This novel, Melissa Lucashenko’s fifth, is a rollicking good read. It’s the story of Jo Breen who, with her divorce settlement, buys a farm in the Byron Bay hinterland, in the hope of connecting to the land of her Aboriginal ancestors. As a foil to – and interwoven with – Jo’s means of acquiring land is the attempt of her boyfriend Twoboy, to lodge a native title claim. This requires extensive archival research to prove an unbroken attachment to his country, a process which to me has always seemed ridiculous, as Indigenous culture is a predominantly oral culture, passed down through spoken stories, not through written documentation.
Amidst the developing romance between Jo and Twoboy, and Jo’s turbulent relationship with her teenage daughter, the reader sees the family in-fighting prompted by claiming Native Title, as Jo puts it, ‘Years of hard yakka and fuck all at the end of it, except a community in ruins’ (171). Later, her sister Kym elaborates: ‘Shitfights everywhere you look. First cousins not talking after fifty years, brothers bashing brothers, its Colonisation 4.0. The dugai [white people] don’t have to lift a finger anymore – they’ve outsourced it to us’ (233). This family breakdown is something I tried to demonstrate in my novel, Entitlement. By showing how a white family falls apart by fighting over land, I was trying to get readers to understand how it might be for Indigenous people. As it was, the Indigenous characters in my novel didn’t have a leg to stand on by way of claiming Native Title, so they were forced to use another means.
Native Title is also, as Jo makes clear, only available to people who have resources to understand and play the system. Her Uncle Humbug is often getting picked up by the police because he refuses to understand and abide by Western laws, and he was taken by the church and abused as a child, and is poor. As Jo says, ‘he must have a Native Title claim to somewhere. But I can’t see him fronting any tribunal, can you? He’s flat out getting over to Bi-Lo on pensions day’ (171). Uncle Humbug also provides a great deal of humour, and is a means for Lucashenko to have a dig at the Byron Bay latte sippers, which is pretty funny.
What struck me most about the story was how Indigenous people have been estranged from their own ways of knowing by colonisation. Jo isn’t well-versed in her culture, her parents having died when she was young, and her Aunty Barb, who brings her up, also passing away. ‘You got any lingo?’ Granny Nurrung, an Elder, asks her, and Jo is ‘ashamed of the few pathetic scraps she knew’ (276). When her horse escapes into a part of the World Heritage park, she hears the hills singing to her. Her reaction is one of terror, and when she recounts her experience, ‘she didn’t want to sound womba [crazy]. She didn’t want to be womba’ (100). Meanwhile her daughter, Ellen, harms her own body because she doesn’t want to be marked as different, or as Indigenous.
The novel seems echos some of the themes which Sue of Whispering Gums raises in her review of Lucashenko’s essay ‘How Green is My Valley?’ published in Griffith Review. Both essay and novel open with an ironic reference to Jane Austen (the latter reads: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, reflected Jo, that a teenager armed with a Nikko pen is a pain in the fucking neck’ (1)), signalling that they are about how to negotiate both Indigenous and European culture through writing. Both the essay and novel also raise the question of if it is possible to be bicultural. If it is, the novel suggests that this isn’t easy. Jo begins to see borders and boundaries everywhere, although it didn’t bother her when she bought her property, and she ‘swung helplessly between these two sets of knowledge: that the universe she inhabited was very clearly being bound and strangled with white people’s ruler-straight lines and fences, and that the fact of not being able to get over this meant that maybe – maybe – she was losing the plot’ (134). This hearkens back to my previous post about the Yirrkala Bark Petitions, and how Indigenous people have been required to use Western forms to express their culture and make their grievances known. Out of necessity, they must know and traverse white culture, but white people rarely travel in the other direction and try to know Indigenous culture. Hence Jo’s scepticism about Twoboy’s desire to record the chanting she heard in the hills: ‘her man was living in cloud cuckoo land, chasing after songs and meanings that no dugai [white person] in Australia would ever consider important, or even admit were real’ (230). Towards the end of the novel, she swings decisively against the process of Native Title, concluding it was just a piece of paper, and the country was theirs without those documents, and would continue to be so.
If I did have one quibble with the text, it was that there was often too much ‘telling’ over ‘showing’. I prefer my prose pared back, and for the reader to do the work, so I was sometimes aggravated by such as ‘Everything in the world, she began to see, was bordered. Almost everything was locked up and claimed by other people’ (133). Lucashenko had just demonstrated this in the previous lines through Jo’s observations of the fences, signs, and lot numbers around her, and didn’t need to repeat it.
This aside, the book left me with plenty to think about, particularly after the Oz Lit conference I attended at Wagga Wagga where there were many conversations about white and Indigenous people’s relationship to country, and how we negotiate this amidst the legacies of colonisation. However, that will be another blog post. In the meantime, I urge you to pick up Melissa’s novel – you can be assured of a satisfying read.
Book details: Lucashenko, Melissa. Mullumbimby. Brisbane: UQP, 2013.
Purchased from Avid Reader.
This is my 10th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. It is also my 2nd review for Indigenous Writers Week, run by Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers blog who has also written a nuanced review of Mullumbimby, and my 3rd for the Women of Colour Challenge.