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Prospero's Island

‘Warring factions and community disputes’: Aboriginal Politics in Carpentaria

Xavier Pons

Abstracts

Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria is a political novel in the sense that it addresses Aboriginal dispossession in the Gulf region. It describes quite graphically the violence the white colonists used to establish control over the land and its indigenous inhabitants, and which was facilitated by conflicts within communities. At the same time, it suggests strategies of resistance in order to assert Aboriginal sovereignty.

This sovereignty is embodied by the mytho-poetic stories of creation which are at the core of Aboriginal culture and assert its legitimacy. More than any other strategy, it is narration which underpins the political struggles of indigenous Australians.

One aspect of narration in Carpentaria serves to present in realistic terms an Australia which will be quite familiar to the white reader. But this Australia is subverted and defamiliarised by Wright’s use of satire and caricature which emphasises how tenuous the whites’ authority really is. Finally, the recourse to magical realist narration proclaims the continuing sovereignty of indigenous people over country.

It is in her own culture, rather than in white beliefs and practices, that Wright finds the political weapons to challenge the colonists’ designs on indigenous sovereignty.

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Introduction

1All great epic stories, from Homer’s Illiad to George Martin’s Games of Thrones, are driven by conflict, and this is also very much the case with Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, described as “essentially a novel about the clash of cultures” (Dollacker). Conflict can take many forms, from the most violent, which is war, to the apparently more civilised disputes known as politics. I take the word in a fairly broad sense, where it does not necessarily refer to political institutions, parties or leaders—in Carpentaria, Aborigines have no party, no elected representatives, no institutional voice—but accords with two definitions offered by the OED: a/ “public life and affairs involving the authority and government of a State or part of a State” and b/ “Activities concerned with the acquisition or exercise of authority or status; management or control of private affairs and interests within an organization, family, etc.” Indeed it is hard to see how Aboriginal fiction could be other than political, given the indigenous communities’ need to resist the continuing onslaught on their sovereignty inflicted by colonisation.

2The stories in Carpentaria are irrigated by a multitude of political conflicts that illustrate both OED definitions and connect the immemorial Australia of Aboriginal spiritual lore with the more material struggles agitating the contemporary country. Perhaps the most obvious conflict in the novel is the one between blacks and whites, especially between Pricklebush and Uptown, to use the emblematic names that configure the fictional town of Desperance. But each community is also conflicted in various ways.

3The conflicts all have to do with power but the contexts differ widely, depending on whether we are considering the white man’s opportunistic law or the Aboriginal Law in all its timeless, spiritual and practical authority. The main protagonist in the novel, as the title suggests, is the land itself, more specifically that part of northern Australia referred to as “Carpentaria,” and the conflicts evoked in the novel all revolve around control of the land.

  • 1 See as well also Sefton-Rowson: “It would be an academic faux pas to infer here that Indigenous spi (...)
  • 2 See the “history wars” and the so-called black armband view of history.
  • 3 See the Wik land rights issue, the rise of racist far right politician Pauline Hanson, the threat o (...)

4Carpentaria has been labelled a political novel (Lowry 26) and indeed it engages with issues such as Native title, land rights, police brutality or racial discrimination, all featuring prominently on the Australian political scene with respect to the Aborigines. While this view clearly has merit, it does not take account of the Aboriginal perspective, which offers a very different vision of politics and it would be more accurate to regard Carpentaria, with Frances Devlin-Glass, as “a highly politicised exploration of the Indigenous sacred” (Devlin-Glass 395).1 Wright took about a decade to write the novel, and this decade largely coincided with the period when conservative PM John Howard was in office (1996-2007), leading a crusade against Aboriginal demands for sovereignty and equality. Aborigines were systematically denigrated and opposed, whether in cultural2 or in political terms.3 However, Carpentaria is not a book that speaks only of those years—its scope is monumental and the issues it addresses continue to resonate today.

5Those issues revolve around three interrelated concepts—country, sovereignty and reconciliation—which, under the aegis of the Law, underpin the indigenous approach to politics. The notion of country, which is essential to the Aboriginal sense of identity, is quite unlike what it means for whites, who see country as mostly an economic reality—a place from which wealth can be extracted, no matter how destructively. As we shall see, to the Aborigines country is a spiritual as well as a material reality, the embodiment of the Dreamtime and the Law, and as such it is inseparable from the notion of indigenous sovereignty. For Aborigines sovereignty does not mean, as it does for whites, the absolute and independent authority of a state. Rather, it relates to the ability to look after country in accordance with the Law, free of interference. As for reconciliation with white Australians, it can only be achieved if indigenous sovereignty is acknowledged.

Politics and poetics: country and Country

  • 4 He was convicted of sexually assaulting young girls and sent to jail.
  • 5 The Royal Flying Doctor Service provides medical services to isolated communities.
  • 6 An iconic brand of boots, founded in 1932 and very popular in the outback. Along with Akubra hats a (...)
  • 7 This refers to the Australian tyre retail chain started in 1922 by Frank Beaurepaire.
  • 8 Pro Hart was an Australian painter (1928-2006), famous for his depictions of the outback.
  • 9 A vehicle for the collection and disposal of human excrement.
  • 10 The tremors affecting a social derelict, especially an alcoholic.
  • 11 Instigating or propagating something controversial, incendiary, or divisive.
  • 12 To accept a penalty without complaint.

6Carpentaria interlaces politics with poetics. It is a work of fiction, not a political manifesto, and as such its effectiveness relies on novelistic narrative devices, on what Wright called “the power of stories” or “words in action” (Wright 2018, 212-213). On one level, it is a realist narrative, full of references to Australian society and culture that make immediate sense to the Australian reader. Thus, when the author writes that “the Town Council debated whether to erect a giant something or other in the middle of town” (Wright 2006, 19), she brings to mind the Australian mania for beautifying their towns with enormous kitschy sculptures of animals (mostly, though not exclusively) that are of economic importance to the community—witness the Big Lobster (Kingston, SA), the Big Merino (Goulburn, NSW) or the Big Prawn (Ballina, NSW). As often as not, those references are made in the spirit of satire, as when Wright mentions Uptown people “dragging out old favourites like ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’” (79). This song by disgraced artist Rolf Harris4 became a worldwide hit in the 1960s and although its inane lyrics are full of clichés it was taken as the epitome of Australianness. Other references to national icons do not have this satirical dimension but serve to establish an indisputably Australian rural context—examples include mentions of the Flying Doctor’s plane (54),5 “an ancient pair of dusty R.M. Williams boots” (139),6 “the Beaurepaire salesman” (144)7 or “a Pro Hart canvas” (462).8 In much the same way, Wright uses a lot of peculiarly Australian idioms such as “dunny cart” (4),9 “the dero shakes” (66),10 “stirring up the possum’s nest” (137),11 or “cop it sweet” (350).12

7Those references and idioms are as it were signposts to a conventional white Australian identity. They function as “effets de réel” (Barthes 84), an intrusion of the non-fictional into the fictional, and induce in the (Australian) reader a sense of familiarity—he or she is on well-traversed ground. But this sense is undermined by the text’s frequent inclination to satire, a prism through which the social and cultural context of the narrative begins to appear somewhat unnatural, and perhaps even ridiculous. The satirical elements thus initiate a process of defamiliarisation which culminates in the references to traditional Aboriginal spirituality and cosmology. These lend a magical realist complexion to the novel, taking it outside the bounds of conventional Western realism, reconfiguring but not obliterating its political significance.

