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Melissa Lucashenko’s latest novel, Too Much Lip, exhibits a sharp defiance inspired by the author’s discovery of a gutsy family matriarch. She talks about family, country and mysterious mergings of fact and fiction. “I’ve only once started a novel I didn’t go ahead with. A novel is a huge undertaking, so I’m loath to rush in. It’s like waiting for fruit to ripen. There’s a certain berry that ripens at Easter, and there’s no point looking for it at Christmas time.”

By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Author Melissa Lucashenko aims for the heart

Melissa Lucashenko
Credit: LaVonne Bobongie Photography

I first meet Melissa Lucashenko in 2013, on the pages of her award-winning novel Mullumbimby. I meet her with the yarraman, and the magpies singing and mulanyin flying around and the fairy-wrens talking a mile a minute, bossing everybody around with their little chittering instructions. The book, Lucashenko’s fifth novel, is devastating, funny, political. Set in the midst of a native title war, among Bundjalung families, it is the kind of writing that kicks you square in the guts at the same time as lifting you up and over. I immediately order two novels from her back catalogue, curious I haven’t come across her work before.

Several months later, I’m invited to attend my first international writers’ retreat, serendipitously along with Lucashenko. When we meet in person, she is immediately like her work: generous, considered, deep-thinking, exact. Never saying more than is needed. Never saying less. No frills and no fakery.

At the celebratory dinner in Melbourne, we’re sat at opposite ends of the fancy table, but we eventually cross paths on the way to the bathroom. “When they told me your name,” she says, “I thought you’d be a whitefella.” Lucashenko’s earnest face cracks into a wide, welcoming grin. We stand in the hallway of The European, chuckling.

Six months later, in Malaysia, at the long wooden table, in the lobby of Penang’s Ren I Tang hotel, it’s Lucashenko’s turn to give workshop feedback. The writer pauses briefly before each comment, as if double-checking whether it really needs to be delivered, weighing for gravity. Learn by watching and listening, use your mil and binung, was the centuries-old habit, and not by asking bloody silly questions all the time.

 In between afternoon workshop sessions, we squirrel ourselves away to write in our hotel rooms, solo-wandering the stifling-humid Penang streets. I catch distant glimpses of Lucashenko sometimes: sightseeing in a rickshaw, chatting to an elderly street vendor. There is an always-ease about her T-shirted person. A quiet, stoic, comfortable certainty. Yet, somehow, there goes fire.

One afternoon, she comes barrelling into the foyer where the other writers are gathered. “Anyone have 10 ringgit I can borrow please?” There’s frantic urgency in her voice. A fortune teller is waiting outside, midway through a story. Something to do with Lucashenko’s family. Lucashenko’s eyes are wild with possibility. She is desperate to know the important-rest, the conclusion of the divining, and if she doesn’t hurry, the brightly clad woman stooped outside the hotel entrance might well disappear. A fistful of borrowed paper currency crushed in her hand, Lucashenko rushes back out towards fate, the rest of us staring after her.

 

In the years following this residency, Lucashenko and I meet sporadically, often circumstantially, as writers do, amid lukewarm coffee and soggy green-room sandwiches between festival panels or signings. Today in Melbourne we’ve walked in search of sweetness, and sit scoffing Spanish churros and hot tea in a Melbourne laneway. It’s publication eve of Lucashenko’s new novel, Too Much Lip. I ask the Goorie writer about the quiet half-decade between Mullumbimby and now. “I didn’t trust the success of Mullumbimby,” she confesses, gently placing her teacup back down on the saucer. “I was suspicious of a book that won prizes, of a book that everyone loved. I thought maybe it wasn’t really confronting enough for people, maybe I wasn’t doing things right. Then after Mullimbimby, I was caring for my sick mother. She passed away in 2014. I didn’t write much during that time. A short story, couple of other small things.”

The short story, “Dreamers”, I remember hauntingly well. It was 1969. Two years earlier there had been a referendum. Vote Yes for Aborigines. Now nobody could stop blacks going where they liked. But this just waltzing in like she owned the place, mind you. No ‘please’. No ‘could I’. And an axe was a man’s business. Nothing good could come of any Abo girl holding an axe.

Post-Mullumbimby, Lucashenko had a few competing ideas for novels. “I was going to write a Scrabble murder mystery,” she told me. “Blood on the Tiles. My publisher looked aghast.” Her laughter echoes round the almost empty cafe. “I thought it was a great idea. I play competitive Scrabble. I don’t play that Words with Friends game. I play Words with Enemies.” She narrows her eyes at me, jokingly, across the white plastic cafe table. “It had to be the right time, to start a new book. I’ve only once started a novel I didn’t go ahead with. A novel is a huge undertaking, so I’m loath to rush in. It’s like waiting for fruit to ripen. There’s a certain berry that ripens at Easter, and there’s no point looking for it at Christmas time.”

