Inside Story

Along the pot-holed track

Extract | Visiting Alice Springs opens up other journeys captured on film and in prose and poetry

Sylvia Lawson 16 February 2012 3514 words

Tom E. Lewis (above) in Ivan Sen’s documentary, Yellow Fella.

Going to Alice Springs, I always try for a window seat. An hour northwest of Sydney, the checkerboard of paddocks – dark and lighter greens, tan, chocolate – begins yielding to great areas of changing reds and browns, no more fences. There are dark twisting veins, rivers with no gleam of water, straight threads of road crossing orange-coloured earth, then the sand-drifts curving away in long, parallel ridges.

When the trolley comes past, the woman next to me passes a water bottle and asks if I’m going to Alice for a holiday. “Just visiting,” I say, and then she asks “You like Alice?”

Without thinking I say, “Yes, I think it’s a pretty interesting place; how about you?”

“I work there but nah, I don’t like it. Might be interesting but it’s a terrible angry town if you ask me. Too many murders.”

She’s right; it’s one a month, perhaps more. A beautiful town, a sad and angry town, with history visible, palpable on its streets. I remember night-time scenes in Todd Mall, people weaving about, a desperate woman pulling strings of wooden beads from round her own neck, calling out hopelessly, trying to sell them to anyone who passed. I think of an unkempt artist drifting into the immaculate spaces of the gallery where his paintings are sold, calling loudly for another bunch of dollars – which maybe they owe him, maybe not. I remember a gallery-owner going out of her way to assure me that in fact Aboriginal artists do better on percentages than white ones; “but you know,” she said, “they can’t manage their money.” In cream silk and pearls, she was like a city boutique manager, and there was clearly no point in trying to defend a culture of kinship and sharing. The splendid abstract I was looking at – too expensive for me, but probably undervalued on the world market – might buy the next short-lived, second-hand Toyota for the artist’s home community.

My neighbour reflects, and asks “So why’d you reckon it’s interesting?”

I don’t actually want to talk; I’ve got some work reading I need to do. A bit recklessly, I say I think it’s not bad to have one tourist place in Australia where visitors see a lot of black faces as well as white ones on the street.

“Yeah,” she says equably enough, “but like, you couldn’t say the Aborigines and the white people really know each other.” She doesn’t think they do, not really. It’s a case of parallel universes, she reckons, and I can’t do much but concur, low-key, and open my briefcase.

What she’s just said, wryly enough, is fully in line with my reading matter. My friend Dennis McDermott, an Aboriginal poet and psychologist, has handed over some of his unpublished essays, and the one I pick up first is about exactly that, the chasm of non-communication between black and white. He uses the confronting title “Abo-Proof Fence,” and discusses “the barbed wire that ran through Australian society for much of the last two hundred years”: a fence built of ignorance and amnesia.

It’s September 2005, nearly forty years on from the landmark moments: the 1967 referendum which changed the Constitution in favour of Aborigines; then the legendary Stanner lectures of 1968, exposing and shattering what William Stanner called “the Great Australian Silence.” McDermott acknowledges that much in race relations has changed through those decades, but argues that the heavy penalties of dispossession “still take up little space in Australia’s collective memory.”

He wants a history, taught and circulated into general acceptance, which charts those penalties. He wants classroom-level knowledges to encompass the banal, everyday discriminations –

the rental property that vanished when they saw your face, the exclusion from school when a critical mass of parents objected, the forced removals of whole communities as late as the mining-mad sixties… the plethora of pass-laws, dog-tags and permits to travel, to marry across colour-lines, to scratch yourself…

Dennis wasn’t writing about Alice Springs, but “the plethora of pass-laws, dog-tags and permits” was probably more punitive there than anywhere. The odd thing is that when you’re in Alice, listening to older An-aŋu people – elders guiding tours, telling stories to schoolkids – you won’t hear much, from people quite old enough to remember, about the weighty paraphernalia of prohibitions which ruled their lives into the 1960s and ’70s, times when designated “half-castes” could enter the town, while “full-bloods” – often called “wards” because of their alleged ignorance and incompetence – could not. But they still understand Alice Springs, Mparntwe, as a spread of sacred places, and you might hear how some of those have been honoured, some transgressed, like that place where Barrett Drive, on the eastern side, cut through the ridge which formed the caterpillar’s tail. The new road should have gone around it.

