LIP READ­ING

Au­thor Melissa Lu­cashenko talks to Max­ine Beneba Clarke

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - MAX­INE BENEBA CLARKE is the au­thor of The Hate Race and For­eign Soil.

“A novel is a huge un­der­tak­ing, so I’m loath to rush in. It’s like wait­ing for fruit to ripen. There’s a cer­tain berry that ripens at Easter, and there’s no point look­ing for it at Christ­mas time.”

Melissa Lu­cashenko

I first meet Melissa Lu­cashenko in 2013, on the pages of her award-win­ning novel Mul­lumbimby. I meet her with the yarra­man, and the mag­pies singing and mu­lanyin fly­ing around and the fairy-wrens talk­ing a mile a minute, boss­ing every­body around with their lit­tle chit­ter­ing in­struc­tions. The book, Lu­cashenko’s fifth novel, is dev­as­tat­ing, funny, po­lit­i­cal. Set in the midst of a na­tive ti­tle war, among Bund­jalung fam­i­lies, it is the kind of writ­ing that kicks you square in the guts at the same time as lift­ing you up and over. I im­me­di­ately or­der two nov­els from her back cat­a­logue, cu­ri­ous I haven’t come across her work be­fore.

Sev­eral months later, I’m in­vited to at­tend my first in­ter­na­tional writ­ers’ re­treat, serendip­i­tously along with Lu­cashenko. When we meet in per­son, she is im­me­di­ately like her work: gen­er­ous, con­sid­ered, deep­think­ing, ex­act. Never say­ing more than is needed. Never say­ing less. No frills and no fak­ery.

At the cel­e­bra­tory din­ner in Mel­bourne, we’re sat at op­po­site ends of the fancy table, but we even­tu­ally cross paths on the way to the bath­room. “When they told me your name,” she says, “I thought you’d be a white­fella.” Lu­cashenko’s earnest face cracks into a wide, wel­com­ing grin. We stand in the hall­way of The Euro­pean, chuck­ling.

Six months later, in Malaysia, at the long wooden table, in the lobby of Pe­nang’s Ren I Tang ho­tel, it’s Lu­cashenko’s turn to give work­shop feed­back. The writer pauses briefly be­fore each com­ment, as if dou­ble- check­ing whether it re­ally needs to be de­liv­ered, weigh­ing for grav­ity. Learn by watch­ing and lis­ten­ing, use your mil and bi­n­ung, was the cen­turies-old habit, and not by ask­ing bloody silly ques­tions all the time.

In be­tween af­ter­noon work­shop ses­sions, we squir­rel our­selves away to write in our ho­tel rooms, solo-wan­der­ing the sti­fling-hu­mid Pe­nang streets. I catch dis­tant glimpses of Lu­cashenko some­times: sight­see­ing in a rick­shaw, chat­ting to an el­derly street ven­dor. There is an al­ways-ease about her T-shirted per­son. A quiet, stoic, com­fort­able cer­tainty. Yet, some­how, there goes fire.

One af­ter­noon, she comes bar­relling into the foyer where the other writ­ers are gath­ered. “Any­one have 10 ring­git I can borrow please?” There’s fran­tic ur­gency in her voice. A for­tune teller is wait­ing out­side, mid­way through a story. Some­thing to do with Lu­cashenko’s fam­ily. Lu­cashenko’s eyes are wild with pos­si­bil­ity. She is des­per­ate to know the im­por­tant-rest, the con­clu­sion of the di­vin­ing, and if she doesn’t hurry, the brightly clad woman stooped out­side the ho­tel en­trance might well dis­ap­pear. A fist­ful of bor­rowed pa­per cur­rency crushed in her hand, Lu­cashenko rushes back out to­wards fate, the rest of us star­ing af­ter her.

