Faith in a sorry life

Au­thor Gail Jones’s new work of fiction is not just an apolo­gia for cul­tural col­li­sions, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE Men­zies Cen­tre, Aus­tralia House, Lon­don, two days be­fore In­ter­na­tional Sorry Day. Hands are in the air. ‘‘ Is it up to artists to apol­o­gise if gov­ern­ments won’t?’’ some­one asks Gail Jones, who is here to speak about her fourth and latest novel, Sorry .

The Perth- based Jones doesn’t blink. ‘‘ What I hope I’m fore­ground­ing,’’ she says in her soft­spo­ken voice, ‘‘ is how prob­lem­atic [ are] speech acts to do with guilt and repa­ra­tion. Maybe his­tory can’t be re­paired. Maybe the time for change was 10 years ago.’’ She pauses. ‘‘ But I’m old- fash­ioned enough to be­lieve that lit­er­a­ture can play a part in moral dis­course.’’

Set in the north of West­ern Aus­tralia in the 1930s and ’ 40s, Sorry is the story of Perdita, the daugh­ter of dys­func­tional English im­mi­grants: a brutish an­thro­pol­o­gist fa­ther who is a trauma vic­tim from World War I and a mother with patho­log­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tions with Shake­speare.

Perdita finds a sub­sti­tute fam­ily in Billy, the deaf- mute son of a neigh­bour, and house­keeper Mary, an ed­u­cated Abo­rig­i­nal teenager who — with her set of val­ues out­side of white author­ity — pro­vides the book’s moral cen­tre. When Perdita’s fa­ther is stabbed to death, Mary is im­pris­oned. Perdita is left with me­mory loss and a stut­ter that is only over­come when quot­ing Shake­speare, and which is only cured when the cir­cum­stances of the mur­der be­come clear.

A host of themes are ex­pressed through Jones’s fluid, el­e­gant, of­ten sparkling prose: sep­a­ra­tion and trauma, lan­guage and si­lence, me­mory and for­get­ting.

‘‘ The novel is a po­lit­i­cal al­le­gory,’’ Jones of­fers. ‘‘ It’s an al­le­gory in a Shake­spearean mode. I didn’t want to write a pro­pa­ganda novel, but I did want to make Mary sym­bolic.’’ One of the stolen gen­er­a­tions, the bi- cul­tural Mary is the con­duit through which Jones hon­ours dif­fer­ence, re­flects on in­jus­tice and ac­knowl­edges su­pe­rior forms of know­ing.

‘‘ It’s been sug­gested that I have ide­alised Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. But my ex­pe­ri­ence of Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties has been all about forms of af­fec­tion and care.’’

It none­the­less felt pre­sump­tu­ous to write from an Abo­rig­i­nal point of view, Jones says. It’s a stance in con­trast with that of her co- speaker at Aus­tralia House, Bri­tish writer Susan Elderkin, whose 2003 novel The Voices , is nar­rated by a bunch of gar­ru­lous Abo­rig­i­nal ghosts.

But a decade on from the na­tional in­quiry into the stolen gen­er­a­tions — when John Howard re­fused to apol­o­gise for the sins of past gen­er­a­tions — the so­cially aware Jones felt com­pelled to act. A lec­turer in cul­tural the­ory at the Univer­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia, she had writ­ten aca­demic es­says on in­dige­nous and non­indige­nous race re­la­tions, even de­liv­ered a pa­per on the topic at Har­vard Univer­sity. Th­ese and other ideas found their way into Sorry .

‘‘ In think­ing about jus­tice, we have to think about peo­ple who are not yet born and peo­ple who are al­ready dead. Think­ing about jus­tice rup­tures his­tor­i­cal time. So I’ve tried very hard to col­lapse time in the novel, to touch on the haunt­ing qual­ity of vi­o­lence.’’

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence; in­ter­cul­tural vi­o­lence; po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence. Dis­tressed by the war in Iraq but re­luc­tant to write a con­tem­po­rary novel, this 51- year- old mother of one made an anti- war state­ment by po­si­tion­ing Sorry in the shadow of World War II in­stead.

