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«Bradford, Clare 2004, Transformative fictions: postcolonial encounters in Australian texts, Children's literature association quarterly, vol. 28, no. ...»

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Bradford, Clare 2004, Transformative fictions: postcolonial encounters in Australian

texts, Children's literature association quarterly, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 195-202.

Copyright : 2003, Johns Hopkins University Press

Transformative Fictions: Postcolonial Encounters in Australian Texts Clare Bradford Within postcolonial theory over the last decade, a discursive shift has been evident in which terms such as “transculturation”, “hybridity” and “transformativity” have attained pre-eminence over discourses of struggle, oppression, victimisation and dispossession.

Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes (1992) was an influential text in this shift, and argued that rather than seeing colonisation in terms of adversarial confrontation, the history of colonised countries evidences a two-way relationship involving a mutual transformation of colonised and colonisers. In this view of a postnationalist world culture, hybridity is seen as a textual phenomenon by which peoples formerly colonised deploy narrative and discursive strategies identified with western culture; the other side of the coin involves the deployment, by colonising groups, of some of the features and forms of non-western textuality. What is at stake here is the transformative effect of language, the idea that to move outside the forms and conventions of one’s culture by engaging with words, symbols or genres deriving from another culture is at the same time to engage in a shift of consciousness enabling one to imagine the world differently.

The assumption frequently made in postcolonial theory (for example, by Ashcroft et al in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader) is that hybridity constitutes the most enlightened and progressive response to racial and colonial oppression, and that on the other hand oppositional textuality practised by indigenous peoples merely perpetuates the old binaries of black/white, margin/centre, and encodes what Ashcroft et al describe as “the political trap of essentialism” (214). I am not so sure that western scholars are in a 1 position to fulminate against what they label as essentialism when the processes of recovery and reconstruction of indigenous traditions are often slow and painful, complicated by the multiple dislocations of colonialism—in Australia, for instance, when Aboriginal people were summarily removed from their country and resettled in alien places, and when children were taken from their families to be de-Aboriginalised.

Aboriginal responses to such experiences of displacement frequently lament the loss of traditions and articulate anger at the colonial régime which caused such loss. As Leela Gandhi notes, if the language of hybridity is to retain any seriously political meaning, it must first concede that for some oppressed peoples, in some circumstances, the fight is simply not over. Hybridity is not the only enlightened response to oppression.

(136) Nevertheless, there is a powerful utopian attraction about hybridity, because of the appeal of a genuinely transcultural and interracial engagement between peoples, and because at the beginning of the third millennium the effects of jingoistic and divisive nationalisms are so disturbingly evident. Moreover, indigenous knowledges and especially systems of belief and spirituality seem to propose antidotes to contemporary unease in the face of features of modernity such as environmental degradation and psychic emptiness. But dangers lurk behind these apparently benevolent cultural shifts, and they reside especially in the ethnocentrism of western desire. All too often, indigenous traditions become merely sites of abundance and meaningfulness which supply western consumers with

–  –  –

Bradford 145-52).

Notions of hybridity and transculturation are caught up in a dialectic between Marxist approaches to nation and colonisation on the one hand, and poststructuralist and

postmodern formulations on the other. Gandhi usefully summarises this ongoing debate:

she refers to the “competing claims of nationalism and internationalism, strategic essentialism and hybridity, solidarity and dispersal, the politics of structure/totality and the politics of the fragment” (ix). On the one hand, postmodern concepts of multivalent and decentered meanings seem to gesture towards what Suvendrini Perera refers to as a discourse of “happy hybridisation” (17), a mixing and mingling of signs, meanings and texts; on the other hand, Aboriginal traditions typically insist upon local and particular connections between stories, place and people. Celebratory treatments of hybridisation

and transculturation readily stumble into a “premature political amnesia” (Gandhi, 1998:

140) which obscures the ethical and political questions of postcolonialism. In the Australian context, discourses of transculturation and hybridity jostle against the sorry facts of Aboriginal disadvantage, which manifest across all indicators: high infant mortality, high unemployment, appalling rates of youth suicide, levels of incarceration far in excess of those for the general population.

Many contemporary Australian books for children and adolescents recycle colonial and Aboriginalist ideologies in their representations of indigenous culture (see Bradford passim).1 Nonetheless, there are some texts which race ahead of the slow and uncertain progress of Australia’s formation as a decolonised nation—that is, a nation in which its original inhabitants have attained recognition, compensation and autonomy—

–  –  –

people is based on the recognition and valuing of difference and on relations of mutuality and reciprocity. The three texts I propose to discuss, Phillip Gwynne’s Nukkin Ya (2000), Melissa Lucashenko’s Killing Darcy (1998) and Meme McDonald and Boori Pryor’s Njunjul the Sun (2002), trace many of the tensions which I have outlined. All three are Young Adult novels in which race relations are represented through interactions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal characters. Nukkin Ya, the sequel to the well-received novel Deadly Unna? (1998), was written by a non-Aboriginal Australian;2 Killing Darcy by a Murri author (that is, from the Queensland region), of European and Aboriginal descent; and Njunjul the Sun, the third in a sequence of novels, following My Girragundji (1998) and The Binna Binna Man (1999), was produced collaboratively by an Aboriginal (Pryor) and non-Aboriginal author (McDonald). My discussion focuses on two interlinked questions: the extent to which these novels advocate transformative politics advocating new modes of engagement between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures;

and whether they can be regarded as hybrid texts, incorporating an interplay of Aboriginal and western concepts, forms and narrative strategies.

