All I can remember, and this is what I told the police over and over again, is that there was a party at the house and I’d been drinking.
It took me several weeks to read Benang in preparation for Indigenous Literature Week. It was intense, demanding and confronting. I’m very grateful to have finally read it. It is an important work, a book all Australians should read, but I needed something lighter to finish the week. After Story by Larissa Behrendt was the perfect choice.
On the surface, After Story appears to be an uncomplicated, yet delightful tale about a mother and daughter embarking on a literary tour of England. But there is so much more going on underneath.
Della and Jasmine come from a small Indigenous community in an unnamed rural town in Australia. They are mourning the death of Jasmine’s father, Jimmy, the love of Della’s life, although their marriage was fraught with issues and time apart. One of the issues was a lost/stolen child. When Jasmine (or Jazzie as her mum insists on calling her) was about three, her eldest sister, Brittany was taken from their bedroom.
This sad story is gradually revealed in alternating chapters between Della and Jasmine as they visit the homes of an impressive group of British literary greats. At the same, a news item, catches their eye. A young girl has gone missing in Hampstead Heath. As they watch scenes of the distraught parents on the TV, memories of their own experience resurfaces.
However, they are not really a family that talks about their feelings. The alternating chapter device, allows the reader to see how both Della and Jasmine react and cope with their memories. We also see the various niggles, annoying behaviours and old grievances that occur as they travel together, and how they are experienced and perceived by both.
Another strand to the story is story-telling. Aunty Elaine was the matriarch of the family. She was the custodian of traditional stories and cultural knowledge. As they travel and reflect on the stories of Conan Doyle, Dickens, Woolf, Austen, Hardy, the Brontes and Carroll, Della and Jasmine remember her stories and her wisdom.
Berendt has crafted a subtle story that references the aftereffects of having a stolen child. The intergenerational effects of domestic violence, trauma, and alcohol abuse are gently touched upon. She also compares the nature of white colonial stories and traditional storytelling.
A quick check of Berendt’s wikipedia bio made me wonder what on earth I’d done with my life! She is my contemporary, but she has a slew of degrees, doctorates and graduate diplomas. She has worked in family law and First Nations organisations, she has sat on boards, written screenplays and books, and presented radio programs. In 2009 she was NAIDOC Person of the Year award and 2011 NSW Australian of the Year.. And her middle name is Yasmin.
Larissa is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman.
But what after all is one night? A short space of time, especially when darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings…Virginia Woolf
Favourite Character: Aunty Elaine.
Although we never actually meet her in the book, we hear about her, one way or another. Every family needs an Aunty Elaine. Someone who is wise, caring, loving. Someone who brings everyone together.
Favourite Passage: Aunty Elaine tells a teenage Jasmine about the Kamilaroi word meaning ‘to hear, to listen, to know, to remember’ – winanga-li – except she describes it as being ‘ready to listen‘. Later on, Berendt takes this further by saying,
It was the idea of listening with respect – hear, think, don’t hurry, listen to the story – and consider what’s in the spaces. Don’t interrupt with questions. Wait to hear what the speaker wants to tell you. You can’t guide what you want to know. You prepare the space and listen, to take in the wisdom you are about to receive and contemplate it, understanding that you might not fully comprehend what you are being told straight away. You need to think, to grow into the knowledge.
Favourite or Forget?
There’s a lot to love about After Story. From the gorgeous cover design by Christa Moffitt to the fabulous reading list at the back. But it’s Della and Jasmine who are the heart of this story. I just hope they do what they say they are going to do when they get back home!
After Story is Book 7 of 20 Books of
Book: After Story | Larissa Behrendt ISBN: 9780702263316 Publisher: UQP Publication Date: 2nd July 2021 Format: Trade Paperback
- 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.