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True Country by Kim Scott A trip to Aboriginal Australia

January 28, 2018 38 comments

True Country by Kim Scott (1993) French title: Le Vrai Pays. (Translated by Thierry Chevrier with the help of Marie Derrien)

Kim Scott is an Australian writer born in Perth in 1957. His mother is white and his father is Aboriginal, from the Nyungar tribe. He’s an English teacher and he spent some time teaching at an Aboriginal community in the north of Western Australia. Kim Scott explores the issue of the white colonization in Australia and its consequences but also gives a written memory to Aboriginal culture and simply uses his mixed origins to give a voice to his Aboriginal people.

A few years back, I tried to read his novel, That Deadman Dance but I had to abandon it. Not that I didn’t like it or that it was lacking but my English and my knowledge of Australia weren’t good enough. I needed a French translation. And the only books by Kim Scott available in French are True Country and Benang. I shouldn’t complain though, True Country has only been translated into French and Benang into French and Dutch. We are lucky readers here, thanks to Les Editions du Rocher and Actes Sud.

Lucky me, Lisa from ANZ LitLovers had not read True Country yet and she accepted to read it along with me. Her review is available on her blog and it’s going to be a real treat for me to discuss this book with an educated Australian reader.

The starting point of True Country is the arrival of a new set of teachers in Karnama, an Aboriginal community in the North of Western Australia.

There is a Catholic mission in Karnama and a school for Aboriginal children. Alex is the new principal of the school and he came with his wife Annette and his eight-year old son, Alan. The English teacher is Billy, accompanied by his wife Liz. Billy is mixed white and Aboriginal and as you can guess, he’s based on Kim Scott’s personal experience as an English teacher in rural Australia.

Karnama is isolated, the teachers are ill-prepared for their task. The climate is terrible with intense heat during the dry season and torrential rains during the rainy season. Nature is not exactly welcoming with crocodiles and all kinds of dangerous animals and plants. The isolation is vertiginous for a European. Hours until the next city and in case of medical urgency, they rely on the Flying Doctors.

In short chapters, Kim Scott relates life in Karnama for Billy and Liz. He shows the clash of culture between the white and Aboriginal inhabitants. It’s a strange ambience in Karnama where the Whites still feel superior to the Aborigens. It is definitely a colonial atmosphere, like in Africa during the English or French colonization.

The Whites have all the positions with responsibilities and run the place. They have better houses with air conditioning. We witness their diners where they complain about the Aborigines and how they are not to be trusted. The teachers have trouble getting the children in school on time and with proper pupil attire. They just don’t have the same way of life and unfortunately the teachers think that theirs is the right way to live. The approach of life and the vision of the world is different from the start. A striking example is the notion of house and home.

Locals come to the teachers’ houses unannounced, invite themselves in and touch their things. Their own houses are open and not so private or personal. Their behaviour irritates Liz or Annette. This is a detail that tells all about the clash of culture. It shows the different approach of life, with a focus on property and privacy on one side that has no equivalent on the other.

Both parts mean well but this is something that is ingrained from childhood and accepting what is seen as an invasion of privacy on one side or refraining from coming in on the other side requires a lot of going against gut reactions and it’s not easy. Education about homes and houses comes from far away in our lives. Even in Western countries, we have differences. In France, it’s very impolite to help yourself in someone’s fridge unless you’re at a good friend’s house or staying with your family. It’s more relaxed in the USA and when French students go to stay with an American family, they receive written instructions about how to behave and this thing about the fridge is mentioned as “Do it, they won’t understand why you just don’t help yourself”. I’ve done stays like this and even a simple thing as helping yourself in a fridge is difficult to do when you’ve been told from a young age that it is not polite. Your mind must take over and remind you that it’s allowed there and you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable doing it. And despite everything you might tell yourself, you still feel uncomfortable taking a bottle of water in the fridge.

So, imagine what happens with such different conceptions of homes as between Nyungar and Whites.

I liked that Kim Scott doesn’t sugar-coat the situation and doesn’t deliver a black and white (no pun intended) vision of life in Karnama. He shows Aborigines misbehaving and the ravages of alcohol. According to a note left by the translator, Aborigines have a poor tolerance to alcohol due to genetics dispositions; they get drunk very fast and they are mean drunks.