8In most societies, the point of politics is to acquire power, and especially the power to make laws (and enforce them). This makes little sense in an Aboriginal context, since for Aborigines there is only one Law—even though it includes a multitude of laws, defining obligations, duties and rights as well—which was laid down long ago by ancestral beings and which endures forever: man’s role is not to make changes or improvements to the Law but simply to follow it, to obey its commandments, even if people can also reinterpret and adapt the law(s) to current situations. It follows that political pursuits will take markedly different forms in black and white cultures, although their inevitable intersection throws up particular challenges for the two communities. In the words of Elizabeth Lowry “the novel occupies two parallel time zones, or streams of activity, one linear and the other part of an infinite spiritual cycle” (Lowry 27). The battle lines are drawn, pitting Blacks versus Whites, and Blacks versus other Blacks.

9The Aboriginal worldview is rooted in the Dreamtime, this mythical story of creation one of whose main protagonists is the Rainbow Serpent and its “creative enormity” (Wright 2006, 1). Ancestral beings like the serpent gave form to the earth and all creatures that live on it, and the Dreaming lays down the Law, “handed down through the ages since time began” (3), specifying how the world works. The role of Aboriginal man is “to care for the land” (492), meaning that, through appropriate ritual and observance of the Law, humans have to make sure the creative process continues unimpeded.

  • 13 See Deborah Bird Rose’s definition of the term: “People talk about country in the same way that the (...)

10Under the Law, Aboriginal people are linked to a traditional “country”—a specific area for which they have responsibility. As defined by Aboriginal activist and scholar Mick Dodson, “country” includes “all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its places” (quoted in Seran 187). It is not separate from the human beings who live on it—as Wright puts it, “It is about there being no difference between you and the movement of water as it seasonally shifts its tracks according to its own mood” (Wright 2006, 3).13 The main conflicts in Carpentaria have to do with sovereignty over country.

Conflicts and racism

  • 14 See Aboriginal elder Darren Capewell: “We are nothing without country and we are nothing without cu (...)

11Country is not so much property as heritage14 but as in other cultures there can be conflict as to whose claims are legitimate. In Carpentaria the conflict is between Norm Phantom’s “mob” and Joseph Midnight’s—“the two warring nations, one with, one without land” (12). The Midnight people are seen by Mozzie Fishman, a friend of Norm and another Lawman, as trespassers, as he tells them in no uncertain terms: “You got no ceremony here [meaning you are not entitled to celebrate the relevant Dreamtime stories]. You got to go back to your own country” (427). Wright takes care not to idealise her characters by hiding their possibly mercenary motives. Midnight wants a share of the royalties generated by the mine which Mozzie and Will find so offensive: “When the mine was built it exacerbated the situation because it created a window of opportunity for Joseph and his family to start making Native title claims over the area” (427). Wright here eschews any reference to traditional lore and uses the kind of language a white person would use, which highlights how traitorous Midnight’s behaviour is.

12However, the greatest impact on Aboriginal lives comes not from internecine conflict but from conflict with the white colonists of the Carpentaria region—and by extension of the whole of Australia. Although Carpentaria is not a regular historical novel it does delve into the past in order to make sense of the present. The story of colonisation begins some two hundred years before with the arrival of strangers from across the seas, which the inhabitants of Desperance see re-enacted with the arrival of Elias:

they contrived the waiting for Elias into an honest act of homage to the coming of their forebears. The occasion revealed through this unusual disembarkation of a person from the sea how people like themselves had also, once, turned up, appearing from out of nowhere (56).

13Despite the mayor’s assertion that “we belong here” (324), the white invaders are not truly at home in Carpentaria—they “got no sanctified ground” (58). They forced themselves on the land, violently dislodging its indigenous owners in the process, resulting in “traditional lands taken but never ceded” (6)—an indigenous affirmation of sovereignty in the face of dispossession. The whites are referred to as “the sequestrators who owned Uptown” (51)—in other words, illegitimate owners.

  • 15 Historians estimate that more than 65,000 Aborigines were killed in Queensland between 1820 and the (...)
  • 16 It could be argued that in some ways the Aborigines’ status was lower than that of cattle; cattle w (...)

14The current inhabitants of Westside remember the time when “the local pastoralists whipped Aboriginal men and women” (102),15 and massacred entire tribes. The violence of the past lives on in the present, as the novel makes abundantly clear. This violence springs from the unequal power relationships between the two communities—that is, the whites can, or think they can, do whatever they want to their black fellow citizens: rape their women, send their kids to jail, deny them their various rights, etc. Thus the mayor, the appropriately-named Bruiser: “Everyone in town knew how he bragged about how he had chased every Aboriginal woman in town at various times, until he ran them into the ground then raped them. He had branded them all, like a bunch of cattle, he gloated” (41).16 Massacres may be a thing of the past but violence persists, especially as embodied by the police, who strike fear into Aboriginal hearts:

When the policemen came, the Phantom kids cringed like the dogs, with their backs flat against the walls, trying to attain a powerless invisibility. Immobilised by fear of being seen, they listened to their thumping hearts race when they watched their father being taken away. Each time he saw his father leave the house with a policeman, Will thought it would be the last time he would ever see him (197).

  • 17 Alexis Wright devoted an entire book to the deleterious effects of alcohol on the indigenous commun (...)

15When three Aboriginal boys are arrested for a murder they did not commit the whole town is baying for their blood, “calling out that these kids should have been hung, drawn and quartered a long time ago” (329). They get beaten up so badly they were “starting to look as though they had been put through a mincing machine” (334). They eventually hang themselves. A more insidious form of violence is the supplying of indigenous communities with alcohol, “the white man’s piss they fed by the bucketful to poison the Pricklebush folk” (141).17 In similar fashion, substance abuse such as glue or petrol sniffing is turning indigenous youths into zombies (327).

  • 18 The novelist’s satirical intention appears through the use of an imaginary category, “tritaroon”, b (...)

