Poet Jazz Money talks about how Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria has inspired her work and paved the way for other Indigenous writers. By Maddee Clark.
Jazz Money is a Wiradjuri poet and artist living on sovereign Gadigal land. She is the winner of a David Unaipon Award and the Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert Poetry Prize, and her recently released debut poetry collection, how to make a basket, uses both Wiradjuri and English to talk protest, eroticism, love for Country and biting humour.
For The Influence she has chosen to discuss Alexis Wright’s 2007 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, Carpentaria.
When did you first read Carpentaria?
I remember reading it when I was at uni and really struggling to understand what was going on. Someone gave me the sage advice to not put it down, that if you start reading it you have to sprint through it, because you’ll never be able to keep up with the characters otherwise. I was being a shit student and not in any sort of headspace to actually follow through with reading a tome like that.
The next time I tried, I listened to the audiobook, which was such a good choice. It’s read by Noongar actor Isaac Drandic, and he does really special things with the punctuation. It really feels like you’re sitting with family and listening to a big story and that’s really nourishing. So listening to it, I felt like I had this totally different gateway into this story. I got the impression that Isaac had worked closely with Alexis to figure out how to tell the story and his voice feels really right.
Where were you listening to it?
Driving up and back to Byron from Sydney, on the Pacific Highway. Listening to it in that way, it feels like you’re in a community of 100 people and everyone is stopping by to give you a little bit of the story. Which is perfect.
I really love Alexis’s work. She is a thinker and writer who can distil the complexity of this colony and this continent, what it is to live here as occupied people. She can make it sound as complex as it actually is, or she can make it so simple, so biting. That’s why I wanted to talk about this book, I think it’s so uncompromising in the way that it presents all the messiness. It doesn’t seek clarity or truth in a start-to-finish way.
Carpentaria defies simple descriptions. To even give an indication of what it is about, you need to enter a deep story mode. There is something remarkable and formidable about that, something so courageous, to decide to go against popular canonical writings in a Western sense, and just say this is the story I want to tell and this is the way it has to be told.
I think there’s something powerful about being comfortable with complexity and fluidity. There’s an understanding in Alexis’s work that people aren’t good or bad, they’re just these complex beings and that’s true of Black and white people in this place. It’s that entanglement of character and politics that I think is really powerful and which I think really resonates with poetry – the fact that you can present messiness and unresolved things on the page, put them with each other. And they reveal their own third space and their own truths within that, without you having to didactically lead the audience there.
This will sound cheesy, but it feels like sitting on Country and hearing a long story. The way that everyone has a different little bit to add, everyone has things they need to throw in. Someone will stand up and wander off and then come back and be like, “No, no, no, you’ve told that bit wrong.” And so you get to hear it again in another voice. I feel a connection to all those different people that you’ve only met on the page, but they feel three-dimensional. You can feel that mode of narrative in the body.
There’s a sense of absurdity in the work. Did you find that?
There’s something about the absurdity of the reality she’s presenting – it seems like the only way to treat it is to lean into the grotesque. Because you wouldn’t believe that everything that happened on this continent happened if it wasn’t a fact, right?
There’s this sequence towards the top of the book, about a man that walks in from the ocean. I think Elias is the character’s name, and he walks in from the sea, but it takes hours and hours because he’s walking on the mudflats. There’s this idea of an absurd fallen angel who’s just like really luminous to the people watching but in reality is thirsty and confused, and he needs help but the onlookers are too dazzled.
That’s right. It takes about 100 pages of the physical book, just him walking out of the ocean.
And then towards the end of the book someone falls out of a plane, don’t they? Or are they pushed out of the plane?
Another reason I want to talk about this book is because I think it breaks down doors for younger writers. I’m part of a generation of writers who owe so much to those who have created space for Black voices in the mainstream. In poetry, the novel, academia, editing, everywhere in the publishing industry we’re seeing Indigenous writers being celebrated, and it’s people like Alexis Wright who have made this possible. It’s hard to imagine what our literary landscape would look like without Alexis. I wonder if, for example, you could have Tara June Winch writing The Yield in 2020, for example, and winning the Miles Franklin, without having Carpentaria challenge audiences almost 15 years earlier.
One of the things that I really respect about Alexis’s writing is this kind of sense that it is for a Black audience, which is why it can have all shades. There’s a lot of pressure around representation as an Aboriginal writer, and the risk of being misconstrued. I think that Alexis’s uncompromising way of dealing with people is such a genuine engagement and it feels so like writing for your community and writing what your community understands to be true. And I think in her follow-up work, The Swan Book, you can really feel that there’s horror, but there’s also beauty and that’s really recognisable within the absurdity of our reality, right?
Because it is absurd, it’s fucking absurd, being an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person living in this place. We have to confront those horrors of that reality every day, as Indigenous folk. You can’t walk down the street without being aware of stolen land, right? You can’t communicate to people in English without being aware of your languages you perhaps don’t have access to. So I think that way that Alexis honours those truths, but also honours really complex modes of artmaking and allows for those things to coexist, is important. If we’re going to make art, of course, we have to do it with integrity, but also … be fuckin’ amazing at it. I admire her success in writing something so undeniably amazing that it won this mainstream award, the Miles Franklin, and she did it in her own voice and her own way.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Jazz Money".
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