Books

Ellen van Neerven (ed.)
Flock: First Nations Stories Then and Now

Flock is a brief glimpse at the past 25 years of First Nations writing. As Ellen van Neerven, the collection’s editor, writes, “many collections have come before this one”. There have been a lot of stories, shared between kin, across Country and generations, some of them that evade the written word. Here are 20 previously published short stories that together tell of resurgent ecological communities, of loss, shadow-lives and family.

There isn’t a consistent theme or literary genealogy at work in Flock. This isn’t detrimental to the collection. Some of the contributors are well known, others less so; some are emerging, some share literary and community connections. Van Neerven gives readers the joy of sifting through the stories, perambulating the terrain they cover.

Archie Weller’s “Shadows on the Wall” delves into prison’s internal social dynamics and the way in which settler Australian carceral systems violently rupture and interdict Indigenous family structures. Not shying away from masculine sentimentality, Weller deals with the fragility of brotherhood – in a vernacular true to the story’s Western Australian prison setting – showing what really binds his male characters is the state’s perception of their criminality.

Cassie Lynch’s “Split”, another west coast story, uses speculative fiction to imagine, and so enliven, the river and the ecological world that is obscured physically and symbolically by Perth city. Lynch pushes the form of the short story towards fictocriticism. She vacillates between historical and architectural observations of the city, Swan River, and verdant visions of birds, fish, a snake, kangaroos, all spilling forth from bitumen, in places they should be but are not. She’s concerned with patterns across deep time, Noongar Country, which precedes and exceeds the temporality of the settler city.

“Born, Still”, by Jane Harrison, is more personal essay than short story. It’s written in the style of an internal monologue, which cuts deep. With measured urgency – blunt sentences that create vivid, flashing imagery – “Born, Still” tells of the incongruities between the psychological processes of grieving and the social expectations about grief, particularly as they pertain to the narrator’s role as the mother.

Flock is a library of First Nations writing inside a single book. It’s not so much about what you go looking for – van Neerven’s done that work already – but what eloquent things you stumble upon. This way, or that, the collection traces the lineaments of First Nations short story writing, in content and form.

Tristen Harwood

University of Queensland Press, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Flock: First Nations Stories Then and Now, Ellen van Neerven (ed.)".

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Reviewer: Tristen Harwood