My book club decided to try to read more broadly this year – to include books from more places and cultures into our monthly mix. One of our members is from Australia, and we asked her to choose something that would help us better understand her country. I imagined something about sunshine, surfing, crocodiles….
But Haha! That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott is a novel about the colonization of western Australia during the 1800s. And like most accounts of cultural imperialism, this isn’t a novel about good times at the beach.
Kim Scott comes to this project as a bicultural author. His mother is white, and his father is Aboriginal. And perhaps due to that heritage, he sets about writing a complicated fictionalized history of cross-cultural contact. There are a host of characters that include British settlers, merchants, opportunists, and prisoners, American whalers, and Aboriginal men, women, and children. At the center is Bobby Wabalanginy, a Noongar boy whose name means “all of us playing together.” Bobby has many roles in the book – he is an integral member of his tribal family; he is a guide for the colonists; he is at times an opportunist himself. As the reader watches Bobby grow, s/he also watches the interactions between the colonists and the native peoples become less about accommodation and more about domination.
I can see why this is an important book. It doesn’t portray the Noongar people as simple victims, nor does it gloss over the violence and the exploitation by white people. The diversity of characters with different motivations gives the reader a sense that colonialism in Australia didn’t involve a single story or narrative.
Still, this isn’t a book that I particularly enjoyed reading. I felt at a distance from all of the characters, perhaps because of the sheer number of them. I couldn’t quite “see” the setting as I read, when I had hoped to be clearly transported to a different time and place. The author claims that he “wants his writing to be valued for the discussion it stimulates in the wider community, rather than for the writing itself.” In that sense, this book is clearly an achievement. But for me, getting through this novel involved work and commitment, and perhaps the accountability a book club provides.
I took to the interwebs to see if there are some good lists out there for readers who want to explore postcolonial literature, and I was directed to just about every university in the world. This list from UCLA seems like a good place to start. You can also find an interesting review of That Deadman Dance here, and you can find a compelling interview with the author here.