Essay by Meera Atkinson
I first read the fiction of Alexis Wright when I was writing a thesis on transgenerational trauma for my doctorate at Western Sydney University. I was exploring the ways in which literature testifies to transmissions of psychic trauma, which, in Unclaimed Experience (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), Cathy Caruth defines as the impact of an unassimilated event or experience that makes its presence known belatedly and often illogically. In Carpentaria, Wright’s second novel, I found a prime example of such testimony: a fierce epic that both honours Indigenous sovereignty and culture and attests to the ravages wrought by colonisation.
Set in the fictional coastal town of Desperance, on the Gulf of Carpentaria in north-west Queensland, the novel centres on the infighting between local Aboriginal communities, and the greater challenge that befalls the region when a multinational mining corporation sets up on sacred land. But even more than this ‘plot’, the novel is about masculinity as played out in the characters of, and relationships between, Norm Phantom, an old Aboriginal mystic and local leader; his son, Will; and their family friend, Mozzie Fishman.
Wright is from Waanji country in the highlands of the Gulf, and though she has close personal ties with the region and community she portrays, she firmly identifies Carpentaria as fiction. Wright’s reflections on her own creative process show that in working on Carpentaria, she was keenly aware of the need to invent a way of writing that could embody both the negative effects of colonialism and her proud Aboriginal heritage. The resulting text is experimental, allegorical, sometimes humorous and often startlingly lyrical. Its language is regional Indigenous English – a raw vernacular that snaps into poetry or vulgarity in twists and turns throughout a narrative that swings from prosaic plot development to grand magic realist happenings. It features an impossible-to-categorise blend of voices and influences and is driven by an almighty imagination, one capable of evoking the Dreamtime and depicting dysfunctional community in the same passage. Carpentaria is an uncompromisingly ambitious tale of a town in crisis, and the tensions – escalating around the establishment of the mining site – between factions of its Indigenous population, and between the Indigenous people and the white folk of ‘Uptown’.
Since 1770, when Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of the continent now known as Australia, the First Peoples of this land have experienced incalculable trauma and devastation. They have suffered epidemics of imported disease, rape and dispossession, (largely unrecorded) massacres and displacement into missions. Families have been torn apart through Stolen Generations, and many remain disadvantaged by questionable present-day policies and internationally denounced government failures. In short, the settlement, otherwise known as the invasion, of Australia has cast its original human inhabitants into a perpetual state of loss and mourning.
Yet, the novel is not only about trauma and loss – it is also a celebration of Aboriginal history and culture prior to the invasion; of Aboriginal resilience and heroism in the generations since; of Aboriginal refusal to be defined by western notions of time; and of Aboriginal language and story in all its guises, traditional and contemporary. Though Wright resists framing Indigenous people as simplistically passive and victimised, Carpentaria is, at its core, a text of and about mourning, as well as enshrining and espousing the importance of storytelling. For example, Chapter Two opens with the following passage:
One evening in the driest grasses in the world, a child who was no stranger to her people, asked if anyone could find hope.
The people of parable and prophecy pondered what was hopeless and finally declared that they no longer knew what hope was.
The clocks, tick-a-ty tock, looked as though they might run out of time. Luckily, the ghosts in the memories of the old folk were listening, and said anyone can find hope in the stories: the big stories and the little ones in between. So…
The act of writing is here a testament to loss as well as being an affirmation of life – specifically, Indigenous life in all its realms of experience, drawing from customs and folklore practiced over time immemorial. The Australian government claims that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are the oldest living cultural histories in the world, dating back 50,000–65,000 years, but they have been decimated by ‘settlement’. An Australian Geographic article (2013) estimated that of the two hundred and fifty Aboriginal languages spoken before colonisation only fifty remain in use today. It seems clear that Wright began Carpentaria with an intention to inscribe the pleasures and creativity of Indigenous language into English letters, and one can only imagine how overwhelming an undertaking it must have been for Wright to sit down to the first blank page. In a 2007 essay, ‘On Writing Carpentaria’, she speaks of wrangling with guilt for taking pause to write a ‘novel capable of embracing all times’, because of her sense of personal calling regarding the ‘urgent work to do in our communities, or more battles to fight over the high levels of ignorance fostered by this government in particular about Aboriginal rights in this country’. Clearly, Wright was alert to the responsibility of performing an act of public mourning, witnessing and testimony, and the impetus of such writing.
Wright conceived of her novel as a work that could not be constrained ‘in a capsule that was either time or incident specific’. It would not conform to English as we know it; rather, her aim was to question such boundaries and codings and to explore how the ancient beliefs, stories and spiritual and cultural practices of her people ‘sit in the modern world’. Wright’s treatment of time and memory is layered and complex. The reader of Carpentaria is obliged to release the expectation of being firmly situated in time, as subtle slippages across narration confound orthodox assumptions about time, place and experience.
The temporal structure of the novel has traumatic characteristics: it features a non-linear and nonsensical circulation of mixed-up history that captures and authentically conveys how the traumatised, colonised mind struggles with ‘unacceptable history’.
The haunting in Carpentaria has to do with the spectres of Anglo invasion and settlement; but it also reflects the Dreaming, with its open-ended quality of forever time, as this passage demonstrates:
If you are someone who visits old cemeteries, wait awhile if you visit the water people. The old Gulf country men and women who took our besieged memories to the grave might just climb out of the mud and tell you the real story of what happened here (p. 11).
