I know I make my people uncomfortable, and embarrass even those who come to hear me sing.
It has been a while since I have read a book that I have underlined as much as I have underlined Kim Scott’s Benang. It’s up there, for me, with The Pea-Pickers and Moby-Dick as being a slow, considered read. Benang is a book to reflect on, to research. It’s a book to make you stop, and pause, to take in the reality of the effects of our colonial history on First Nations people.
But how to review it effectively?
I started off collecting quotes for another On Quotes section. But, in the end, it felt too frivolous.
Bill @The Australian Legend has already done the research post on the Cocanarup Massacre here. An author bio post is a possibility, but I often feel awkward digging into the online life story of someone still living.
Which basically leaves me with one of my personal journey posts.
Let me start with an embarrassing story.
About ten years ago, the children’s bookshop I was working in, merged with it’s adult mothership. Although I was (and still am) an avid reader, my taste in books was eclectic and tended towards popular books or those picked up for a bargain in sales and second hand shops. At that time, my favourite contemporary book was probably The Time Traveller’s Wife. I enjoyed reading series, having not long completed all 21 books in the Master and Commander series. I loved Stephen King and Jane Austen and Vikram Seth. Literary awards didn’t really interest me at all. I just read what I liked or interested me. I reread my favourites a lot.
Moving into the main bookshop was a steep learning curve and required a super quick catch up on award winning Australian fiction in particular. I got my first big lesson in the first month. Unannounced, an author and publicist popped in to say hello. It was lunch time, and I was the only one manning the shop front.
I was polite and respectful (I hope) but also flustered that I did not recognise the author’s name or his books. I awkwardly explained that up until last month I had been working in a children’s bookshop and was still learning my way around the adult sections of the shop. The publicist gently nudged me in the right direction by saying that his author was a Miles Franklin award winning author and that his new book, That Deadman Dance, was just out.
We found the book on the new release shelf. Kim Scott may even have signed some of them. I cannot remember that detail now. But I do remember how gracious Scott and his publicist were in the face of my obvious ignorance. I cringe/blush in hindsight, every time I think about it.
I have been wanting to rectify my mistake ever since.
In 2018, I read Scott’s latest novel, Taboo and purchased Benang to read next. Three years later, here I am. Finally.
Kim Scott was born in Perth on the 18th February 1957. He has a white mother and an Aboriginal father and three younger siblings. Scott grew up in Albany, before going to Murdoch University, in Perth, to complete an Arts Degree. After graduating, he became an English high school teacher in various posts throughout Western Australia. It wasn’t until he was teaching in an Aboriginal community school in the Kimberley region, that he began to research his own family history – the south coast Wirlomin Nyoongar people of Western Australia.
For writing his second novel, Benang, Kim Scott conducted research for five years, tracing his family history through welfare files and from a diversity of sources. He confirmed that the novel was “inspired by research into his family and my growing awareness of the context of that family history“. The novel is hence an imaginative blend of fact and fiction and archival documentation to explore in historical and emotional terms the shameful history of the White treatment of Australian aboriginal people without didacticism and bitterness or moral propaganda. It makes compelling reading, as it is a moving depiction of cultural oppression and the resilience of the Nyoongar people from the time of first contact with the White colonial power.The Hindu
Scott’s extended Nyoongar family are best known by the family name Roberts, a name given to one of his ancestors by a policeman whose name was Roberts. A policeman figures strongly in Benang as well. Scott’s ancestor was given the name “Robert’s Boy, not a particularly pleasant way to gain an English name!!” In Benang, the family name of the white grandfather figure is Scat, Ernest Solomon Scat. His own Uncle Will Coleman becomes Will Coolman. In the acknowledgements, Scott is careful to say that ‘the names correspond somewhat, but I never knew him so I am sure the reality and the book diverge.‘
People would beam at the girl, the policeman’s girl. She showed them they were tolerant, that the ones they kept away from town were indeed wasters, deserving their poverty and exclusion. If they tried harder, they would be accepted.
Scott was the first Indigenous writer to win the Miles Franklin. He won it again in 2011 with That Deadman Dance. He took up a five year appointment as Professor of Writing in the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts of Curtin University in December, 2011.
I may be the successful end of a long line of failures. Or is it the other way around?
I give you all of this, because, everywhere I turn, I am reminded that Benang is described by Scott and by others, as being semi-autobiographical. I can often get caught up on this label as I’m reading, trying to work out which bits are real and which bits are fiction. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I engage with the novel at a deeper level as I research sections, looking for the ‘facts’. It’s also deeply confusing and frustrating as the facts and fiction blur. As intended, I’m sure.