16Racism is rife in the town. Indigenous people are dehumanised (“like a bunch of cattle”) and face all kinds of discrimination, such as being forced to live “in a human dumping ground” (4), next to a rubbish tip or in abandoned car bodies. They are insultingly referred to as “coons” (34), “Abos” (35) or “niggers” (356) and their spiritual beliefs are reduced to mere “mumbo jumbo” (77). Conversely, the self-serving whites are convinced they are exemplary human beings—as the Town Council puts it, “We don’t want anyone thinking we are not decent people” (316). Yet it is clear that in their eyes black lives do not matter as much as white ones—they dismiss some murders as unimportant because “Those, they agreed, were only black murders” (313). The whites use their power to control Aboriginal lives: they make administrative rules and force them upon the blacks who know those rules are inimical to their interests. This is why when, among the rubbish, Angel Day finds documents from the Council office, she feels downright scared: she “might have been surprised if ‘official’ papers did not intimidate her to the point she could never read them without her heart pounding. Even her fingers felt shaky, just to touch officialdom” (20). Wright also alludes to a racist practice that Aborigines find particularly hateful—the classifying of individuals in terms of the proportion of indigenous blood running in their veins—“What Uptown liked to call tritaroon, quadroon, octoroon, full blood” (319).18 In any case, whites see Aborigines as an undifferentiated mass, not as individual human beings: “‘Ah! They all look the same to me.’ ‘Can’t tell them apart, never could’” (368).

Assimilation and/as dispossession

  • 19 A basic feature of the Aboriginal way of life is that resources cannot be monopolised by one indivi (...)

17The whites’ attitudes to the Aborigines are however shot through with contradictions: on the one hand, the Aborigines are rejected as too different, and inferior. They have to be kept at arm’s length and excluded from Uptown “for the purposes of protecting the town against encroachment from people who were not like themselves” (34). To some whites, rejection must be carried out far more drastically: “Curt messages painted over public signs told the story of the town to the whole world passing on the highway. Kill All Coons, or similar, left on the hill for posterity’s sake” (449). Yet this murderous spirit also takes the form of subtler attempts to erase the Aborigines by assimilating them, that is to say by pressuring them to give up their traditional culture and take up that of the white man instead. Such is the point of Bruiser advising Aborigines to make keys “so they can lock their food up somewhere and not have to share everything they get with their families” (35).19 Wright alludes to the way institutions and programs attempt to steer the Aborigines towards something approaching the white man’s way of life by mentioning Cilla Mooch, “an Aboriginal man learning how to shape himself into a white mould with one of those perpetual traineeship work-for-the-dole programs” (37). Wright’s disdain for such efforts is plain to see, as is her disapproval of indigenous characters who, out of greed, sell out to the whites by cooperating with the Gurfurrit mine, like Joseph Midnight’s mob, who are after the “big bickies to be had from big mining” (52).

  • 20 However, the representative of the white men’s religion, Father Danny, is depicted in a positive li (...)
  • 21 Kevin is said to have achieved A plus for an essay on novelist Tim Winton (Wright 2006, 106), and h (...)

18Christianity and education are another assimilation tool to drag the Aborigines away from their traditional beliefs. The whites’ religion is a kind of poison, on a par with alcohol—Mozzie is convinced “Christian beliefs had indoctrinated Aboriginal communities, like grog” (142).20 As for education, it holds out false promises of betterment and equality: schoolteachers are “trying to make the [Phantom] family understand that Aboriginal people needed to succeed, and to succeed they needed to be educated” (105). But this paternalistic view, for all that it seems kindly inclined towards indigenous people, in fact locks in their inferiority: they need to catch up with the more advanced white man but, as in Zeno’s paradox, they will never reach their target. A European-type education is mostly irrelevant to Aboriginal children as Kevin discovers, which leads him to complain “about why he had to sit around uselessly trying to do essays about books talking about them white people lives” (105). Kevin’s accident while working in the mine, which turns him from a very bright kid into an “idiot” (109), illustrates the fact that a white education does not protect Aborigines from the white man’s depredations.21 The Gurfurrit mine encapsulates the whites’ greed and insensitivity to indigenous concerns about country. The mine is simply “pillaging the region’s treasure trove” (9).

19Indigenous communities face all the various challenges that stem from dispossession and colonisation, the outcome of which seems encapsulated by the activists’ difficulties in setting the mine on fire: “It looked like defeat was imminent. And that same old defeated look, two centuries full of it, began creeping back onto their faces” (410-411). Yet they prevail against the odds, proving that defeat is not inevitable if you develop adequate strategies of resistance. Carpentaria’s political dimension does not rely on the kind of activism that European Australians associate with the word politics. In a Western context, the dominant culture prescribes that political activism is mostly conducted through political parties and various associations in order to win elections and thus achieve power by having majorities in parliament and forming government. In an Aboriginal context politics is also conducted in a culturally appropriate manner but this implies very different values and methods. A basic consideration is to preserve indigenous authenticity, and thus sovereignty, in the face of the relentless onslaught of white values and interests. The political processes of the white people do not suit Aborigines even though there was “a short-lived era of Aboriginal domination of the [Shire] Council,” resulting in “Meaningful coexistence” (8). Wright does not explain why this “honeymoon period” came to an end but she mentions that the Aboriginal councillors “wisely used their time in public office to pursue scraps of personal gain for their own families living amidst the muck of third-world poverty” (8). The wording makes it clear that Wright considers this attitude as entirely justified—and indeed sharing what one has with one’s kin is a fundamental of Aboriginal society—but it is not the way politics is supposed to be conducted in white-dominated society, where it is regarded as graft (or, in the Australian vernacular, a “rort”).

20The whites try to erode the Aborigines’ sense of their distinctive identity, aiming for an assimilation that would amount to extinction. This is of course resisted by Aborigines, who are contemptuous of those they call “coconuts”—black on the outside but white inside—even though some Aborigines resort to imitation of the white man in order to advance their own agenda. When Norm tells Mozzie “You want to stop running around town like a white man,” the latter dismisses this criticism: “But brother, it seems to me you accuse any black man in town of being a coconut. I seduce Uptown, I get them to eat out of my hands” (133). Norm himself resorts to a similar strategy when he is charged with the murder of Joseph Midnight’s father Cyclone and he gets his witnesses to mimic the white people’s idea of a “civilized,” i.e. assimilated indigenous person:

Norm’s blood relatives testified as sober people with bent heads. They never frightened the judge or any of the Australian law because they spoke their English calmly, which they knew would not frighten white folk, who never liked black aggressors (155).

21The strategy works, and the charges against Norm are dismissed.

Resistance: realism and satire

  • 22 See Wright 2006, 101-102 and 333-335.
  • 23 See the Burketown entry in Wikipedia: “A massacre of 30 Aboriginal people took place after 12 horse (...)