In the years fol­low­ing this res­i­dency, Lu­cashenko and I meet spo­rad­i­cally, of­ten cir­cum­stan­tially, as writ­ers do, amid luke­warm cof­fee and soggy green-room sand­wiches be­tween festival pan­els or sign­ings. To­day in Mel­bourne we’ve walked in search of sweet­ness, and sit scoff­ing Span­ish chur­ros and hot tea in a Mel­bourne laneway. It’s pub­li­ca­tion eve of Lu­cashenko’s new novel, Too Much Lip. I ask the Goorie writer about the quiet half-decade be­tween Mul­lumbimby and now. “I didn’t trust the suc­cess of Mul­lumbimby,” she con­fesses, gen­tly plac­ing her teacup back down on the saucer. “I was sus­pi­cious of a book that won prizes, of a book that every­one loved. I thought maybe it wasn’t re­ally con­fronting enough for peo­ple, maybe I wasn’t do­ing things right. Then af­ter Mul­lim­bimby, I was car­ing for my sick mother. She passed away in 2014. I didn’t write much dur­ing that time. A short story, cou­ple of other small things.”

The short story, “Dream­ers”, I re­mem­ber haunt­ingly well. It was 1969. Two years ear­lier there had been a ref­er­en­dum. Vote Yes for Abo­rig­ines. Now no­body could stop blacks go­ing where they liked. But this just waltz­ing in like she owned the place, mind you. No ‘please’. No ‘could I’. And an axe was a man’s busi­ness. Noth­ing good could come of any Abo girl hold­ing an axe.

Post-Mul­lumbimby, Lu­cashenko had a few com­pet­ing ideas for nov­els. “I was go­ing to write a Scrabble mur­der mys­tery,” she told me. “Blood on the Tiles. My pub­lisher looked aghast.” Her laugh­ter echoes round the al­most empty cafe. “I thought it was a great idea. I play com­pet­i­tive Scrabble. I don’t play that Words with Friends game. I play Words with En­e­mies.” She nar­rows her eyes at me, jok­ingly, across the white plas­tic cafe table. “It had to be the right time, to start a new book. I’ve only once started a novel I didn’t go ahead with. A novel is a huge un­der­tak­ing, so I’m loath to rush in. It’s like wait­ing for fruit to ripen. There’s a cer­tain berry that ripens at Easter, and there’s no point look­ing for it at Christ­mas time.”

The idea for Too Much Lip was planted in 2015, af­ter Lu­cashenko spent time with Alice Walker, and read the African-Amer­i­can au­thor’s novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland. But it was the spirit of Lu­cashenko’s great-grand­mother who re­ally in­formed the story. “I’d known for years she had shot a man who had stalked and tried to rape her, but it was only in 2015 that I dis­cov­ered it was on record. In the court tran­script, she said, ‘I did shoot him. I meant to shoot him. I aimed for his heart. I am only sorry I did not kill him …’”

She draws her broad shoul­ders back as she re­cites these words, as if they’re both elec­tric­ity and in­can­ta­tion. As if just ut­ter­ing them al­ters the com­po­si­tion of her be­ing. “It was a rev­e­la­tion. My mother was not a per­son to ques­tion au­thor­ity. She was beaten down by cir­cum­stance. Then I dis­cov­ered this in­cred­i­ble war­rior in my his­tory.”

Lu­cashenko’s thick-cropped hair is so mul­ti­fac­eted grey it sits al­most blue-mys­tic against cin­na­mon hue. When I ask what Too Much Lip is quintessen­tially about, she says: “I wanted to say that we can re­sist, and we can win. And that to re­sist is to win, be­cause we’ve got coun­try on our side.” She says: “I wanted to say that hope springs eter­nal, in the most un­likely soil, so long as you fight.” She says: “I wanted to say that curses can be over­come, as long as they’re faced.”

This de­fi­ance, this power, this am­bi­tion, pulses through Too Much Lip. This is no dead weight of open pages, but a liv­ing, writhing thing. Road­side crows bicker in mother tongue. Cats sneak­ily scheme. The land is sung large: as refuge, as strength, as fu­ture and his­tory. “The main char­ac­ter is a bi­sex­ual black woman on a stolen Har­ley,” Lu­cashenko says. “How could that go wrong?”

