Debut novel has roots in WA history
Links to WA’s Mid-West inspired Kali Napier’s debut novel, writes Annelies Gartner.
The saying “home is where the heart is” could not ring more true for Kali Napier.
“I’m a West Australian definitely,” says the author, who grew up in Scarborough and Karrinyup but for the past 10 years has lived in Brisbane.
Napier set her debut novel in the 1930s around the mid-west towns Dongara, Geraldton and Perenjori.
“I thought by writing The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge, set in WA that I’d finally be able to purge WA out of my life,” Napier explains on the phone from Brisbane.
“It actually had the opposite effect and it made me more militantly West Aussie.”
An article Napier read about the Great Emu War in 1932 in Campion in the Wheatbelt became the catalyst for her setting a novel in her home State.
“The Australian artillery was deployed to cull emus for the farmers because they were destroying the crops,” she says.
“When I read that I loved the idea of it because emus beat the Australian Army.”
A few years earlier, research into her father’s maternal side of the family revealed her great-grandfather was from around Perenjori and had lived briefly in Dongara in the depression.
Newspaper articles she read on her great-grandfather became the inspiration for the book’s character, Ernie, who uproots his family to open a beachside shop and accommodation in Dongara.
“He was a bankrupt and he moved to Dongara to start a new business after he became bankrupt,” she says of her great-grandfather.
“I saw another article where there was a suspicious fire at his place in Perenjori and on those scant facts I wrote more of a fictional story.” Before Napier realised she had family connections to the area, she lived in Geraldton for five years working as a native title anthropologist for the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation.
“I had to piece together all of these different records and work out the story of how a family became separated and then tracing it back to where they came from and trying to determine reasons for certain events,” she recalls.
“It was like I had to tell a story and I was telling a story to their descendants and that’s where I know I started saying aloud to people ‘I have to write a book’.
“I hadn’t really said that before but of course those are Aboriginal stories, I’m not indigenous, so they weren’t my stories to tell.”
But Napier has included Aboriginal characters in her historical fiction novel to accurately reflect the area at the time.
“I couldn’t have nonindigenous characters working on a wheat farm in that area without Aboriginal people around because they were used as domestic servants, pastoral station hands,” she says.
“I didn’t want to have too much of a focus on Aboriginal stories, I think there is a line in the sand in the book where the Aboriginal characters say ‘don’t tell those stories because they’re our stories’.
“I was conscious of the line, of how much I was able to tell myself of their experiences.”
But there is one indigenous character that came to have a special
place in her heart. “My daughter’s name is Ruby and I didn’t realise until I’d finished that I’d named the Aboriginal girl Ruby,” she says.
“Afterwards I was like ‘oh, no that’s my daughter’s name I’ve got to change it’ but then I thought no, because Ruby is one of my favourite characters in the book and that is really fitting.”
So she can at last put down roots in Brisbane.
Napier’s next book and part of her third is set in Queensland but her fourth novel returns to WA with a story based in Porongurup.
“There’s always hope to go back to WA,” she says.
Articles she read on her great-grandfather became the inspiration for the book’s character, Ernie.
Writer Kali Napier
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is published by Hachette Australia.