22Alexis Wright depicts the political issues that Aborigines must address in Northern Australia—“the living hell of the lives of many Aboriginal people,” as she put it (Wright 2003, 13)—with great accuracy. The novel does not try to achieve a documentary quality but it does present in an almost naturalistic manner the racist practices that prevail in Desperance.22 Wright’s fiction is based in part on actual events and people. The massacres mentioned in the novel really occurred;23 the Gurfurrit mine is based on the actual Century zinc mine, and its opponent Will Phantom recalls Aboriginal activist Murandoo Yanner, whom Wright acknowledges as a source of inspiration. The fictional fire that destroys Uptown’s records recalls an actual fire in Burketown, on which Desperance is loosely based. Thus there is a strong factual bedrock to some of the events and characters featured in the novel. However, while what we might label the realist parts of the narrative are often powerfully evocative, they are apt to have a demoralising effect as they mostly emphasise Aboriginal powerlessness: whites have the upper hand and Aborigines do not have the political clout which might protect them.

23As a defence against this demoralising effect, Wright resorts to a traditional political weapon—satire and caricature, as appears from the names of characters such as Bruiser, E’Strange Truthful or the many Smiths who populate Desperance (the name of which is a satirical derivation of the actual town of Esperance, in Western Australia). For all the whites’ sense of superiority, they actually have such a deep-seated fear of the indigenous population that it becomes an obsession, as appears from the neurotic repetitions of the term “Aboriginals” in the following passage:

Paranoia was the word that best described what took place inside the squashed Council chambers. Everyone had a story to tell about some Aboriginals who they saw sitting under a tree thinking about lighting fires. Some Aboriginals were seen pushing up into Uptown itself—abandoned car bodies to live in. You could see Aboriginals living in them behind the fences at the end of their backyards even. Aboriginals were thinking about setting up another camp (Wright 2006, 33).

24Wright also criticises the political institutions of which white Australia is so proud. When the alarmed citizens of Uptown convene meeting after meeting, she observes, ironically, that “It was like living in a democracy” (33). Like, but not the real thing, as is confirmed by the pronouncement that “tampering with a ballot box was no great sin” (34). The same irony is found in her reference to “the hallowed halls of southern parliaments” (35). Those institutions systematically favour the dominant whites at the expense of the Aborigines—as Fishman says, “there was no good whitefella government governing for blackfella people anywhere” (126).

25Because Aborigines are far more numerous in northern Australia, white attitudes are more entrenched and radical there. The inhabitants of Uptown are inclined to believe that their southern compatriots (and this includes the inhabitants of the Queensland capital city, Brisbane) are bleeding heart liberals who do not know the proper way of dealing with the blacks. They are even more inclined to criticize “the damn lazy government in Canberra” (318). What is to be avoided at all costs is a “soft” attitude on the part of police officers hailing from the south. As Bruiser says,

There will be no mucking about getting the cops up from down South. We got our own policeman right here, who knows us, knows what we want, and knows this town doesn’t want to be mucked about (324).

26In the same spirit, Bruiser is unhappy that the Town Council appointed Valance as town clerk, “recruiting another Southerner to the job” (327). But, for all his contempt for southern liberals, he has little to fear from them: when Constable Truthful opposes Bruiser’s brutality and contemplates reporting him he realises this line of action would be going nowhere: “there wouldn’t be one politician or bureaucrat connected with the State government, who would be game enough to challenge the influential Bruiser…” (334). Racist violence can continue unchecked. Satire and caricature are powerful weapons, but not sufficient to protect the Aborigines from white violence.

The Dreaming and magic realism

27Yet Aborigines have other assets, inherent in their culture, which are an enormous source of strength and allow them to transcend the miserable condition to which colonisation has reduced them. When seen from the perspective of the Aboriginal Dreaming, it is the whites who are eking out a precarious existence in a land where they do not belong and which they do not understand. As Anne Brewster has argued, “the novel contrasts the crisis of whiteness—its desperation—with the plenitude of indigenous spiritual, cosmological and historical connectedness with the land and the sea, that is, with indigenous sovereignty” (Brewster 86). This reversal of the apparent power relationship, which shows up the whites’ weakness and ineffectiveness in the face of the strength of Aboriginal culture, is illustrated by the fact that, despite the whites’ efforts to protect themselves by erecting around the town “a wall so solid it had the appearance of a wall surrounding an important medieval palace,” the place’s Aboriginal identity prevails:

The Pricklebush mob saw huge, powerful, ancestral creation spirits occupying the land and the sea moving through the town, even inside other folk’s houses, right across any piece of the country. Nothing but no good was coming out of puerile dreams of stone walls, big locked gates, barred windows, barbed wire rolled around the top to lock out the menace of the black demon (Wright 2006, 59).

28The novel makes it clear that the materialistic worldview held by most whites is not all there is to reality. Setting the tone or mood of the entire novel, the opening chapter lays the stress on the Aboriginal cosmology and its principal creative force, the Rainbow Serpent, to which the land and the waters owe their shape. There is a transcendental dimension to reality which shows how limited, and ultimately counterproductive, the whites’ rational, materialistic approach is. This is conveyed in many different ways. One is a matter of language, as English is not an appropriate vehicle to describe this spiritual dimension: the word Dreamtime, commonly used to refer to it, is inadequate because it suggests that what is dream-like is necessarily removed from reality. Alexis Wright peppers her narrative with indigenous words from her Waanyi language and, quite deliberately, makes no effort to translate them into English. So there are those Aboriginal words bubbling up now and then in the text like lava in a volcanic area, as a reminder that beneath this symbol of white dominance, the English language, there lies a very different, and very much living, culture with its very own worldview.

  • 24 A point also made by Ben Holgate (638).
  • 25 The same sentiment is conveyed by the militant phrase “always was, always will be Aboriginal land” (...)

