It’s day one of a new storytelling project in the Darwin prison and the woman in front of me is gesturing at the thin shelf of books in front of us. Why do the men get to read true crime and all we get is this romantic shit? I look at the shelf. The tatty novel closest to us has a Mills and Boon style cover with a man and a woman embracing. We know this story. It’s a narrative we’ve all read. I’m relieved when another woman speaks up. What we need round here is some real stories she says.
On an average week, the Darwin Correctional Centre holds around 1100 prisoners; 80 are women. It’s one of the only facilities in Australia where men and women are imprisoned on the same premises. The women have their own area, Sector Four. It contains a yard, several blocks of dorms and a collection of training rooms including the library where we’ve gathered for our storytelling workshop.
The library’s not much bigger than a demountable (or ‘donga’ as they’re called up here). The walls are painted sky blue and aside from the thin shelf of books, there’s a faded couch at one end and a pod of paper dolphins pinned to the far wall. Their fins sag and their skin is peeling off. If you stare at them long enough, you can make out faded, handwritten sentences.
‘I have a right to be treated with respect.’
‘I have a right to have fun.’
‘I have a right to be free.’
Behind the dolphins is a school of sharks, also washed-out but menacing, the way anything with sharp teeth is menacing. Even though they and their inscriptions have paled, the message is clear. Make good choices or be devoured.
Today, we’re making choices about how to tell the stories that will see these women create Australia’s first podcast from prison. Together, we will ask Who gets to tell stories? Who doesn’t? How can you make room for different kinds of voices; different ways of telling stories?
But right now, we’re a bunch of strangers in a room full of sharks.
We chat about family and the awkward silence is soon replaced by a chorus of voices, each distinctive in volume, rhythm and accent. I listen to this array of sounds, and I am struck by the immensity of the project before us. How are we ever going to do justice to the mass of voices and experiences in this room?
I’ve always been drawn to complex stories. Why visit the same old, well-worn narrative when you can explore new and complicated terrain? But the problem with complexity is that it can be … well … complex. Multiple voices are sometimes messy and difficult to navigate. They can alienate the reader (or the listener in the case of our project). So, when I heard that Alexis Wright’s new book Tracker has more than 50 contributing voices, I rang the only independent bookshop left in Darwin (shout out to The Bookshop Darwin!) and ordered a copy.
As a fiction-writer, I’m continually warned about the risk of multiple voices; that too many characters are disorienting for the fiction-reader. Whole apartment blocks collapse into a single point of view. Chaotic streets fold into one protagonist’s gaze. Made accessible, yes. But what is lost in this process of compression?
In Tracker, Alexis Wright has challenged the idea that multiple voices are a threat. She takes us through time, place and culture to bring to life the story of Tracker Tilmouth as told by many. Friends, colleagues, family and the occasional critic share stories about the moments their lives overlapped. Collectively, the voices are akin to a 360-degree camera, shining light on the many angles of a man and the way he shaped politics and cross-cultural exchange in Australia.
As a teenager, my mum was a bit sceptical about one of my boyfriends. I remember she urged me to see him in a range of contexts—with his friends and mine, my parents and his siblings, at work, at school. Only then could I know him. That was mum’s philosophy. Wright has a similar approach in the operatic Tracker—to know this person is to see him in a range of contexts and through the eyes of many.
Tracker is full of long, conversational verbatim. The words fall onto the page as they’ve left the mouth of the storyteller. The effect is one of intimacy; reader as interviewer. You’re in the room with the storyteller. It’s you on the couch sipping your fifth pannikin of tea. Wright is there and she’s not; replaced by the reader who holds the mic, listens to the tape, transcribes the text and leans in to hear the next chapter. This candid, conversational intimacy is established in the first sentences of the prologue:
The best story is the Warlpiri invasion of Europe when we went to the UN. I went to the United Nations originally and I said this is all wonderful, but it is really a talkfest where the Australian government gets up and tells the world how good they treat the blacks … I said to [Michael] Dodson, We’ve got to out-think this process. I said We need to bring a bit of culture. So I said, I am going to bring dot painters and all that so they can paint in the UN. When you go to the UN no one is allowed to bring anything political because no state is to be upset or whatever. So we brought it all. We got all the Warlpiris lined up, old Rastus, old Roy, old Topsy, all them mob, they all finished now, and Frankie [Jakamarra] Nelson. And got on a plane.
Wright’s book is a celebration not just of Tracker but of Aboriginal voices. Voices which historically have been edited or paraphrased beyond recognition.
Patrick Tilmouth: A smart-arse, Tacker. Quick. Very quick. We all talked the same language.
Michael Mansell: The most striking thing about Tracker, apart from his clear green eyes—I thought I was the only Aboriginal with similar blue eyes—was his wit. He had great one-liners, ones that pulled back to a central point the scattery conversations we used to have.
Murrandoo Yanner: Some doors would close for us at times because he had obviously ruffled a few feathers, or pissed them off. I know for the Wild River stuff when we took him to help us lobby Jenny Macklin that might have backfired slightly because he said How ya going, Genocide Jenny?
The main focus is always Tracker but Wright deftly introduces a choir of voices that tell the story of Aboriginal activism over the past fifty years.
I love most the keeping of words, inflections and grammar as they were first heard. In doing so, Wright has crafted an uninterrupted line of sight to the teller of each story. I found the book a revelation. Proof that complex stories needn’t be watered down or told from conventional points of view; that there is room for symphonies of sound and perspective.
Before I finished the book, I bought a copy for the women in Sector Four and Alexis Wright inscribed a message in the front cover at the Darwin launch. I’m not sure whether the book will make it to the women. I’ve been told it first needs to be approved by the prison staff (presumably to ensure it doesn’t contain any inflammatory content). But even if it doesn’t make it through the security clearance, Wright has gifted us something bigger than the book; proof that one story can be told from many points of view; that complexity and multiplicity needn’t be a threat to narrative.
Next week, we will reconvene in the blue library under the gaze of the marine messengers, and we won’t be talking about one story, one voice or one host. We’ll take a page from Wright’s Tracker (hopefully an actual page if we find the book on the shelf!) and nut out how we can and will include a sea of voices; their rhythm and their insight.
Johanna Bell is an award-winning author of fiction for children and adults, a Churchill Fellow and the Director of StoryProjects (www.storyprojects.com.au), a creative production house that uses storytelling to strengthen communities.