Settling on three books that speak of Australia was difficult for every reason that it should be: the richness and quality of that choice and because, in taking a snapshot of literature one sees how inextricable books are with personal expression, and their vital role in representation. A childhood favourite is here along with books that fracture dominant narratives, giving us marginalised voices, repressed histories. In the darkroom of stories brought together one hopes to arrive at an image of who and how we are.
My Place (1987)
This book was on our shelf when I was young and at different times my parents recommended it to me. I read it only recently, and I realise now that it’s rare they both told me about the same book. Sally Morgan takes us into the past to document how she came to learn of her Indigenous Australian heritage. It is her journey back, both to the stories and to the land of her family.
I have long been preoccupied with questions of memory and place, recollection and amnesia, the preservation and destruction of stories. The searching quality of Morgan’s work helps us to see how one tries to assemble a story in the face of dislocation and disempowerment, working against the cultural amnesia that is both product and aftermath of colonial violence and the racism embedded deeply in Australia.
Yet it feels an empowering work, of claiming the right to one’s own story. With her mother, husband and children, Morgan visits family, old acquaintances of her relatives, and the land. There are long car rides and plane journeys. There is joy and family and love, arguments and jokes and tears. Often she will tell us only that the weight of emotion—at those moments of recognition when we are told something that connects us to the dead—could only be conveyed in a look between Morgan and her mother.
As I seek to convey in my own novel, to speak one’s memories is a kind of elemental art, the sharing of stories. The repression of stories feeds amnesia, or fuels an inequitable narrative. It is important that My Place is told in Morgan’s words, as an Indigenous Australian writer, but also in the uninterrupted monologues of her relatives, tape-recorded by Morgan. In this way her book is memoir but it is more. At these times, Morgan steps out of the narration, as if literally walking off the stage, so that her family members tell their stories in their own words. Her approach of layered narratives struck me as the truest form of art.
Old books sometimes tell a history of their reading: one particular page I folded down in our copy of My Place had already been dog-eared by someone else before me—maybe my parents or the person with a name unknown to me, scrawled in blue ink on the inside of the front cover. I wonder now what line it was the person saw and wanted to remember. For me it was this one, from Morgan’s uncle:
I want my story finished. I want everyone to read it. Arthur Corunna’s story! I might be famous. You see, it’s important, because then maybe they’ll understand how hard it’s been for the blackfella to live the way he wants. I’m part of history, that’s how I look on it. Some people read history, don’t they?
Winter in France (1994)
I recall that I’ve always loved the turn of seasons, particularly when the cold comes. As a young girl I made a ritual out of reading Sophie Masson’s Winter in France. I grew up in a town in the Macedon Ranges that is renowned for its glacial winters. In the winter holidays every year I would read Masson’s books about the French-Australian Seyrac family, and my favourite was Winter in France. This seasonal linking made me feel closer to the book. I liked to be the first up in the morning, wake up the lowering coals with a few logs on the fire, and sit as close as I could to the warmth. I didn’t know why I longed for the colder seasons but it is an attachment I have not lost.
Masson was born in Indonesia to French parents and grew up in Australia. The nine-year-old narrator Florence is a girl attached to Australia but also to France, where she was born. Florence’s parents are split between the world they left and the one in which they are raising their children. Masson showed these fractures in her fictional Seyrac family and the fraught type of journey that returning to the homeland entailed. They spend the winter in her grandmother’s house near Toulouse. Her mother’s side of the family is more fissured: the grandmother no longer alive, the grandfather turns up at Christmas, though long estranged from the family. Florence learns about the lives of her parents, their loves and losses. She feels the house is haunted by the ghost of a young man who died in the room she now sleeps in.
From an early age I was interested in stories of my family and particularly the relatives who had left Europe after the Second World War. I think I responded to Florence’s desire to understand the past. I wanted to learn about the lives my older relatives had lived and left. My Nonno and his brother leaving Milan when the tramlines were still down after bombings. My great-aunt, Italian speaker in Yugoslavia, leaving Tito’s dictatorship, working in Trieste before arriving in Australia in 1952. Almost every time I see her, we talk about her story, remembering together. I also see myself in my father, who traces his family story from towns in Britain to Footscray and Sunshine, in Melbourne. We have their photos, chairs and paintings, and rafts of paper traces.
In Winter in France, the house, town, objects, food, are all intimately connected to the lives of Florence’s parents and grandparents. Such things are the vessels of vanished worlds, what is left behind. I can still sense the muted dusty air and dimness of the rooms of that fictional house, in France in winter. That place is now my own memories, in the way that books become our lived experience.
Here Come the Dogs (2014)
Omar Musa’s novel of prose and poetry inspired and moved me. Through the stories of three young men, living and existing on the fringes of society, it shows storytelling in many forms: hip-hop and graffiti are how Solomon, Jimmy and Aleks make their mark, how they read their world. Musa has an inspiring energy; a bracing vitality born of really having something to say. And this spirit comes through in all his forms of storytelling: poetry, the novel, spoken-word, rapping.
Here Come the Dogs feels like a book of palimpsests—layers upon layers that make up lives, cities, identities—but Musa peels back the layers with a poet’s balance, somehow both brutal and subtle, tough and beautiful. Musa has spoken of Australia’s unwillingness to look at the dark side of our history. He describes the chaos and messiness of society that many may not want to read.
Musa artfully constructs layers throughout. When Solomon pulls a five-dollar note from his pocket, scrawls a crown of thorns and a time bomb on the Queen, a colonial hangover meets a young man both bored and wanting, etching his own layer of story. But it is a struggle to do this. Jimmy is disengaged from the systems that do not help or know him: ‘Who’s in power anyway? Who the fuck knows?’ Music’s layered history is closer to his reality: Jimmy walks into Sideways Records, ‘with its thick crust of band posters in the dusty front window, like rings of a tree that sliced open would reveal the growth of the local scene’.
Stories in Musa’s novel are told by graffiti, songs, basketball courts, the land. There is ‘a calligraphy of gum trees’, the streets are ‘covered in a scribble of burnt rubber’. Mercury Fire, the greyhound that, for Jimmy, is something to care and exist for, runs along the coastline, ‘a grey hyphen on a white page’. On a basketball court, ‘Every point / a toe, heel or ball touches, / is a point on a map.’
A striking sign of a poet’s presence in a novel is the appearance of the words on the page. Here, the layout and spacing create rhythm and sound, movement in the mind. It is exciting to see this in a novel; the form is so true to the storytelling style of the lives it depicts. As a girl dances between ‘the cursive of bodies’ she is:
floating, bending, popping
into an alphabet
of perfect b-girl control.
The novel is confrontational in the most necessary way: violence, both racial and domestic, simmers and erupts then simmers again. If one looks for resolution or a way out for these young men, they are not easily found. As Solomon’s girlfriend Scarlett remarks, life ‘only comes rough and broken and weird’.
Musa is telling us that many fires abate only momentarily, alighting anew somewhere else. The entrenched racism, violence and disillusionment of youth are very real, unresolved problems in our cities and towns, and these stories need to be told. Aleks ‘knew that Australia was the scene of great crimes. Make a nick in the corner of the country, peel back the façade like possum skin, and the truth beneath would be hideous.’ This is literature as mirror and diagnosis. We need to be told how we are.