Over the past three decades the Miles Franklin shortlists have contained a healthy serve of history, from the poised historical fiction of authors such as David Malouf and Roger McDonald, to the past-in-present fabulations of Alexis Wright and Richard Flanagan. Another is Kim Scott, twice winner of the award, and part of the current shortlist with his most recent novel Taboo.
Scott’s literary output over the past two decades powerfully immerses and reimmerses itself in the same regional terrain of Western Australia’s southern coastal region – the traditional home of the Wirlomen Nyoongar people. Even more specifically, much of his work circles around one event, the Kukanerup Massacre.
This scene of traumatic horror, in which 30-40 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed, was a series of reprisal killings for the death of settler John Dunn in the 1880s. The massacre is vividly rendered in Scott’s Benang (1998). The blood of hanged Nyoongar bodies slowly drips into the ground and the land itself bleeds in empathetic response to inexpressible torment.
In Kayang and Me (a 2012 memoir co-written with Scott’s Aunty Hazel Brown) and more recently, Taboo, the massacre reappears, as if it is uncontainable, too complicated, traumatic, and politically vexed for any one story. Even more problematic, even for a storyteller of Scott’s calibre, is how to tell a story that the victim’s descendents may not necessarily want told. To speak of the massacre is the titular taboo, a cultural ban that has lasted over a century.
Since 2014, Australia has compulsively memorialised its national war history with televised memorial services from monuments in Gallipolli, Posierre and, this year, Villers-Bretonneux. In the coming weeks there will be events recognising The Battle of Mont St Quentin, breaking the Hindenburg Line and then, eventually, the armistice centenary on November 11.
Why do we want to recognise some events and “bury”, literally and metaphorically, others? Simply put, military histories – offensive and defensive positions, battles won and lost – are nationally palatable. Without wishing to downplay the very real suffering of soldiers, widows and orphaned children, some of Australia’s more respected thinkers agree that, a century on, we are now collectively “toploaded” with a degree of historical detail that makes remembering an old war paradoxically comforting.
There are so many other events we should also remember. While much colonial violence is woefully under-memorialised, Scott’s work, and particularly Taboo, shows us a way forward.
The plot of Scott’s Taboo has close ties to actual memorial events surrounding the Kukanerup massacre. In 2015, a sculpture and walk were officially opened near Ravensthorpe on Western Australia’s southern coast. Rather than marking a grave, the memorial references the wings of a wedge-tailed eagle and mallee-fowl. Likewise, the memorial walk uses natural features and details of the place, geography, animals and birds, people and the stories that tie people and place together.
The memorial was the result of almost a decade in careful planning, and is evidence of a positive coming together of the Ravensthorpe farming communities and the Nyoongar people of the south coast, many of whom have been separated from this vital part of their ancestral country for many decades. Yet in some ways, the process of memorialisation that came before the monument was even more important.
In this way, Scott’s novel Taboo is an essential companion to the Kukenarup memorial. The book follows divided communities as they come together around the memorial, and the pain and angst of recognising a past palpably present. Many of these communities are ravaged with drug use, criminality, violence and other effects of intergenerational trauma that trouble Indigenous communities in settler states across the globe.
Scott’s novel is a poetic rendition of the complexities of remembering. Storytelling – shifting, engaged and participatory – is vital to this process. In Taboo, this is symbolised by a singing or “yarning” skeleton, revealed as soft river sands subside and with a story to tell. It’s a paradoxically heartening symbol compared to the blood-soaked traumascape of Scott’s earlier version of the massacre in Benang.
A curl of sand, or ash, in a twisting gust of wind reveal stories that exist to be told. Their time may at last be here.
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Jo Jones is the author of Falling Backwards: Australian Historical Fiction and The History Wars, published August 2018.
It is a matter of wonder that Behrouz Boochani was able to write No Friend but the Mountains at all. He did so while in Manus prison, using text messages in Farsi on smuggled mobile phones. Egyptian and Australian academic Omid Tofighian worked closely with Boochani to translate the text into English. In a detailed introduction to the book, Tofighian explains that Boochani’s writing contributes to a Kurdish literary tradition. He describes his style as “horror surrealism”.
This is not how I experienced the book. Although the imagery Boochani shares is horrific, and the brutality of the prison environment is almost beyond belief, Boochani is bearing witness to a system of detention that is part of contemporary Australian policy, and to which he is an on-going victim. This is no piece of imagination.
For me, the book invokes Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for its use of insanity and humour to explore the brutality of authority, and Shahram Khosravi’s ‘Illegal’ Traveller for its meditation on state techniques for exclusion through the eyes of the excluded.
