It’s hard to believe that my last post was a month ago; this year is going disturbingly fast. In the past few weeks I’ve travelled to Hobart, Sydney, Bowral, Canberra and Wagga Wagga, all of which were great, but I’m very glad to be home and in warmer climes.
This week, from 7th-14th July, is NAIDOC week, which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Every year the celebrations are guided by a theme, and this year the theme is ‘We value the vision: Yirrkala Bark Petitions 1963’. The bark petitions, signed by 131 clan leaders of the Yolngu of Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land, were presented to the Australian House of Representative, protesting the Commonwealth’s granting of mining rights on land taken from Arnhem Land reserve. Through the petitions, the Yolngu people sought recognition by the Australian Parliament of their traditional rights, and ownership of their land. Although there had been previous petitions, and were more to follow, these were the only petitions to be formally recognised. As such, they are the first documents to bridge Commonwealth law and Indigenous laws, and they represent the continuing efforts of Indigenous writers to express their culture and law through Western forms, for example through petitions, the novel, poetry, essays and so forth. It’s therefore apt to read and celebrate Indigenous literature during NAIDOC week, to broaden our understanding of Indigenous people, their culture, and their history. Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers blog has set up Indigenous Writers Week, a challenge to read literature by Indigenous writers from all over the world, while the Australian Women Writers Challenge is encouraging readers to pick up books of any genre by Australian Indigenous women writers over the month of July.
For both these challenges I’m reading and reviewing a couple of books. The first is The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina, who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. I came across this book when I was doing a round-up of books concerning issues of diversity for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. A young adult, speculative fiction book by an Indigenous author sounded fantastic, so I ordered it to the library. My first attempt to read it wasn’t a success, as the language didn’t really grab me, so I put it back in my pile. My second attempt was last weekend, when I was still a bit dazed from travelling and wanted something light to read.
The story is of a society that was destroyed in an environmental catastrophe. Its surviving people try to live in harmony with each other and their surroundings, and to keep ‘the Balance’. However, some of these people have abilities such as controlling fire, and they’re feared, so they’re caught and locked up in detention centres. Ashala ran away to escape this and lives with other runaways in a forest, until she’s captured and interrogated by the authorities at a detention centre.
What I loved about the book were the bits that I could recognise as Australian. I don’t know if this makes me a good reader of speculative fiction or not! But just as I enjoyed the descriptions of the canals of the Gold Coast in Marianne de Pierre’s Parrish Plessis series, so too did I like the descriptions of WA’s beautiful bush in Ashala Wolf:
Stretched out in front of us were waves of long yellowy grasses, broken up by patches of colourful wildflowers and rocky hills which rose upwards like turtled surfacing from the ocean. And beyond the grasslands were the trees, a sprawling forest of tuarts so tall they seemed huge even from here (178).
I wondered too if Neville Rose was modelled on A. O. Neville, the ironically titled Chief Protector of Aborigines from 1915-1936, presiding over the removal of Indigenous children from their families. I think his title, ‘Chief Administrator’, gave me this idea. Likewise the Detention Centre in which Ashala is held captive is modelled on Australia’s notorious centres.
The book had great things to say about accepting others who are different. As a saur, a big lizard-like creature, says to Ashala, ‘Our songs say humans fear difference, and when they are afraid, they will find a way to destroy what they fear.’ The saur is on the money: just witness any schoolyard bullying of a kid with a disability.
Likewise, with a message on abilities, Ash’s friend Georgie muses, ‘is it our abilities that make us who we are? Or do we have the abilities we do, because of who we are?’ (226). I liked this, because people with disabilities do frequently have skills on account of their disability. Some people with autism may lack social skills, but their memories for facts are phenomenal; the hearing of blind people is astonishing, and as for me, my senses of touch and smell have been heightened, having lost my hearing, and I protest loudly whenever my brother farts.
I think if this book were more realistic, its themes and messages would have come across in a chunky way, thunking the reader on the head. However, through the medium of speculative fiction, Kwaymullina is able to thread them lightly through the book, bringing to her readers’ attention, in a muted way, the negative impact of racism and a suspicion of difference.
Book details: Kwaymullina, Ambelin. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf. Sydney: Walker Books Australia, 2012.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council Library.