Review: Timmah Ballon Tony Birch

Reading Dark as Last Night in a Pandemic

The city streets were deserted except for a few of the homeless, an empty tram gliding by like a ghost ship and a sole busker working in the mall, a tin at his feet.

— Tony Birch

it’s okay to grieve
it’s not what we expected

Ellen van Neerven

In ‘The Inevitable Pandemic Poem’ Evelyn Araluen recalls ‘the warm sour smell of the starter I couldn’t get to rise.’ Araluen’s despondency resonates with me as I walk around a suburban park where Groodle puppies are as common as the masks we are now required to wear. Hope sours against the artisan bread baking trends and designer dogs intended to get us through repeat lockdowns, which may or may not end soon. I feel angry but aware that my experience has been easier than that of many others. This despite the congealed bureaucratic messaging that insists we are ‘together apart’ during lockdown. A slogan which saturates government lockdown communication – ‘Staying apart keeps us together’ they insist. As if we were ever all together before and as if we are all treated equally now. If it feels frustratingly inevitable to frame this review within the socio-political mood of the pandemic, it also is reassuring that other Blak writers have articulated these inevitabilities with such lucidity. Confusion, dread and failure to rise during the pandemic are described with heart-breaking perception by Araluen. That poem captured what it felt like to witness the world change ‘leaking from the edges of pre-faded posters reading we’re all in this together’.

Writing and even reading in a pandemic feels different, impossible some days and urgent on others. And while many of us struggle to think and work with the cognitive muscles we took for granted pre-Covid it is encouraging that others aren’t as affected. In strange and uncertain times we need something to cling to and to help us disengage from the excruciating 24-hour Covid news cycle. And while the arts have been economically thumped, literature and Blak literature in particular has flourished with exceptional power. Mob need this. It’s not surprising that we’ve stood strong with electrifying anthologies, novels, poetry collections and non-fiction released during the pandemic – because we’ve already experienced this. Just before the pandemic hit the continent and white Australia froze in horror as fires ravaged country Dr Paola Balla proclaimed ‘we have seen and witnessed and experienced this already.’ And as Covid panic overwhelmed in April last year Allison Whittaker explained in her astoundingly calm Sydney Writers Festival opening that

it is a cliché by now for sure but Indigenous peoples are uniquely equipped to address this theme for you. We have lived an apocalypse or in some kind of apocalyptic state for some two and half centuries now.

Tony Birch’s delightfully meandering new collection of short fiction Dark as Last Night is also well equipped to comfort us in a pandemic. Whether directly showing us the humanity, quirks, sadness and joy which endure through pandemic life or the expansive impact of racism, family violence and social injustice which felt heavier under lockdown, each story offers new ways of seeing ourselves, beyond the constraints of whiteness. Our future, past and present is strong even if it is smattered with the ugly residue of colonisation. People hurt and struggle but they also keep moving and succeed.

Dark as Last Night is published alongside Birch’s new poetry collection Whisper Songs and follows the short story collection Common People (2017) and the huge success of his 2019 novel The White Girl. Early reviews have praised the collection. Josephine Cummins’s recent review in Guardian Australia described the stories as ‘precious gems’ and Birch ‘a master of the short story.’ While I resoundingly agree with her judgment I also feel the need to resist classifications like short story and even masterful. For me Birch is not the master of the short story but rather uniquely equipped, as Whittaker puts it, to tell a brilliant yarn, in any form – academic articles, narrative non-fiction, essays, lectures, novels or poetry – all of which fall into western categories that increasingly feel limited. Tony Birch tells incredibly important stories incredibly well and Dark as Last Night is both an antidote and a lullaby in pandemic times. It defies obvious analysis because it encompasses something deeper, a reflection of us beyond the introduced norms and clichés of white Australianness. As Wiradjuri academic, poet and author Jeanine Leane writes:

too much time is spent on debating form and arbitrating where this work – and that of fellow Indigenous writers, and Indigenous peoples more broadly – might ‘fit’ in the western order of things. Caught in the mind of settler academics is a dangerous place for First Nations peoples to be. It is a prison that entraps us all – a space of stereotypes and ingrained assumptions transmitted through the settler discourse of nation, ‘settlement’ rights and belonging. This discourse permeates introduced governance structures, national histories, literary canons, media, the education system and popular culture of bronzed Aussies, big open spaces, an unpopulated outback, battlers, a classless society and easy-going-ordinary Australians.

