Out of the Abyss?

March 5, 2001

Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999

Reviewed by Mike Heald

bookcover.phpKim Scott is a Western Australian writer who is descended from the Nyoongar people. Benang is his second novel, and jointly won the Miles Franklin Award for 2001. It is a novel which continues Scott’s interest in his own indigenous identity, and in indigenous issues generally. The book’s subtitle is From the Heart, and it is appropriate to give a response, also, from the heart. I found Benang a searing, overwhelming experience, which wrenched me to see Western Australia, the state in which I have lived most of my life, from a nightmarish ‘other side’. The Nyoongar view presented is not always one of suffering, of course. Some evocations of the natural world, and the culture so closely attuned to it, are exuberant, and picture scenes I have observed many times in a way which seems both startlingly new and indelible:

In the afternoon a flock of cockatoos flew over the compound, screeching. They flew low to show how their glossy black feathers, so neatly side-by-side, felt the wind. Seeing the white tail-feathers, Jack remembered the clay on the dancers’ bodies. The birds flew in, over, showing themselves off and Jack realised that this was a dance too, and how wonderful it was.

And one of the central images of landscape, or seascape, is deeply affirmative:

The sea, like the fire, formed and reformed and out by the island – even at night – there was that blossoming; white, gone, white, gone white gone. Like what? Like ectoplasm, like breathing.

For the most part, however, as I read the book on the train on my way to Melbourne, I could barely continue, knowing that the cruelties and humiliations related would saturate and oppress me for the rest of my working day.

Perhaps that is the wrong thing to say in trying to recommend a book. Yet I do most strenuously recommend it. I feel that the process of reading Benang is a part of that general, national process of facing up to our past in order to achieve reconciliation. It often seems bizarre to me that certain politicians can speak of race matters as if Australia occupied some kind of moral high ground. This book is a piercing reminder, if a reminder were needed, that in fact we are taking only the first steps, in this country, out of the racist abyss which is our recent past, and if the last federal election is anything to go by, they are faltering steps indeed.

Scott has incorporated many historical elements into the book. Sometimes, when a particular racist episode seemed almost beyond belief, I checked the ‘Acknowledgments’ section to discover that it was based on historical fact. A brief example is the behaviour of some white women on a pastoral station:

Through the doorway, Sandy saw what I only read about much later. He saw Mrs Mustle, with one of her sisters-in-law, beckon one of her old and crippled slaves to the door. She had the old man tilt his head back, and she tipped the tea dregs from her fine china pot down his throat. The women leaned together on the closed door, weak with laughter.

The story as a whole revolves around the main character and narrator, Harley. Harley is, according to his Grandfather Ernest Scat’s plan, ‘the first white man born’ in a family of mixed white and aboriginal lineage. Benang traces the story of this project of Ernest’s, and in so doing relates the effects of racism on those who were its victims. We witness both the large scale devastation, wrought chiefly through the offices of the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, and also the way that the intimate aspects of life which most of us can take for granted – being a child, having children, making love, working, eating, washing, going to school, having a home, being ill, playing – are grotesquesly, heart-rendingly interfered with, abused. It has been said that literature is capable of allowing us to take the ‘royal road’ into other people’s experience, and thereby of engendering that most vital of human capacities, sympathy. In reading Benang, we feel as if we ourselves have suffered the myriad cruelties and indignities of the characters, and I regard this as the book’s most significant achievement. Some examples are called for.

We witness children being abducted, as was the government practice:

…a young girl barely out of the mission being lifted from the wagon by a group of strange men? The mother did all she could: she threw a blanket over the other children so they would not see.We witness a Nyoongar man swindled out of his land, courtesy of the local shopkeeper and the Aboriginal Protection Act:The police came, and gave them fourteen days to move.Starr had sold the land to one of his sons.The local magistrate, when a reluctant but Harry-harassed Aborigines Department made its enquiries, agreed that it was not justice. The Starrs had got the land at well below market price by using family as dummy buyers. But it was legal. And he didn’t think Harry would cut much of a figure in court.

Scott uses juxtaposition to chilling effect, to reveal the gulf between black and white realities. Thus we see the process of removal to a mission:

It was a place to learn, to gather skills, to equip oneself for life.Hariette had no choice. She wanted to believe them.Sergeant Hall tried to reassure them. ‘I have a friend,’ he said, ‘who will care for you.’ He handed them over to another policeman, and gave them one last (unreturned) wave. At the siding there was a man to guard them. He made a little sign, and wired it to the carriage. Niggers for Mogumber.

And we see the conditions inside the mission, a contrast in perspectives all-too-relevant for our current ‘detention centre’ regime:

The children were distributed variously.Wire mesh on the windows. As soon as the sun falls you were locked into a dormitory. Insects in the mattresses stung your shivering body. You heard bare feet padding across the floor. Muffled cries. Whispers. Other bodies slipped into your bed, to investigate the newcomer.Small children shat on the sandy floor of one room, and like cats they covered their heap. If you were very lucky, a woman who worked in the kitchen said, ‘You call me Aunty. Aunty Dinah.’…

A visit to a native settlement is always a joy to me. Any place where they are caring for the original inhabitants of Australia should receive the sympathetic support of all who have made this country their home…Delightful people with black skins were running about, and great was the excitement at the arrival of a visitor…What a blessing for the natives that they have got a sympathetic superintendent and self-sacrificing staff.

The way that the narrative unfolds is rather complicated, involving many time shifts and changes of scene. I have come to feel, however, that this is a strength. I think that a novel has to be a creature adapted to memory, as well as to the present experience of reading. The complex narrative, in recollection, returns me to a difficult, precarious, maze-like journey of discovery. I feel that a smoother, clearer narrative trajectory would not serve this kind of experience as well. Likewise the rather magic-realist element in the book, whereby Harley is prone to float above the ground. On reflection, this device does seem to evoke well, to intensely render, the sickly drift of disorientation which Harley’s disputed identity causes in him.

I would also claim that Benang provides insight, as well as a harrowing empathy. Racism is far too deep-rooted and complex a problem, like all social atrocities, to simply be labelled ‘evil’ and dismissed. Scott does not avoid this complexity, or avoid the blurred boundaries and mixed motivations which are part of the situation. There are many aspects to Scott’s insight, but one of the most significant, it seems to me, is his identification of the delirium, the mania, and the subtle dynamics of hierarchy, the drive for status. Thus, he imagines the thoughts of some not-so-well-off, white country-town dwellers:

They spoke of breeding and uplifting. These two hairy angels wished to seize people in their long arms and haul them to their own level. Their minds held flickering images of canvas Ascensions, with pale fat cherubs spiralling upwards into the light. They saw steps leading up stone pyramids, and realised that some creatures were simply unable to continue higher, even though the steps were there for them. Their noble selves sat at the top and no, they did not see themselves as leering, as guffawing, as throwing scraps to those below…

Citizens had made sacrifices, had worked themselves to exhaustion. Now, facing failure, they saw some of us [Nyoongars] looking in from the edge of the town, at corners, crossing streets within the very town. They measured themselves against these original inhabitants, and consequently wanted them pushed further down. Controlled.

Benang, then, is a book which, by tracing Harley’s agonised disentangling of his identity, may be able to help us achieve a sense of our own identity in Australia. Writing this review has, again, made my heart ache, but my pain, and the suffering of Australia’s people remembered in this novel, is not the end of the story.

Image:National Library Archive

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