Even the letters and archival sections from Mr Auber O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines (1915-36), though based on real letters, were often a fictional compilation designed to provide a sense or an example of the type actually written at the time.
Adding to my bemusement was the magic realism element, where our protagonist, Harley, had a tendency to float away when he wasn’t concentrating hard enough. I found it intriguing, and obviously part of the fiction. A fiction that allowed Scott to play with the idea of drifting, being anchored, grounded, connected, threads and ties, going with the flow, being tethered, floating along, overviews etc. I came across an interview with Romona Koval where Scott explained how he decided to use this device,
I wanted to take on Neville and defuse the potency of all the written stuff and that uplift and elevation, I thought, I’ll just do that. I’ll take it literally. That helped me get out of the straitjacket of staying within his terms. Then, as I kept writing, it seemed to make sense in all sorts of other ways as well.
Others before me, have gone into the story and provided summaries (see below). Many of the details are distressing. But it was the unrelenting double-speak, the relentless hypocrisies, the never-ending subterfuge that grind away at the reader. There is no getting away from the sense of superiority and entitlement that allowed white colonials to do what they did. From murder to slavery, from rape to turning a blind eye. Discrimination and prejudice existed at every level of society and were eventually written into the laws. Such systemic attitudes and policies are hard to shake.
Which is part of the reason why Scott wrote this book with a white audience in mind.
Many of the policies of the past, mean that many Aboriginal communities will not and have not, engaged with this book. Schooling and literacy and use of traditional languages have been denied them or only allowed in very limited ways. Scott was very conscious of this, as he was too of his own more fortunate story.
mindful of his white, middle-class readership, Kim has consciously avoided didacticism and shrillness, preferring to ‘educate’ and keep his readers ‘onside’ through strategies of implication, indirection and obliqueness. This is evident in the novel’s use of archival material; Neville’s letters, for example, are left to speak for themselves, their racism rendered even more shocking by the novel’s refusal to moralise or propagandise. Similarly, fictionalised scenes which depict the exploitation and brutalisation of the indigenous people are made emotionally compelling, partly through the deliberate use of understatement.
Kim insists, too, that the refusal to sensationalise is also a mark of respect for the suffering of Aboriginal people. The novel’s use of understatement is also an enactment of passive resistance: telling their stories of cultural oppression in a guarded or oblique fashion is a survival mechanism for Aboriginal people, a way of looking out for one another, of not giving too much away. Finally, understatement creates ‘gaps’ in the narrative — a sense of untold stories, unknown or silenced histories — which Kim sees as a way of making spaces for other Nyoongar stories. In this way, he hopes Benang will be part of an ongoing process of cultural regeneration for Aboriginal people, and a means of continuing to ‘educate’ white readers.Book Club Notes | Fremantle Press
Every day events and relationships in Benang are coloured by the constant bias and intolerance. There is no escape. There is no justice. There is no mercy. Abuses of power are insidious and insistent.
perhaps, perhaps it is not so much a question of the colour of the skin as the colour of the mind…
What Scott has done, is to remind us (again) that Aboriginal culture is not an homogenous whole. Diversity and individuality exist within Indigenous groups just as much as they do within white societies. His book does not attempt to speak for all Nyoongar people. He does not wish to be a spokesperson. Even within his own family, Scott’s life experience is very different to most of his extended family. He has given a lot of thought to how best tread this ground. How best to acknowledge his own story within the wider story of dispossession and assimilation. This is where the hope lies. Truth-telling creates a pathway to understanding and acceptance. Truth-telling opens up compassion. Truth-telling leads to pride and belonging.
There is always hope. Even if it is just a little bit. There is always tomorrow. There is always Benang for ‘Benang is tomorrow’.
Speaking from the heart, I tell you that I am part of a much older story, one of perpetual billowing from the sea, with its rhythm, return, and remain….We are still here, Benang.
Benang is not an easy read. It is confronting and challenging. But it is worth the effort involved.
My edition of Benang is one of the four titles selected by Fremantle Press for their Treasures series to celebrate 40 years of publishing.
- Tasmania Pacific Literary Award (Shortlisted 2001)
- Kate Challis Award (Winner 2001)
- Western Australian Premier’s Book Award (Winner 2000)
- Miles Franklin Literary Award (Winner 2000)
- Queensland Premier’s Literary Award (Shortlisted 2000)
- Dublin Impac Literary Award (Longlisted 2000)
Benang is Book 6 of 20 Books of
Today is the beginning of Indigenous Literature Week with Lisa @AnzLitLovers and NAIDOC week. This year’s theme is Heal Country.
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.
Book: Benang: From the Heart Author: Kim Scott ISBN: 9781925164442 Publisher: Fremantle Press Date: 2017 (originally published 1999) Format: Hardback (Treasures series)