29The novel’s Aboriginal characters do believe in magic, though the word is sometimes used somewhat metaphorically, to describe any unlikely but happy event.24 Wright says of Angel Day that “she used magic to erect a home from scraps” (14). When Will is trying to blow up the mine, and it looks like the fire is going to peter out, he is said to believe that “magic can happen even to poor buggers like themselves” (411). And indeed the fire finally revives and the desired explosion destroys the mine. Wright herself does not shy away from asserting the magic dimension of some of the events narrated. Thus she refers to “the magical appearance of the sea man,” Elias (49), and when Norm is blown off course by the storm and ends up on a strange island, she writes: “Oh! Magic big time. A land full of tricks. The sea full of spirits” (276). Some Aboriginal characters have magical capabilities—thus, Norm has secret conversations “with the heavenly spirits at night” (230), while Mozzie can smell water from miles away (129). Carpentaria leaves the reader in no doubt that there is more to reality than meets the eyes of the white man. It suggests, as W.B. Yeats put it, that “there is another world, but it is in this one.” The world was created by supernatural Dreamtime forces, as the opening chapter describes. The signs are everywhere for initiated Aboriginal men to see, such as the cave where Fishman and his companions go: “And the walls, they screamed at you with the cryptic, painted spirits of the Dreamtime. And inside the walls, was the movement of spirits, moving further and further forward” (436). This passage connects the timeless (the spirits of the Dreamtime), the very old (the rock paintings left generations ago by Aboriginal worshippers) and the contemporary. The past engages in dialogue with the present, and this suggests the continuity which is at the heart of Aboriginal spirituality: the creation myths are alive and ever present, the present and the distant past are far from distinct. As Wright recounts, the ancestral serpent came down “those billions of years ago” (1) and is still very much a presence: “It is all around in the atmosphere and is attached to the lives of the river people like skin” (2). The point of Aboriginal culture is to preserve this continuity, and the continuity of the world and the land, in particular through ceremony and ritual. Hence the reference to the old Pricklebush people “who kept the chronicles of the land hereabouts since time began” (48). The continuity of Aboriginal culture through the ages is poetically illustrated by Joseph Midnight’s remark about Will Phantom: “Our Will, he moves lightly through the bush to the beat of the muddied and cracked dancing feet of a million ancestors” (161).25

30Nor is there an essential difference between human beings and the natural world, as all proceeds from the creation spirits and is subject to the Law. Norm, a saltwater man, says, “We are the flesh and blood of the sea” (33) while his son Will

knew how the tides worked simply by looking at the movement of a tree, or where the moon crossed the sky, the light of day, or the appearance of the sea. He carried the tide in his body. Even way out in the desert, when he was on the Fishman’s convoy, a thousand miles away from the sea, he felt its rhythms (401).

31After they have blown up the mine, the Aboriginal activists elude their pursuers because “they took on the appearance of the earth itself” (416).

  • 26 See the songline entry on Wikipedia: “A songline, also called dreaming track, is one of the paths a (...)

32To ensure continuity, it is vital that people uphold the Law, as Mozzie and his followers do by travelling along the songlines26 and performing the appropriate ceremonies:

Bearers of the feared secret Law ceremony, these one hundred men were holy pilgrims of the Aboriginal world. Their convoy continued an ancient religious crusade along the spiritual travelling road of the great ancestor, whose journey continues to span the entire continent and is older than time itself (119).

33Those who follow the Law receive its protection, as Norm does during the storm, and those who break it are punished.

34Wright’s references to the supernatural element in the Aboriginal worldview have sometimes perplexed white readers. Because of them Alison Ravenscroft finds the novel “very precisely unreadable to a white reader” (Ravenscroft 215), while Paul Sharrad appears to dismiss “an appeal to spiritual powers that sometimes feels more desperate than confident, more confused than viably redemptive” (Sharrad 61). A literary mode that relies on magic and the supernatural can of course be offputting to a Western rational mind, especially in a novel with political preoccupations—indeed, what is the good of turning to mythical creatures like “the groper who swam from the sea at certain times of the year to the sky and down again” (Wright 2006, 515) when you are trying to achieve a political purpose? Those strictures recall Macaulay’s arrogant dismissal of Indian cultural narratives, which he reduced to references to

medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter (Macaulay, par. 13).

  • 27 Even though modern astronomy would point out that it is the earth that moves relative to the stars, (...)

35Indeed, it should be pointed out that “the groper who swam [...] to the sky” refers to an actual star, Fomalhaut, “the brightest in the constellation of Piscis Austrini,” as Wright recounts, and its swimming is an imaginative but accurate depiction of its movement in the night sky—there is in fact nothing irrational or exaggerated about it.27

36Furthermore, as Suzanne Baker argued,

magical realism renews and revitalises a traditional and ‘real’ Aboriginal heritage and cosmology […] [T]he element of unreality woven into the tale only appears as ‘fantasy’ or ‘magic’ to the non-Aboriginal reader. For the Aboriginal reader it is as ‘real’ to them as the Christian mythology […] is ‘real’ to white Christians (Baker 55).

37Wright’s evocation of magic is not a matter of fantastic exaggerations and dazzling though improbable performances as per a wizard’s wand. It serves to foreground fundamental aspects of Aboriginal culture. Devlin-Glass noted that the novel “draws on Waanyi cosmology to insist that mythological meanings are embedded in the mundane and everyday real” (Devlin-Glass 393). Invoking magical explanations to make sense of certain phenomena might seem the product of a primitive or naïve mind. Wright is not unaware of such a patronising point of view but she undermines it with her satirical humour, as in the scene when mine executives receive their marching orders from their New York bosses:

The mobile phone screamed instructions into Graham’s ear and his face whitened. Strange how a skyscraper in New York could cast spells like magic. It could keep a whole floor of workers occupied with knowing whether every single switch was up or down on every last monitoring device on Gurfurrit operations, in the spinifex mind you, on the other side of the world (444).

38But the white man’s magic, such as it is, proves ineffectual, and weather conditions prevent the executives from locating Fishman and his men: “Even the afternoon rainstorms could beat the monitors in New York” (445). The whites remain, in Norm’s biting words, “insignificant white ants” (38).

  • 28 See their belief in alien abductions (Wright 2006, 73) or in the net supposed to protect the town: (...)
  • 29 Norm does not need “to speculate about the genes of the Midnight clan” (Wright 2006, 506).
  • 30 “Norm used the advantage of the clear skies to practise his astronomical calculations” (Wright 2006 (...)
  • 31 Fishman says: “All that scientify stuff is easy. You could learn it in a day” (Wright 2006, 248).

39Besides, Alison Ravenscroft rightly rejects a binary reading of the novel that associates Indigeneity with magic, irrationality, delusion and dream, and whiteness with realism, reality and rationality, and with consciousness, a wakeful state (Ravenscroft 197), arguing that the division between the two perspectives is internal to the characters, white as well as black, rather than setting up one race against the other. Although it seems Aboriginal characters are not in fact thus conflicted, it is true that whites have their own myths, whether of the Virgin Mary or Father Christmas, and their own beliefs in a form of magic that is at times described as irrational and illogical (Holgate 638).28 Like the Aborigines, the whites want to be “masters of their own dreams” (Wright 2006, 58) instead of being bound by material reality. Like the whites, Aborigines accept the “scientify” aspect of reality—whether genetics29 or astronomy30—but are not intimidated by it.31

Telling one’s own story

40Resorting to magic realism might conceivably be seen as a form of escapism: where reality is too bleak and offers next to no promise that things will get better, turning to fantasy could be wish fulfilment, an anodyne to dull the pain that colonialism has inflicted. But this sort of view does not do justice to Alexis Wright’s literary and political strategy. As Caroline Bennet noted in her examination of Latin American fiction, “magical realism is conceived as a mode of resistance to the colonially imposed construction of identity” (Bennet, abstract). Latin American magic realist novels, she goes on, “are part of a movement to restore, preserve and create culture and history which are distinctive to the continent” (Bennet 95). Carpentaria, whose author has acknowledged the influence of writers such as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez, is very much the product of a comparable process on the continent of Australia, and its political dimension is in no way obscured or diminished by its recourse to a narrative mode diverging from the realist and rational mode that dominates Western fiction.

