Some of the most exciting, tonally ambitious and uncompromising fiction that has been published in Australia in recent years has come from Aboriginal authors – most notably, the remarkable Waanyi writer Alexis Wright and the extraordinary Noongar writer Kim Scott. A new novel from the multi-award-winning Scott is something to take seriously.
Scott’s first Miles Franklin winner, Benang: From the Heart (1999), informed by his research into his Noongar ancestry and the impact of A. O. Neville’s notorious principle of “breeding out the colour” in Western Australia, was energised by personal anger and brilliant satire. Employing the narrative strategies of magical realism for their ironic potential, Benang’s Noongar narrator, Harley, a product of 20th-century assimilationist policies, is so “light” that he often floats into the air. Relearning his culture helps ground him. Scott was awarded his second Miles Franklin prize for That Deadman Dance (2011), a work of historical fiction, imagining the so-called “friendly frontier” in 19th-century Albany, from both Aboriginal and European perspectives. It portrays early colonial encounters marked by curiosity and exchange, before the frontier degenerates into brutality and injustice.
If Benang might be said to be about the Stolen Generations and That Deadman Dance about early contact, Taboo might be said to be about reconciliation. The plot revolves around the opening of a Peace Park in the wheat-belt town of Kepalup, Western Australia. A well-meaning widower named Dan Horton, who owns a farm on which a massacre occurred, wants to find a way of reconciling with the traditional owners, the Wirlomin. About 30 Wirlomin people, in turn, gather at the local caravan park, where they begin making plans for the ceremonial opening of the Peace Park, despite being comically uncertain of its name: “Police Park”, “Please Plaque”. More importantly, they begin making forays onto what has been, since the massacre of their ancestors, “taboo” land. They also begin relearning their country.
Taboo opens with a vision of the surviving Wirlomin people descending on the town in a kind of zombie apocalypse: “Some of you may wish to imagine our decaying flesh, our shuffling tread and a collective moan emanating from our slack jaws.” The novel then has a runaway semitrailer barrelling down the main street of Kepalup near the Peace Park. The truck tips in a field and, as the wheat begins spilling from the trailer, a figure of sorts is revealed: “Something like a skeleton, but not of bone. At least, not only bone. The limbs are timber. The skull is timber too, dark and burnished, and ivory dentures – stained as if by chomping, inhaling, gustatory human life – grin exultation.” A chorus-like narrator, speaking in the first-person plural, intervenes to announce the narrative’s agenda:
We thought to tell a story with such momentum; a truck careering down a hillside … a skeleton tumbling to the ground. There must be at least one brave and resilient character at its centre (one of us), and the story will speak of magic in an empirical age; of how our dead will return, transformed, to support us again and from within.
These early passages suggest a postmodern playfulness that the narrative does not sustain. Certainly, the promised “momentum” unfortunately fails to materialise. However, the novel does continue to pointedly and successfully engage the Gothic genre. The promised “brave and resilient character”, a high-school student named Tilly Coolman (the surname familiar from Benang), reads Dracula, and there are plenty of suggestions that the old farmhouse on the “taboo” land is haunted.
The Gothic and the ghost story are typically genres in which a repressed past is brought frighteningly to light, albeit in a cathartic way. This is precisely the narrative trajectory of Scott’s novel, which not only unearths the story of the colonial massacre – and of the more contemporary trauma endured by Tilly – but also the repressed “being” of the Wirlomin people and their country. Relearning language is presented as key to the people’s and the land’s reanimation. “It’s language brings things properly alive,” declares the elder Wilfred, who is also known for animating cloth and wood in puppet shows – an act that cleverly symbolises the magical power of language to bring the inanimate world to life. The “good” Wirlomin characters – for this is a novel that does tend to present “good” (or redeemable) and “bad” (or irredeemable) characters – busy themselves learning the ancestral names for things and, in so doing, come to a stronger understanding of their world and themselves.
This message is consistent with Scott’s activism as chairman of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project. It is also reflected in the stunning prose that distinguishes the first part of the narrative in particular, where personified descriptions of native flora endow those plants with a sense of agency or power. Jam trees, for example, are “a silent crowd breasting a fence line”.
However, at every point the novel refuses its potential status as ethnographic entertainment for white Australians. Notably, the novel does not reveal the Wirlomin Noongar words that its characters learn. Taboo also comically satirises cultural stereotypes, undermining white “knowledge” when it comes to Aboriginal Australians. In one scene, a white Aboriginal-support officer at Tilly’s high school attempts to impose her understanding of Aboriginal identity on the students in her care. She insists that every Aboriginal person should play didgeridoo, decorate boomerangs with dots and lines, and dance. “Aboriginal people are all great dancers,” she asserts, though when one of her students does reluctantly begin a traditional dance, she suggests that the girl will have to “make it more Aboriginal”.
Taboo is partly about how white and Aboriginal Australians might achieve reconciliation – that it will require much more than the sentimental symbolism of the Peace Park. The more urgent message, though, is about how Aboriginal people might “reconcile” the trauma of their past – and, indeed, their present – and how the animating power of Aboriginal languages might contribute to their recovery of sovereignty. That message is hopeful. KN
Picador, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 22, 2017 as "Kim Scott, Taboo". Subscribe here.