Country matters: Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko
by Melissa Lucashenko
University of Queensland Press
Published March, 2013
Topographic maps show the hills surrounding the northern New South Wales town of Mullumbimby separated into distinct, numbered parcels of land. The wholeness of the land has been dissolved, dismembered, and the properties lashed together again with fences. Lush paddocks rise and fall towards the coast, lined with boundaries and borders, numbered, named and claimed by whitefellas. Fences and roads are the means by which the colonisers ‘bind the gift of a continent to themselves’ using bitumen, wire and timber.
This realisation disturbs Jo Breen, the feisty Bundjalung protagonist of Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby. Jo is new to property ownership. Having scraped together the money to buy a twenty acre block on Tin Wagon Road, she soon finds herself scraping stray gold coins off the floor of the car to buy milk. She makes a living – just – by mowing the local cemetery, content to work for a wage tending the province of Mullum’s dead white souls, despite having once haboured creative ambitions. The financial strain is worth it. Out at Tin Wagon Road, Jo treads barefoot upon her own country. She breathes it in and sets to work on it, clearing mountains of rubbish, spraying camphors, ripping out fireweed and fixing fences of her own. Jo’s labours mix her sweat with the land, impressing on the reader the idea that the relationship of Aboriginal people to their country is resilient and adaptive. It takes new forms in the present. Jo has ‘reclaimed a fragment’ of her traditional estate, she is ‘Home’, and the country responds to her presence, welcoming her. She experiences the land as vitally alive and it communicates to her through subtle signs, weather patterns and, especially, birds.
It seems to me that Lucashenko writes both with and against the perception that authentic Aboriginality is derived from the maintenance of land-based cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. In one sense, Mullumbimby is a reproach to those who seek out, romanticise and valorise versions of Aboriginal culture that are easily recognisable as examples of what the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner famously called ‘Aboriginal high culture’ – the complex religious and ceremonial life which sustained people-country relationships prior to colonial contact, and which certainly some Aboriginal people continue to maintain. Lucashenko shows that in this densely settled corner of Australia – crawling as it is with tourists, hippies, rich tree-changers and dugai (white) farmers – Aboriginal attachments to country and distinctive belief systems remain intact. They might not be immediately recognisable as such to outsiders, but their resilience – and indeed resurgence in the contemporary moment – points to a continuity with the pre-colonial past. Yet in sketching this continuity, Mullumbimby also affirms a predetermined conclusion: that land is necessarily the foundation of contemporary Aboriginal identities. This affirmation forecloses possibilities, a point to which I will return.
The occupation and possession of the country by individuals is only part of the map of contemporary land use. Mullumbimby dramatises the case of a native title claim lodged over the pockets of Crown land in the region. One of the claimants is Twoboy, a sexy black man with a sharp intellect and cruel sense of humour. His family’s claim is controversial: they have long lived elsewhere, but are seeking to reassert their status as ‘traditional owners’. Jo and Twoboy are attracted to each other and their relationship becomes intertwined with the course of the native title claim. Toward the end, the novel becomes a mystery story, as a number of the incongruous or enigmatic occurrences and comments that have been carefully placed as clues along the way reveal their significance. These pages flew fast through my fingers as Lucashenko’s fluid narrative rushed towards resolution. Jo’s teenage daughter Ellen, whom Jo parents alone, holds the key to a discovery of the ‘truth’ – that is, the single Truth that the native title claims process is seeking to establish, and which the novel is structured to ultimately reveal.
Ellen’s crucial role is surprising. For much of the novel, Jo’s relationship with Ellen is hard to fathom. Throughout Mullumbimby, Jo is engaged in a defensive inner dialogue about her relationship with Twoboy. She mulls over whether or not she is willing to allow him to dismantle her carefully built fortress, repeating to herself the mantra: ‘Good looking men. Trouble.’ While the reader is told that Jo’s love for her talented and artistic daughter is powerful and a priority, Ellen does not seem to be on her mind in the way that Twoboy constantly is. At one point, Jo observes that her daughter is a ‘typical Goorie’ (Aboriginal person) in at least one way: ‘she spoke around half as much as a white child her age.’ But given that when Ellen does blurt out how she is feeling she gets very little back in return from her mother, why would she bother talking much? The question is whether it is Jo or Lucashenko herself who is using Ellen in the service of the idea that Aboriginal ways of being are always fundamentally and essentially different from dugai ways of being. The categories of black and white remain throughout the novel, well, black and white – their content is clearly and thoroughly separated and contrasted, even though many of the characters are of mixed descent, including the ‘coffee-coloured’ Jo.
