The madness or the method
The first sentence is an act of strong magic. It is the seductive desire that that lures you, the reader, lures you in like a crow to fresh roadkill. It is the director shouting ‘Action’ and action starts now. It is a boxer putting you on your arse with the first punch. (Raymond Carver via Paddy O’Reilly and Mary Manning taught me that.) It is the gelatine that sets the tone, perspective and voice. It tells you something important. It should intrigue. But mostly, it must unsettle. It is a cattleprod, a hard slap.
My ma is a self-mutilating alcoholic.
But before reading the first line, the story title has frontloaded some level of expectation. There is no way a completed story, let alone one in progress, could be left untitled. The title must inspire me and spur me to write. I choose it deliberately. It rarely changes. It is an invitation for you to read further. It may be all the potential reader reads. It is a chance for poetry.
My (first person) abbr.d (consciously odd abbreviation, probably of the word ‘abbreviated’) life.
My odd cut-short life.
Story development often begins with a title and a single idea or image or brief scene. The story is eventually constructed around that core, but it undergoes a long gestation before it is sufficiently developed. Like a kangaroo I am pregnant-in-permanence with story. They are like embryonic kangaroos, remaining in diapause, a state of frozen development, until there is plentiful feed or the sibling joey is able to leave the pouch. For me the landscape is mainly droughty. My output is limited in quantity and terribly slow in development.
I thought it would be an easy gig to comment on the method and inspiration for one of my stories. After all, I call myself a writer. But I have struggled for months to unearth and describe it. What is my method? It is a self-exposing question.
During meditations I mentally composed more than five different expositions. For each I thought, yes, this is how. But each one told only part of the story. I couldn’t decide which to use. I committed none of them to paper. Now I can’t remember any of them. This is what you get instead.
What is your method for writing stories? It sounded like a trap. The deadline after the deadline had passed. Send us what you have, the editors pleaded. It’s very rough, I replied. Send it anyway, they urged.
What I sent was a mass of disjointed blocks of text related to the theme, often repetitive, written over months. The blocks sat on the page in the time sequence they were written, not yet ordered into common themes. They began as random ideas and notes, possibly scribbled on a napkin or shred of scrap and placed in a pile of similar scraps, then typed up as a jigsaw piece at a later date. I sent what I blinkered myself from, what I dared not admit, what I feared would expose me as a charlatan writer. A Brahmin palm-reader on an Indian train once told me that I didn’t have the hands of a writer. I feared revealing that truth.
I sent, I finally shockingly realised, my ‘method’ in progress. The ‘rough’ is my method.
My mentor, Melanie Ostell, recently observed that I write for the line, for the words and the sounds, and not for the overall structure. Structure comes later. She could see that by reading just one story of mine. From the initial core idea or vision I imagine an elusive jigsaw box cover. The disjointed chunks of text are the inadequate pieces of the jigsaw. Pieces are moved around. Reshaped. Some slot together seamlessly. Some create new pieces at will. Some pieces jar with others like musicians slightly off key. To admit this is to admit not being perfect. To admit this is to admit my own fallibility.
So what is my method? This essay is a metaphor for my writing method.
But the genesis of My abbr.d life was atypical.
It was conceived during a summer dog walk in the hills around Alice Springs as a homage to my long-deceased father. The idea: to write a post-post-modernist story composed entirely of truncated and abbreviated text to be deciphered by the reader, thus inviting many interpretations. I had a title. I wrote two brief alternative paragraphs. But they were stillborn.
The next day, on somewhat the same walk, the title still swimming with the intent of semen to spear the egg, and a young Aboriginal girl who was born with foetal alcohol syndrome to a gambling alcoholic mother, a girl who was repeatedly molested by the men, who died from the outback scourge petrol sniffing, who for Aboriginal cultural reasons should remain nameless so her spirit can be at rest but who for reasons of shame I gave her the name Shantitia Hames, it was she that leapt out of the earth to be reborn in me and out from me. I returned home, sat down, wrote the story complete in one sitting.
