‘It does not follow’, E.H. Carr claimed, ‘that because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.’ Taking these words as its epigraph, Kate Grenville’s most recent novel, Sarah Thornhill (2011), announces from the outset its interest in the question of the true shape of things. But what are truth, shape, vision—or indeed mountains? These are more uncertain, more contestable, than Carr or perhaps Grenville herself believes. For we might say that there is no true shape outside vision, that shape is always about perception. In recent Australian fiction—Grenville’s and others’—there has been renewed interest in uncovering the true shape of Australia’s colonial past and to tell its secret stories, but are we once more being given the mountain’s shape as seen from the colonialist’s angle of vision?
Kate Grenville is not alone among contemporary Australian novelists to attempt to tell a different story about the early encounters between the British and Indigenous peoples. Three very recent novels, in their different ways, have revisited the early years of colonialism with the hopeful project of showing that there was once a time, however brief, when relationships between Indigenes and the British still held promise. Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill is set in the early days of New South Wales before distinct lines between ‘white’ and ‘black’ were drawn and when there was nothing socially strange or terrible about a ‘darkie’ being brought up as a member of his white father’s family, or so its narrator claims; Rohan Wilson’s debut novel The Roving Party (2011) imagines a comfortable affinity between John Batman and Black Bill in Van Diemen’s Land in the bloody context of the Black Wars; and Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (2010) describes cooperative, friendly relations between British and Indigenous men along the south coast of Western Australia. Each novel follows a trajectory from collaboration to the terrible effects of white greed but each aims not at despair but at the possibility that these supposedly collaborative relations could be retrieved and renewed. Each novel, too, poses a question about the differences and similarities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. What can we see and know of each other? Is the distance between us traversable? Where are we joined and where do we remain apart?
These literary projects refer back to Inga Clendinnen’s earlier historical efforts in a similar direction in her Dancing with Strangers (2003). In that book Clendinnen raised an evocative image of British and Indigenous people dancing together on beaches, a scene that she read as signalling happier possibilities of encounters with the strangeness of others than was later borne out. ‘We are still in the dawn of the world, with friendship between unlike peoples a blossoming hope’ (26—See Bibliography for details of sources).
But to raise Inga Clendinnen’s work and imaginative fictional renditions of the colonial past in the one breath is to remember another kind of dance, too, a dance between historians and historical novelists that shows just how complex and indeed hostile dance can be. Here I trace connecting lines between these three novels and Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers in order to unpick the places where, despite non-Indigenous writers’ best efforts to revise the colonial story, they nevertheless risk revitalising it instead; and to wonder what it is about Kim Scott’s writing that enables it to do such different work.
To do so will be to insist on the importance of aesthetic form: on the way a story is pushed into shape, on the form of its telling rather than only its narrative content. It will be to revisit arguments, made many times in other political contexts, that relying on our capacity to uncover new historical facts, new archival records or even new memories will not be enough to tell a different story. It is to argue that an emphasis on facts—on the supposedly objective shape of a mountain, its measurements—but equally an emphasis on white imaginative powers risks repeating the same old story, with all the reiterations of colonial impulses that this implies.
A white woman’s desire
Kate Grenville has described her trilogy—The Secret River (2005), The Lieutenant (2008) and Sarah Thornhill—as an ethical enquiry into our past, one that addresses itself to silences in the historical record, countering the dominant mode of memorialising colonialism. But instead of challenging her readers, she says that she deliberately constructs a ‘safe distance’ between novel and reader. Her writing is propelled by another concern, too: what is it, she asks, that keeps Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together and what keeps us apart? In the words she gives to her protagonist, Sarah Thornhill: ‘Generation after generation, the things joining us and the things cutting between us. All made by something done so long ago’ (Grenville 2011, 303).
Massacres of Aboriginal people are among those things that keep us apart, those things made secret and hidden in the narratives that colonialism tells about itself, and which Grenville’s writing pulls out into the light. Sex, too, is among the hidden acts ‘done so long ago’ that gathers us as it tears us apart. Unusually for Australian fiction, in Sarah Thornhill there is the explicit figuring of a white girl’s sexual desire for an Aboriginal man. This is an important move because such desire has been disavowed in colonial and postcolonial discourses; but how to figure it? Grenville has opted for historical romantic fiction, bearing a touch of Gothic as this fiction so often does. Might this form enable a new story of black and white to be told, in the unchallenging ways at which Grenville aims? Through this strategy she sets out to ease a reader along the path to new knowledge of the violence of the colonial past by making it familiar, and not too discomforting.