That story is still a painful one. Your guides will also know which camping places are covered now by supermarkets and parking lots, what kind of farm there was where you now see the Oasis motel. They’ll often speak without obvious nostalgia or lament, as though equably claiming their share in the town as it is. They’re likely to remember their own, their parents’ and grandparents’ parts in making it: digging and building, making bricks, cleaning and cooking and washing.

Dennis writes about Aboriginal distress and misery, both personal and collective, and about why poetry matters in special ways. Writing it, he says, has much to do with “the leaving of trauma’, but he doesn’t believe that writing can supply any shortcut to healing. He insists that there’s no way around the work of it, the imperatives of learning, reading and literary craft. For him this is finally personal and intimate; as an Aboriginal man with Irish grandparents, he must find a speaking position, and a literary voice, in which that hybrid identity can be claimed and made to work.

This is complicated, and disquieting: if the facts of hybrid origins enter into questions about his speaking and writing voice, then how about mine, ours, white Australia’s at large? If his identity is unfixed, mobile, what then of his readers’ – faced with radical difference, called to attention by history? I look down again at the land. There are the salt lakes, miles of them stark white in the distance; so we’re over the Simpson Desert, or is it the Strzelecki?

I suddenly remember the practicalities of Alice, like drinking enough water, even in winter, and wonder if I’ve packed enough skin lotion – washing in bore water can set off intolerable itchiness. Looking down now, it’s red desert, merging far off to gold, gold cooling into blue: like one of those Rothko paintings where the eye moves upward from gory, purplish depths into light.

The next essay is about Aboriginal men and what Dennis calls spiritual sickness, but I can’t take any more on board for the moment; I fold the papers away and shut the briefcase. In aeroplane reading, you often glide too easily over words which ought really to bring you to a stop.

“Yellow Fella”

I call in at CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. Once a modest radio operation, this is now a multimedia production house, with a base on Todd Street along from the gallery strip. There I find the DVD I want, a documentary called Yellow Fella, seen first at the film festival in June. The reason I want it now is that I think this film, and Dennis’s writings, are working along converging tracks. You could say I need them to think with.

The director, Ivan Sen, films a journey with the actor Tom Lewis, beginning with memories of his role in the 1978 feature The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. He says he felt that role was close to his own life, a young, restless man of mixed descent struggling to find a path between two clashing cultures. The documentary finds him thirty years on, seeking out and affirming the difficult double inheritance: “I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m yellow fella and it’s going to stay that way.”

His search is for the grave of his white father, the Welsh stockman Hurtle Lewis, with whom, in his teens, he spent a few brief periods of time. He is filmed at the wheel, talking energetically as he drives across Arnhem Land. Along the way we also get to know his Aboriginal mother, Angelina George, who sits in the back, dignified and laconic. Once, on the property where she went to work as a servant in her teens, the white man pursued her, with strong encouragement from her own relatives. She “got used to it,” she says, but when her child was born, she took him back to her own home country at Roper River. Hurtle Lewis followed her to offer marriage, but she refused him, and kept to her own path.

Tom was brought up by her and his Aboriginal stepfather, whom he remembers with love; but he also shows how much it has mattered that his natural father cared enough to make that journey. Now they’re driving 600 kilometres to the Tennant Creek cemetery, where Tom thinks he might find the grave. From the passenger seat, the camera keeps a close grip on his changing emotions. He talks fiercely about what it means to be both black and white in present-day Australia; he says it’s like being in a pinball machine, tossed violently to and fro. He remembers, vividly, the short times with his natural father. He identifies a bush hill on the changing horizon as a sacred site, and turns to the camera to attack white society furiously for destroying the land, for sacrilege.

You could get embarrassed; as he drives and is driven to make sense of his story – at close quarters, moving in and out of anger, sometimes weeping – it’s hard to sort out responses. There’s room to be on his side, but what can we do with our own? Later, as the film ends, and Tom has failed to find the grave, he keeps on arguing with fate: “I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m yellow fella.” For his two fathers: “I love them both. God bless them both.”