All three novels feature representations of intersubjective relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal characters. In Killing Darcy, a young Aboriginal man, Darcy Mango, is given temporary work at the farm of a white family comprising Jon Menzies and his two adolescent children, Cameron and Filomena, and with them attempts to solve a mystery involving a relationship which occurred in colonial times, between a white man, Hew Costello, an ancestor of Cam and Fil, and his Aboriginal common-law wife. Nukkin Ya traces the relationship of a white boy, Gary Black

–  –  –

South Australia. And Njunjul, the eponymous protagonist of Njunjul the Sun, moves from his Aboriginal community in the country to the city of Sydney, where he engages in interpersonal relations with a white woman and with the racially-diverse group of men with whom he plays basketball. While the three novels are set in contemporary Australia, the past is powerfully present through the memory of colonial events and power relationships and their impact on race relations. Njunjul the Sun traces Njunjul’s sense of “becoming Aboriginal”, while Nukkin Ya is centred in the dominant Anglo-Australian culture, its first-person narration tracking the experience of a non-Aboriginal character as he reaches across racial boundaries to form relationships with Aboriginal characters, and encounters the prohibitions against such relationships which exist within both white and Aboriginal cultural formations.

The narration of Lucashenko’s Killing Darcy is filtered through a variety of focalising characters, including Jon Menzies, Cam, Fil, and Darcy in addition to an omniscient narrator external to events. This flexibility of narrative allows for comparisons between characters’ attitudes and beliefs at the same time that it traces the development of relations between Cam, Fil and Darcy. For Darcy, on parole for crimes of theft and assault and far from his home country and from the influence of tribal elders, the experience of living with a white family involves the necessity of decoding signifying systems which are foreign to him. Lucashenko’s Aboriginality—and her insight into Aboriginal cultural practices—crucially informs her depiction of Darcy’s perspective.

For instance, consider the following exchange early in the novel, when Cam and Darcy

engage in a tentative conversation:

–  –  –

Cam brightened. He wasn’t a revhead, personally, but if Darcy was he could talk cars... “Oh, yeah... what sort?” “Commodore. Oh, it was a fucken beauty, eh. Red. V8.” “Oh yeah, they’re excellent,” Cam agreed matily.

Darcy shot him a sly glance. “... but then they caught me.” He and Cam burst out laughing together. He’s cool, thought Darcy in relief. He’s funny, thought Cam. It didn’t occur to the younger boy that Darcy hadn’t been joking. It didn’t cross Darcy’s mind that Cam might think he was. (78-9) Darcy’s “but then they caught me” alludes to the fact that he was arrested for vehicle theft, a meaning lost on Cam, whose cultural background leads him to expect that drivers of cars are also their owners. The contrast of subjectivities underlined in this exchange, and Lucashenko’s construction of the boys’ mutual incomprehension, are achieved through the use of dialogue in conjunction with external narration commenting on the perspectives of both characters, a strategy which contributes to the novel’s larger network of comparisons between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultural practices. Lucashenko’s capacity to switch convincingly between the perspectives of Aboriginal and nonAboriginal characters makes Killing Darcy an unusual Australian novel; such fluidity of perspectives across cultures is rare in children’s texts by non-Aboriginal authors (although there are a few exceptions),4 because, as Richard Dyer says, white representations of blackness are apt to work towards the formulation of white identities,

–  –  –

the white subject” (13).

An aspect of cultural experience foregrounded in Killing Darcy is the incursion of sacredness into everyday life in Aboriginal culture, a key contrast with white secular culture and its firm distinctions between the sacred and the profane. The plot of the novel turns on a colonial episode involving the killing of a young Aboriginal boy. The catalyst for the contemporary recovery of this event is Fil’s discovery of an old camera in the derelict cottage which once belonged to Hew Costello, and the mysterious capacity of the camera to show pictures of past times. Against the wishes of local Aboriginal people, Costello had built his cottage on a bora ground—that is, on land made sacred because it was used for ceremonial practices, and in order to recover the truth of the boy’s identity and death, Darcy must return to colonial times and to the bora ground, assisted by Granny Lil, the elder or “boss woman” of the Yanbali people of the area.

Viewed by Cam and Fil, these mysterious events are disconcerting, grounded as they are in Aboriginal epistemologies utterly different from those which apply in western culture. The following comments, by the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, refer to the beliefs of the Yarralin people of the Northern Territory, but they apply to Aboriginal

beliefs more generally:

Yarralin people’s cosmos includes other worlds and beings which Westerners might describe as supernatural but which Yarralin people believe have their origins in this earth. Natural in this sense, they are also extra-ordinary in that they are not subject to the same laws of birth and death as are ordinary species.

–  –  –

In Killing Darcy, Cam and Fil are at first apt to judge Aboriginal beliefs in the light of western distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, the ordinary and the mysterious. By tracing their transition from scepticism to acceptance as they come to learn about the spirit world and about ritual communication between spirits and humans, Lucashenko proposes that westerners such as Cam and Fil can, to some degree, understand Aboriginal belief-systems, provided that they are open to cultural difference and engaged in interpersonal relations with Aboriginal people. For it is through learning to understand and value Darcy’s perspectives that Cam and Fil begin to move outside their habitual modes of thought and valuing. As Teya Rosenberg points out in her discussion of magical realism, many postcolonial theorists see magical realism as “a reaction against colonial power and paradigms, represented both by political realities and by the cultural imperialism of European realism” (16). Lucashenko’s treatment of the mysterious presence of the past in Killing Darcy accords with such contestations of colonial power, at the same time that she relies for plot structure on popular genres such as the detective novel. This dialogic interplay of western narrative practices and of the contestatory strategies of magical realism makes Killing Darcy a hybrid text, poised between cultures and playing one off against the other.

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