But loyalty to the old aesthetic forms—here romantic fiction—restrains the possibilities of writing a new story. The romance that drives Sarah Thornhill is between Sarah, daughter of a wealthy colonist, and the handsome, strong and honourable Jack Langland—the black son of another wealthy neighbour. But what is ‘black’ here? Jack’s position in the colonial scene of race is highly ambiguous: ‘… you wouldn’t pick him straight away: Dark in the face, yes, but the men who worked the ships all got dark. A heaviness around the brow. That might tell you. And the colour of his eyes. A greeny colour, very bright against his skin.’ This is a black who: ‘Talked about the blacks the same way everyone did. They were strange to him the same way they were strange to us’ (34). This is a black whom Sarah, and a reader too, can see as not so black after all and, as Sarah declares at the end of the story, it was really only Jack’s ‘white bit’ she ever wanted.
In what way, then, is this story new? For it tells—again—the story of whiteness’s love for itself. This is where the effect of aesthetics is felt. It takes a lot of work to write in a genre such as romantic fiction and not fall into step with the expectations of the form. Under the rubric of postmodernism, some writers have sought to recover the historical romance for cultural criticism but they have done so by way of a kind of writing that puts the very form of the historical romance under pressure, pointing to its logic and aiming at a reader’s discomfort or dissatisfaction or confusion. Kate Grenville’s writing, though, remains true to form. In historical romantic fiction, sexual relations between a woman and a man are naturalised and therefore require no interrogation: girl meets boy. So it is in Sarah Thornhill. And, again typical of the genre, the narrative in Sarah Thornhill is propelled by the consequences of a socially inappropriate sexual relation: Sarah and Jack’s is a match that does not suit the patriarchal lines of inheritance. For sure, the space between lovers is now marked by this thing we call race where it is usually marked by other names for social difference but this is just to install a new item in historical romance’s stock of disappointments in love.
What is missing in this story of doomed love is how the discourse of race superiority might have constituted the very possibilities of a white woman’s desire and not only its demise. Sarah Thornhill pointedly excises the possibility that it is blackness that a white woman might desire for all that she might deny it. How to tell that story?
Dancing with strangers
Kate Grenville’s project has been roundly criticised by historians, notably Inga Clendinnen, who has claimed that Grenville confuses history and fiction and has failed to understand the ‘formidable’ possibilities of a proper historical practice. But does Clendinnen not practise a version of historical fiction herself? In the name of a historical practice that interprets the written record, in Dancing with Strangers Clendinnen embellished it in an imaginative retelling. The ‘silences, absences and evasions, accidental and deliberate’ make for ‘a most imperfect mirror of “what happened”’ (43). So she filled in the silences, extrapolating from and paraphrasing archival findings—letters and diaries—until in an act of ventriloquism she made the British men’s voices appear to swell into the gaps and crevices of history.
Clendinnen’s prose is shaped by anachronistic voices and rhythms borrowed from the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century historical texts from which she draws and which she starts to copy, inflecting her own narratorial voice:
Writing home must have filled many empty evenings, but it would rise to fever pitch when a ship was due to leave for England or the Cape. Then whole days could pass in writing letters … Assistant-Surgeon Worgan from the Sirius had somehow contrived to bring his piano with him (he beguiled his fellow-officers with concerts in ports along the way) … we see him writing vast letters to his beloved brother Dick, as if, as he wistfully says, he were sitting opposite him by the fire. His love of his distant sibling is as palpable as his loneliness. (15)
This is the fever of romantic fiction, with its beguiling men, beloved brothers, the wistful loneliness of men on distant shores … These are the stock emotional landscapes of nineteenth-century fiction brought now to garnish and galvanise a supposedly formidable, objective historical practice.
This is a kind of telling where the Indigenous peoples are ‘beach nomads’ and the relationship between them and the British ‘began with dancing’ where dancing is … what? Charles Darwin she imagines ‘peacefully dancing with savages in the Land of Fire’ (7). Indigenous men dance like ‘children at a picnic’ (9). With her assistance, we can discover the reassuring scene of British men looking after a sick and terrified Aboriginal woman and her child: ‘There is the naked woman cowering with her baby in a curved grass shelter; there are the tall Englishmen standing protectively around her like a wall … these men bustling about arranging for the comfort of a frightened woman’ (42–4). Never mind that it is the men who terrify her, or that is was the British who introduced the tuberculosis from which she might be suffering. This is lifted from nineteenth-century artistic and literary arts with their vulnerable and suffering feminine victim rescued by gallants. For levity, Clendinnen helps us imagine another scene where Lieutenant King ‘had one of his men unbutton and publish his privates, at which sight the locals made “a great shout of admiration”—or so King interpreted … It seems that, whatever their cultural backgrounds, lads will be laddish’ (11). Her narrative strains to show the British in these first days as full of humour and good will.
