I first encountered Ellen van Neerven’s writing at a salon even at Avid Reader in 2013. I often find readings hard because they require so much energy, first to listen and then to imagine, but Ellen’s gripped me. There was (if I heard her correctly) water, a boat, and a woman.
This too, was the image that persisted after I’d closed the appealing covers of her collection of stories, Heat and Light, although on this occasion it wasn’t quite a woman rising from the water, which, incidentally, this is the title of the middle section of this work.
In ‘Water,’ Australia has become a republic and Aboriginal culture is paramount, encouraged and facilitated by the president, Tanya Sparkle. Aboriginal spirituality ‘is on its way to becoming the most popular religion,’ Jessica Mauboy’s song ‘Gotcha’ has become the national anthem, Aboriginal art has become commodified and the national flag ‘is a horrible mash-up job of the old flag and both the Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag. It looks like Tanya Sparkle’s seven-year-old son did it in Paint’ (73). The president has also created a ‘super country’ for Aboriginal people from the twenty or so islands off Moreton Bay. The application criteria is ‘to show how they have been removed or disconnected from their county — priority given to those who don’t even know where they’ve come from’ (74) – a reference to the obligation in current native title law to provide proof of unbroken descent to country.
However, these islands are inhabited by plantpeople, who are plants with sentience, and they need to be evicted before Aboriginal people can live there. The narrator Kaden is curious about them, and ‘can’t get over how much they look like us’ (84) but is also cautious about their difference: ‘You should see the way they walk through water. Their heads like a tangling piece of reed. And you’ll look closer and see their shoulders swing back and forth like some smooth stroke and it’s frightening’ (89). Larapinta is the one with whom Kaden engages most. She consumes information through her e-reader, from encyclopaedias to Mills & Boon, and acts as a mechanism by which Kaden, and therefore the reader, can question notions of identity, belonging, alienation, the abuse of our natural environment, and how we treat others, human and non-human.
The reason for Kaden’s sardonic overtones in describing this new world for Aborigines becomes clear by the story’s end. The politics reminded me of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, in which Warren Finch’s role as international claimant for peace is undermined by Wright’s bitter humour. The tone in both books serves as a reminder of the disastrous effects of government intervention.
I loved the power at the end of this work; indeed I adored the whole story – it was different, beautifully written, and suffused with a gorgeous wonder for and appreciation of the natural world.
The format of Heat and Light isn’t straightforward, with ‘Heat’ being a collection of stories with linked characters, ‘Water’ being almost a novella, and ‘Light’ having disparate stories. I found it unsettling because my expectations of genre were disrupted, but I also liked that, because it forced me to think and wonder why I’d needed a neat series of stories, or a full-blown novel, at all. Sue of Whispering Gums made a comment about Indigenous literature in the context of Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, positing that it was stories and their themes, rather than narrative force, that pulled that particular book together, and I think that might also be happening here. After all, it shouldn’t make much difference, for stories tell us who we are, and nourish us and keep us alive, as they do in the marvellously surreal town in ‘Currency,’ where stories are used as barter.
In all of the stories, it’s detail that makes the work spring to life, such as when a newborn, held in an aunt’s arms, ‘made a sound that imprinted on her’ (50). It’s also the dynamics between characters. In ‘Anything Can Happen’, the narrator’s girlfriend Lucy wants to pick her up after having her wisdom teeth out, but her mother weighs in: ‘Lucy’s normally sweet face looked then like a run-over pie. I remembered Mum had made the same face when she commented on my new laptop bag and I said Lucy had made it for me for my birthday. They were both fighting not to be obsolete’ (146). On that note, another beautiful and often elemental part of the stories is that attraction between and desire of women. It’s sensual, quietly uncontrollable, and a bit magical: ‘I sat on the toilet seat and looked down between my legs, amazed at the glistening wet mark on my underwear, like glitter’ (138).
There are also sudden and frequent shifts from the huge and intangible to the small and particular. Mental illness and love – concepts which are often abstract and hard to get a grip on - are suddenly pulled into reality at the ending of the last story, ‘Sound’, when they cause the narrator’s brother to act in a horrifying way. Be warned: the final page stabs you in the heart.
In his acceptance speech for the Prime Minister’s literary awards, shambolic though they, were Richard Flanagan, author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, generously donated his prize money of $40,000 to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. His reasoning was thus:
‘I hope it might perhaps grow a few things. My mortgage will go on as mortgages do, but if one of those books helps a few children to advance beyond the most basic literacy to one that is liberating, then I will consider the money better spent.
And if just one of those children in turn becomes a writer, if just one brings to Australia and to the world an idea of the universe that arises out of that glorious lineage of 60,000 years of Australian civilisation, then I will think this prize has rewarded not just me, but us all.’
Heat and Light is fresh, innovative and engaging, and it made my brain tingle with all the questions it didn’t answer. I’m a bit desperate to read Ellen’s next work, and was delighted to hear that she’d received a grant Queensland Writers Fellowship for 2015. Funding for talent is badly needed in Australia, not least because we need new narratives to resists the false, leaden and sometime outright ridiculous stories that our government would like us to believe. Books like Ellen’s, that open with a strong Aboriginal woman who ‘wore a red floral dress that dropped off her narrow shoulders’ (4), shimmer with stories that show us a different way to live.
I’m leaving a copy of this book in the studio in Rome for other writers to read, but really, every woman, man and their dogs should be buying it.
Book details: Van Neerven, Ellen. Heat and Light. Brisbane: UQP, 2014.
Purchased from Avid Reader.
This is my 10th review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.