Review: Karen Wyldon Melissa Lucashenko

Taking Back the Island

Melissa Lucashenko’s new novel Too Much Lip is a dark comedy about ordinary people. Set in the fictional Australian town of Durrongo, stories of generations of an Aboriginal family living on Country are shared through a fast-paced plot. Secrets are unravelled, character flaws are revealed. Traces of settler-colonial violence and intergenerational trauma weave through their lives. What Lucashenko leaves readers with is a sense that the family members will heal themselves by protecting Country and supporting each other.

In Too Much Lip, Lucashenko has created an iconic Australian regional community, one that you would expect to stumble into while driving through the backroads of northern New South Wales. Durrongo and the slightly larger town of Patterson are home to the usual suspects: fearsome patriarchs and staunch matriarchs, ‘pioneering’ families, self-obsessed gatekeepers, lost souls, hopeful outsiders, and prodigal children. Here’s a sense of the details Lucashenko captures in her portrait of the place:

Christmas passed with the usual quota of street bawls, fierce hangovers and car accidents up and down the Far North Coast. Ken punched out the wrong redneck and got himself barred from the pub for a month. New Year exploded in a brief scattering of fireworks over the Patto showground and, as January creaked on, Pretty Mary retrieved the Tarot Tepee from the back shed, despite the persistent pain in her stomach.

The reader is introduced to the protagonist, Kerry Salter, as she tears into town on a stolen Harley. Though Kerry’s eyes, we see the small town she escaped. Her visit is prompted by the impending death of her Pop Owen, the patriarch who is both admired and feared.

Owen Addison is not from Durrongo. He grew up on a mission, with no idea of where his County lies. When his son Charlie married Mary Salter he became part of the family and later provided them with a house. Mary, referred to as Pretty Mary to differentiate her from aunty Tall Mary, is Kerry’s mother. Pretty Mary is the family’s storyteller and guardian of history. Her strong connection to Bundjalung culture sits alongside her beliefs as a born-again Christian.

Mary’s oldest son Ken is a heavy-set six-foot tower of anger. Recently returned from prison, with his days of glory on the sporting field behind him, Ken resents being left to care for his Pop and mother after his three siblings took off. He spends most of his days drinking, and abusing whoever dares enter his space. Manipulating his mother for money, Ken has filled the yard with broken cars that he swears one day will be his way out of poverty. Ken is also an absent father, no longer in contact with two of his children, who live with their mother. He is just as absent to his son Donny, who has lived in the Salter house since his mother passed away. Ken constantly belittles Donny, forcing him to retreat emotionally and physically.

Donna, Kerry’s big sister, left home at sixteen and has not been heard from since. Kerry was nine when she left, and was not close to her sister. Pop often spoke badly of Donna, both in her presence and after she left. Even though Pretty Mary constantly expressed disappointment in her oldest daughter, and blamed her for Dad Charlie’s heart attack, Kerry knows their mother still misses Donna. Kerry knows how hard it is to stay in Durrongo, but she still doesn’t think kindly of her sister for disappearing.

It’s Kerry’s youngest sibling, Black Superman, who is her best ally. He lives in the city with his partner Josh. They’re professional men with a mortgage, currently adjusting to upheavals to their household after becoming foster carers of two children.

When Pretty Mary’s mother Ruth was taken by the river, Mary started drinking heavily. It was their Dad Charlie who made the siblings feel loved, and he protected them from child services. When Pop Owen was elected to ATSIC, the extra income meant Charlie was able to reduce his working hours to look after the kids, but the children really needed protection from their grandfather. Growing up with a volatile grandfather and a mother who spent too much time at the pub didn’t bring the family closer. From an early age, the Salter siblings learnt how to cope in different ways. Once home, memories of childhood return, and Kerry reflects on their differences:

But Donna was all mouth, all the time. You couldn’t tell her anything. Ken survived because of basketball and footy. Black Superman, well, he went his own way, had his own battles to fight, different again that fella.