He says he’s finding an inner balance, but after the passages of agitation, anger and weeping, we wonder whether he’s not working too hard on it, trying to wrestle his way into feeling what he thinks he ought to feel. Old stories are evoked: memories of the mid-century painter Albert Namatjira, the first Aborigine whose name many of us, who were children then, ever heard pronounced. His story and others have been transmitted as tragedies of irreconcilable conflict when the Aboriginal figure, virtually doomed by his talent, is caught between two worlds. In 1959, Namatjira – sick at the time, not far from his death at fifty-seven – was in trouble for supplying alcohol to relatives; he was judged to be assimilated, and thus permitted to drink, but his kinsmen were not. The painful contradictions in the assimilation policy were efficiently exposed. Some have claimed that the case helped to finish it, but in fact the nation’s governments went on trying for another decade to turn Aboriginality into a darker shade of white.

The truth in the conflict stories is undeniable; Tom himself, with the pinball-machine metaphor, asserts their continuing painfulness. But for the purposes of romantic racism, versions of predestined doom have been only too convenient. Now, when Indigenous speakers, writers and artists of mixed descent address the majority in Australia, their Aboriginality is usually paramount. Audiences know what political correctness requires; Aboriginality must be affirmed and applauded. So when it gets to question time, after a reading or conference paper, nobody asks: what are you doing with your white inheritance? Sometimes the guest is almost hostile in positioning the audience as Other, shackled in white privilege. But sometimes too, on a public platform, a writer or artist may find herself placed as more definitely Indigenous than she wanted; she might well have concerns other than Aboriginal identity.

In Yellow Fella, with a remarkable performance as himself, Tom Lewis makes a break in those disabling circuits. His search for the grave plays out a wider history in which white and Aboriginal lives have always been intimately entangled. In blood and intimacy, as well as in all the bigger histories, they’ve been sharing the country for centuries. There aren’t too many fourth- and fifth-generation white Australians who can be sure they have no Aboriginal blood. Tom’s search is left unresolved, and the film leaves us with his emotional wrestling. It asks us to see the past working dynamically in the present, a past that’s not to be taken as wrapped up, tied off and done with.

Government sees things differently. It thinks in boxes and immoveable boundaries and, refusing to learn from history, is condemned to repeat it. The minister whose numerous portfolios include Aboriginal Affairs will decide, without consultation with those most concerned, which organisation continues to draw public sustenance and which one won’t, and he will trumpet his decisions on what’s good for Indigenous Australians and what isn’t, much like a primary school principal speaking in the supposed interests of the children. We’re back to a pre-1960s politics, where Indigenous Australians are defined all over again as marginal; it’s the Victorian recipe, charity laced with moralism. History has been censored out, along with present-day social realities, of the places where history is lived.

So it was consistent that when the government trumpeted major policy statements to mark its tenth anniversary in office, there was nothing on Aboriginal policy, and no admission that it merits a central place. As government spokespersons are quick to remind us, it was the much-respected Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson of Cape York who most definitively insisted, years ago now, on the wrongs of passive welfare, and on Aboriginal responsibility and moral capacity. Now, when all that has been turned round to justify a revival of old, discredited paternalisms, he and other leaders refuse to speak against them.

Elsewhere, in the unofficial politics of dissident public gatherings everywhere, Indigenous representation is beyond politically correct. It’s mandatory, and the government’s politics of denial work as provocation. Major educational institutions engage seriously in Aboriginal studies – not only anthropologists and historians, but also economists, health workers, students of culture and literature and cinema. They find the boundary areas irresistible. We begin to see the force of a call Umberto Eco made many years ago, for a “reverse anthropology,” for dialectic, for the necessity that observer and observed should change places, and that “we” – the white majority – begin to see ourselves as we are seen: beneficiaries of invasion and dispossession.

Thus, as Dennis McDermott has charitably written, white Australia is “in recovery from a long habit of removing blackfellas from the scene.” He sees that such recovery is a difficult business “for the nation, as much as for those dispossessed, taken, sidelined, whitewashed or airbrushed out.” And elsewhere, memorably: “This country has a long, pot-holed track, where a road should be, between where we are now and reconciliation with our own history, let alone any real Indigenous and gubba [white person] embrace.”

After the screening of Yellow Fella at the film festival, there was a low-key Q and A, with Tom Lewis on stage. He moved off from this particular film to plead to the whole audience, probably a thousand or so at the time, to keep struggling for the precarious life of Australian filmmaking. He confirmed the film’s inclusiveness when he said, please don’t let the industry go: “This is our campfire,” he said.