41Recourse to a magical realist narrative mode is not uncommon among indigenous Australian writers. It is for instance a feature of Sam Watson’s The Kadaicha Sung and of Mudrooroo’s Master of the Ghost Dreaming. It is a way of making an indigenous voice heard despite the marginalisation of the indigenous population and its culture, a way of countering the mocking voice evoked in the novel’s prologue: “A nation chants, But we know your story already” (Wright 2006, 1). A different and more truthful story needs to be told, and magical realism provides an appropriate voice. Dreamtime stories, like the stories Wright’s grandmother used to tell her, “could be called supernatural and fantastic, but I do not think of them in this way,” she says. They are an alternative way of seeing the world, and the expression of “spiritual beliefs as much as the beliefs of the everyday” (Wright 2007, 88-89). Ultimately, they are the gateway to indigenous sovereignty, and their telling is pregnant with political possibilities.

  • 32 This is very similar to the use of the weasel word “dispersal” to refer to Aboriginal massacres.

42The need for Aborigines to tell their own stories, and not allow white voices to obliterate their own, is illustrated early in the novel by the tale of “the old Afghan brothers,” Abdul and Abdullah, and their camels: when their services are no longer required because motor vehicles take over the carrying of goods across the outback, they disappear, but the camels come back: “One cloud-covered night, the camels finally turned up in Desperance, jingling and a-jangling, their foreign bells swaying around their necks, vespers on such a still night” (Wright 2006, 5). The emphasis on the alienness of men and beasts, which disturbs the town’s residents just as the Aboriginal presence does, is indicative of the prevailing racism. The camels and their pack saddles are the embodiment of foreignness, and as such attract the ill-will of the residents: “The townsfolk had a deeply felt aversion to touching the belongings of dark-skinned foreigners—or their animals” (5). As a result, the camels are treated with great cruelty: “After being hounded for several hours by their pursuers on foot and horseback, and stoned and whipped, the camels were eventually moved out over the claypans and shot” (6). But the episode is given a markedly different complexion in the euphemistic official story: “In the archival records written with a thick nib by a heavy-handed municipal clerk it is recorded, Camels removed” (6).32 The racist prejudices which lie at the root of this violence have been written out. The true story is buried beneath the sanitised official version, much as the stories of the Aboriginal people and of the brutal treatment they suffered at the hands of the whites are suffocated by the white winners’ appropriation of history (Sibert 34). Aborigines and their culture have “been rendered invisible” (36).

43This raises the fundamental question addressed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: can the subaltern speak? (Spivak 26) In the context of the white coloniser’s dominance the answer is no—the subaltern is effectively silenced, as shown by the passage where young cop Truthful investigates the fight opposing warring Aboriginal factions. He sees a lot of injured people but in answer to his enquiries they say: “Just an accident, sir, no problem” (29). It would be unwise to tell the truth to the white authorities, so the truth cannot be spoken. As the Pricklebush people tell Mozzie, “Be quiet about white people … You don’t go and tell white people anything. Not the police especially” (Wright 2006, 133). So it is small wonder that frustrated Aborigines long for a way to have their voices heard. “Nothing must stop our stories,” Fishman says (429). They want to reclaim their stories, and resort to a narrative mode that will allow them to do so. Alexis Wright explained that she wanted to write Carpentaria as a traditional long story of our times, so the book would appear reminiscent of the style of oral story-telling that a lot of Indigenous people would find familiar. This style of story-telling involves the building of “a story place where the spiritual, real and imagined worlds exist side by side” (Wright 2007, 2).

Reconciliation?

44How do those representations of the indigenous world impact on the fundamental political question that Australia faces, the question of reconciliation? Wright’s own position is far from optimistic. After a fairly violent confrontation between Bruiser and Norm she writes “In an era when people were crying for reconciliation, there was fat chance that day” (42). But what about a more auspicious day? Another confrontation produces a mere parody of reconciliation: “In the end, black and white were both crawling on the ground in reconciliation. Both saying that they were plain jack of each other” (78). The whites, with their racism and violence, are not truly receptive about reconciliation. When asked in an interview “how do you perceive the reconciliation issue?” she replied, tersely and pointedly, “I don’t perceive it” (Vernay 122). She later elaborated:

Sometimes I feel that forgiveness is almost unimaginable. There is no healing road of reconciliation for many thousands of Aboriginal people. How can there be? The indigenous people of this country are still on the road of genocide at the hands of Australian governments (Wright 2003).

45Yet there are some hopeful signs, if only because the coexistence of blacks and whites in Australia, and the associated interactions, are there to stay, so that some kind of accommodation must be worked out “nilly pilly,” as Wright might say. The novel’s structure and narrative modes testify to what this accommodation might be. In Diane Molloy’s words, “blending Aboriginal and Western approaches to writing history and telling stories opens up new opportunities for cultural harmony” (Molloy 1). Reconciliation means building bridges across different, and often antagonistic, world views, but without compromising what C.M. Renes calls “Indigenous inscriptions into country and culture” (Renes 53).

46Even though most whites in Desperance have no understanding of or respect for Aboriginal culture, blacks are prepared to see merit in some Western ways and to appropriate elements of white culture. Thus Mozzie and his followers have adopted white automotive technology and have made it theirs thanks to their inventiveness. Like many other Aborigines, Mozzie—he of the “Clint Eastwood face” (Wright 2006, 136)—is fond of country and western music: even though it is regarded as basically white, it is bound to have positive associations for a culture that sets such store on “country.”

47However, the Aborigines’ relationship with white culture is full of ambiguities, many of them embodied in the figure of Angel Day. She has an inaccurate vision of how that culture works, relying on fetishes like the statue of the Virgin Mary which she appropriates:

she, Mrs Angel Day, now owned the luck of the white people […] This was how white people had become rich by saving up enough money, so they could look down on others by keeping statues of their holy ones in their homes (23).

48This confuses capitalism and superstition, and simply imitating the whites offers no promise of real betterment, even though Angel Day paints the statue “in the colour of her own likeness”(38). She also appropriates a clock she finds on the rubbish tip, and thereby surrenders the indigenous conception of time, which is attuned to the cosmos, in favour of a mechanical conception which, like the whites, she regards as more appropriate to a civilised life:

No one in the Phantom family would be guessing the time any more from where the sun sat in the sky. In the new sweet life, the Phantom family would be marching off to bed at the correct time, just like the school thought was really desirable, then they would march off to school on time to do their school work (22).