The category of Aboriginality seems, then, to be hermeneutically sealed within Mullumbimby. So much so that when a dugai shows some sensitivity of feeling, Jo wryly decides to re-categorise him as an ‘honorary Bundajalung’. She is on a slightly obsessive quest for purity. She decides that she will allow nothing but native plants to thrive on her property; all other introduced species are to be poisoned, ripped out and banished. These efforts are symbolic of her worldview. To some extent, the conclusion of the novel involves Jo admitting that these categories cannot be neatly separated out. Jo is after all a horsewoman, and the horse is an introduced species. More pointedly, Jo learns that a dugai she had dismissed as ‘landed gentry’ and expressed hostility towards is learning about Bundjalung ways and has committed himself to the restitution of Bundjalung lands. Importantly, he will do so only in death: the commitment is enshrined in his will. Even this lesson, then, which humbles Jo, seems to me to keep intact a desire for a pure state of Aboriginal being that is realised in the bond with one’s traditional country, with the white presence expunged.
It is Lucashenko’s depiction of the native title claims process that is the most riveting and significant aspect of Mullumbimby. Paradoxically, it is also the conclusion of the native title drama that crystallises the nagging issues I have outlined above. Each of these aspects of the novel deserves critical attention and I will deal with them in turn.
The novel plumbs the depths of bitterness, conflict and destruction the native title claims process too often leaves in its wake. It brilliantly captures, in a robust vernacular style, the fury and cynicism spawned by the long-lasting and emotionally exhausting claims process. ‘That lying black dogfucker is gonna learn that I’m no fool,’ says Twoboy of Oscar Bullockhead, a prominent Aboriginal figure and longtime resident in the Mullumbimby area. ‘And revenge is a dish I’m prepared to eat frozen.’
The uncomfortable fact that internecine conflicts can erupt within Aboriginal communities caught up in native title claims processes featured in Alexis Wright’s amazing experimental epic Carpentaria (2006). It is also well handled in Patti Miller’s recent memoir The Mind of a Thief (2012). Lucashenko’s realist fictional representation of the process does something quite different, and to my mind important: it captures the rawness of the lived experience and the fallout from these kinds of conflicts. Nasty threatening text messages fly, vituperation is hurled out of car windows, violence looms. The characters express bitter criticisms of the process, but become ever more bound to native title’s underpinnings.
Ultimately, within this novel, the logic of native title is destined to prevail. Things work out very neatly. At the novel’s close, it is only the Bundjalung characters who are deemed to have a legitimate relationship with the Mullumbimby area. Their actions redeem them, showing them to be fundamentally decent and honourable people. In other, non-fictional cases, however, the historical evidence produced to support native title claims has served to undermine deeply felt attachments to country held by decent and honourable Aboriginal people – longtime residents who do not have a ‘traditional’ relationship to the areas in which they live, as far as the whitefellas’ legal system is concerned. Aboriginal people have, of course, been moved by the force of historical circumstances, or have themselves moved, all over the continent. The native title legislation’s emphasis on continuity thus creates a massive problem for those most affected by colonialism’s discontinuities. This problem is far too easily resolved within Mullumbimby. Those Aboriginal characters who are not Bundjalung, but who are living on Bandjalung country, are grotesque creations with no moral legitimacy. The obese, child-molesting, cowardly figure of Bullockhead, who stands for a literally and metaphorically corrupted form of Aboriginality, is killed off.
