Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
Melissa Lucashenko’s award-winning new book Too Much Lip pulls no punches.
Described as a dark comedy, it is a novel that will challenge readers and brings to life the struggles of Aboriginal people in small, often-forgotten rural towns.
The novel follows the central character Kerry Salter, who rides a stolen motorcycle back to her rural home town of Durrongo to see her grandfather before he dies, where a series of family secrets unravel.
“Kerry dropped into second as she cruised past the corner store, clocking the whitenormalsavages, a dozen blue eyeballs popping fair outta their moogle heads at the sight of her. Skinniest dark girl on a shiny new Softail, heart attack city, truesgod. So yeah, let’s go for it, eh, you mob. Let’s all have a real good dorrie at the blackfella du jour. Kerry resisted the urge to elevate both middle fingers as she rode past the astounded locals, past the produce store. Past Frankie’s Mechanical. Past the vacant lot with its waist-high weeds hiding a generation’s worth of fag ends, torn condom wrappers and empty bottles. Past the landmark pub which hadn’t changed in a century and wasn’t about to start now thanks very much all the same. And when Kerry had made it to the end of Main Street, that was about it for Durrongo (‘Place of Centrelink fraud’, according to Ken), population 320.”
A local government threat to build a prison on a sacred site hangs over the Salter family, as does the threat of prison more generally, with Kerry remaining on the run due to warrants throughout the book.
As a founder of Sisters Inside, a Queensland-based community organisation that advocates for the rights of criminalised women, Kerry’s character stems very much from real life experience.
“I’ve been mates with women who cycle in and out of prison for a very long time … I wanted to write an antidote to this passive depression that’s very easy to slip into when you’re facing racism and poverty day after day. [Kerry’s character] is not based on any one person - there’s probably half-a -dozen women, both black and white, who fed into her character.”
In fact, although a fictional novel, Too Much Lip addresses many very real issues that face Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities on a daily basis - family violence, intergenerational trauma, colonial dispossession, child removal, land rights and police harassment.
Much of the novel, Melissa acknowledges, is based on her own families experiences.
“I was 40 000 words into it when I discovered that I was writing a lot closer to my immediate family history than I knew. I was conscious of drawing on my extended family from the get-go.
“It’s sort of uncanny the way you can be writing fiction, you think you’re writing fiction, but it turns out you are writing actual events that have affected you.
“Your spirit knows the story but your unconscious mind doesn’t.”
“Ken and Savannah stood shoulder to shoulder blocking the front stairs of the council building. Like the rest of the protestors, Ken was holding a placard that read NO NEW JAIL: JUSTICE REINVENSTMENT NOW! Unlike the others, he had zero commitment to the principles of non-violent resistance informing the rally; he was considering instead what it would mean to knock Jim Buckley’s teeth down his snivelling gammon white throat.”
Despite the very serious nature of the book, Melissa ensures humour is injected along the way.
“I always wanted to write a family saga about intergenerational trauma [but] I knew it had to be funny if it was going to work, because I’m trying to write out trauma, not add to the trauma.
“So I set myself the goal to write a really funny book which took trauma seriously.”
“Black Superman stood alone beside the river. The day was glorious, but fatigue built an invisible wall between him and his surrounds. He vaguely registered the leaves of the eucalypts and the pine gleaming in the morning sunshine; he saw the river, sparkling like an avalanche of crushed diamonds as it swept down in its hurry to meet the sea. He saw these things, but had no capacity, today, to enjoy any of their beauty. He was almost spent. With his last fragments of strength Black Superman straightened, and he began to chant in the old tongue:
Grandmother, Grandfather, come to us, your blood,
Grandmother, Grandfather, show us the straight path through.”
A Goorie writer of Bundjalung and European heritage, Melissa says that her latest book is “very much part of the new wave of blackfellas writing and getting published…. There’s a big recognition that’s long overdue at the moment.”
As the winner of the Queensland Premier’s Award to accompany her Miles Franklin award in June, Too Much Lip ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature is now front and centre of mainstream public readership.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers will identify with the people and themes in the book - and even the humour, with Melissa relating the story of an Elder from the Gold Coast who told the author ‘she never laughed so hard in her life.’