49Absorption into white culture and society does not amount to reconciliation, which cannot occur at the expense of sovereignty, and neither does appeasement of the kind mockingly suggested by Norm, “You can’t go upsetting the white people,” which elicits the narrator’s ironical comment: “Such an important piece of information […] for harmonious living” (97). Yet Carpentaria also offers somewhat more positive signals. One has to do with the feuding Aboriginal clans of Westside and Eastside, who come together in the figure of Bala, the grandson of Joseph Midnight and Norm Phantom, “the child of Hope” (276) in more ways than one, of whom it is said that “the otherside was flowing side by side with Westside in that child” (514) and that “he could be the adhesive needed to create peace between the two groups” (381). Besides, Norm is finally reconciled with his son Will, who had been estranged for marrying Midnight’s daughter. Harmony and unity among Aborigines are achievable.

50Where reconciliation between blacks and whites is concerned, one could turn to Wright’s expectations of white readers: she said that she “wanted the reader […] to stay with the story as a welcomed stranger” (Wright 2007, 9). In this sense, she aims to seduce, by allowing them to enter the Aboriginal world, experience its texture, its spirituality, its outlooks and its issues. Seduction can be a very effective political weapon. By positioning the white reader as a welcomed stranger, located in a kind of liminal space—in between, partly in and partly out—she creates the possibility of empathy, which, tenuous as it is, offers the only path to reconciliation. This is illustrated by the character of Elias Smith (see Barras), who develops a deep friendship with Norm and whose spiritual affinity with the Aborigines is suggested by the remark that “this man might be equated with the Dreamtime world” (Wright 2006, 50). In recognition of this, Norm returns him to his “home” in the sea after his death, and offers him a permanent place within Aboriginal ontology alongside the coral trout which are said to belong to his spirit (287). However, Elias is not a typical representative of the white community, who in fact casts him out and eventually murders him, so that the conundrum of reconciliation remains unsolved.

Conclusion

51The most significant political gesture, in Carpentaria, is the novel itself—its language, its way of telling stories (Wright 2018). With its determination to put the Aboriginal point of view to a mostly white audience, its subversion of western narrative codes, its combination of the satirical and the epic, it offers a challenge to white intellectual, and by way of consequence political, authority. It embodies “the power of words at work” (88). Alexis Wright takes the conventions of novel-writing and turns them into an appropriate vehicle for Aboriginal expression. When facing a text such as Carpentaria, non-Aboriginal readers must, as Penny Van Toorn argued, “unlearn old habits, assumptions and values so that, eventually, they might learn to read [...] as receptive, well-informed listeners in an equitable cross-cultural dialogue” (Van Toorn 45). Western cultural imperialism is held in check by the foregrounding of Aboriginal perspectives.

  • 33 One example that comes to mind—and there are many others—is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle T (...)

52It could be argued that Aboriginal literature is inherently political, just as it was argued of Aboriginal painting: “All Aboriginal art is political, because it is a statement of cultural survival”—so said Gary Foley, activist and first Aboriginal Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, in 1984. Novelist Tara June Winch confirmed: “when we speak about our arts it is always and always has been political” (Winch). Antonio Gramsci contended that cultural hegemony is the gateway to political hegemony, and indeed there is no contesting the latter without contesting the former, as Alexis Wright does. R.J. Martin has argued against critics who find political merit in Aboriginal literature, against those who, as he put it sarcastically, believe “that Aboriginal literature might somehow improve the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society, and indeed ‘Indigenous’ people internationally” (Martin 168). This, however, seriously underestimates the political influence wielded by literature, including fiction.33 As a political novel, Carpentaria does not hector the white reader, nor does it try to persuade them to follow a particular course of action—Alexis Wright reported that she “tried to be careful not to create a political manifesto out of a whole raft of concerns we have” (Wright 2007, 7). Given the extent of the discriminations and inequities Aborigines continue to face, given also the reluctance of Australian governments—especially Liberal ones—to address these issues and allow Aborigines to enjoy the “fair go” which is supposed to be one of the major pillars of the country’s culture, it is clear that Aboriginal militancy remains a necessity. Their struggle is far from over, and as Wright emphasises, there is a need to keep “fighting all the time for a bit of land and a bit of recognition” (11). In this context, words—the substance of Wright’s novel—are a powerful weapon. Aboriginal politics consists, in no small degree, in the writing of a book like Carpentaria, which amounts to a proud assertion of indigenous sovereignty.

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Bibliography

Baker, Suzanne. “Magic realism as a postcolonial strategy: The Kadaitcha Sung.” Span, 32. (1992). 10 April 2022. <http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/readingroom/litserv/SPAN/32/Baker.html>

Barras, Arnaud. “Ecopoetic Encounters: Amnesia and Nostalgia in Alexis Wright’s Environmental Fiction.” Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology 5 (2015): 54-67.

Barthes, Roland. “L’effet de reel.” Communications 11 (1968): 84-89.

Bennet, Caroline. “The Politics and Poetics of Latin American Magical Realism.” Ph.D. thesis, Goldsmith College, University of London, 1999.

Bird Rose, Deborah. Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness. Canberra: Australian Heritage Comm., 1996.

Brewster, Anne. “Indigenous Sovereignty and the Crisis of Whiteness in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.” Australian Literary Studies 25:4 (2010): 85-100.

Devlin-Glass, Frances. “A Politics of the Dreamtime: Destructive and Regenerative Rainbows in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.” Australian Literary Studies 23:4 (2008): 392-407.

Dollacker, Sarah Sacha. “Aboriginal Land Rights.” BookBrowse. May 2010. 13 March 2022. <https://www.bookbrowse.com/mag/btb/index.cfm/book_number/2251/carpentaria#btb/>

Herbert. Xavier. Capricornia. 1937. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1972.

Korff, Jens. “Massacres: The frontier violence that’s hard to accept.” 26 March 2022. 10 April 2022. <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/massacres-the-frontier-violence-thats-hard-to-accept#massacres-the-horrors-of-frontier-violence>

Kuhn, Rick. “Xenophobic racism and class during the Howard years.” <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.693.5051&rep=rep1&type=pdf>

Lewis, Chris. “More Australian tourists seek out authentic Aboriginal cultural experiences.” 4 July 2021. 10 April 2022. <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-04/aboriginal-cultural-tourism-is-booming-in-wa/100231714>

Lowry, Elizabeth. “The Fishman Lives the Lore.” London Review of Books 30:8 (April 2008): 26-27.

Holgate, Ben. “Unsettling Narratives: Re-Evaluating Magical Realism as Postcolonial Discourse through Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and The Swan Book.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 51:6 (2015): 634-647.

