As I write, rain is shunting down outside, the gutters are overflowing and mould sprouts on the ceiling. In a bar last year, I heard a girl say she was hoping for a baking hot summer, the way they used to be, instead of this constant rain. She worked in mining; I held my tongue about climate change. At any rate, she got the summer she wanted, for it was the hottest on record.
This conversation came to mind when I sat down with Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads, which was a winner of the David Unaipon Award. The story opens with Aunty Boo, an Indigenous woman, exclaiming over the need to care for country. “Bloody gammon ya know, girl … Bloody farmer, stupid the whole damn lot of ‘em,” she protests, and continues with, “Look what they done to this ground, girl! Should be black an’ beautiful jus’ like ya could eat it! An’ look, girl. Jus’ look at it … tired an’ brown, what’s left of it” (3). Aunty Boo is commenting on European farming practices which, unsuited to one of the driest continents on earth with a limited amount of topsoil, have drained the earth of nutrients.
The use of ‘gammon’, an Indigenous word meaning ‘fake’, or ‘a joke’, in the opening sentence, flags the central theme in the novel of Indigenous people trying to live in a colonised world, and to hold onto their language and identity in that world. It’s told in first person from the point of view of Sunny, who is raised by her grandmother and aunties after her mother, Petal, takes off to the city. The plot is muted, weaving in and out of the aunties’ stories and memories, gradually revealing Petal’s capricious personality and history, and the effect this has on her kids, especially Sunny, whose demeanour is quite different to her mother’s. The language is clear and simple, as I especially loved Leane’s descriptions of the aunties’ gardens in Gundagai, of the flag lillies with ‘billowy, showy heads that fluttered in the late spring winds’ that reminded Sunny, ‘On wet November days … of sad old ladies with a secret to tell’ (50). The fusion between Indigenous and European culture is also found in these gardens, which are planted with carefully-tended European species, and in Aunty Boo’s references to Roman history, about ‘cloak an’ dagger stuff’ (138) that shows her how to get hold of a piece of land on which to live, a sad irony after having their country taken from them.
What struck me throughout the book was its pervasive sense of gentleness and care. The aunties’ love for their girls is palpable and, while Aunty Boo might mouth off the white farmers, she still looks after the creatures they’ve brought with them, such as their old sheep and lambs. There is no wastage: they aunties gather wool from barbed wire fences and knit them into items that they sell.
I identified with this, having grown up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money, and with a father who was obsessed with conserving things on account of this. We lived miles from town so electricity was expensive and we couldn’t leave the lights on, we weren’t allowed to have long showers because it wasted precious rainwater, and Mum once knitted a brown jumper from our one black sheep (whose name was Chumley). She wore that jumper for years. The soil on the farm also wasn’t as rich as it could have been, so my father and his brothers created levee banks to stop it washing away.
Although elements of my father’s parsimony aggravated me immensely (and still do: when I visit and do the dishes, I sometimes fill up the entire sink with water and clouds of detergent bubbles, just to annoy him in return), they did rub off. I hate wasting food, I recycle everything I can, I take care of my clothes so they last for years, I never use plastic shopping bags. I don’t know if the need to care for our country came from him too, but something in our family made us turn out this way, as my brother is even more of obsessed with saving the planet than I am.
The state of our environment really troubles me, and I think we have much to learn from Indigenous people about how to look after our country and our planet. As Deborah Bird Rose writes in Nourishing Terrains (1996), the Aboriginal concept of ‘caring for country’ “has the potential to become an ethos of the settlers as well as the Aboriginal inhabitants of this continent ... When the human use of living systems is damaging and wasteful, then conflict must develop between the colonising push for perpetual growth and the ecological imperative summed up in the simple statement of fact: those who destroy their country destroy themselves (84)’.
I met Jeanine at the Patrick White conference in Hyderabad last year, where she gave a noteworthy paper on the negative representations of Indigenous people in White’s A Fringe of Leaves. She also, in another talk, made the salient point that Indigenous people have been denigrated because of their difficulties with literacy, but no one seems to have made it clear that white people, too, are illiterate: they cannot read their own country, and they are surprised when the floods and fires come. She mentions this, too, in the novel:
The farmers, their wives and the townspeople were always amazed and dismayed at the changing of the season. Aunty Boo said they were gammon because the country always turns … Through October the green faded from the tall grass. The river subsided to a flow … Then the rain set in. August saw big swells and deep waters engorge the river again. Country turned and turned again, resilient (111-112).
That last line gave me hope that the country might last long enough for white people to learn to read it and take care of it properly, but I think we’re fast running out of time.
Book details: Leane, Jeanine. Purple Threads. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2011.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council library.