In ‘The Blood Bank: A Love Story’ and ‘Riding Trains with Thelma Plum’ the reader is explicitly drawn into the pandemic world but Covid’s disruptiveness doesn’t isolate or antagonise as the reader might expect. Instead it brings new intimacies and confidence, which is heartening in a world that feels bleak and irresolvable. A lonely figure decides to donate blood during the ‘difficult times’ society has been thrown into. Filling out forms before his donation it becomes clear that he has led a relatively quiet and chaste life. In the clinic he starts chatting to another donor, a younger woman, and their cheeky conversation leads to a date.

‘What about distancing?’ He asks her to which she assures him that they ‘can get inventive with that.’

Through the fleeting narrative we are shown that pleasure exists in austere circumstances. Similarly ‘Riding Trains with Thelma Plum’ centres on a brazen and joyous youth, qualities which are easily forgotten in grim times. A young Blak girl sits amongst an otherwise ‘pitiful gathering’ of commuters on a Sydney train and cries ‘Hey’ to the song she has on repeat. A disgruntled man wearing an absurd ‘Pussy Lives Matter’ t-shirt is enraged, as her finds her exuberance unbearable. Unperturbed, she keeps dancing as others join in and when she gets off at Redfern she shouts ‘“Hey!” followed with a delightful “Fuck that!”’ The scenario could have been much harsher given the violent discrimination that Blak people often encounter. But in a world bereft we are given hope watching a Blak teenager express her sovereignty with defiant pride.  

In ‘The Librarian’ the value of books, reading and literature for First Nations people who have adapted to the imposed English with our own flair is told with dark wit. The fixation with classifying Blak writing within western frameworks is present in a librarian’s assumptions that literary culture is not for Aboriginal people. Two teenage boys, Daniel and Spider, drift from school, stuck in a system ill-equipped to support them. When Daniel lands in detention and is forced to shelve books in the library the curious and genuinely caring librarian Miss Costa encourages him to read. She asks if he has read any classics and when he casually informs her that he has, believing it’s no big deal, she responds by asking him a series of questions. ‘I guess she didn’t believe I’d read any of the books she’d suggested’ he thinks to himself, aware that she is trying to catch him lying. ‘The Librarian’ provides further insight into the over-arbitrating of Blak writing; eventually both boys are expelled and move on with their lives stoically. While happy enough, Daniel shyly admits that he actually liked school, ‘the reading, talking about books and writing stories’. And yet he is systematically pushed out of an institution that assumes he had no right to be there and lacked the skills and intelligence to excel. This culture dominated 1970s Australia when the short story is set and persists in subtler ways. It is no surprise that literary establishments struggle to understand the work of Blak writers; many believed Blak students were not equipped for education, even less for literary success.

The title story ‘Dark as Last Night’ takes a strikingly sombre tone but remains urgent. It is a portrait of a young family on the verge of destruction, the cause of which is a horrifically violent father. During the pandemic lockdowns and economic hardship exacerbated family violence and mediation became harder. In 2020 journalist Jess Hill’s book See What You Made Me Do won the Stella Prize. Based on a four-year investigation into domestic abuse, the book gained immense traction and was quickly adapted to a televised documentary series; evidence of a nation increasingly aware of its homegrown tragedy. But it drew criticism from Aboriginal women for relying on solutions via the criminal justice system which has historically failed Blak communites. In their commentary on See What You Made Me Do, Chelsea Watego, Alissa Macoun, Elizabeth Strakosch and David Singh highlight the detrimental impact of carceral solutions, such as the criminalisation of coercive control (which Hill advocates) on Indigenous women even though they ‘are more likely to be imprisoned than protected’. As they explain, coercive control ‘refers to systemic domestic violence that operates through a matrix of subtle practices including surveillance, gaslighting, financial control, and fear of potential violence.’ Criminalising these behaviours is shown to only worsen the circumstance of Blak women who are disproportionally mistreated by the police if they are even believed in the first place. This was evidenced in the article by the tragic experience of Tamica Mullaley, a victim of domestic violence. When police were called to her home the authors described how ‘rather than being treated as a victim, the police treated her as an offender, which resulted in the most tragic of consequences for her baby Charlie.’