The main antagonist is Jim Buckley, real estate agent and crooked Mayor of Patterson. He is the grand-son of Sergeant Bob Buckley, who had long ago terrorised local Aboriginal people. The Mayor’s plans to build on land that has cultural and familial significance to the Salters gives the family a reason to band together and propels the plot.

Too Much Lip is Melissa Lucashenko’s sixth novel. She has won a string of awards and nominations for her fiction, and has been a consistent advocate for First Nations writing and an activist for human rights. Lucashenko is a founding member of Sisters Inside, a Queensland-based community organisation that advocates for prisoners’ human rights, and provides programs and services to support women and young people who have been incarcerated.

Lucashenko has shared what, and who, inspired her to write this novel:

This novel is a kind of foray into the harder edges of Aboriginal life in country NSW, with a hillbilly sensibility. I wanted to write about the grassroots mob who are constantly living on the edge of things: the law, racist violence, various kinds of family implosions. I really strongly wanted to pen a high-energy antidote to the deathly depression which it’s easy for us to slide into in this racist, heterosexist country. You know I’ve knocked around a lot with women (and men, including my brothers) who’ve done jail time, and I wanted to portray those women’s defiance… It’s a very gritty novel, and violent, but I like to think it’s pretty damn funny too… No doubt some readers will find it shocking, but then I’m not writing to make people feel warm and comfortable.

The author’s drive to support people that others have turned their backs on is evident throughout Too Much Lip. The story also draws on Lucashenko’s own family history. The first and last word in this novel is given to Christina Copson, the author’s great-grandmother. Christina, a Goorie woman living in Wolvi, was arrested in 1907 for shooting a man that attempted to rape her. Copson was released without charge, after declaring she was sorry she’d not killed him.

The small-town Australian novel is not new. Neither are novels about down-on-their-luck characters. What is different about Too Much Lip is that it centres an Aboriginal family whose members unashamedly give the middle-finger to colonisation. With a connection to land that goes much further back than the settler-colonials living in the Durrongo region, the Salters are determined to protect what is theirs. This novel tells hard truths without alienating non-Indigenous readers. Dark humour is used to tie colonial history and contemporary social-political issues with the ongoing fight for Aboriginal rights.

Black humour, with a blak touch, has long been used by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers, scriptwriters and other storytellers to counterbalance the whitewashing of colonial-settler narratives. In the hands of a skilled writer like Lucashenko, humour provides a pressure-release for telling stories of systemic inequities and everyday racism. Who is telling these stories is crucial.

Alexis Wright, acclaimed writer and member of the Waanyi nation, takes this up in a recent essay:

When it comes to how our stories are being told, supposedly on our behalf, or for our interest or supposed good, it has never been a level playing field. We do not get much of a chance to say what is right or wrong about the stories told on our behalf—which stories are told or how they are told. It just happens, and we try to deal with the fallout.

Until recently, white authors’ interpretations of blak lives were much more likely to be published than stories told by First Nations writers themselves. A novel like Too Much Lip is proof that the future lies with First Nations people telling stories about First Nations peoples and histories. Lucashenko is part of an expanding group of award-winning Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander First Nation writers who are, along with an increasing number of emerging writers, captivating national and international readers.

Too Much Lip is an entertaining family saga that will appeal to a broad audience – and it is also a commentary on the position of First Peoples within the settler-colonial state. This is a common thread in works by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers. Writing is a political act, in the same way that surviving as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander  person in Australia is a political act. First Peoples’ literature is truth-telling and, sometimes, it provides a mud-map for us to move forward, together.

In August, Lucashenko gave the keynote speech at the First Nations Australia Writers Network 2018 workshop in Canberra. Attended by new, emerging and established Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers and storytellers, the workshop’s theme was Sovereign People: Sovereign Stories. In her keynote, titled ‘Writing and Storytelling as a Sovereign Act’, Lucashenko challenged participants to unpack sovereignty and re-construct it our way. She encouraged First Nations writers and storytellers to reshape and share who we were before invasion, are now, and will be. Too Much Lip demonstrates what she means.

There’s a simple lesson then: when the men with guns come after you, you go and you go fucking hard and you don’t look back.