He got a huge wave of applause. It was a utopian moment; black and white were encircled together, and in a flash there was no problem. Round campfires, people are literally on a level.

Along the pot-holed track

But the space must be cleared to build fires, and there Dennis comes in, insisting on Australia’s fundamentally bicultural nature. Like Sally Morgan and other Indigenous writers, he came late to the knowledge of his Aboriginality. His poem “Page Three Story” recalls an ironic tale from the mid-1950s. When his darker-skinned older sister won the City of Sydney Eisteddfod for her singing, the Daily Mirror ran the headline “First Aborigine Wins Eisteddfod.” But then

The only person apparently not pleased
Was my mother. Didn’t they know
The Trinidad connection? Our honourable line
Of West Indian descent? The life-line that
Bound us mix-ups to our parents. My mother called it
Slur, called for an apology, asked for
And got a printed retraction. Page three.
That put them in their place.

McDermott doesn’t blame his mother, Dorothy, for thus energetically repudiating her real ethnicity and fabricating a different one; her extreme anxieties were part of the whole picture, and thus his book of well-honed poems is called Dorothy’s Skin. There was a lot at stake: not just that Aboriginality was downgraded and disreputable, but that the kids could have been taken away from her. The siblings were obliged to believe the Caribbean tale until their twenties; then they worked things out for themselves and took their Aboriginality on board. McDermott now says “As someone with both Irish grandparents and Aboriginal grandparents, in trying to write unselfconsciously, though not uncritically, about my Aboriginality, questions as to what constitutes authenticity of voice are more than academic to me… Defensive identities set hard, deny the reality of ongoing cultural evolution.”

There he strikes at the centre of present-day Hansonism: “The acute awareness of loss, the simmering anger and the sense of diminution… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suffering may be of a different order: longer, harder, sharper… but we all lose, under present arrangements.” Knowingly or not, McDermott is repeating Gough Whitlam’s call in 1973: that without coming to terms with Aboriginality and the facts of dispossession, “all Australians are diminished.” But he goes further; he wants Australian writing, from both black and white, to “get to grips with this bloody barrier – that not only cuts us off from each other, but from the so-slowly won wisdom crucial to living here… this unique here”:

Australia needs the Indigenous knowledge, and the frameworks for acquiring and living out that knowledge, that it has always pushed away. If… Australia’s environmental and economic survival, and the persistence of our humanity, depend on some contemporary manifestation of traditional, respectful relations with “land” in all its totality: of being “owned by” the land, rather than owning it – then that becomes a major challenge for Australian writing generally.

Shifting metaphors, he finds that the denials and attendant misunderstandings are huge spaces, like the wide areas of darkness in Rover Thomas’s paintings. The cover of Dorothy’s Skin carries a segment of Thomas’s Ngarin Janu Country. Invoking the great Kimberley painter is like calling up thunder. In 1994, Thomas’ work was on large-scale display for the first time in the National Gallery, and I remember how on a grey Canberra day his larger works, with black mystery in vast ponds and channels moving through clay and sand, stopped us in our tracks. Nothing had prepared us for painting like this, the chasms of complex, alien knowledge, areas of incomprehension; stillness; great emotional distances, gaps and rough gullies in a history which still had to be taken on as our own. This is how McDermott writes of that artist’s way of representing “the killing times”:

Rover paints in reverse:
A massacre’s just a skull up a tree.

He makes the sky fall in
on how things are held to be: ground takes shape,
becomes visible; what we thought figure
now looks ground.

… Rover shows no blood, but when I stop
driving, become a passenger, I see. Now, vision seeps

through canvas. I see the earth turning, people
wound to the point of discharge, serpent winds
that dance, like Kali, the desperate’s renewal.

So the transformation of Australian self-understanding must not be only for the political and social domains; it is, first and last, a matter of extending imaginations.

McDermott has a special freedom. He can call on Rover Thomas, and go ranging across European literature as well. Thinking again of separations and denials, he quotes from the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s poem “Vermeer”:

It hurts to go through walls; it makes you sick
but it’s necessary.
The world is one. But… the wall is part of yourself.

At that rate, such walls must be demolished first from within. First, but not only. There is always a kind of comfort in affirming the psychic and personal domain, but unless the inward paths lead us back and out, through those classrooms into politics and history, they are sad dead ends. •