In her search for the voice of her Miles Franklin short- listed novel Carpentaria , Alexis Wright turned to the old storytellers of Australia’s north
IN Carpentaria I sought to write a book that tried to examine a place of enormous energy in Australia, to understand why its energy was so concentrated in a landscape of flattened claypans. Why did this country feel more vibrant to me than anywhere else in the country? Was it the claypans, seascapes, twisting ancient rivers of fresh running waters that flowed north to the sea, or the yellow tidal waters that flowed back inland? Or perhaps, in some special way, I related to the vegetation that was either spinifex- covered plains, or black soil grasslands.
After all, my father was a cattleman who, I can imagine, had a passion running in his veins for Mitchell grass and black soil plains. Or, was it the oasis: the contrasting lush fruiting trees locked in the bottom of red rock ranges beside the river where my great- grandmother, grandmother and mother had grown up?
This country and its seasons of heat, rain and mud could pull at my conscience. It could make me travel long distances just to be there. I always feel it calling. Sometimes it has great need, more than I can give. And this place creates so much love and yearning, and raises questions I might find it would be easier to forget.
This country had grown huge in my mind from the dreams of my childhood. The dreams came from the wonderfully strange stories I was told as a child by my grandmother.
She was similar to the mother of Andre Brink’s Praying Mantis, the opening lines of which are: ‘‘ Cupido Cockroach was not born from his mother’s body in the usual way but hatched from the stories she told.’’ Many were not stories at all but just the way my grandmother normally talked. She spoke about things in such a way that I was left to create images of what was otherwise invisible of places, people and things. Of what could only be imagined. A person could always be something else, and once you are told of another way to see someone, you will always see him or her differently. And so, a tree was not just a tree. It could also behave very strangely if it wanted to.
It has taken me a lifetime to understand the potency of these stories given as a gift, just as she had received them from our ancestors. I do not think it is right for me to ignore stories that have other ways of looking at the world. She chose stories about the kinds of ideas that would forge an anchor in her traditional country.
In my lifetime, I have learnt many other stories about our family that my grandmother did not tell me. I know some of the best and the worst of our history. She chose what she wanted remembered. Perhaps intuitively, perhaps intentionally, she understood that the stories she did not want to tell could not provide a strong anchor. Indeed, they were the stories to create destructiveness. I have found the anchor she passed on has stood firm in life. It has weathered stormy patches as firmly as it has stayed steady in the calm.
The book needed the right voice and rhythm. I wanted the reader to believe in the energy of the Gulf country, to stay with the story as a welcomed stranger, as if the land was telling a story about itself as much as the narrator is telling stories to the land.
From the start, I knew Carpentaria would not be a book suited to a tourist reader, someone easily satisfied by a cheap day out. I wrote most of the novel while listening to music — I have an eclectic taste that roams around the world collecting a mixture of traditional, classical, new world, blues and country. One of my intentions was to write the novel as though it was a very long melody made of different forms of music, mixed somehow with the voices of the Gulf. The image that explains this style is that of watching an orchestra while listening to the music. Within the whole spectacle of the performance fleeting moments occur, in which your attention will focus on the sudden rise in the massiveness of the strings, horns, or percussion.
This is what happens with this story as it moves through all of the diversity in the mindworld of the water people who are its main characters, descendants of Australia’s original inhabitants. At this level the novel is about the movements of human endeavour, water, weather, fish and plants, while all around the orchestra is surrounded and attacked by wild stories that have been provoked by its symphonies, which is the sound of the music made by the very thought of placing you in their domain.
The musical tone in the narration really
belongs to the diction of the tribal nations of the Gulf. It is a certain type of voice that is unique to the Gulf region, just as there is a similar but different style of Aboriginal voice on the other side of the country, in the Kimberly region of Northern Australia.
In the end, after a long struggle I had with myself over how this novel should or should not be written, I chose to try to recreate the voices and tone of the old storytellers of the Gulf.
It took several years to write this book, and in the process I destroyed earlier drafts because of my dissatisfaction with the narrative style, until one day in Alice Springs I found the answer to the problem.
I was walking home from town across the footbridge over the Todd River. I heard two old men, elders of their country, who were deep in conversation, talking about how life in general was finishing up for them.
I remembered hearing stories told in this tone of voice throughout my life, and I remembered once reading about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epiphany when he discovered how to write a novel he had carried around in his mind for a long time. Marquez knew the only way to write One Hundred Years of Solitude was to believe in it. He had originally tried to tell the story without believing in it and it failed him, until he discovered that he had to believe in the story by using the same tone and expression with which his grandmother had told stories, with a brick face.
The stories of Aboriginal people are similar to those of South America, Europe, Africa, Asia or India. The old storytellers of the Gulf country, or Indigenous storytellers in any other part of Australia, could also be likened to Marquez’s grandmother telling incredible stories with a deadpan look on her face. Such stories could be called supernatural and fantastic, but I do not think of them in this way.
I was often told as a child not to listen to my grandmother’s stories as she was filling my head with rubbish. I have since learnt that these are stories of spiritual beliefs as much as the beliefs of the everyday.
It comes from the naturalness of being fully in touch with the antiquity of this world as it is now, and through this understanding, an enabling, to understand more broadly the future possibilities. These stories are about having a belief system and principles of the right and wrong way to live. It is these things that have firmly stood by the oldest race of people on earth and allow many of our people to uphold the country and care for the land.
So I knew I had to write the novel in a tone of voice that felt comfortable talking about all manner of things that were happening in the everyday life of the people of the Gulf.
I also knew I would pay a price for my decision to write a novel as though some old Aboriginal person was telling the story. I think what I feared most was that this kind of voice and style of telling would be flatly rejected in Australia. Every day I was writing the novel, I would begin the day by arguing with myself about how a manuscript written in this voice was taking a big risk.
I knew that by using a story- telling narrative voice in a language that was as much my own as it is of Aboriginal people in the Gulf, I was setting myself up for failure. It felt a bit like Seamus Heaney’s idea of the ‘ Spirit Level’.
I have always created some difficulty for myself by sticking to a principle when the winds are blowing a gale in the other direction. I knew that the principle of what I believed to be the legitimate way to present this story could cost me dearly. The manuscript might never be published. What then? Could I justify taking so much time to write a novel that would be rejected because it did not conform to the status quo?
Every day was the same. I went through this crisis of arguing with myself about what I was doing, the risk involved, of perhaps eventually having to archive the manuscript from at least my own destructiveness in the offices of the Carpentaria Land Council.
Always, I found it was impossible for my conscience to accept the idea that there was an easier way of writing the novel. This is an edited extract from Alexis Wright’s essay On Writing Carpentaria, in Harper’s Gold, HEAT 13, new series ( Giramondo, 2007). The winner of the Miles Franklin literary award will be announced on June 21.
Country calling: A chance overheard conversation enabled Alexis Wright to find the right tone for her new novel Carpentaria