Behrendt’s Home was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2004. RRP $22.95 ISBN: 0-7-22-3407. Samuel Wagan Watson’s Smoke Encrypted Whispers was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2004. ISBN: 0-7022-3471-0 $22.95.

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