June 2005

Arts & Letters

Brown skin black hearts. Two trail-spotting postcards from two different Australias

By Inga Clendinnen
‘Kayang & Me’ by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown; ‘Balanda’ by Mary Ellen Jordan

A few years back Kim Scott wrote a novel about being of mixed descent in a racially divided society.Benang: From the Heart was a stunning exercise in actuality transfigured by imagination. In Kayang & Me (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 270pp; $29.95), Scott subdues his formidable literary talents to set down, extend and counterpoint his Noongar aunt Hazel Brown’s recollections of the family’s history. During the time Scott was interviewing her, “Kayang” (“respected old lady”) Hazel was caring for two adult grandsons – both schizophrenic – and the grand-daughter and two great-grandchildren she rescued from “the welfare” after a violent relationship fractured. Still she found time to sit with her nephew, tape recorder between them, and dredge her memory for what it held of the past.

Hazel omits the personal crises – cancer, nervous breakdown, a good husband ruined by drink – which would dominate our life-tellings. This is the history of a family. There is no simple plot-line: tales of massacres, of withdrawals into the bush and of fair-skinned children being abducted by white authorities jostle with stories of durable partnerships with whites in work, travel and marriage. There are triumph-stories, polished by many re-tellings, where Hazel faces down white racists. But she also acknowledges a great-grandfather who worked with white police against his Noongar people. Hazel puzzles over him, but he is part of her family and so of her history too.

What is moving about this woman is the way she refuses to take ideological shortcuts. Every judgment is individual and grounded in experience. When her children were small, one white doctor came out to the camp no matter what hour he was called. His replacement would not come at all. One desperate night Hazel brought her sick child to him, he refused to look at her and the baby died. The next man appointed did treat black patients but he examined them out on the verandah.

So it goes. Hazel keeps working patiently on the vast jigsaw that is her family’s past. She is a Wilomin, one of the people of the curlew: “Aunty Hazel reckons the wilo can camouflage itself so well that you’ll never see it. It closes its eyes and just lies there, motionless.” Even if you pick it up “it’ll pretend it’s a stick”. Not a bad survival strategy given the imbalance of power, but it didn’t work. Like the other clans in southern Western Australia the Wilomin were briskly dispossessed, although Hazel can tell us the birthplace of every Aboriginal relative. (Not the whites. They don’t come from anywhere.) When her father died prematurely his brother married her mother to save the children – they had a white grandfather – from being “taken”, so Hazel was brought up in the bush among her Noongar kin. When she was seven her father-uncle began teaching her and her little brother how to conduct themselves in the bush; Hazel’s brief encounter with an owl will raise the hairs on your neck. Her special skill was possum-hunting, and she is proud of that, just as she is proud of the other skills – handling heavy farm machinery, wool-classing, caring for other people’s houses, loving other people’s children – she acquired over a long working life.

Kim Scott transcribes all this, frets over gaps and implausibilities, then takes to the archives to monitor the aunt’s story. Unsurprisingly he finds large discrepancies between her history and “the records”, cast as each are in different cultural languages. Scott does not try to translate between them, instead leaving us to contemplate the terror implicit in such lack of congruity when one side has all the power. But he does want to find answers to some of the questions Kayang Hazel cannot answer, and here the fluidity of colonial life along the south coast of WA sometimes confounds him.

Ancestor “Fanny Winnery” is recorded as having given birth to a white man’s daughter at a place called Thomas River, east of Esperance. The birth was registered at Albany, several hundred kilometres away. Why? The certificate names the father as John Mason. Scott tracks Mason through the records and finds him working as a seaman, teamster and shepherd before he appears as a kangaroo hunter travelling in a little company of white men and Noongar women, among them young Fanny. The Mason–Winnery children became official objects of interest to A.O. Neville, “chief protector” of Aborigines in WA. He needed to know what racial classifications they came under – quarter-caste? half-caste? – because then he would know how arbitrarily the law could treat them. Neville was fobbed off by more sensible underlings but he would have been hard put to find out anyway, for his apparently seemly documents concealed quagmires of muddle.

