Aunties delight as Sunny finds her cultural identity
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.