The pro­tag­o­nist has re­turned to her fam­ily in Dur­rongo af­ter years away and years in­side. The book cen­tres around Kerry and the other mem­bers of the Sal­ter fam­ily, and their de­ter­mi­na­tion to save their grand­mother’s is­land. “The is­land is many things. A refuge from coloni­sa­tion. The most sa­cred place the Sal­ters have. If there is no is­land, there is no tree. If there is no tree, there is no ma­tri­arch. If there is no ma­tri­arch, there is no Sal­ter fam­ily … It’s the his­tory of one river, and one black fam­ily, and how when you fight the cur­rent, you go down.”

Too Much Lip is ded­i­cated to Lu­cashenko’s older brother, who saved her from drown­ing in the Murray River when she was young. “He was in the army. Not long back from Viet­nam. I re­mem­ber be­ing swept down the river, un­der­neath the metal rail­ings. See­ing the tops of the tall gums pass by.” This book, too, she says, is also about how saviours can also be very dam­aged peo­ple.

Lu­cashenko is a writer who lives her work. Her char­ac­ters mat­ter to her the way peo­ple mat­ter to her. They are real: flawed, vi­cious, des­per­ate, kind and beau­ti­ful. A joy­ous and in­fu­ri­at­ing awak­en­ing of fic­tional con­jur­ings a reader can’t stop think­ing about, even af­ter the cover is closed. The writer re­gards her re­spon­si­bil­ity to them as she re­gards her re­spon­si­bil­ity to peo­ple in life. “I de­cided half­way through that a par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter in the novel needed a re­demp­tion. That he could not be sus­pended in grief and trauma. That would have been an abuse of my power as a nov­el­ist, and it felt wrong.”

Then, too, there is spirit lurk­ing in Lu­cashenko’s worlds. When the au­thor was liv­ing in Lo­gan, south of Bris­bane, work­ing on Mul­lumbimby, she’d just fin­ished writ­ing a cru­cial death scene and went down­stairs. The clock on the wall of her house sud­denly stopped tick­ing. And 60,000 words into writ­ing Too Much Lip, in a heated mo­ment, the nov­el­ist’s brother blurted out a decades-old se­cret and she learnt that the pri­mary in­ci­dent in her book had ac­tu­ally oc­curred in real life. Fic­tion be­came fact, and worlds be­gan to merge. To any­one but an­other fic­tion writer, this might seem fan­ci­ful, but the cre­ative mind works in the most mys­te­ri­ous ways. “Some part of me knew. Which part of me, I can’t say.”

Lu­cashenko works with Sis­ters In­side, a Queens­land-based or­gan­i­sa­tion that ad­vo­cates the hu­man rights of girls and women in pri­son. She is no stranger, per­son­ally or in wit­ness, to the scars sto­ries leave. Yet the emo­tional weight of writ­ing Too Much

Lip was an un­ex­pected drag into the dark­ness. “I’m con­stantly work­ing on the cusp of crim­i­nalised whites and or­di­nary poor black fam­i­lies … Peo­ple slowly crushed by an econ­omy that fails the poor in ev­ery con­ceiv­able way. Be­cause I work at the coal­face of what peo­ple con­sider to be the tough sto­ries, I thought I was im­mune. But I had to wres­tle this book, to get it where it needed to go.” There’s a weari­ness in her voice that be­trays the bat­tle. “And I guess it’s the book I was fright­ened to write.” She falls silent for a mo­ment, look­ing down into her empty cup. She leaned down and touched the rich, dark earth of the river­bank with her right palm. Her fingers were the ex­act colour of the soil, and they blended into it as though they were raised tracks made my some mys­te­ri­ous pass­ing crea­ture.

“I gave Too Much Lip to my daugh­ter, who’s an ed­i­tor her­self, and to an­other Abo­rig­i­nal reader. The book needed Abo­rig­i­nal read­ers first. When black read­ers told me that they’d cried, that they got spine chills, then I knew.”

We va­cate our af­ter­noon tea table. Lu­cashenko is af­ter a book-tour jacket. The one she bought when Mul­lumbimby came out five years ago is worn through. She thinks she might be bet­ter off look­ing in Mel­bourne than at home. “Yeah, I think I know some­where,” I say.

We leave the chur­ros house and head through the busy week­end streets, the au­thor’s small black wheelie

• suit­case in tow.

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