The idea for Too Much Lip was planted in 2015, after Lucashenko spent time with Alice Walker, and read the African-American author’s novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland. But it was the spirit of Lucashenko’s great-grandmother who really informed the story. “I’d known for years she had shot a man who had stalked and tried to rape her, but it was only in 2015 that I discovered it was on record. In the court transcript, she said, ‘I did shoot him. I meant to shoot him. I aimed for his heart. I am only sorry I did not kill him …’ ”

She draws her broad shoulders back as she recites these words, as if they’re both electricity and incantation. As if just uttering them alters the composition of her being. “It was a revelation. My mother was not a person to question authority. She was beaten down by circumstance. Then I discovered this incredible warrior in my history.”

 

Lucashenko’s thick-cropped hair is so multifaceted grey it sits almost blue-mystic against cinnamon hue. When I ask what Too Much Lip is quintessentially about, she says: “I wanted to say that we can resist, and we can win. And that to resist is to win, because we’ve got country on our side.” She says: “I wanted to say that hope springs eternal, in the most unlikely soil, so long as you fight.” She says: “I wanted to say that curses can be overcome, as long as they’re faced.”

This defiance, this power, this ambition, pulses through Too Much Lip. This is no dead weight of open pages, but a living, writhing thing. Roadside crows bicker in mother tongue. Cats sneakily scheme. The land is sung large: as refuge, as strength, as future and history. “The main character is a bisexual black woman on a stolen Harley,” Lucashenko says. “How could that go wrong?”

The protagonist has returned to her family in Durrongo after years away and years inside. The book centres around Kerry and the other members of the Salter family, and their determination to save their grandmother’s island. “The island is many things. A refuge from colonisation. The most sacred place the Salters have. If there is no island, there is no tree. If there is no tree, there is no matriarch. If there is no matriarch, there is no Salter family … It’s the history of one river, and one black family, and how when you fight the current, you go down.”

Too Much Lip is dedicated to Lucashenko’s older brother, who saved her from drowning in the Murray River when she was young. “He was in the army. Not long back from Vietnam. I remember being swept down the river, underneath the metal railings. Seeing the tops of the tall gums pass by.” This book, too, she says, is also about how saviours can also be very damaged people.

 

Lucashenko is a writer who lives her work. Her characters matter to her the way people matter to her. They are real: flawed, vicious, desperate, kind and beautiful. A joyous and infuriating awakening of fictional conjurings a reader can’t stop thinking about, even after the cover is closed. The writer regards her responsibility to them as she regards her responsibility to people in life. “I decided halfway through that a particular character in the novel needed a redemption. That he could not be suspended in grief and trauma. That would have been an abuse of my power as a novelist, and it felt wrong.”

Then, too, there is spirit lurking in Lucashenko’s worlds. When the author was living in Logan, south of Brisbane, working on Mullumbimby, she’d just finished writing a crucial death scene and went downstairs. The clock on the wall of her house suddenly stopped ticking. And 60,000 words into writing Too Much Lip, in a heated moment, the novelist’s brother blurted out a decades-old secret and she learnt that the primary incident in her book had actually occurred in real life. Fiction became fact, and worlds began to merge. To anyone but another fiction writer, this might seem fanciful, but the creative mind works in the most mysterious ways. “Some part of me knew. Which part of me, I can’t say.”

Lucashenko works with Sisters Inside, a Queensland-based organisation that advocates the human rights of girls and women in prison. She is no stranger, personally or in witness, to the scars stories leave. Yet the emotional weight of writing Too Much Lip was an unexpected drag into the darkness. “I’m constantly working on the cusp of criminalised whites and ordinary poor black families … People slowly crushed by an economy that fails the poor in every conceivable way. Because I work at the coalface of what people consider to be the tough stories, I thought I was immune. But I had to wrestle this book, to get it where it needed to go.” There’s a weariness in her voice that betrays the battle. “And I guess it’s the book I was frightened to write.” She falls silent for a moment, looking down into her empty cup. She leaned down and touched the rich, dark earth of the riverbank with her right palm. Her fingers were the exact colour of the soil, and they blended into it as though they were raised tracks made my some mysterious passing creature.

“I gave Too Much Lip to my daughter, who’s an editor herself, and to another Aboriginal reader. The book needed Aboriginal readers first. When black readers told me that they’d cried, that they got spine chills, then I knew.”

We vacate our afternoon tea table. Lucashenko is after a book-tour jacket. The one she bought when Mullumbimby came out five years ago is worn through. She thinks she might be better off looking in Melbourne than at home. “Yeah, I think I know somewhere,” I say.

We leave the churros house and head through the busy weekend streets, the author’s small black wheelie suitcase in tow.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "Aiming for the heart". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is The Saturday Paper’s poet laureate, and the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.