I recall when Arnold Zable stayed for a few nights. He had filled his last journal and fretted about finding a replacement in town. His daily need to dictate thoughts and experiences and ideas and observations was an addiction that I do not share. I endeavour to carry a notepad and pen with me most of the time, especially when out walking, but often forget. Yet even when I remember, I rarely write in it. I do not keep a daily journal, not even when travelling. If I am not a writer, what am I? I am an observer that sometimes writes.
I store observations in the cupboards of my mind. Events and people and inanimate things, feelings and senses and opinions. They are eclectic and poorly catalogued. Nine years ago when I first came to Central Australia to live and work I thought I knew a bit about Indigenous people. What I had read could not prepare me for what I then saw and heard and smelt and felt. I knew less than nothing. I read widely from anthropologists like Stanner, explorers’ journals, Indigenous oral histories, and Indigenous cultural knowledge – language, medicine, and bushtucker. I worked for Indigenous organisations, played football, had Indigenous neighbours that became like extended family, was ‘adopted’ by a ‘wife’ and given a skin name, my wife and dog also, so that I was defined within the cultural rights and responsibilities and protocols of the Indigenous community.
I knew less than nothing. Now, after learning some, I realise how much more there is to know that will never be revealed. I knew one hundred per cent of nothing. Now I know less than one per cent of something. And the longer I live here in Central Australia the more the black and white opinions mix into a murky grey.
In October 2010, a senior traditional custodian for Alice Springs conducted a tour of local sacred sites for local artists and writers. She talked about the meaning of those places, of how the past overlays the present and vice versa into an ‘everywhen’, of the continual struggle with authorities to maintain the integrity of the places. And she encouraged us to explore the grey zone, the boundary of inter-cultural tension, in our art to further inform some kind of understanding by whitefellas in Alice Springs and the big cities. The conscious mind journals, the unconscious mind exhumes profound writing. It was from this deep spring in the eroded granite hills that Shantitia Hames seeped.
Hames. An anagram of ‘shame’. And with her, her mother and an ever-present extended family group of cousins and aunties and uncles. Not focussing on a single incident or moment, but describing an agglomeration of incidents, a history of the oppressed. With a language informed by the vernacular of Indigenous desert people: not chicken legs but emu legs (long and very lean, fast running), cool drinks (because they can’t remain icy in 40 degree heat) instead of cold drinks.
Except for the bits I made up, this essay is a work of non-fiction. My abbr.d life is a work of fiction. Shantitia Hames and her extended family are entirely fictional. They are not based on any actual person, living or deceased. The story’s plot is my invention. Although the events portrayed have occurred in many Indigenous communities, the fiction does not appropriate anyone’s story or lived experience. I am not retelling someone else’s story in more eloquent words. I know of no person living or that has lived named Shantitia Hames; if there is someone by that name then I humbly apologise to her and her family for any sorrow caused. The story is a fiction; it is entirely a work of my invention.
I am an educated middle-class whitefella approaching middle age. Writing fiction allows me to inhabit a diversity of characters that are not me. A hangman, a Latino couple, an impaled railway signalman, a snail, a Tibetan monk, a pregnant woman. No problems. But a dead Aboriginal girl? Eyebrows raise and mouths open. Will some kind of fatwa or curse be cast upon me? A sickness of stones and bones in my gut and incurable headaches. A wind that blows only me off balance. This is my ongoing dilemma.
In a discussion paper about the representation of Indigenous people and culture in Australian literature (Heiss 2002), Dr Anita Heiss states ‘Some Indigenous people question whether non-Indigenous people should write about Indigenous people at all, be it Indigenous history or the portrayal of an Indigenous character … [due to] … the history of negative representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that has proliferated in the writing world.’
The Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts subsequently developed protocols for producing Indigenous Australian writing. The protocols (Janke 2007) suggest four key questions for writing about Indigenous people and culture:
How will your writing affect the Indigenous group it is based on?
Does it empower them?
Does it expose confidential or personal and sensitive material?