Yet for non-Indigenous readers, Melissa says Too Much Lip presents an “Aboriginal universe that you don’t have a clue about.”
“I’m forever being told by whitefellas that my work is confronting, whether I set out to be confronting or not. So with this book, I just thought bugger it, I’ll just throw caution to the wind and not care, and go hard with this book.”
Melissa even clarifies for non-Indigenous readers, in the afterward, that “virtually every incident of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once.”
Along with the literary awards, however, Melissa says the response from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities “has been awesome. I expected to get blow back, but I’ve had this outpouring of love and support from mob all over the place.”
And with the recent publication of a wealth of Indigenous writing - including Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Tony Birch’s The White Girl and The Yield by Tara June Winch, plus autobiographies by Stolen Generations survivors Jack Charles and Archie Roach, it seems that Australia is perhaps now ready to listen to Indigenous stories.
“There’s this new wave of Aboriginal writing and there’s a lot of opportunities now for people that are writing quality Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander work to get published, because the industry has finally woken up after decades of agitation.”
Along with writing her own books, Melissa also mentors young Indigenous writers. Yet despite her recent success, she has some wise advice for young writers:
“Be brave and don’t be in too much of a hurry. Have a second job because I was a writer for 25 years before I made a couple of bob.”
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko is now available through the University of Queensland Press.
'The White Girl' by Tony Birch
For a book written by and about Aboriginal people, a title such as The White Girl might come as a surprise.
Yet anyone familiar with the various Aboriginal Acts of Australia, the colonial categorisation of Indigenous people along colour lines according to ‘blood quantum’, the title will come as no surprise.
And for a grandmother trying to protect her granddaughter from removal by the welfare authorities, the issue of identity is at the core of this compelling novel.
The White Girl tells of the struggles experienced by Aboriginal women in the 1950’s and 60’s; their constant fight against the racism and fear of child removal policies that wreaked havoc in families and communities.
For author, academic and activist Tony Birch (62), the title sums up two key themes he approaches in his latest novel, which he says is his best work to date.
“I did a lot of academic work on the way that Aboriginal women had led the struggle from their kitchen tables, from reserves and missions, from suburban backyards,” says Tony.
“It was a story that hasn’t been told a lot. I wanted to write a novel which put an Aboriginal woman at the centre of the book as a courageous, heroic figure.”
“The window looking out to the veranda had misted over. Sissy pulled the sleeve of her pyjama-top over her fist and rubbed it in a circular motion to create a port-hole into the front yard. She put her face to the cold sheet of glass, peered through the hole but quickly drew away. A man in dark clothing was standing in the street, watching the house. Sissy crossed to the other side of the room, stood by the stove and waited for the kettle to boil. She made herself a tea, cupped her hands around the mug and went back to the window. When she looked through the port-hole again she was relieved to see that the mysterious figure had vanished.”
Set in the fictitious small town of Deane, of which descriptions evoke any number of small towns, the ageing Odette Brown cares for her granddaughter Sissy, whose mother Lila fled to the city, traumatised after being raped by a local farmer and conceiving a child.
Sissy becomes the ‘white girl’ in question, the target of a local policeman’s attempt to remove her from her grandmother, who is forced to protect her by any means necessary.
“’What does he mean by that, Nan? Uplift? What does that mean?’ Sissy demanded.
‘It means nothing,’ Odette said. ‘Don’t be worrying yourself over this. It’s just police talking the way police have always talked.’
Sissy looked at the movie poster of the two girls comparing their skin colour. ‘I bet it does mean something, what he just said to you.’”
Birch says that novel is also about “the hypocrisy of colour”, which he describes as “the way Aboriginal people have been categorised according to colour and culture, and how anyone from local police to governments - and sometimes other Aboriginal people - have used that to disenfranchise Aboriginal people.”
Having grown up during the time period the novel is set in, Birch can relate to such themes from his own experiences.
“I grew up in Fitzroy in the 50’s and 60’s and there was a relatively strong Aboriginal population there, so over that whole period there would be many instances of Aboriginal kids getting taken from family and put in institutions.”
The decision to write a story about Aboriginal women drew on “the courage of women like my great-grandmother and my grandmother who were very strong Aboriginal women.”
