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
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
I GREW UP IN ALBANY IN THE 1960S. IT WAS AN APARTHEID SITUATION