Aun­ties de­light as Sunny finds her cul­tural iden­tity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­lena Kad­mos

INDIGE­NOUS scholar Aileen More­tonRobin­son ar­gues that ex­tended fam­ily and com­mu­nity fea­ture strongly in indige­nous women’s life writ­ings be­cause ‘‘ they are where so­cial mem­ory be­comes ac­ti­vated through shared ex­pe­ri­ences, knowl­edges and re­mem­ber­ing’’.

This em­pha­sis on communal ex­pe­ri­ence is ev­i­dent in Pur­ple Threads, Jea­nine Leane’s David Unaipon Award-win­ning col­lec­tion of linked sto­ries.

Based on the au­thor’s child­hood in coun­try NSW, the 11 sto­ries are nar­rated by Sunny who, with her sis­ter Star, is cared for by her Abo­rig­i­nal Nan and aun­ties Boo and Bubby on a small farm near Gunda­gai.

The sto­ries fol­low Sunny’s ma­tur­ing from mid­dle child­hood to ado­les­cence dur­ing the late 1960s and 70s, de­pict­ing her de­vel­op­ing in­de­pen­dence and her sense of per­sonal and cul­tural iden­tity and what it means to be Abo­rig­i­nal in white terms and on her own terms.

Sunny pro­gresses from a free-spir­ited fiveyear-old buck­ing her aun­ties’ in­sis­tence that she at­tend church to a schoolgirl con­fused by her peers’ re­jec­tion of her to a teenager re­signed to her out­cast sta­tus in the eyes of the white com­mu­nity. In this sense the book reads like a fem­i­nine Bil­dungsro­man.

And yet Sunny’s story is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to those of her Nan, aun­ties and sis­ter, to other fam­ily mem­bers, and to the land: ‘‘ The Jan­uary dry­ness snapped the life and mois­ture from the grass and leaves. The earth faded from red to brown to beige. Coun­try baked.’’

Pur­ple Threads is thus a homage to the women in Sunny’s life, and her poignant and hu­mor­ous ob­ser­va­tions record their strug­gles and dreams, feisti­ness and stead­fast­ness, and the wis­dom that helps Sunny re­sist the most threat­en­ing im­pacts of racism, en­abling her to forge a path into adult­hood.

The aun­ties are de­light­ful yet for­mi­da­ble. Re­tired from do­mes­tic ser­vice, they care for their mother, raise their nieces as the daugh­ters they never had, nur­ture a large gar­den and res­cue stray and dy­ing an­i­mals from neigh­bour­ing farms.

Aunty Boo knows western clas­si­cal his­tory, takes an in­ter­est in pol­i­tics and fol­lows the fem­i­nist move­ment. Aunty Bubby is more of a dreamer, en­sconc­ing her­self in English ro­man­tic nov­els, re-read­ing her favourite, Wuther­ing Heights, un­til the day she dies. Re­fresh­ing, too, is this fam­ily’s po­si­tion­ing as a ref­er­ence point against which the sur­round­ing white com­mu­nity is of­ten un­favourably com­pared. Nan is a staunch Chris­tian, but she won’t at­tend church where the women are a ‘‘ sour-faced gos­sipin’ mob, al­ways pokin’ ’ round afta church askin’ ques­tions ’ bout things that aren’t none of their busi­ness.’’

Leane’s style is un­com­pli­cated but never sim­plis­tic. The lega­cies of racist poli­cies are not ig­nored, but she touches on such is­sues with a light­ness that keeps the women at the cen­tre: their un­ruf­fled re­sponses to Sunny’s school­yard trou­bles, their loy­alty to a young, white neigh­bour in des­per­ate cir­cum­stances, their machi­na­tions to se­cure a per­ma­nent home. The last­ing im­pres­sions are of re­silience and hope, not de­spair. Pur­ple Threads re­minds the reader that know­ing the past helps us to un­der­stand the present and shape the fu­ture, and that in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness is the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. He­lena Kad­mos has a MA in creative writ­ing and is work­ing on a PHD at Mur­doch Univer­sity in Perth.

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