Does it reinforce negative stereotypes?
And to these I add two of my own construction:
Does it deserve to be told in the public domain?
Do you have the right to tell it?
My abbr.d life was not based on any particular Indigenous language group or people. There is nothing in the story that suggests it was. I never intended to target or stigmatise Indigenous people, rather the lack of identification makes the story more universal. Often the word ‘empower’ is misconstrued. A negative ideal can be given authority just as much as a positive one. This story is like the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report that highlighted widespread sexual abuse in Indigenous communities and sparked a heavy-handed government intervention. It states what is happening. By doing so maybe some people, the women, the men, will stand up and take action themselves within community.
There is no sacred or taboo information revealed in My abbr.d life that should be withheld from women, children or the uninitiated. It is not a record of oral history. There is shame in stating the deceased’s name. Excising her name from speech so that her spirit does not attach itself to her living place and things is part of grief and healing. But she demands, by naming herself, that her shame must not be repeated.
Some negative stereotypes may be reinforced, of drunks, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug use, hopelessness and apathy. Warwick Thornton’s film Samson and Delilah premiered at the 2009 Adelaide Film Festival. A friend who attended sat beside a Kaurna elder. As the film progressed and the tragedy unfolded, the elder grew increasingly agitated. At the end, while the rest of the audience stood and applauded in appreciation, she remained seated, her hands squeezed between her thighs, indignant that her people, Indigenous people, were represented in such a hopeless negative way. But Thornton is an Indigenous man from Alice Springs. Surely he has the right to comment on his own people, highlight what is happening, and show a glimmer of redemption. Because if he can’t, who can?
The events described in My abbr.d life have occurred and do occur in Indigenous communities despite the best intentions and efforts of many blackfella and whitefella organisations and individuals. Living here is like being in a foreign developing country with a large ex-pat community. It is Australia, yes, but the land (and so too the people) are Arrernte, Warlpiri, Luritja, Pitjantjatjara, Anmatjere and more. The inter-cultural collide is the point of tension in the landscape. To live and work here this tension needs to be reconciled in some way. Otherwise people burn out rapidly. Some sing, play sport. Some form death metal bands, others drink excessively. Everyone gossips. Writing helps me to make some sense of the complexities and contradictions of this place.
I constantly wrestle with the question of whether I should write from an Indigenous person’s perspective. It is my opinion and observation, not theirs. Can I inhabit a world that is culturally opposite to mine? I am reticent to read my Indigenous writing in Alice Springs, fearing what people might think, how they will judge me. Like telling secrets to a stranger, I am comfortable reading them elsewhere. Because stories are more than tales, especially the Indigenous story which ‘… has encoded messages of law, land, place, knowledge, experience and survival. It is the underlying script for Indigenous cultural identity.’ (Janke 2009)
I could say that I didn’t write this story, that the land gave it to me complete, but that might be pushing the whitefella connection with the spiritual landscape into even more dangerous territory. I have tried to view my inspiration post scriptum objectively. There are many culturally insensitive stories and books in the public domain. I pray that I have not contributed another.
Heiss, Dr Anita, Writing about Indigenous Australia: some issues to consider and protocols to follow – a discussion paper, Australian Society of Authors, 2002, http://www.asauthors.org/asa-papers/writing-about-Indigenuos-australia.pdf, viewed 5 September 2013
Janke, Terri, More than words: writing, Indigenous culture & copyright in Australia, Australian Society of Authors, 2009, http://www.asauthors.org/files/pages/writing_about_indigenous_australia.pdf, viewed 5 September 2013
Janke, Terri, Writing Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian writing, 2nd edn., Australia Council for the Arts, 2007, http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/resources/reports_and_publications/artforms/literature/writing_protocols_for_producing_indigenous_australian_writing.pdf, viewed 31 October 2013
Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from sexual abuse, Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle ‘Little Children are Sacred’, Northern Territory Government, 2007, http://www.lowitja.org.au/little-children-are-sacred, viewed 17 February 2014