The book begins with Boochani boarding a boat somewhere on Java, hoping to reach Australia. In elegant prose, he brings to life the refugee journey through detailed observations of his fellow travellers. He describes a rapid collapse of order:
Men lie in the arms of another’s wife, children lie on the bellies of strangers. It seems they have all forgotten … the energy spent establishing a gender-based order.
A storm destroys the boat with waves the size of mountains that transport him back to the mountains in his native land.
Where is this place? Why is my mother dancing?
After being rescued, a short interlude on Christmas Island begins the clinical process of dehumanising the asylum seekers. They are issued flip-flops and ill-fitting clothes, regularly strip-searched, exposed to CCTV in toilets, moved from cage to cage through layers of bureaucracy, and finally escorted (or carried) by two guards per prisoner to an plane bound for Manus Island.
From this moment, the sense of a journey ends, and the book is a meditation on survival in a prison system intent on destroying the prisoners’ will.
Australians accept detention on Nauru and Manus as a “necessary evil” to prevent an uncontrollable flow of asylum seekers to Australia by boat. Boochani dissects this necessary evil. He sits us on a white plastic chair, our feet on the wire border fence, overlooking the jungle.
There is no silence. Only the constant grind of an old tractor generator, the whirr of fans, the noise of hundreds of prisoners crammed into a space the size of a football field, the static of the guards’ walkie-talkies signalling an incident.
Boochani takes us on a sensory tour of the Manus prison. The smells – body odour and bad breath, rotting vegetation, diesel and excrement. The rubbing against one another in the tight spaces – flesh on hairy, sweaty flesh.
The uniforms are reminiscent of dystopian regimes – nurses in orange carrying boxes of yellow pills, local guards in purple, medical staff in white, and Australian federal police in flak jackets with shields and black gloves with metal spikes.
The heat is oppressive. The bottled water so warm it does not quench one’s thirst. The only relief is a huge shade tree in the middle of the complex.
We learn of the daily routine, the constant queuing for meals, for the toilet, for cigarettes, for the telephone. Through a detailed analysis of how these queues operate, we begin to understand the way institutional power breaks the spirit of the prisoners by pitting one against another, and using an unbending authority to remove all human compassion.
In one incident, a man cannot swap his place in the telephone queue to speak to his dying father because the regulations make no provision for it. An appeal to a higher authority brings out the Boss, backed by 12 police officers. The Boss places his hand on the shoulder of The Man with the Dying Father (as Boochani calls him) and calmly explains that the rules are the rules.
The queues mean that stronger prisoners eat well, and weaker ones starve. Bouchani marvels at the fortitude of The Cow, a brick of a man, who is prepared to sit in the heat of the sun for hours to ensure his place at the front of the meal queue.
In the first few months of detention, there is still a sense of resistance. Maysan the Whore entertains prisoners most nights with wild dancing in innovative costumes of bed sheets, “pretending to be happy as a form of revenge”. But eventually Maysan begins to deteriorate. “We must find another way to cope with exile”, Boochani laments.
Boochani shares his own weakness, anger, frustration and despair. He does not romanticise these feelings. He simply observes.
Periodically, he tries to make sense of his experience, musing on the strategies of oppression. He describes Manus prison as a Kyriarchal system, a system of total psychological control.
The generator, which Boochani calls Mr Generator, breaks down periodically, leaving rooms unbearably hot and filled with mosquitoes. Just when the tension is unbearable, the generator resumes.
Games are not allowed. When prisoners create a makeshift backgammon board on a table using bottle lids, it is destroyed.
How can it be that soccer balls are prohibited, but cigarettes are always available?
Milk is offered as a special treat. The allocation is always half a cup. If a cup is overfilled, even slightly, it is removed and binned. Why not just redistribute the milk? The lack of logic “confines the mind of the prisoner”, Boochani writes, “leaving him just trying to cope”.
The toilets flow with excrement. They are a place for sex. A place to cut wrists with a razor. Despite risk of punishment, people prefer to piss behind bushes after dark.
The sights and sounds outside the walls are important for retaining hope and sanity – the sound of the ocean just behind a thin strip of forest, the coconut trees, the chauka birds and crickets, the sunsets and phases of the moon, the white flowers along the sewage line.
The prisoner’s imagination is always occupied with the world beyond the fences.
Poetic streams of consciousness intersperse the narrative, and Boochani is occasionally transported back to the Kurdistan of his childhood. At these moments, the reader is with Boochani at the fence as he lets his mind run free, interpreting the confusion of his existence in this place of torture. These interludes make the book more intensely personal without descending into romanticism or self-pity.