Yet he admits that writing such a story came with certain responsibilities.
“I didn’t take that task [of writing about Aboriginal women] lightly, and I was very conscious of a need to be respectful, to represent in a way that would be valued by other Aboriginal people.”
The White Girl tackles some dark and traumatic subject material, but as Tony explains, these are themes that the country needs to acknowledge.
“The schoolgirls Odette had followed earlier were also sitting on the steps. They wore pleated woollen skirts, monogrammed blazers, long white socks and polished shoes. Each girl wore her hair long and plaited, or tied in a ponytail with a red ribbon. Odette tried to imagine Sissy sitting among them. Would she fit in with these girls? What would she have to say for herself? Sissy could do it, Odette thought, hold her own. But the thought vanished just as quickly as it had come. Sissy wasn’t one of them and never would be. Odette could pass her granddaughter off as white, out of necessity, but the child could never be one of them.”
He also says that such stories of child removal, run-ins with the police and racist harassment, while familiar to many Aboriginal families, are still largely hidden from mainstream Australia.
While under the threat of the removal of Sissy, Odette moves to the city, where she finds she can escape the pursuant policeman by applying for an exemption certificate, which would nullify the policeman’s power to remove Sissy.
Exemption certificates were a tool by which the government could further control Aboriginal people during this time; in exchange for a limited set of liberties, Aboriginal people would have to agree to a set of conditions aimed at destroying their culture, such as not associating with their Aboriginal family members and not speaking their language.
In The White Girl, the character Jack Haines has been granted an exemption certificate, yet despite his newly-found ‘white status’ is still subjected to harassment by a local policeman.
As such, Birch says the book is “about a girl who is constantly under threat because of her fair skin, and it’s about people like her grandmother Odette fighting to help her. It’s also about people like Jack Haines who has an exemption certificate and can spout that he’s as good as a white man and still be humiliated by a policeman in the same conversation.”
“It’s about Aboriginal people being under constant surveillance because of the way identity is used as a political football.”
Birch also says that the book has opened up many conversations both within Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.
“Aboriginal people will both support you and challenge you about your work and that helps you to be responsible. I’ve had discussions already with Aboriginal women who have enjoyed the book but wanted to have quite serious discussions about the book and talk about their own experiences.”
“What I love most about the book is when an Aboriginal person, the book motivates them to tell their story of loss. And it’s not to correct your story, but it’s to add to it. I hope it is a book that has a long life in that sense.”
“It’s probably the book - of anything I’ve written - I think ‘this is the book I want to represent an Aboriginal story’ much more central than anything else I’ve written.”
That The White Girl is already being taught as part of curriculum in schools and universities demonstrates how necessary books that examine the traumatic, ongoing impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal communities are.
It also shows that perhaps there is a desire for many Australians to finally engage with such a troubled history.
Yet despite tackling such difficult themes, Birch says that ultimately, the story is one that celebrates the survival of Aboriginal people, despite all the odds.
“Even though some terrible things happen in the novel, it is generally - I think - an uplifting story about how Aboriginal people hang on … despite all attempts to destroy family and destroy community.”
The White Girl by Tony Birch is now available in stores and online, and as an audiobook.
'The Old Lie' by Claire G. Coleman
Award-winning Noongar author Claire G. Coleman says she was “thoroughly surprised” by the success of her debut novel Terra Nullius.
And with her latest book The Old Lie receiving positive reviews, it would seem that Australian readers are ready for Indigenous science fiction.
While Terra Nullius flipped the script on colonisation, imagining a future where settlers and ‘natives’ trade places, her new book explores the treatment of Aboriginal servicemen through intergalactic battles.
“There was a hiss, William had heard it before, heat flooded into his arm, leaving behind a leaden cold that paralysed him. He felt it flood across his body. It hit his head and he slipped into blackness.
He could feel the two forces, the killer disease and the cure for it, fighting a battle over his body. It was like having armies march through his system, his veins were their highways, his organs their battlefields; they fought and re-fought, their battle lines moved back and forth, neither seemed capable of winning. He had never been in battle but he had read history, he knew that the trampling of feet, the explosions, the fires had left many green lands ragged and dying.
He was the Somme, he was the fields of France, he was Nagasaki, he was the Dardanelles. He was Emu Field, he was Maralinga.”