When I started reading Dark as Last Night I had just finished Veronica Gorrie’s phenomenal memoir Black and Blue. That electrifying book details Gorrie’s experiences of sexual abuse and the multiple other abuses she endured in her career in the police force. The powerful account demonstrates Gorrie’s strength to overcome these abuses and emerge as a loving mother dedicated to her kids and community as well as becoming a staunch abolitionist. ‘I heave learnt to love again and to be loved,’ she acknowledges. And while some of the despicable acts she encounters feel worthy of the most vengeful punishments it is also not surprising that she didn’t speak out immediately or call the police. She knows the risks of racial ignorance and culturally unsafe processes. And most damaging, she knows the chances that she will just not be believed at all. As Declan Fry explained in his formidable review of her memoir:

Taking on the role of informant creates a bind. If the Aboriginal author is always the lone witness – Adam Goodes, “I heard what I heard”; Shareena Clanton, “my experience on Neighbours”; Meyne Wyatt, Veronica Gorrie, the this I believe to be true – what then?

Then they are always able to be disbelieved.

Maybe it never happened.

Maybe it was one bad experience.

In ‘Dark as Last Night’ the young female character Rosie is equally aware that police intervention is not the right choice and is reluctant to speak out. Her next door neighbour Little Red who regularly overhears the abuse doesn’t understand; ‘that house must be a terror for you’ she proclaims. She then goes further, ripping into Rosie and telling her that, ‘you people. You’re all the same. All you know how to do is keep your mouths shut and say nothing. People say nothing and other dies. It is this simple.’But having just finished Black and Blue and still reeling from the excruciating accounts of sexual assault, I know it is never simple. Like advocates of criminalising coercive control Little Red believes that police intervention is the only option, forcefully convincing Rosie to report her mother’s assault by her father at the local station. ‘You must go now’,she shouts at Rosie pushing her from her verandah. Rosie reports the matter and officers return to her home only to witness her mother make excuses for her injuries. The consequences are devastating for the family. The reader understands that Little Red’s intentions were never meant to harm but the scenario plays out like a parable for why we need non-carceral solutions. In the end Rosie takes other actions aided by Little Red who is now aware that another response is urgently need. A solution to save her family evolves in ways that are magical and joyous. Dark as Last Night offers hope for a situation that too often feels hopeless. But most importantly it shows that Blak women are not nameless victims infinitely abused. They are their own sovereign heroes determining their own future. Rosie’s tenacity and strength flows through the many other lyrical stories and tough characters contained in the book. In uncertain times the humour, darkness, intimacies and survival Birch offers us have never been more important to read.

Works Cited

Evelyn Araluen, Drop Bear, UQP, 2021.

Paola Balla, ‘Tyirrem; the end of the world as we knew it’, The Sydney Review of Books, 2020.

Josephine Cummin, ‘Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch review – 16 new vignettes from a master of the short story, The Guardian, 2021.

Declan Fry, ‘Killing the Cop in your Head’, Inside Story, 2021.

Jeanine Leane, ‘Living on Stolen Land: Deconstructing the settler mythscape’, The Sydney Review of Books, 2020.

Ellen van Neerven ‘social isolation is an act of love, The Saturday Paper, 2020.

Chelsea Watego, Alissa Macoun, Elizabeth Strakosch and David Singh, ‘Carceral feminism and coercive control: when Indigenous women aren’t seen as ideal victims, witnesses or women’, The Conversation, 2021.

Alison Whittaker, Opening Address Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2020.