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

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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

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