Kim Scott’s new novel is set in the here and now be­cause, as he tells Stephen Romei, in­dige­nous iden­tity is not re­mote but con­tem­po­rary

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Our home was a mas­sacre place. People called it taboo. They said it is haunted and you will get sick if you go there. Others just bragged: we shot you and poi­soned the wa­ter­holes so you never come back.

So opens Taboo, Kim Scott’s fifth novel and the first since he won the 2011 Miles Franklin Lit­er­ary Award for That Dead­man Dance, a book Tom Ke­neally de­scribed as “an in­sider’s view of Aus­tralia be­fore it was Aus­tralia’’. That sim­ple first para­graph says a lot about Taboo. “They”, we as­sume, are Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians. “Others” are white Aus­tralians.

The story un­folds in the here and now, un­like That Dead­man Dance, set in early-19th­cen­tury West­ern Aus­tralia, or one of its pre­de­ces­sors, Be­nang, which fo­cuses on the decades of forced re­moval of in­dige­nous chil­dren, the people we now know as the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions. Be­nang was joint win­ner of the Miles Franklin in 2000.

“Be­ing Abo­rig­i­nal is con­tem­po­rary,’’ Scott says in a tele­phone in­ter­view from his home in Cool­bellup, South Fre­man­tle. “Heal­ing is a con­tem­po­rary pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, through truth and jus­tice … and land, giv­ing back land.

“Iden­tity is not re­mote, or about pos­tur­ing. In my part of Aus­tralia, Abo­rig­i­nal people are ev­ery­where. There’s a com­mu­nity that in­ter­min­gles. So the re­la­tion­ship, or po­ten­tial re­la­tion­ship, be­tween Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia and the mod­ern nation-state is sort of in this novel.’’

This is a novel where the de­scen­dants of the original in­hab­i­tants and the de­scen­dants of the people who took their land live in awk­ward, al­most re­spect­ful fa­mil­iar­ity. They are in Scott’s West­ern Aus­tralia. They are un­com­fort­able about dwelling on the past and with say­ing or hear­ing cer­tain words.

“Our people gave up on that Pay­back stuff a long time ago,’’ we are told by an un­named oc­ca­sional nar­ra­tor, “be­cause we al­ways knew death is only one part of a story that is for­ever be­gin­ning ...”

We soon meet the man who owns and lives on the farm­land that is at the heart of the story: Dan Hor­ton, who two months ago lost his wife of 50 years. He and Janet fos­tered in­dige­nous chil­dren on the sta­tion. Now, one of them wants to pay a visit, as part of a group of Noon­gar people, in­clud­ing elders, who are re­turn­ing to their home­land, to this place made taboo by death.

The cer­e­mo­nial as­pect of their visit is the open­ing of a Peace Park in town. When Dan tells his brother Mal­colm about this and uses the word mas­sacre, Mal­colm says, “I wish they wouldn’t use that word. Mas­sacre.”

The broth­ers seem like de­cent men. They want to wel­come the in­dige­nous people. What hap­pened was “a long time ago” and “here Dan and Mal­colm agreed — there was no ev­i­dence of any more than a few Abo­rig­ines be­ing killed’’.

They do re­mem­ber, as boys, find­ing a skull “on their prop­erty’’. Soon af­ter, in this telling, al­though the event it marks came be­fore the skull, we see the grave of a Hor­ton an­ces­tor, Wil­liam, 1848-81. Carved into the tim­ber cross is “Killed by na­tives”. “That’s what this place is known for these days, I’m afraid,’’ Dan says to one of the Noon­gar vis­i­tors, Ger­ald Cool­man, who is just out of jail. “Noth­ing about all the Noon­gars killed then,’’ Ger­ald replies, with­out hos­til­ity.

We learn why this 19th-cen­tury Hor­ton, part of five or six gen­er­a­tions who have oc­cu­pied the land, was killed, what he did to war­rant such a lethal re­sponse. His rel­a­tives and friends re­sponded, with Winch­esters and poi­son. But, our nar­ra­tor in­ter­venes, “we will not dwell on the skull, the bones and bod­ies and bul­lets’’.

This con­tested his­tory is why some Noon­gar people be­lieve the land is taboo, not to be vis­ited. “It is a place for ghosts, not for liv­ing people,” says one, Wil­fred. Later an­other, Nita, re­minds her friends that “there’s good white people too, you know that …”

With Ger­ald is his twin brother Ger­rard, and Scott has a bit of fun with the two Ger­rys. He is also play­ful with an­i­mal metaphors. At a fu­neral


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