Monday, 6 August 2018

Taboo by Kim Scott

I'm not sure I will be able to adequately sum up my thoughts and impressions about Taboo by Kim Scott, but I'll give it a shot.


Scott has been shortlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award; he has already won it twice. In 2000 for Benang: From the Heart and again in 2011 for That Deadman Dance.

Benang is on my TBR pile, but I have yet to read either. My understanding is that they are both historical fiction in nature, with an Indigenous perspective of our shared history. Taboo is contemporary fiction, with not only an Indigenous perspective of our shared history but also with an eye towards our possible shared future. I found it to be an extraordinary feat of compassion, revelation and hope. 

After stumbling through the first 50 pages or so, lost and unsure how to proceed, I found a kind of rhythm and sense to the disjointed passages. The jumps and starts started to feel symbolic and purposeful. I then began to see the poetry in the chaos. 
Scott described this style in the Afterword as, 
a trippy, stumbling sort of genre-hop that I think features a trace of Fairy Tale, a touch of Gothic, a sufficiency of the ubiquitous Social Realism and perhaps a tease of Creation Story.

The story at the heart of Taboo is the memory of an 18th century massacre and the work that a small country town in W.A. does to heal this wound. From this brutal past, with all its miscommunication, misinterpretation & denial as well as the stark realities of modern life for many Aboriginal Australians, Scott encourages us to find connection and shared meaning.

And country.

Like, Scott, I believe that the hope for our future lies in our shared sense of country. It is thanks to our Aboriginal heritage that many Anglo-Australians have changed the way they/we/me use the word 'country' to describe our sense of belonging and attachment to this place we call home. It's an important shift in thinking and feeling that gives all of us a common sense of belonging, well-being and pride. 

The power of words and the importance of language is another central idea explored by Scott in Taboo,

Story like this really about coming together, healing and making ourselves strong with language.

He reminds us that many place names as well as the names for native plants and animals have been derived from their Aboriginal names. Aboriginal history is all around us; in country and in words.

We'll take the language back, the stories that belong here and tell us who to be, what we can do.

Mangart - Jam tree - Acacia acuminata

'Words hold everything together.'

One of the trees endemic to the Noongar region of W.A., that Scott's characters regularly referred to, was a jam tree. The stone curlew was important too. I didn't know either by sight, so I did a quick search to help me with imagining the environment accurately. 

Bush stone curlew

As you might expect from a story about a massacre, spirits, ghosts, presences and apparitions haunt as well as welcome our characters - the Aboriginal characters as well as the Anglo ones - to place and time. They are,

'something both new and old, something recreated and invigorated.


Scott doesn't shy away from the complexities inherent in modern Australian life. His characters were not stereotypes or caricatures. They were flawed, idealistic, weak, contrary human beings trying to be the best they could.
Or as Scott says in his Afterword, 'a little band of survivors following a retreating tide of history, and returning with language and story...provides the connection with a story of place deeper than colonisation, and for transformation and healing.'

Bill @The Australian Legend has written an informative post about the Cocanarup massacres that are central to this story.

If you'd like to learn more about Noongar language and culture visit their website here.
Scott has also been engaged in the Stories Project that produces illustrated picture books in Noongar language.

The Garma Festival is currently on in Gove, Northern Territory. An awareness and appreciation for our Indigenous past is slowing, oh so slowly, gaining momentum, although our politicians response to the Uluru Statement from last year is sadly lagging behind the thinking of many other Australians.

Book 14 of #20BooksofSummer (winter)
24℃ in Sydney
21℃ in Northern Ireland

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