So how did Claire arrive at a literary style that fuses the grim reality of Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people with a genre normally reserved for Star Trek and Bladerunner?
“I’ve always liked literary or intellectual science fiction so when I was trying to think of a way to write Terra Nullius I was trying to think of a way to unpack colonisation that would have an effect on peoples’ minds and change how people think.”
Having written poetry since childhood, Claire also says that “I was always a compulsive reader. As soon as I learnt to read I was reading. When I was younger - a little kid - I wanted to be a writer. But it was one of those things when you’re told by people ‘writing’s hard, no one ever makes a living from it, it’s not a job’ and it discouraged me from ever learning writing practice.”
“The sky was dull, dark, granite-grey overhead, the kind of grey that sucks all joy from a face as it steals the very breath from terrified lungs. It had stayed that way for days, maybe even weeks, for so long the beginning of the gloom was immemorial. At least the hammering of the rain, its rippling spatter so like the marching of tiny boots, had finally stopped, though there was nothing to say it would not return.”
While the narratives may take place in future imagined realms, the stories are set in her own family’s experience.
The Old Lie is based on her grandfather’s mistreatment as a returned Aboriginal serviceman after World War Two. While traveling around Australia, she discovered that he lay in an unmarked grave.
“Pretty much every soldier who returned from World War Two was given a soldier’s gravestone when they died and were probably looked after quite well by the RSL - unless they were Aboriginal.”
Further research revealed that Aboriginal servicemen after both World Wars were treated badly, unable to enter the Returned Serviceman’s League (RSL) and refused solder settlement payments and other benefits non-Aboriginal soldiers received.
Claire says that after doing this research, “I got pissed off. And that became the kernel of The Old Lie.
“To me what’s important is the information, or education - telling people that these things happened. Hopefully people will read The Old Lie and will want to know more about these returned servicemen and how they were treated after World War Two.
“Frankly, I don’t think anyone - except for the most extreme ignorant racist - would think that the way returned Aboriginal servicemen were treated after World War Two was acceptable.”
“The low scrub, it didn’t even reach her knees, the red sand, that was home. She could feel it, hear the voices of her ancestors. Maybe it was Walker’s lessons, he had taught her without even knowing it, maybe it was her proximity to death, but she felt more in contact with her people, with her Country, than she had ever felt in her life.
Kelly stood next to a sign, what could be read among the flaking paint and flecks of rust said ‘Kuka Palya, Ngura Wiya’ in her great-grandmother’s tongue. ‘You can hunt here but don’t camp here’ was the nearest translation she could think of. Maralinga
Claire says she was “terrified” writing The Old Lie, and daunted by the prospect of writing a follow up to her successful debut.
“Terra Nullius was such an unexpected success for me that I could not imagine writing a follow up that could be that successful. I was not confident that Terra Nullius was anything but a fluke.
“When I finished The Old Lie and was happy with it I was quite surprised but I still didn’t know how anyone else was going to take it. There was no guarantee that it would get published and I was pleasantly surprised when it did get published. And I was pleasantly surprised that the reviews have been all positive.”
With the recent success of other Indigenous authors such as Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, Claire says that Australia might now be ready to hear the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, and be open to other styles of writing - such as Indigenous sci-fi.
She says that she often receives emails from readers who thank her for shedding light on hidden histories, “but there’s still a lot of racism out there, such as the occasional racist comments I get online.”
Despite her success, Claire is quick to credit Indigenous writers of decades past, saying she is “thoroughly grateful for those [Indigenous writers] who came before me… who paved the road I’m now on.
“I might have helped widen that road a bit but I certainly didn’t make the path towards people reading Indigenous books, that was other people. I’m kind of riding a wave that others started. So I’m incredibly lucky in that regard.”
Claire says that her overall motivation for writing is for “racism to end and for truth to win.”
“People in Australia are simultaneously capable of holding in their heads the knowledge that Aboriginal people have been here for tens of thousands of years and their belief that white Australians got here first.
“I want the truth of Australia to be widely known.”
And with a third novel already in the works, it seems she is working hard towards her goal.
“I probably should take a break - but I probably won’t,” she laughs.
Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. Follow @alimcphotos