The nature of these besieged memories and the ‘real story’ can never quite be articulated, at least not by any conventional means, due to their traumatic origins. It is clear that they exist outside the dictates of what we call time and outside our strictly defined realms of living and dead. The legacy of massacres and missions is manifest in copious references, such as that made to ‘Uncle Micky’s collection of bullet cartridges’ (p. 10) that were ‘used in the massacres of the local tribes’, and which he picked up in a ‘fever which drove him on’ (p. 11). Likewise the mention made of ‘those whose fractured spirit cried of rape, murder and the pillage of their traditional lands’ (p. 27), and the ‘up-to-no-good Mission-bred kids’ who ‘accidently hanged Cry-baby Sally’ under the rivergum (p. 2). The silence of the old Gulf country men and women, whose graves lie in the mud, ghosts the text. The muteness of those who dodged, or were penetrated by, the bullets is embodied in the spaces between Wright’s words; that the traumatic silence of the persecuted dead is present in those who survive is part of Wright’s testimony. The untold stories of the up-to-no-good Mission kids spook the text, too. Age-old conflicts among the Indigenous ‘poor old Pricklebush people’ (p. 23) fester, and are brought to an ugly head by the stresses of racism and poverty and, later, disagreements over the mine. ‘People who had been getting on well’, writes Wright, ‘living side by side for decades, started to recall tribal battles from the ancient past’ (p. 26).
At the centre of the story is the flawed yet heroic figure of Normal Phantom – Wright has a penchant for punny and metaphoric names. Midway through the novel, Norm, ‘an old tribal man’ (p. 4) who has lived all his days in the dense Pricklebush scrub on the edge of Desperance, has been left by his piece-of-work wife, Angel Day, to cope with a household of troubled adult children. His estranged activist son, Will, is a loose cannon. Despite his struggles with family and community, Norm is a respected elder who wrangles with the shame and mourning that accompany the postcolonial traumatic lie imposed on his people by the dominance and assumed superiority of the colonisers. He both reveals and resists the power of racism and imperialism to diminish culture and self-esteem despite successive blows across many generations.
In Carpentaria, both the knowledge and trauma of ancestors are not matters of the past, long gone, but are operative in the living present. In Chapter Eight, Norm, who has ‘secret conversations’ with the ‘heavenly spirits at night’ about the ways of the ocean and clandestine fishing locations (p. 230), embarks on an epic voyage to bury Elias, his seafaring comrade, at sea. Here, delirious visions intensify the past-present style of narration so that the past is not only manifest in the present; it is even more real than it was in its initial occurrence. Norm is described as:
…staring straight through reality to watch her [his wife, Angel Day] for the first time that long ago day when Elias had seen her. Looking so closely into her face, he was astounded at its clarity. He was shocked to see a secret intimacy residing within her. He had never before seen this face from her childhood transcending through the travesties of their life together (p. 243).
Traditionally, Aboriginal worldview is much less individualistic than the worldview of Western society. So it is that in this novel, trauma is less of a personal or single account and more of a collective experience woven together with ancestral knowledge in mythology and stories. For example, as Wright explains:
Everyone in Pricklebush knew of the poisonous countries out at sea, places where it was too dangerous for a man to go, where the spirits dwelt, like the Gundugundu men who were even more dangerous than Kadajala, the white-man devil, and those of the unhappy warring spirit warriors of the old wars (p. 276).
A seemingly straightforward passage such as this conveys an intricate interconnectedness of traumas and myth: Pricklebush is a slum in which Indigenous people struggle to live in relation to, and on the outskirts of, the white town of Desperance. This passing reference itself is heavy with history, as is the reference to ‘Kadajala, the white-man devil’ – the colonisers and their descendants – and the ‘warring spirit warriors of the old wars’, which have to do with Aboriginal conflicts in the time before the Invasion.
What is it that inspires a writer like Wright to attempt this kind of testimony, in which all times matter – as far back as we have record of human culture? During a 2007 interview on The 7.30 Report, Wright spoke of a particularly painful event in her family history in which her great-grandmother was taken as a child, along with another little girl, by a notorious pastoralist whose workers are on record as having massacred Indigenous people. She said she was not sure if her great-grandmother’s own family were among those killed. Host Kerry O’Brien went on to raise a comment she had made in an essay some years before the publication of Carpentaria, in which she wrote that she had ‘inherited all the words left unsaid in a family to save the peace’, and that these were ‘words that have buried a thousand crimes and a thousand hurts’. Asked what she had meant by that she replied:
It’s very hurtful for our family sometimes to talk about that history. And I think it gets passed down to the next generation through the following generations of not wanting to bring up hurtful things, hurtful things that happen to us even now…
Carpentaria demonstrates the dynamic play between knowing and not knowing, and between speech and silence in the layers of truth about our history. As such, it stands as a profound and vital vision of twenty-first-century society and an instant classic of Australian literature.
Australian Government 2013, ‘Australian Indigenous cultural heritage’, viewed 15 December 2013, <http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-indigenous-cultural-heritage>.
Caruth, C 1996, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
7.30 Report, The 2007, television program, ABC 1, Sydney, 21 June.
Wilkie, M 1997, Bringing them home: Report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney.
Wright, A 1997, The Grog War, Magabala Books, Broome.
Wright, A 2007, ‘On writing Carpentaria’, Heat Magazine, vol. 13, pp. 79–95.
© Copyright Meera Atkinson 2015