Inga Clendinnen repeats stories of the ‘first Australians’, as she likes to call Indigenous peoples—Clendinnen rarely uses Indigenous peoples’ own names for themselves—with all the amused interest of a David Attenborough speaking of the antics of animals, and proffers the Britishers’ surprises and disgusts with great pleasure and sympathy. In this dawn of the world, men don’t rape or take sexual advantage of women but find solace in them. So:
Some time during 1790, with life in the colony harsh and getting harsher, White found solace with a young convict woman, Rachel Turner, first his housekeeper, later his mistress. Rachel bore him a son in September 1793. He was proud of his boy, and when he returned to England on the Daedalus in December 1794 he took his fifteen-month-old child with him, and found him a loving carer in the sister of his old friend Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse, which indicates how close-knit the friendships wrought in the course of colonial tours of duty were. Meanwhile White’s convict mistress … had landed on her feet … (47)
Historical romantic fiction invites the reproduction of the old apologist’s stance. It is libidinally charged, figuring the erotic in ways that reiterate whiteness’s claims to centrality, and for anyone hoping to reinvent the genre for another end it takes work to resist the siren call. Australian historical practices, despite claiming a privileged insight into the truth about our past, are not immune to its song.
‘Sand and blood in rich amalgam’
The Roving Party is also an imaginative retelling of colonial history, this time in a hybrid of fantasy fiction and a Cormac McCarthy–style realism that invites the use of rich imagery, strange juxtapositions and an elaborate prose style. Are these powerful enough to enable Wilson to give the colonial scene another shape?
The Roving Party’s rendering of another time recalls post-apocalyptic and other futuristic fantasy fiction where the past, present and future are mixed up in strange and often visually exciting ways; where, for instance, the old is carried into the future nostalgically in anachronistic sartorial styles, architecture and interiors, say, or in outdated technologies; and where the new takes ‘primitive’ forms, referring to the ancient. In the case of The Roving Party the old and the new are juxtaposed, too, but in inverse relation: the tattered clothes worn by the Pallawa belong to a violent and chaotic present and point to a dismal future under colonial rule: trousers old and torn, looted cotton shirts gone to rags, an infantryman’s crosswebbing, a fine worsted coat (1–2). And the ‘primitive’—figured in kangaroo mantles and ochred skin and hair—belongs to an Indigenous present that is fast fading into the past but to a modern reader is no less strange and exotic for that. The men and women, white and black, who move in this troubled time are vividly described and, again like much fantasy fiction, the language is deliberately and elaborately stylised to suggest another era.
What work can this hybrid do? Can it do what Wilson aims at, to encourage his readers to revisit old assumptions, and to ‘suspend disbelief’, as he says, about what happened between white and black under colonialism? ‘Suspend disbelief’ is an interesting choice of words. Disbelief must be suspended before the magician’s performance, for instance, otherwise we cannot enjoy its fantastic feats in which we want to believe even as they defy laws of physiology and gravity. But the magician’s act is not art; it is obfuscation, seducing us to suspend our disbelief in order to make the circle of make-believe complete.
The Roving Party relies on its fantastic imagery on one hand and its rich language on the other to effect suspension of disbelief. Its voice, its lexicon and its grammar, are evocative, but they do not belong to this country. This language is not ours; it is Cormac McCarthy’s. McCarthy’s aesthetic preoccupations are with language. The language in a McCarthy novel follows bodies as they lean into the country itself. The reading pleasure lies in one’s conviction that his novels’ very specific, very particular, vocal qualities belong to his protagonists, that it speaks them. We are convinced that here is a language and its rhythms that are made in the conditions in which the speaking body moves, breathes and lives.
If a protagonist refers to events out on the plains, McCarthy’s readers are persuaded that he speaks in the language of the plains. As Sarah Drummond puts it so beautifully, McCarthy ‘reinvents the sentence to accommodate the rolling, travelling rhythm of horseback narrative … McCarthy puts together long paragraphs, piling up the gore with carnivalesque violence. I am breathless and realise there hasn’t been a full stop for a page or two. Then he will slam the whole scene to a halt with a few choked words from an inarticulate mercenary’. For Sarah Drummond, The Roving Party offers these pleasures, too, but it failed to move me in the same way because I find a too-obvious mimicry here of McCarthy’s grammar, the beat of his prose, its rise and fall, its accent.