Whites had been transforming Noongar names for generations. Hazel’s ancestor – “Pinyan”, “Benang” or “Wonyin” – was made “Fanny Winnery” before her identity was fixed as “Fanny Mason” through marriage to a white man. Hazel’s father was one of three brothers dubbed “Fred”; they tacked on different white surnames to differentiate themselves, their blood relationship vanished. Hazel’s mother, fair-skinned daughter of a white man, was “rescued” to Carolup Native Settlement as a child. Labelled “Nellie Limestone” on arrival, “there were too many Nellies around so they changed her name to Sybil when they made her get married.” Noongar families also had the disconcerting habit of appropriating the surnames of white families they worked for, which is how Hazel came by the name “Brown”.

And these were a people who kept on the move. To follow their faint, multi-layered tracks you need a historian like Hazel Brown: retentive, tenacious, untroubled by obscurities. There is something she doesn’t know? She is unperturbed. There is plenty of time. Someone will turn up, as nephew Kim has turned up with his frail memories and hefty archival findings. Her history will always be a work in progress. As she says, comfortably, in the face of her nephew’s anxieties: “We’ll get it sorted out one day anyway, gotta work on it.”

Historians will value this marvellous book because Scott lets us watch two different histories being constructed out of the same set of events. Both Kayang Hazel’s history, stored in old voices and a handful of photographs, and Chief Protector Neville’s, stowed in filing cabinets, are best understood as myths: selected experiences recast into memory-stories which, through devoted repetition, take on lustrous authority for a particular group. In Benang, Scott drew on his family’s stories to create a fictional world. Now he has chosen a discipline that submits such deep-felt stories to critical examination. This brings engaging technical problems. Kayang Hazel is deaf; her monologue flows gloriously unimpeded. How to divide and structure it? She speaks a flavourful Aboriginal English. How to get her speech on to the page without exoticising or sentimentalising?

Scott solves these problems because he is a man of literary sensibility who sees the moral and political challenges. He embarked on his huge labour in search of wholeness for his divided self and for his divided nation. He inquires into a range of issues: how identity is based; how landscape is understood; the defining characteristics of Aboriginal art; indigenous writers’ struggle to represent, overleap or celebrate difference. He anguishes over those brutal white-imposed categories – “half-caste”, “quarter-caste”, “quadroon” – especially now that they are invoked by Aborigines eager to deny their lighter-skinned brothers access to culture and country. He bears the injuries of his own deracination and exclusion. Kayang Hazel opens her arms to her nephew not only because he is kin, but because he is wounded. She teaches him language; he rolls the syllables on his tongue until he feels they might belong there. And she offers a deeper absolution. Despite a life punctuated by episodes of vicious discrimination (her baby girl, dead in her arms), Hazel is obstinately relaxed about questions of colour. From the cover photograph of the two authors, the powerful family resemblance carrying down to the pleat between the eyebrows, we see they are both brown-skinned; that they could “pass” if they chose to.

Hazel would never so choose. Skin colour has nothing to do with it. She is Wilomin Noongar. As for her children: “My own kids, they’re black people, but they’re fair-skinned, you know.” Kim is Noongar not because of the colour of his skin or some primitive arithmetic of blood, but because he cares about his family and his history. Says Hazel: “We didn’t ask to be born, and we didn’t ask white people to come here either. We had no choice.” The past is still all around us, but “being Noongar” now is a matter of choice.

Mary Ellen Jordan was an idealistic young Melbournite when she took up what became a year-long appointment with the Aboriginal community at Maningrida in north-west Arnhem Land. In Balanda (Allen & Unwin, 244pp; $24.95) she reports what she made of her experiences. Her subject is not the local Aboriginal community but its white managers; Balanda is a corruption of “Hollander”, the name given by the people of Arnhem Land to Europeans. Her subtitle, “My Year in Arnhem Land”, will draw contemptuous grunts from old hands, but fresh eyes sometimes see clearly, and like the best reporters Jordan is modest. We see and hear only what she does. We learn the physical place: how it looks, how it smells, how some of the craven dogs have just enough spirit to frighten a stranger. We see the ugly grid of houses, the single shop with its protective mesh and meagre goods, and we know that whites don’t come to Maningrida for the good life.