As a reader I found myself searching the novel for some possibility that Aboriginal people might legitimately experience themselves outside of the – assumption? demand? – that they maintain attachments to and deep feelings for the land of their ancestors. Where does this leave, I wondered, the character of Jesse, the sensitive young protagonist of Tony Birch’s Blood (2011), dragged around by his unreliable white mother, wondering about his Aboriginal father, and who shares a deep bond sealed in blood with his white sister? Is he not, as it is said in Mullumbimby, a ‘proper blackfella’? On whose terms should such a distinction be made? The formula employed within Mullumbimby has Chris, a Cadigal woman living on Tin Wagon Road, content to be adopted, again, as an ‘honorary Bandjalung’. To be adopted as honorary Bandjalung is nice, but it implies a status less than the real, unassailable thing.
Mullumbimby’s depiction of Jo’s interiority and Lucashenko’s wonderful, gritty use of language, specifically Aboriginal English, frequently reminded me of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People (1986). Like Hulme’s protagonist Kerewin Holmes, Jo has barricaded herself inside her own head and the stream of thoughts and cynical observations that pours forth is intertextual and richly layered. Kerewin cites the mystics and the classics; Jo reaches for song lyrics from the Classic FM hit list and Walt Whitman.
But the most obvious similarity between these works is the authors’ use of a glossary of Indigenous words. Lucashenko’s work follows the convention used in Dylan Coleman’s recently published Mazin Grace (2012), which evokes a mission childhood and is also published by the University of Queensland Press (so the convention might be UQP’s). In both novels, Aboriginal words are frequently embedded within the narrative and are not italicised, and glossaries are appended to the text. Mazin Grace and Mullumbimby share a linguistic vivacity and I think the debate over Keri Hulme’s use of Maori, which has been surveyed by Maryanne Dever, might help explain why. Some critics felt that Hulme had relegated the Maori language to a secondary status, that her act of incorporation was a denial of otherness, an absorption into a European apparatus. Dever argues against this interpretation, perceiving that the glossary preserves a space for otherness by insisting on the ‘very separateness of the Maori language’. Furthermore, the use of both English and Maori creates a sense of disjunction within the novel that confirms postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha’s point, quoted by Dever, that texts become ‘an articulation of the historical in the form of literary representation’.
The historical processes represented in The Bone People are the violence of colonialism and the destruction of language competency. The violence of colonialism is also evident in the lingua franca of Mazin Grace and Mullumbimby. However, as with The Bone People, the historical moment depicted in these literary representations speaks, not just of loss, but also of salvage and survival. The present moment, which is also historical, is a potentially exciting one, a moment of intense interest in language and cultural revival: ‘mobs all over the country,’ Jo observes, ‘were trawling in dugai libraries and dugai archives retrieving little bits of songs, stories, dances.’ She continues: ‘And yeah, theirs was a living language, true, but only barely.’ In Lucashenko’s hands, the language used to describe the world her characters inhabit is very much alive. Using phonetic spellings, Aboriginal English and Bandjalung words, Lucashenko breathes life into the language belonging to this place.
Perhaps it is the birds in Mullumbimby that have something to teach us. Mulanyin, the blue heron, lifts off the dam in morning greeting, waits for Jo on fence posts, or flaps across the paddock croaking its message. The dancing fairy wrens point Jo towards the Truth. Jo and Twoboy teach a caged parrot to say, ‘Let me out you cunts’. A lyrebird also listens and learns to reproduce a far more complex passage, passing down a talga (traditional song). And an unseen bird, perhaps a koruhmburuhm (magpie), fashions a home for itself by collecting scraps of barbed wire. These are looped and wound into an intricate, feather and down-lined nest. Those fences that bind the sliced up country tight, keeping Aboriginal people out of their country, also provide material for this bird’s nesting place.
Tony Birch, Blood (University of Queensland Press, 2011)
Dylan Coleman, Mazin Grace (University of Queensland Press, 2012)
Maryanne Dever ‘Violence as lingua franca: Keri Hulme’s The Bone People,’ World Literature Written in English, 29:2 (1989) 23-35.
Keri Hulme, The Bone People (Picador, 1986)
Patti Miller, The Mind of a Thief (University of Queensland Press, 2012)
Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (Giramondo, 2006)