The book ends with the description of a riot in the prison. The full brutality of authority is unleashed in response. We learn that The Gentle Giant, Reza Barati, has been killed.
No Friend but the Mountains reveals that Manus prison is designed to break the will of refugees so they see no option but to return home. It leaves no doubt that any prisoner who chooses to repatriate has been driven to do so through the brutality of the prison system, in clear breach of Australia’s non-refoulement obligation under the UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention.
Every Australian should read this book and marvel at the extent of our brutality, the human cost of a “necessary evil”.
Malcolm Fraser died on March 20, 2015, just a little more than three years ago. One can only speculate what he would have made of a three-year Malcolm Turnbull interregnum, but it is a fair assumption he would have been disgusted by the behaviour of the Liberal party’s hard right and its media acolytes.
At the time of his death, Fraser had quixotically lent himself to efforts to establish a “reform” party as a centrist alternative – in the tradition of Menzies and Deakin – to the existing political parties.
So no doubt the former Liberal prime minister’s disgust would have been aggravated during last week’s leadership upheavals, in which reactionary elements came within a handful of votes of hijacking the party of Robert Menzies, and before that Alfred Deakin.
While this attempted hijacking may has been averted – for now – the danger has not passed, nor has the possibility of a split between the Liberal Party’s conservative and moderate wings.
Scott Morrison is from the conservative flank of the Liberal Party, as is his deputy Josh Frydenberg.
If the two leaders were in doubt about the task confronting them in restoring confidence in a Coalition government, this should have been dispelled by the latest Newspoll. It revealed a collapse in support for the government whose primary vote plunged four points to 33%, while Labor’s increased six points to 41%. This was the first poll since Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as prime minister.
Turnbull’s mistake, among several in the wake of his 2016 near-death political experience, was to allow himself to be persuaded that, to shore up support in the conservative heartland and outflank Pauline Hanson, he needed to shift further to the right.
In the end, he was devoured by those he had sought to appease, or as Winston Churchill might’ve advised: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last”.
Menzies’ “forgotten people” were defined as those caught between a union-dominated Labor Party and a conservative establishment. What the father of the Liberal Party had in mind was the artisan and small business class, broadly defined.
As Menzies put it in his slight memoir, Afternoon Light.
We took the name “Liberal” because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments; in no sense reactionay, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise…
It is interesting that the word “progressive” has become a weapon wielded by the right in its relentless culture wars against the left, in what has proved to be a debilitating era in Australian politics.
In this debasement of the political debate, phrases like “political correctness” and “identity politics” and “virtue signalling” have been weaponised to the point where these phrases have corrupted reasonable discussion.
Fraser’s attempt before he died to promote a centrist liberal alternative to the existing parties was aimed at representing the “forgotten people” in Australian politics.
These were not Menzies’ “forgotten people” who had found a home in John Howard’s “broad church” of latter-day Liberals, but a small “l” liberal wedge in the centre. They have long felt disenfranchised.
The so-called “sensible centre”, caught between a conservative party trending reactionary and a Labor party led by union-backed factional apparatchiks is more numerous than party operatives on either side would have you believe.
As mentioned in a previous column the same-sex marriage vote demonstrated a much larger cohort in the centre of Australian politics than might be conceded by the political class.
But back to Fraser. While his “reform” party never saw the light of day beyond a small circle of small “l” Melbourne liberals, members of the Liberal Party’s latter-day “broad church” could do worse than secure copies of these documents.
This is not because I believe Fraser’s reformist movement would have gained traction, necessarily, but because its 24-point manifesto reflects views widely held in the liberal and moderate centre of Australian politics.
Space does not permit publication of the Fraser manifesto in its entirety, but salient points include:
calls for tougher ethical sanctions on members of parliament who breached a code of conduct along with the establishment of an anti-corruption commission
a cap on donations to political parties and a requirement these donations be disclosed in real time
the introduction of a market-based emissions trading scheme and bold targets for renewable energy
early moves to a Republic
an end to the incarceration of asylum seekers in off-shore detention centres
an independent foreign policy
a requirement for a two-thirds majority in parliament to sanction the commitment of Australia’s armed forces to war.
In this latest period, disenfranchised voters of the moderate centre vote for minor parties, including the Greens, as a protest. This is not because they feel affinity for the more doctrinaire positions of the Greens, but out of despair at the Hobson’s choice being offered by the major parties.
In their calculations about how to rebuild the Coalition’s shattered credibility, Morrison and Frydenberg should remind themselves that a lot of Australians are fed up with politics as usual.
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People are antagonistic to attempts by unscrupulous politicians and their friends in the media to hijack the political debate. They are sick of being caught in the slipstream of the tiresome culture wars.