How would Wilson’s novel have sounded if it had reached for a language that could hold the beat of the very specific bodies that it figures, and in this country? This is more than ‘mere’ aesthetics. This is an idea of aesthetics as shaping narrative possibilities. A different language would figure a different body, with its own affects, its own desires, and its own position in relation to the bodies of others. It would be to speak of another story. No longer would we have a novel about a hunt for Aboriginal men, women and children across Ben Lomond mountain that reads like a cowboys-and-indians story, the ‘Plindermairhemener’ people wild, grimly visaged men painted for war, women round of belly with ‘great double braids of black hair trailing like mooring ropes’ who are silent or ‘wailing a long torn miserable wail ripped from the very well of [their] being’ (274). The language might have been able to sustain differences between these men and women and their dogs: no longer might there be packs of fighting dogs described in the same terms as are the hunting men, all filthy, thin and flea-ridden, their ‘chief’ Manalaragena something between a witch and a devil. This is not a new way of coming to know our past. This is make-believe.
If Wilson had tried to find a language in which to represent this frontier he may have been able to speak, for example, of the intimacy between two very particular men, John Batman and Black Bill, and without making each a version of the other. Each man has deadly power and calm precision, each man strides across a heroic landscape with coats and shirts that sweep around their imposing bodies: ‘Shoals of cloud glowed blood red on the horizon and the sun cast Batman tall and intense’ (17); Bill’s ‘musculature beneath the gleam of his skin draw[s] taut, the cords of his forearms like pulleys’ (21). Each man’s face is always shadowed beneath the rim of a hat, one overuses a pipe and has a fondness for rum taken straight. We know these men already. To have worked with another language might have opened up the writing to a new possibility, one figuring bodies that move towards each other and apart according to a rhythm different to those suggested by American fantasy or fictions of the American frontier, and to speaking of men who are stirred and soothed by something we, as readers, don’t yet know.
Wilson has been quoted as saying: ‘The novel format is the most important artistic form we have. It is the only form which can fully embody the moral complexity of human life.’ Novels, he goes on to say, ‘routinely achieve an utterly believable view of humanity’. (Wilson, ‘Rohan Wilson’) There, for me, is the traditional novel’s limit rather than its aesthetic power: it inscribes the believable. Australian novels such as these insist on giving us what we already know and believe in. Rather than continuing with this kind of literary practice that, much like magic tricks or circus, invites us to suspend disbelief, what if we were to pursue an art that invites us to suspend our beliefs, that encourages doubt rather than the suspension of it? To misquote Roland Barthes, if the novel is about what is already believable, then art, or poetry, is about that which seems to us to be unbelievable, implausible—for now.
That Deadman Dance
Kim Scott seems to aim at what is implausible, at least to a white reader—men swallowed by whales, men who levitate, and so on. His writing works poetically with what is unbelievable or implausible (to me) in order to suggest an alternative to the story that I already know, to suggest a new way of seeing. In this writing, the unbelievable is allowed to do its own kind of work. This is the work that silence or gaps can do, gaps that will not be filled in or stitched over, that suggest the existence of an as-yet-unknown, perhaps even the unknowable.
Scott’s That Deadman Dance forms part of a loose trilogy that includes Benang: From the Heart (1999) and Kayang & Me (2005). Each of these books is set along the southern coast of Western Australia near Albany, with protagonists that reappear in different books and with stories that intersect. The texts share a preoccupation with questions about how to write of the colonial past—in narratives dignified as history as well as those of historical fiction—without falling once more into the old story with all the violences of representation that that story commits. In particular, each seems to ask how to figure Indigenous protagonists and their point of view so that the claim to know the true shape of a mountain is undone. Scott’s methods are very different to those of Kate Grenville, Rohan Wilson or Inga Clendinnen.
In Scott’s writing the gaps in Australian colonial historical record are not filled by recourse either to the diaries and journals of white colonists or to excesses of imagination. Instead, gaps are pointed to rather than covered over. In That Deadman Dance Jak Tar turns the yellowed pages of an old colonist’s journal and discovers there is nothing of his story in it: ‘There is nothing of how he sang and danced on the whale’s back as the inside of the sea spilled all around him. Nothing of the people he had known, nothing of what they were seeing, thinking’ (161). Scott has another strategy, too: to draw on the stories and other documents that have been excluded from the colonial narrative. In writing That Deadman Dance he consulted Noongar story regeneration projects and late nineteenth-century letters written by the Noongar woman Bessie Flower. He also deploys his own familial knowledge of the area around Albany, giving his protagonists the names of his own ancestors, Wunyeran, Manit, Binyan. Thus he points to some unnecessary gaps in the colonial record, the ones that remain only because of the failure of white desire to consult other sources, Indigenous ones.