I wondered what the perspectives are for people living in Karnama. They are trapped between two cultures and none of them expressed itself totally. There are no jobs in the sense of “Western capitalism” jobs and the traditional structures of the Nyungar seem to have disappeared. They are in a weird no-man’s-land, not integrated in Western civilization and already too out of their ancestral way-of-life to live it.

Pindan Country _ Kimberley, Western Australia. From Wikipedia

All these misunderstandings, the hopelessness of the locals’ future and the latent conflict between the two communities make the atmosphere a bit heavy, on the verge of a catastrophe. During the fishing trips, the swimming parties and various activities where Whites and Aborigines mix and do something together, you have the feeling they live on the razor’s edge. On both side, they are always a hair away from making a tiny mistake that could turn an innocent outing into a drama.

With his mixed origins Billy is a go-between. He’s open minded and curious about Nyungar culture and traditions. He’s in search of his own past and it’s easy to see why he took this teaching position. He starts recording old Fatima’s stories to keep track of their oral culture and to find a bridge between him and his pupils. He wants to use these stories in class, to have teaching material the children can relate to.

The other Whites’ motivations are unclear. Why did Alex and Annette choose to come to Karnama? Does it help one’s career to have done time in the bush? I missed out on the psychology of the characters. I would have wanted to know more about their past, their inner thoughts and their struggles. I didn’t bond with any of them except Billy and Liz. I think Liz is the most remarkable character of the book. She’s nonjudgmental and reaches out to the locals. She probably followed Billy to Karnama and takes everything in one stride. I would have loved to hear about their relationship, how they came here and what kind of discussion they had at night. This lack of information about the characters made me see the book as a written reportage, a succession of chapters where I followed Billy and his relearning of his ancestral roots and customs.

This leads me to an important stylistic part of True Country. The narration alternates between Billy’s point of view and an omniscient narrator that represent the voice of the Nyungar people. This narrator is like a God’s voice observing the humans living below and commenting on their actions. It’s is full of wisdom with a mischievous sense of humour. It opens the book with a welcome chapter,

First Thing, Welcome.

You might stay that way, maybe forever, with no world to belong to and belong to you. You in your many high places, looking over looking over, waiting for a sign. You’re nearly there, nearly there.

You’re trying to read a flat pattern, like the sea, the land from high above. Or you might see your shadow falling up in this page. And maybe that’s all you’ll see and understand.

Or you might drift in. Fall or dive in. Enter.

Wind drift, rain fall, river rush. The air, the sea all around. And the storming.

You alight on higher ground, gather, sing. It may be.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s there you belong. A place like this.

The Aboriginal narrator is the one that stands back and comments. It’s not part of the action but gives subtitles. It’s another middleman between the reader and the scenes that unfold on the pages. Sometimes it comes right in the middle of a page and it forces the reader to stop and think about what he’s reading. It’s someone taking your arm and saying “hold on” Look at the scenery. Look at the interactions between the characters. Take your time, observe and listen. It’s often a very poetic voice.

This change of point of view lost me in That Deadman Dance. Reading in French helped.

This is why I want to praise the work of the French translators, Thierry Chevrier helped by Marie Derrien. I loved the footnotes they left in the book. They were enlightening about Australia and the Aborigines. That’s a perk of reading a good and annotated translation. The translator goes further than transcribing the English text into French. With his French background, he knows when a French can get lost in the text or might miss something important. The footnotes touched all kinds of topics. There were explanations about the fauna and flora because it’s so different from ours. I enjoyed immensely the comments about Scott’s style pointing out things coming from his Aboriginal side and how it seeped into his English. I laughed at a comment about Australians and their beer bellies, I appreciated help about car models, agriculture and other local things that are foreign to me. He gave indications about the huge distances between cities because they’re hard to imagine here. In France, a long drive is 800 km, which is about the distance between Melbourne and Sydney which seem very close from one another on the map above. In True Country, the translator was holding the reader’s hand, helping him through the foreignness of the place and of the culture. I might have missed out on the English but I got so much more from the translation that I’m happy I read True Country in French.

I read True Country with the Aboriginal voiceover holding my hand and the translator holding my other hand. It’s been a fascinating trip to Karnama, one I would haven enjoyed more if I’d gotten to know Billy and Liz better.

In any case, I’m now better equipped to read A Deadman Dance in English. I’ll give it another try, probably after my trip to Australia.

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