Review: Maks Sipowiczon Yumna Kassab

Will The Real Australia Please Stand Up?

There are more Australias than I can count. Though we inhabit some of them together, many we not only don’t share with others, but couldn’t even fathom sharing. Some are real, most are mythical. Politicians love to invoke a certain mythical version of Australia whenever they need to appeal to some sort of nationalistic impulse. When it comes to regional Australia, that is, all of the places outside of this country’s capital cities, the mythology is populated with clichés about rural settler life. We all know them: there are the farmers battling against drought just to feed the ingrate cities, old saws about how rural towns are places where ‘real’ Aussies live. Yumna Kassab’s latest work, Australiana, a multifaceted exploration of regional Australia, goes a long way toward dispelling such limiting narratives. Kassab presents a full and rich account of life outside of major cities, and, continuing the moral project begun in her debut work, House of Youssef (Giramondo, 2019), she draws us into this world to separate myth from reality.

Structurally Australiana is similar to Kassab’s first work – it consists of cycles of interconnected short stories as well as several longer pieces. It is what Olga Tokarczuk calls a ‘constellation novel’ – a description she gives of her novel Flights. A constellation novel is one that doesn’t attempt a single story, but which ‘throws a range of writing and polyphonic voices into orbit and allows [the] readers to make significant forms and patterns from them.’ This is the best way to think of Australiana. If there is a single story here, it isn’t that of individuals, it is of a community.

The book is split into five sections, each examining a different aspect of country life. The first, ‘The Town’, explores the ways in which the lives of people in a small community are connected. It’s a series of connected vignettes, each drawing on some aspect of the previous one, but showing a completely different facet of life in the town. The second section, ‘My Face is Nameless’, highlights the hardships of rural life: drought, loneliness, tradition, but also on overcoming these things, through grit and reliance on one’s community. The third section, ‘The Blind Side’, the longest single story in the book, is preoccupied with community and the grave consequences of turning one’s back on it. In the fourth section, ‘Pilliga’, Kassab turns her attention to Country and the respect it demands. Camping in the Pilliga National Park in northern New South Wales, a group of teenagers come up against unrelenting heat, against themselves, and against the ghosts of those who got lost forever in the wilderness. Finally, ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ completes the collection by examining the role the bushranger myth plays in our understanding of regional communities.

Each story of ‘The Town’ focuses on a moment in the life of a community, one vignette after another is focalised through a new character or group of characters, moving the narrative along by leaving enough of a trail to follow how each of the lives is connected. It opens with the experience of a man who just moved to the town, and whose house is getting broken into, time and again. Next, from the perspective of the burglars, we learn that their intention wasn’t to steal anything, just to see what the new guy’s house was like – people in town were joking that he had bags of money in there. Next, we move on to the perspective of the stepmum of one of the burglars, worrying about her family. Following the links in this chain, we peer into an enormous range of experiences. Kassab gives enough to let us into each protagonist’s world, to feel what they feel, before snatching us away to show us something else.

The economy of Kassab’s language mirrors in many ways the brutality of the world inhabited by her protagonists. Take for example this story, titled ‘Speed Dating’ from the second section, ‘My Face Is Nameless’, that is brief enough to quote in its entirety:

She was at the wheel and she was determined he be impressed.

She sped up. He egged her on.

She flipped the car and they smashed into a tree.

She did not impress him and now no one else will.

This is a particularly curt example, but it illustrates well how Kassab is able to strip unnecessary flourish that could soften the impact of her stories. This isn’t to say that the stories here are bleak or deprived of humour and joy – that would be contrary to the realist project of the work.

The weather is important in Australiana. It isn’t merely the backdrop against which things happen, it is a force against which people struggle, with which they need to learn to live, and which is completely inescapable. In this sense, the land and the slow rolling climate disaster we are living through are always present in Australiana. It’s not news that those in rural communities are among the worst affected by climate change. In ‘The Floods’, we see this most clearly. In the drought, the land dries so solidly that it can no longer absorb water; any rain that falls will simply sit on top, accumulating and flooding. And so when the drought eventually breaks, another disaster will strike. In the aptly titled ‘The Hostage Sky’, a man looks at the sky, ‘the one that has held them hostage for months, the sky that does not care whether he breathes or dies’. The sense of dread about the environment felt by the characters permeates the novel, and Kassab instils it in her readers too. We come to realise how for these rural communities – and more for all of us – a great deal is dictated by the rain. Unsurprisingly, the man in that story knows exactly how many days it’s been since the last rainfall.

Reading these stories against the backdrop of the widespread and catastrophic flooding in Queensland and New South Wales this year has been surreal. The transition from drought to flooding just shifts the locus of people’s suffering, their burden is ever present in one form or another. One moment the folks of Australiana worry about hay running out in town or about how to explain to the bank that their farm isn’t profitable this year, the next their livestock is drowning, their house is underwater, and their car floated away. But of course, non-regional Australians shouldn’t need to read a book set in regional Australia to be concerned about how climate change will affect those communities, just as there’s no need to watch the news all day to know that the impact of flooding on communities in northern NSW has been shattering. But there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing what something is like to live through. And when the flooding subsides, so too does the news coverage. What will abide is the devastation and ruined lives in need of repair. In the era of aesthetics as politics, where government support is only available when its administration can be visible, it is art that has the potential to keep our attention. Stories like Kassab’s can bring us into the world of the people experiencing these tragedies, and take us beyond the news cycle to motivate transformative action.