‘‘ An­other thing I was think­ing about,’’ Jones

says, ‘‘ was child wit­ness. Chil­dren who ev­ery day are sat­u­rated with the ef­fects of war.’’

Broome, where the novel is set and where Jones spent part of her child­hood, was one of the few Aus­tralian out­posts where World War II phys­i­cally pen­e­trated: in 1942 the Ja­panese de­stroyed air­craft car­ry­ing Dutch refugees at Broome in a flash of vi­o­lence of­ten over­looked by Aus­tralian his­tory.

‘‘ At very low tide twice a year the planes are un­cov­ered. My dad and I would walk care­fully across the seabed — it was quite dan­ger­ous, you had to time it care­fully — to see them. There was a sense of a sub­merged his­tory to Broome, some­thing about vi­o­lence and lost bod­ies. I had this idea that the skele­ton of the pilot would still be sit­ting in the cock­pit with gog­gles on, like in a war movie.’’ She smiles. ‘‘ It’s a pow­er­ful metaphor,’’ she adds.

One of three chil­dren born to a job­bing elec­tri­cian — both Jones’s fa­ther and grand­fa­ther in­stalled lights in out­back mines — Jones grew up curious, on friendly terms with the in­dige­nous res­i­dents around the towns in which her fam­ily lived. In­trigued by ‘‘ the in­ter­cul­tural pre­oc­cu­pa­tion’’, she com­pleted a doc­tor­ate in an­thro­pol­ogy, and spent time with Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties in WA and east Arn­hem Land. For a while she lived in In­dia.

A painter be­fore en­ter­ing academe, Jones only be­gan writ­ing se­ri­ously in her 30s: ‘‘ I was too busy teach­ing and rais­ing a daugh­ter. I also didn’t have any con­fi­dence in my­self as a writer.’’ Her love of words proved greater than her mis­giv­ings; Jones’s first col­lec­tion of sto­ries, 1992’ s House of Breath­ing , her­alded the ar­rival of an ex­cit­ing new lit­er­ary voice. She has been longlisted and short­listed, awarded and ac­claimed ever since.

Re­view­ing her Miles Franklin short­listed Dreams of Speak­ing in Bri­tain’s The Guardian news­pa­per, Elderkin ob­served that ‘‘ Jones has a flair for lu­mi­nous and ac­cu­rate prose’’. The pro­gram for Wales’s in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned Hay- on- Wye lit­er­ary fes­ti­val, where Jones spoke — serendip­i­tiously on Sorry Day and just days af­ter our in­ter­view — billed her as a ‘‘ great Aus­tralian nov­el­ist’’.

Speak­ing on a plat­form along­side young Libyan au­thor Hisham Matar ( whose de­but In the Coun­try of Men was short­listed for the 2006 Booker Prize), Jones was eru­dite, dy­namic, per­son­able. ‘‘ This book has caused me some an­guish; the oth­ers were easy by com­par­i­son.’’ Though Sorry was writ­ten quickly, in­ten­sively (‘‘ I worked night and day for a while’’) the book’s ges­ta­tion be­gan with the mo­ment a decade ago when more than 100 del­e­gates from the Aus­tralian Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Con­ven­tion lit­er­ally turned their backs on Howard.

‘‘ Peo­ple didn’t heckle; they just stood up and turned around in a silent re­pu­di­a­tion of his po­si­tion. There was some­thing about bod­ies, speech and the things that are out­side of lan­guage com­ing to­gether sym­bol­i­cally at that mo­ment that got me think­ing. What does it mean when you don’t say the word you should say?’’

Jones doesn’t have the an­swers. But in pos­ing such ques­tions in Sorry — al­le­gor­i­cally and oth­er­wise — she is en­cour­ag­ing read­ers at home and abroad to think, ques­tion and chal­lenge con­ser­va­tive views. In the ac­knowl­edge­ments, she un­der­lines the book’s com­mit­ment to the ‘‘ Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians who are the cus­to­di­ans of the land about which I write’’. Jane Corn­well is a lit­er­ary jour­nal­ist and broad­caster based in Lon­don.

Pic­ture: Justin Wil­liams

Cul­tur­ally com­mit­ted: Gail Jones tries to make sense of in­dige­nous is­sues

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