Her story has only one “event”. A young Aboriginal man keeps calling outside her isolated flat, she flees, then returns when a holiday and a security door have restored her nerve. Nothing more happens. Jordan reports being kept awake by children squealing in the school-ground night after night; that too many don’t go to school at all; that nine languages are spoken fluently in Maningrida but English is not one of them; that when she asks a seasoned schoolteacher to involve some of the girls in a photographic project for the community art centre, he says no. Why? Because they are chronically unreliable. Is this cynicism, or realism, or both? Jordan does not know. But as the months pass she begins to wonder what she and the rest of the whites are doing there.

She also has to face the honest reporter’s perennial problem: how to report critically on identifiable people at a specified place and time. She tries to honour her moral obligations by selecting aspects of her real-life acquaintances, most of them friends, all of them kind to her, and then re-blending those selected aspects into types: not experience replicated but distilled and recast. Given her project I doubt she could have done much better than that, but the white members of the tiny Maningrida world – about 150 in a community of 1,500 – will not be pleased. In Jordan’s account the place seems to work under an easy but thorough-going apartheid, with minimal inter-cultural socialising and less shared work. The men who stack and pack the paintings and baskets at the art centre are employed under the Aboriginal CDEP work-for-the-dole scheme. She lacks their languages as they lack hers. Communication is minimal; they come and they go.

But there is a confident young man called Samson, who comes in from his outstation and asks to learn the computer skills that connect Maningrida to the wider world. Jordan tries to teach him the basics of her job – surely that is what she is there for, to make herself redundant? But while Samson’s spoken English is good his written English is poor, and computers assume full literacy. Jordan lacks both the time and the training to teach him. Then she discovers that despite the plethora of “training projects” in Maningrida there is not one to help Samson take that first, small, essential step. To do that he would have to exile himself to Darwin. He stops coming to the art centre and sinks into the ganja-induced stupor that is claiming so many of Maningrida’s young people.

Jordan sees a white society and a black society running side by side with no effective gearing to engage them. Whites hold all the real jobs, and each new project brings more whites in to administer it. By the time Jordan leaves, the management of the entire community is in white hands. (She adds a note to say that by the time of publication the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which in her time had distributed all funding to the communities save for health, had been replaced by various different departments under Aboriginal affairs minister Amanda Vanstone’s policy of “mainstreaming”. Will that bring useful change? I doubt it.)

This comfortable segregation can look like irresponsibility. Every second weekend, when the beer comes in on the barge, there is violence in Maningrida. Whites stow their allocation away to last them until the next shipment, then they get out of town or stay indoors for the weekend. Aborigines, with a different style of sociability, begin to drink when the beer arrives and keep drinking until it is finished. That means drunkenness, which means violence, which means bashings and injuries. Jordan sees women she likes battered, and hears worse things. Yet every fortnight the predictable catastrophe happens. Jordan speaks only of what she knows at first hand, but that is enough to disturb our few remaining complacencies.

The settlement at Maningrida was set up and maintained to protect Aborigines from white contamination. But with modern communications people cannot be protected from alcohol, drugs, deceptive videos and the other corruptions always on offer. They can only be given the opportunity to choose against them. Jordan visits a couple of outstations and is impressed. They look as if they can sustain a tough but autonomous way of life. But most of the young people are choosing the dangerous excitements of the town, and there, as Samson discovered, there are no choices at all. Meanwhile, over in Western Australia, Hazel Brown is living her strenuous and quite unprotected life with compassion and grace.

Inga Clendinnen
Inga Clendinnen is an academic, historian and writer. Her book Reading the Holocaust was judged Best Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1999.

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