At her best, Kassab shows us how the loss of livelihood, the inability to see a way out, and the lack of concern and action from government precipitate crises. Some of her characters simply feel that they were conned into this life. As the protagonist in ‘The Dam’, Jack, tells us, ‘[i]f there was one silver lining to the drought, it was that drownings were down. Never mind the increase in domestic violence, shootings, and suicide.’ Desperation drives people to violence, against themselves, against their spouses, or against their friends. Sometimes it’s just a pub scuffle, many times it’s much worse. Kassab has no time for the sugar-coated version of the story.

In the task of dispelling myths, there is a clear line to be drawn between Australiana and Kassab’s first book, House of Youssef. There, Kassab delves deeply into the psychology and politics of Lebanese Muslims living in Western Sydney. Her stories shed light on the challenges of leaving one’s homeland to try to carve a better future for one’s kids and of dealing with the sense of otherness perpetuated by the oppressive whiteness of mainstream Australian culture. House of Youssef brings the challenges faced by first generation migrants into dialogue with the discrimination faced by all migrants. In Australiana these challenges appear in different forms. Young people move from the country to the city to pursue easier lives. Older generations lament that young folks are abandoning land that their family has maintained for over a century. Those who stay face drought, isolation, hard labour. While Australiana doesn’t deal explicitly with questions about racism in the way House of Youssef does, it does show that one’s lived experience emerges from a multitude of factors including background, class, gender, and mental health – and that how we get treated depends on the intersection of all of these factors.

The moral project of Kassab’s writing is what unites these books. Her view of the world and her continual insistence on the power communities hold over us, both to protect us and to break us is readily apparent in both books. One of the stories in Australiana tells of a man, Barry, who challenged his community when he was leaving for the city, talking down to the people he grew up around about their choices to stay despite the challenges presented by the land. In the city, he gets together and breaks up with a woman after having a child together. Every time he returns to his home town, Barry looks worse. Because of how he treated them in the first place, the townspeople are quick to blame him for his problems. Then he gets accused of sexually harassing several young women in the city. In town, the people take this as a sign of a greater moral failing on Barry’s behalf. In the city one can remain anonymous, but in his small regional community, Barry becomes a pariah. His wilful separation from the community means he can’t get back to the nourishment that it can provide, to the mutual strength that allows communities to survive in the face of adversity.

In House of Youssef, we similarly see the toll exacted by a community that feels abandoned by one of its own. Families back in the old country quietly judge the kids of their relatives who migrated for forgetting their roots. The children of migrants are chided for abandoning tradition. In the most extreme cases, the community turns its back completely for transgressions against its norms. In both books, Kassab makes it clear that the consequences of abandoning and being abandoned by one’s community aren’t one-sided. The tragedy is experienced by everyone in different ways, but the scars left behind are very similar.

Both books examine moments of profound cultural change within clearly defined communities. In both cases, young people abandon traditions. In Australiana this means moving to the city, getting office jobs, coming back less frequently until they’re barely ever seen. As the narrator in the ‘Blind Side’ says, ‘[f]or many, a home town is something to be cast off like a bad smell as soon as you can.’ He complains that young people leave the country for the city and that they become too dependent on technology. In House of Youssef, we see similar complaints from the first generation that came to Australia – young people don’t care about the struggles their family had to go through so they could land in Sydney – they care about making their own future.

Australiana’s one weakness is its focus on settler narratives. Most (though not all) of the characters are white or otherwise more-recent migrants. On the one hand, it’s understandable that a writer who is not of Aboriginal heritage might want to avoid trying to go too deeply into the experience of Aboriginal people, since that is not for settlers to do. On the other, the book in many ways attempts to dispel myths about modern Australia, and it is odd that Kassab doesn’t engage more with the role of settler colonialism in shaping the communities she writes about or the way in which Australians understand them. Australiana goes a long way to present us with stories about tradition and attachment to the land, but the protagonists don’t seem to have much concern about whose land it is that they have formed these attachments to. One could put it down to a form of realism – most people don’t consciously think about the way in which the colonial project affects their daily life. At the same time, the lack of engagement seems like a blank space in the firmament of stories Kassab has created here.

Nonetheless, what I see emerging in Kassab’s writing, at least in these first two books, is a sort of universalism that undermines the false boundaries we put up between ourselves and other people. In each case, she’s interested in challenging the way a community is seen from outside, to let us into its intimate worries and plots. She finds space to challenge the assumptions that people often make about others, and to present the humanity in each of her protagonists. There are times that reading these stories feels like being let in on some juicy gossip. And other times, we witness tragedy that is usually hidden from outsiders. In this way, I see Australiana as not merely challenging the established mythology of the regions but creating a new one.