This is the message that Kerry learned from hearing stories about her great-grandmother Ava, who swam a shark-infested river to escape colonial authorities. She was shot whilst in labour, giving birth to her daughter Ruth alone on an island in the river. Everyone in the Salter family knows it as Granny Ava’s Island. Like Ava, escaping is something Kerry is good at – whether it is escaping authorities after committing a crime, escaping responsibility, or escaping memories she wants to forget.

Kerry’s recent crimes are recounted in the opening pages of Too Much Lip. She steals a motorbike after a botched armed robbery that resulted in Allie, her now ex-partner, being incarcerated. Later, Kerry breaks in to the local municipal offices looking for money. These thefts are counterbalanced with the historical robberies that her family has endured. As she looks for cash in the Patterson municipal offices, Kerry is led by the presence of an ancestor to significant artefacts that belong to her family. Of course she takes them, and returns them to their rightful place. When fences block the Salters’ access to the river and Ava’s Island, they’re outraged to find out about Mayor Buckley’s plans to build a prison there. Ken and Kerry may have spent a bit of time in prison, but it is Buckley and his ancestors who are the bigger crooks.

Kerry doesn’t only find treasure in Patterson, she finds her missing sister too. And just in time, as Donna’s experience in commerce helps the family achieve their shared vision to protect Granny Ava’s island. Choosing not to fight it out in Court under the Native Title Act, the pathway to land rights for the Salters is to take on the settler-colonials at their own game.

Other crimes are revealed that have left fractures in the Salter household: family violence and institutional violence. We first meet Pop Owen in a flashback to his youth. Brimming with confidence as he goes into his first big fight in the ring, the boy from the mission quickly learns ‘his place’. When he endures a vicious beating at the hands of the police, his thoughts are with his mother and sisters. Owen knows he has to stay alive, to make it back to the mission so he can protect his sisters from a predator priest.

Like Owen, other family members go from being victims to perpetrators of violence. The whole family expresses a range of maladjusted coping mechanisms: alcohol and other addictions, eating disorders, unhealthy relationships, criminal activity, and avoidance.

It is Uncle Richard who shows the Salter siblings another way to cope with the past. He doesn’t exonerate perpetrators of violence and child abuse, instead he puts family violence into context. And for the Salter family, like many families that have experienced state-violence, abuse within Church-run institutions and systemic racism, that context is both complex and intergenerational. When Donna arrives unannounced at the family Christmas gathering and reveals why she left, Ken and Tall Mary lash out, and Pretty Mary and Kerry refuse to listen. No one gives Donna the support she needs, except for Black Superman and Uncle Richard.

Pretty Mary stared at Donna, her face contorting in anguish. Sensing a moment of possibility, Black Superman inserted himself between Tall Mary and Donna, and managed to shepherd his sister outside and down the stairs.

‘I’ll come check on you later at the motel, sissy,’ he said quietly as he walked her over to the Mazda.

Donna really did begin to cry then, great juddering sobs that rocked her as she poked at her face with her shirt sleeves. From the veranda, Ken flung Donna’s handbag on the lawn, where I lay pathetically among the party detritus, its contents spilt across the grass.

Kerry is a flawed protagonist, even unlikeable at times. She has a habit of taking off the moment things get difficult. Kerry remembers Pop’s violence, and her mother’s neglect – but she doesn’t have empathy for Ken or Donna, despite always knowing they copped a lot more childhood abuse than she did. Other than her younger brother and nephew Donny, Kerry doesn’t easily allow people to get close to her. As the novel proceeds, we come to understand why Kerry struggles to make emotional connections with the people around her.

Too Much Lip is, of course, not the first novel to include family violence or to expose its colonial roots. There are, however, risks with telling stories like these. Non-Indigenous readers could fail to recognise the strength of culture to mitigate intergenerational trauma, and not understand its roots in colonial violence and systemic racism. Some readers might see the Salters through an over-used deficit model, or believe they have the solutions to ‘fix’ Indigenous families. Instead, the Salters’ story shows how ineffective governments have been in trying to patch up the wounds of colonisation through paternalistic and draconian approaches. Some readers might find it hard to grapple with the violence in this novel. And some might find it hard to forgive the Salter siblings’ creative disregard for the law. It’s important to remember that this book is a piece of fiction but it is grounded in reality. As Lucashenko states in her afterword:

…lest any readers assume this portrayal of Aboriginal lives is exaggerated, I would add that virtually every incidence of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once. The (very) few exceptions are drawn either from the historical record or from Aboriginal oral history.

