Anita Heiss’s latest novel opens with a man running from a prison: the Japanese internment camp of Cowra in 1944. Hiroshi finds safety with an Aboriginal family, who hide and care for him. Gradually, a romance develops between Hiroshi and Mary Williams, the young Aboriginal woman who takes him food.
Heiss writes what she calls ‘choc-lit’ – or chick lit with an Aboriginal focus – but you would foolish to dismiss this as fluff. Her work, whether fiction or non-fiction, is always firmly focused on educating audiences about Aboriginal culture and the ongoing effects of colonialism and racism. She’s a smart woman: popular fiction is one of the most widely read genres, and by inserting her themes into her popular novels she aims to inform a wide range of readers.
This is a difficult road to take, as readers of this genre pick up books expecting to be entertained. If there’s a whiff of anything otherwise, they don’t care for it. I don’t think that will be a problem for readers of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, for in this work Heiss blends popular fiction and politics beautifully.
There are two main techniques she uses to achieve this. The first is Hiroshi’s point of view. By using a character who knows nothing of Aboriginal culture, who is initially ‘suspicious as to why these dark people are helping him and where they actually come from’ but who grows to love them deeply, Heiss articulates how race is a construct and that hunger, kindness, fear, homesickness and desire are qualities that belong to us all.
The second technique is the use of metaphor, specifically that of imprisonment. The prison from which Hiroshi escapes represents not only the physical camp for internees, but also the camps on which Aboriginal people were forced to live – the mission stations and reserves – when their land was taken from them. As Banjo, Mary’s father, says, ‘We are treated like prisoners too, at Erambie. We shouldn’t be on rations. We should all be paid the same for the same work and have enough money to buy food for our families – not just flour, tea and sugar rations and whatever we can hunt or manage to grow. It’s not fair for anyone. The prisoners of war are just like us’.
Heiss also addresses contemporary concerns, such as negative representations of Aboriginal people in the media. Merv, a singer and football player, makes a name for himself in Sydney and is written up in the paper. Mary, who reads the article about him out to the family, comments ‘At least this is a positive article about Aboriginal people. You’re always saying what they write about us is bad, Mum.’ And in Mary’s family itself there is much to be proud of. The Williams take in a stranger and scrimp to find food for him, as many Aboriginal people did for Europeans they were shipwrecked on Australia’s coasts. They take an interest in Hiroshi and his culture, as Noongars did in whalers and the first colonists when they arrived in south west Western Australia (Kim Scott writes about this beautifully in That Deadman Dance). At the same time they aren’t saints, for no one is. Through Kevin, who is jealous and has a temper, Heiss shows that every family has its arguments, and that different viewpoints need to be aired before one can arrive at a resolution.
At the heart of the novel is an important emotion: empathy. Romance is definitely important too, not least because it drives the plot, but without empathy, romance can’t happen. Empathy often takes some work – intellectual as well as emotional. As Banjo exhorts his brother Kevin, ‘What if our brother escaped from a POW camp like this bloke? Wouldn’t you want someone to look after him and treat him like a human being?’ And this is what the novel does, as all good literature should do: it takes us out of our everyday lives and into a new world, where we become invested in and learn to care for its people. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who argues for the importance of including emotion in philosophy, writes in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (1995), novels invite us to ‘concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own’ (xvi). And this in turn is a precondition for respect for human dignity (xvi).
So if you’re reading this book by the beach (and I hope you are!), you’ll not only enjoy the plot and characters (perhaps woven with the smell of salt and sunscreen and the sounds of kids yelling), but you’ll also quietly exercise your heart as well.
This is my seventh review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.