Faith in a sorry life
Author Gail Jones’s new work of fiction is not just an apologia for cultural collisions, writes
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.
Culturally committed: Gail Jones tries to make sense of indigenous issues