In her essay ‘What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story’, Alexis Wright reflected on the power of First Nations’ people telling their own stories, and connections between storytelling and political change:

Stories from Aboriginal people about rights will be ineffective if these stories fall on deaf ears—even our own. Our stories may never be heard or taken seriously by those who pay lip service to Aboriginal rights. These stories mean nothing to them and will be unappreciated…or will be rendered unfathomable. Who would know how to read stories encompassing all time, when most are incapable of understanding the stories of the earth and the long cultural heritage of this country?

If there is a risk of non-Indigenous readers misconstruing parts of this novel, how can First Nations writers mitigate such risks? In most cases they can’t, and they shouldn’t have to. The responsibility of interpretation and the heavy lifting of expanding one’s worldviews and letting go of ingrained prejudices lies with the reader.

Novels like Too Much Lip can provide the impetus for change. In Lucashenko’s own words:

I hope in this work to render the absolute love of Goorie people for our lands and waters, and to bring readers into a universe of reciprocity with nature and ourselves, which still underpins much of Goorie life today.

This novel is shaped by Lucashenko’s lived experiences as a proud Goorie with a strong sense of community and Country. In her writings, Lucashenko shows readers the restorative function of Country, culture and belonging. In Too Much Lip, she brings to life landscapes and waterscapes. They’re not just a setting for a story. This anthropomorphic projection is also used to transform creatures into minor characters. There’s a crow in the opening scene who says to Kerry:

Yugam baugal jang! Buiyala galli! Yugam yan moogle Goorie Brisbanyu? You could help, instead of sitting up there like a mug lair from the city.

Other creatures have a vital role in this novel. The thoughts of a shark, as it lurks out of sight, are woven into the story until it’s given prime position in the story’s conclusion.

And Granny Ava’s Island is at the very core of this story. It is there that the family, individually and together, go whenever they need to reconnect with Country and ancestors, or reconnect with themselves. Even when incarcerated, Kerry could travel home, to the final resting place of family – Ava’s Island.

Not dozens, or hundreds, but thousands of times she had come in her imagination to this spot on the island where the fruit bats nestled and where cormorants perched on fallen logs, their wings high, surrendering to invisible enemies. The family had practically lived there when Granny Ruth was still around. In and out of the river all day long.

Transforming land, skies, waters, flora and fauna into characters with speaking roles is a common feature of Indigenous stories globally. Whether written, visual or oral, Indigenous storytelling is still grounded in ages-old allegorical approaches. After all, Songlines are lines of story that still weave across this nation, as they have done since the beginning of time.

Lucashenko reminds readers that there is reciprocity involved in our relationships with place. There are places that nourish, heal, where ancestors speak louder to us, and these places must be protected.

Black Superman stood beside the river. The day was glorious, but fatigue built an invisible wall between him and his surrounds. He vaguely registered the leaves of the eucalypts and the pine gleaming in the morning sunshine; he saw the river, sparkling like an avalanche of crushed diamonds as it swept down in its hurry to meet the sea. He saw these things, but had no capacity, today, to enjoy any of their beauty. He was almost spent. With his last fragment of strength Black Superman straightened, and he began to chant in the old tongue:

Grandmother, Grandfather, come to us, your blood,
Grandmother, Grandfather, show us the straight path through.

Everyone, no matter where they live, city or country, has a place that speaks to them. A place that evokes strong feelings or brings up good memories: the beach where the family spent summer holidays, first sight of red earth when driving along the highway, the sun rising over a green range, or the sun’s reflection in a local park pond. In Too Much Lip Lucashenko has given readers a story about the relationship between people and nature. It is through a shared appreciation of this unique continent that First Peoples and settler-colonials will find common ground.