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Literary Review

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Identity narratives

IT was after Patrick White won the Nobel Prize in 1973 that Australian literature came to be known outside that country. Since then, it has evolved and has become one of the most vibrant branches of contemporary writing in English. Writers like Peter Carey, Miles Franklin, Thomas Kenally and an array of others have bagged international prizes like the Booker, Commonwealth and other renowned honours. Their writings are strong social comments and reflect the milieu of multicultural life of Australia.

One such writer who became a celebrity with his first novel, True Country, is Kim Scott. His second novel Benang won the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary award and the Western Australian Premier's Book Award; he received grants from the Literature Board of the Australian Council and the Western Australian Department for the Arts to take up full time creative writing. Literally benang means from the heart and in its moral fibre the novel is a journey into the spirit of the ancestors of the Nyoongar people of Australia.

Kim Scott was born in Perth in 1957 and is the eldest of four siblings with a white mother and an aboriginal father. He now lives in Coolbellup, a southern suburb of Perth, with his wife and two sons. His extended Nyoongar family are best known by the family name Roberts, a name given to one of his ancestors by a policeman whose name was Roberts and his ancestor was given the name "Robert's Boy, not a particularly pleasant way to gain an English name!!" as he puts it.

His family moved in the 1960s to the southern coastal town of Albany. Kim was sent to school in Narrogin, an inland town, where he saw the impact of racism on the large community of Nyoongars. Kim later went to Murdoch University and took up teaching English in a secondary school and started writing in his spare time. It was novels that shot him into the international literary arena because he was deeply concerned with the acute economical and cultural poverty of the aboriginal Nyoongars. It bothered the writer that the aboriginal people were denied opportunities and facilities to improve their conditions and of the disintegration of their culture. He moved to a remote town in Kimberley region in western Australia and he was deeply affected by their plight. His exploration of "neglected interior space" resulted in an outstanding novel, True Country (1993), which he took four years to publish. Billy, the protagonist is a part aboriginal teacher who is about to arrive at the remote town of Karnama. Like many others in the novel, Billy is trying to find a meaningful cultural identity and to create a better future from the wreckage of the recent history of aboriginal people. What he finds at Karnama is a disintegrating community with a litany of social problems. Billy's search for identity gradually becomes part of a larger cultural narrative. Even in the voices of confusion, anger, helplessness and misunderstanding between aboriginal and white people, there is hope and optimism.

For writing his second novel Benang Kim Scott conducted research for five years, tracing his family history through welfare files and from a diversity of sources. He confirmed that the novel was "inspired by research into his family and my growing awareness of the context of that family history". The novel is hence an imaginative blend of fact and fiction and archival documentation to explore in historical and emotional terms the shameful history of the White treatment of Australian aboriginal people without didacticism and bitterness or moral propaganda. It makes compelling reading, as it is a moving depiction of cultural oppression and the resilience of the Nyoongar people from the time of first contact with the White colonial power.

Kim admits that he has been motivated by Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children as "an example of a different way of writing a historical novel". There are many writers whom he admires: Peter Carey, Helen Garner, Amoz Oz (particularly his Elsewhere Perhaps). He thinks it is too early to say how his writing has influenced the Nyoongar people. He also wants his "writing to be valued for the discussion it stimulates in the wider community, rather than for the writing itself". The poignant and haunting novel is brilliant in its narrative and wide in its historical perspective. Despite the depiction of subjugation, it promotes the Nyoongar culture "into the present in a dynamic way rather than as a museum piece to be preserved".


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