But Scott’s writing does more than show up the places in colonial discourses that can be easily filled. It points to the gaps that remain between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledges. In Scott’s hands, the mountain turns out to be much more enigmatic than Carr suspected. Scott’s writing refuses the terms that a writer such as Inga Clendinnen sets where, despite her claims to the contrary, Indigenous knowledges and practices are infantilised, reduced to the naive and irrational—reduced, that is, to a lesser version of our own knowledges and beliefs. (It seems That Deadman Dance explicitly speaks back to Dancing with Strangers.) So, for instance, whereas Clendinnen marvels at the so-called beach nomads’ mimicry of the Britishers’ dance and song, Scott speaks of the Noongars’ ‘appropriation of these new cultural forms—language and songs, guns and boats’ and of their appreciation of ‘reciprocity and the nuances of cross-cultural exchange’ (Scott 2010: 398).
Clearly we are in different registers here: Clendinnen’s Indigenous figure is childlike and passive—humorous at best—and Scott’s is a sophisticated subject in an act of cultural engagement. Scott finds wonderful examples. He refers for instance to a moment in the earliest days of the colony when a man named Mokare, a Noongar, with great wit interrupted ‘a conversation with soldiers to sing out to an arriving brother, not some traditional Noongar song, but “O where have you been all the day, Billie Boy?”’ He goes on to tells of a Noongar guide—Manyat—who ‘exploited structural characteristics of the “expedition journal”, a popular literary form of the time.’ And he speaks of Noongars choreographing a dance after observing Matthew Flinders’ marines performing a military drill on the beach. In Scott’s hands the men do not merely copy, they transform (399). In That Deadman Dance, dance is an elaborate language, a complex system of signification before which, crucially, the colonists are illiterate. The narrative’s protagonist Wabalanginy doesn’t realise that his white audience cannot read his dance, that they take it for mere entertainment, and this is his tragedy. While Wabalanginy dances, the colonists perform an execution.
Put beside Wilson’s or Grenville’s or Clendinnen’s figurings of Indigeneity, Scott’s protagonists are animated—they live. They are not cut-outs. Nor are they presented as living as whites do, save in shabbier, hungrier circumstances. Scott’s writing figures his Indigenous protagonists in their differences to the colonists, differently sensate and differently desiring, in ways that are deeply strange to non-Indigenous subjects. In his hands, even the country—the mountain itself—is differently shaped: it is a different thing. In That Deadman Dance we are told of the mountain that sheltered Wabalanginy: ‘like an insect among the fallen bodies of ancestors, he huddled in the eye sockets of a mountainous skull and became part of its vision, was one of its thoughts’ (52). Rocks are fallen ancestors, country is a body, to travel is to journey beside animated ancestors. Scott is not telling the same old story, populated with men and women who are remarkably recognisable to white readers as a version of ourselves, or familiar from our fantasies of our others. His writing calls his white readers to suspend our belief in our own knowledge of the smell, shape and sound of the world; he calls readers like myself into stories that are unbelievable (to me), impossible, implausible, even as they are ‘true story’ for his Indigenous protagonists. He invites us to bear the unbelievable, to stay with it until it morphs into another shape.
Scott has said of his own writing that he aims to build on a story of defeat so as to signal an alternative possibility: ‘The story is not over yet.’ The stories that he and other Idigenous writers are telling white Australians are often unpalatable as well as unbelievable. It may be that to let the story of the Australian past, present and future be rewritten, white Australians will need to relinquish the position of novelist and historian, for now, in favour of the position of reader of Indigenous-signed textualities: to become literate before the dance.
Roland Barthes, ‘The metaphor of the eye’, in Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye, trans. Joachim Neugroschel, Penguin, London, 2001.
Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Melbourne, Text, 2003.
Sarah Drummond, ‘Boots full of blood: The Roving Party and Cormac McCarthy’, Overland, June 2011.
Kate Grenville, The Lieutenant, Text, Melbourne, 2008.
Kate Grenville, Sarah Thornhill, Text, Melbourne, 2011.
Kate Grenville, The Secret River, Text, Melbourne, 2005.
Kim Scott, Benang: From the Heart, FACP, Fremantle, 1999.
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador, Sydney, 2010.
Kim Scott, Kayang & Me, FACP, Fremantle, 2005.
Rohan Wilson, ‘Rohan Wilson answers ten terrifying questions’. Rohan Wilson, The Roving Party, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2011.
Alison Ravenscroft is in the English Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Her new book The Postcolonial Eye is available from Ashgate.