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Melissa Lucashenko: Mullumbimby

January 8, 2014
Superb Fairy-Wren

Birds play key roles, especially blue fairy-wrens. Photo by Ralph Green, CC licence.

Q: How can non-indigenous people know what it feels like to be an Indigenous person in a dominant white culture?

A: There is no way to know this, short of magically changing into a non-white person and seeing how one is treated. But reading Mullumbimby conveys some sense of what it feels like.

In the book we see the world through the eyes of Jo Breen, a young Bundjalung woman who has purchased a run-down farm, reclaiming a fragment of her country. She wants to clean it up, “get the place in order and look after it the right way. Keep the old people happy.” Reading the book, we register her anger and grief at the removal of her forebears from their country. We gain a better understanding of the importance of country and the nature of the relationship between people and land, flora and fauna – especially birds. The story illustrates the limitations of Native Title, and the divergence of Indigenous attitudes towards it.

White-faced Heron

Jo tries to figure out what the heron is telling her. Photo by Tony Dudley, CC licence.

We see Jo negotiating white society, facing hostility and dismissiveness and keeping clear of the police, who represent danger rather than protection. She is conscious of the chasm between her and white people: “Cos you have to be a fucked up blackfella to know what it’s like, not being able to prove who you are, or where you belong.”

Of course this is one Indigenous person’s experience of the dominant culture, but it links to themes that others have spoken of. The difference is that in Jo Breen, Lucashenko has created a strong character who engages us, who involves us in her life, so that we directly feel what she is going through.

Jo is cynical and loving, impulsive and decent, prickly and gentle. She is the image on the cover: a bird’s nest with an outer layer made from old and rusted strands of barbed wire, lined inside with feathers and down. Fictional characters who have all the contradictions of real people are sometimes not believable, but Jo feels completely real.

Some reviewers are concerned about Lucashenko’s approach. In a thoughtful and generally positive review, Lisa at ANZ Litlovers says that “the style mocks, and is hostile to, non-indigenous Australia,” and that the author’s approach “can be confronting and alienating, even to readers of good will.” She contrasts Mullumbimby with other Indigenous writers such as Kim Scott whose “novels offer some kind of hope or yearning for reconciliation, recognition, acceptance, forgiveness and peace [and] feel inclusive of all Australians in their intended audience.” I will return to this point.

Wedgetail Eagle

Wedgetail eagles also feature in Mullumbimby. Photo by Ann Alcock.

Some people may find Melissa Lucashenko herself confronting. After winning the 2013 Queensland Literary Award for fiction for Mullumbimby, she was invited to the boardroom of Deloitte, the global business services corporation that sponsored the award. “I’m here to subvert white culture,” she told the executives.*

But note: her target is white culture, not white people. And in fact subverting white culture is a laudable aim for any writer, black or white. To me, any negativity in Mullumbimby is targeted at culture rather than people, so I do not believe that the style of the book is hostile to non-indigenous Australia or that it is not inclusive of all Australians. Both white and Indigenous characters inhabit all parts of the spectrum from decent to dastardly. Jo’s best friend Therese and Therese’s partner Amanda are white, and both provide heroic support to Jo when disaster strikes. And the book does offer the hope of reconciliation – this is the theme of the climax of the book, in which a white character plays a key role.

This makes Mullumbimby sound earnest, but it is not. It is a fast, funny, enthralling read, because of both the well-drawn characters and the terrific plot. At the Brisbane Writers Festival Lucashenko spoke of using the premise “things are not what they seem” in novels. This plot line works beautifully in Mullumbimby, in a way reminiscent of masters of the device such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

Mullumbimby deserves its Queensland Literary Award. Deloitte should be proud.

*The story of Melissa Lucashenko in the Deloitte boardroom was told by Stuart Glover at the Brisbane Writers Festival, audio here.

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