Sunday, July 15, 2007

Review: Alexis Wright, Carpentaria

"I want our people to have books, their own books, in their own communties, and written by our own people. I want the truth to be told, our truths, so, first and foremost, I hold my pen for the suffering in our communties. Let it not be mistaken: suffering is widespread in our communities."

Alexis Wright

I have this strange feeling when I drive through Port Augusta. I feel like I'm about to finally leave the bland, suburban world in which I live (Adelaide) behind, and enter Australia.

It had never occurred to me that if I drove far enough north east of Port Augusta I might finally reach a place where Australia stopped and some strange, surreal other world began - the mud flats of the coastal Gulf of Carpentaria.

Actually, I didn't find that out by driving there at all.

Instead, comfortably ensconced in my Adelaide house, I've just read Alexis Wright's (right) superb new novel Carpentaria.

It is another world about which she writes, a world where highways of the sea are as familiar to those who know them as roads on dry land, and where an Aboriginal activist can emerge from communities of despair to challenge the murderous might of a big mining company.

Alexis Wright is an indigenous writer, and the first Aboriginal author to win outright Australia's prestigious Miles Franklin Award for Literature. (Kim Scott, whose Benang shared the 2000 award with Thea Astley's Drylands is also an indigenous writer).

She is from the Waanji people from the highlands of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria.

“I set my writing in my own traditional country which is the Gulf of Carpentaria,” she told an audience in Tasmania in 1998. “This is where I believe I belong and the place I know best; it is the place I carry in my heart and learnt from a very early age from my grandmother's memories.”

She has worked extensively in government departments and Aboriginal agencies across four states and territories as a professional manager, educator, researcher and writer. She was coordinator of the NT Aboriginal Constitutional Convention in 1993 and wrote "Aboriginal Self Government" for Land Rights News, later quoted in full in Henry Reynold's 'Aboriginal Sovereignty', 1996.

“We have very little land rights over our traditional country,” she told her Tasmanian audience. “The pastoral properties over our traditional domain are owned by a mining company and subleased to the previous owner, an absentee, overseas landlord. The gates to the pastoral property remain locked. Most of our people have to live outside….”

Wright's Award was announced at the same time as Howard's decision to use concern generated by the Little Children Are Sacred report to attack land rights in the Northern Territory. She says the Federal Government has ignored the recommendation of Indigenous conventions in the Territory, and is instead planning to impose its will on the people.

"The plans and the ideas that were discussed there never went anywhere," she said.
"Now we find this terrible situation where the Government's riding roughshod yet again, tramping heavily, bringing down the sledgehammer approach, without understanding that we need greater dialogue and a move towards the future.

"This is going to just create enormous difficulties and problems for us.”

Capricornia is set in a fictional Gulf township called Desperance. “Desperance is Australia really at the moment,” Wright explained to ABC radio journalist Phillip Adams on July 3, “a really desperate place at the moment. We see it every day as indigenous Australians.”

Desperance is divided into its white Uptown community and two mobs of pricklebush dwellers, Norm Phantom's Westside mob and Joseph Midnight's Eastside mob. The pricklebush communities are at war with each other, and Uptown wants to put the bulldozers through the lot of them. Outside of town is the mine, inflaming and dividing the community so as to pursue its commercial venture without opposition.

Wright has dedicated Capricornia to two indigenous men, Doomadgee's recently sacked Mayor Clarence Walden and Gulf country activist Murrandoo Yanner.

Walden was one of the first to alert the indigenous community to the dangers of the Brough discussion paper on permit rights to Aboriginal land (see my post Mining Companies Behind Howard’s “Emergency” Action) . He said: “We can't let this happen. That's the reason that we asked for this permit system in the first place - so that we could have a bit of protection over ourselves. There's too much disrespect to the people who belong to the place. They're disrespecting us, full stop. You know, when is it going to stop? When are they going to draw the line in the sand and say, "Well let's walk together for a change "instead of me trying to stand over you?"

For links to Walden, see here and here.

Yanner (left) is a prominent activist and is famous for the “Yanner decision” on native title hunting rights. He also tirelessly opposed CRA's Century zinc mine (see here and here) and is a fighter against police oppression of Aboriginal people, especially in Gulf and Torres Strait Islander communties.

Wright told the ABC's Kerry O'Brien recently that Yanner is a “hero, he's our hero in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He's one of the strongest young men I've come across. He's fighting for land rights, for people's rights every single day…he's just growing stronger every day.”

Yanner inspired the character Will Phantom in Capricornia.

This is a great novel and a major addition to the storehouse of progressive Australian literature.

(For Kerry O'Brien's interview between Alexis Wright, see here. Two exerpts from her book follow below.)

Inscription, above: "Dare to Struggle and Win, Alex Wright, 17 August 2007"

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