Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray begins in Gundagai in 1852. It is the story of Wagadhaany, a young Wiradyuri woman who is coming of age when a great flood devastates her homeland and community. After the flood, Wagadhaany is taken to Wagga Wagga by a white family who appoint her as their servant under the colonial system. Her family is distraught at her departure but are threatened with the Master and Servant Act should they refuse.
Homesick and depressed, Wagadhaany attempts to build a life in Wagga Wagga, eventually finding connectedness and warmth with other Wiradyuri mob who live by the Murrumbidgee River. She slowly finds her voice and eventually falls in love with a young Wiradyuri man, Yindyamarra. Still, she yearns for her family back home.
The novel draws from key historical events in Wiradyuri history and is told predominantly through Wagadhaany’s eyes. Through Wagadhaany’s internal dialogue, Heiss fuses fiction with realism, conjuring a resonance still felt in Blak struggle today. Her text generates a strong duality, juxtaposing the settlers’ rigid ways with those of the custodians who have read and nurtured the land for eons. Heiss packs heart into every page through vignettes that foreground ceremony and relationality among Wiradyuri people along with the freedom found in physicality – the sheer joy Wagadhaany finds in dance.
Louisa Bradley, the woman of the house where Wagadhaany is kept in servitude, is the quintessential white saviour – almost loveable but self-consumed. Louisa is a religious Quaker in a new colony, eager to do good and make change. She is also desperate for Wagadhaany’s knowledge and companionship – but at what cost to Wagadhaany? Certainly Louisa puts her needs before Wagadhaany’s humanity, with her pathway to a more enlightened way of thinking both haunting and familiar – hers is a rite of passage afforded only to white wealthy women in the colony.
In Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, Heiss creates a poignant commentary on Western imperialism, contrasting cultural groundedness and kinship with the isolation of the nuclear family and the nonsensical trajectory of capitalist greed. Overt didactics are at play in Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray but perhaps rightfully so. “The White man never listens”, we are told early in the text. As Heiss reminds readers: “The Wiradyuri people know to move to higher ground. They have done it many times before, and they will probably do it again.”
Laura La Rosa
Simon and Schuster, 400pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray".
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