McBride, Laura. “Always Was, Always Will Be, Aboriginal Land.” 09 July 2021. 10 April 2022. https://australian.museum/learn/first-nations/always-will-be-aboriginal-land/

McNamara, Robert. “Did Uncle Tom’s Cabin Help to Start the Civil War?” Thought Co. 2020. 29 June 2020. 10 April 2022. <https://www.thoughtco.com/uncle-toms-cabin-help-start-civil-war-1773717>

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Minute on Education. 1835. 13 March 2022. <http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_1835.html>.

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Molloy, Diane. “Finding Hope in the Stories: Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and the Carnivalesque Search for a New Order.” JASAL 12:3 (2012). 13 March 2022. <https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index/php/JASAL/article/view/9836/9724>

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---. “Politics of Writing.” Southerly 62.2 (2003): 11-12.

---. Carpentaria. Sydney: Giramondo, 2006.

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Notes

1 See as well also Sefton-Rowson: “It would be an academic faux pas to infer here that Indigenous spirituality has an intentional political agenda, yet because it offers an alternative to mainstream capitalist society, as an ideology, it is politically relevant—particularly in the context of interpreting reconciliation as a political or social ‘movement’ rather than a spiritual revelation” (359).

2 See the “history wars” and the so-called black armband view of history.

3 See the Wik land rights issue, the rise of racist far right politician Pauline Hanson, the threat of a “race election” in 2001, the refusal to say “sorry” to the Aborigines, etc.: “From the mid-1990s, Australia experienced a cascade of moral panics and racist campaigns against Aborigines, Arabs, refugees and Muslims” (Kuhn).

4 He was convicted of sexually assaulting young girls and sent to jail.

5 The Royal Flying Doctor Service provides medical services to isolated communities.

6 An iconic brand of boots, founded in 1932 and very popular in the outback. Along with Akubra hats and Driza-Bone oilskin coats they are the bushman’s quintessential apparel.

7 This refers to the Australian tyre retail chain started in 1922 by Frank Beaurepaire.

8 Pro Hart was an Australian painter (1928-2006), famous for his depictions of the outback.

9 A vehicle for the collection and disposal of human excrement.

10 The tremors affecting a social derelict, especially an alcoholic.

11 Instigating or propagating something controversial, incendiary, or divisive.

12 To accept a penalty without complaint.

13 See Deborah Bird Rose’s definition of the term: “People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. Country is not a generalised or undifferentiated type of place […]. Rather, country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life” (7).

14 See Aboriginal elder Darren Capewell: “We are nothing without country and we are nothing without culture […] Country has been here long before we got here and it’s going to be here long time after we've gone.” (quoted by Lewis).

15 Historians estimate that more than 65,000 Aborigines were killed in Queensland between 1820 and the early 1900s (see Korff).

16 It could be argued that in some ways the Aborigines’ status was lower than that of cattle; cattle were exploited too but they were not despised.

17 Alexis Wright devoted an entire book to the deleterious effects of alcohol on the indigenous communities of Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory (1997).

18 The novelist’s satirical intention appears through the use of an imaginary category, “tritaroon”, better to emphasise the absurdity of the whole exercise. In actual fact the operative categories were “full blood” and “half-caste”—people of mixed ancestry who were supposedly easier to assimilate into white society, a view that led to the Stolen Generations.

19 A basic feature of the Aboriginal way of life is that resources cannot be monopolised by one individual but must be shared with one’s kin.

20 However, the representative of the white men’s religion, Father Danny, is depicted in a positive light because of his opposition to the mine (Wright 2006, 193).

21 Kevin is said to have achieved A plus for an essay on novelist Tim Winton (Wright 2006, 106), and his accident may be a nod to an episode in Winton’s most popular novel, Cloudstreet, in which young Fish Lamb is rescued after drowning, though “not all of [him] had come back” (Winton 32)—he suffers brain damage.

22 See Wright 2006, 101-102 and 333-335.

23 See the Burketown entry in Wikipedia: “A massacre of 30 Aboriginal people took place after 12 horses were killed. A further 29 Aboriginal people were murdered shortly afterwards by shooting and bludgeoning. As the Burketown correspondent of the Port Dennison Times reported on 4 June 1868, ‘everybody in the district is delighted with the wholesale slaughter dealt out by the native police’. The newspaper paid ‘thanks’ to those involved in ‘ridding the district of fifty-nine (59) myalls’ or local Aboriginal people.”

24 A point also made by Ben Holgate (638).

25 The same sentiment is conveyed by the militant phrase “always was, always will be Aboriginal land” which, in the words of Laura McBride, a director at the Australian Museum, “is an important statement within First Nations communities as it reasserts that the very first footprints on this continent were those belonging to First Nations peoples, and that their sovereignty of this Country has never been ceded. It is a clear declaration that First Nations people are still here and are never leaving. A statement of resilience, survival, deep connection and celebration” ‘(McBride).

26 See the songline entry on Wikipedia: “A songline, also called dreaming track, is one of the paths across the land (or sometimes the sky) within the animist belief system of The First Nations People of Australia, which mark the route followed by localised “creator-beings” during the Dreaming. The paths of the songlines are recorded in traditional song cycles, stories, dance, and art, and are often the basis of ceremonies. They are a vital part of Aboriginal culture, connecting people to their land.”

27 Even though modern astronomy would point out that it is the earth that moves relative to the stars, not the other way round.

28 See their belief in alien abductions (Wright 2006, 73) or in the net supposed to protect the town: “In a vivid dream before he died, A.D. Smith had envisaged a defence system in the form of a giant net made of prayers and god-fearing devotion—a protective shield, saving the town from a cyclone” (82).

29 Norm does not need “to speculate about the genes of the Midnight clan” (Wright 2006, 506).

30 “Norm used the advantage of the clear skies to practise his astronomical calculations” (Wright 2006, 507).

31 Fishman says: “All that scientify stuff is easy. You could learn it in a day” (Wright 2006, 248).

32 This is very similar to the use of the weasel word “dispersal” to refer to Aboriginal massacres.

33 One example that comes to mind—and there are many others—is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—as Robert McNamara put it, “It would be an exaggeration to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously popular novel directly caused the Civil War. Yet there’s little doubt that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by greatly influencing public opinion in the 1850s, was indeed a factor leading to the war” (McNamara).

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References

Electronic reference

Xavier Pons, “‘Warring factions and community disputes’: Aboriginal Politics in CarpentariaMiranda [Online], 25 | 2022, Online since 21 April 2022, connection on 11 August 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/44684; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.44684

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About the author

Xavier Pons

Emeritus professor
Université de Toulouse - Jean Jaurès
pons@univ-tlse2.fr

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Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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