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True Country, by Kim Scott.

July 7, 2013

True Country, by Kim Scott.  Fremantle Press (2010), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 304 pages. First published 1993.

 INDIGENOUS LITERATURE WEEK

A wonderfully crafted novel about a young man, of Indigenous and European descent, who teaches in a tiny community on the northern coast of Australia.

In his first novel, Kim Scott tells a gentle story of Billy who, with his red-headed wife, goes to teach in a tiny isolated community of Indigenous Australians in the Kimberly region.  In different chapters and clusters of chapters, Scott tells the stories of those who lived there.  We get to know both blacks and whites, none of them without their own particular flaws. There is little overall plot.  Those living in the declining community—and those who live there wonder if it is still a community—have little to sustain them or give them hope. The conditions have the ingredients to be a tragedy, yet Scott lightens his book with the joys of swimming in the river and fishing along the edge of the ocean.

True Country is somewhat autobiographical although Scott assures us that he only used actual happenings as “stepping off points” for his imagination.  More than the presence or absence of facts, Billy seems to resemble Scott in his search for an understanding of his own Aboriginal identity.  As Billy explains,

But I don’t feel Aboriginal, I can’t say that. I just don’t understand. Does it mean you feel lost, displaced?  But doesn’t everyone? I just wanted to come to a place like this, where some things happened a long time ago, where I came from, that I have heard about or read of, are still happening here, maybe.

I have been impressed by the three books I have read by Kim Scott for different reasons.  Reading That Deadman Dance, the winner of the 2012 Miles Franklin prize, I appreciated the way in which Scott gave full humanity to both the Aboriginal Australians and the initial European settlers in along the southwestern coast.  Keyang and Me was a thoughtful account of Aboriginal history and a discussion of the critical issues that intercultural stories raise.  Reading True Country, I was amazed the sheer beauty and power of Scott’s prose.

Scott is both an extremely talented and creative writer and one who seems to make Indigenous language his own.   In True Country, his prose moves from being mildly experimental into a haunting syntax and word choice that may reflect an older pattern.  Sometimes he changes his style when an Aboriginal man or woman speaks.  For example, when an elderly woman is recounting the story of her own first encounters with whites, the language shifts.

Again again again. Out on the blue sea, them ladies in their many dresses, their pink skin scrubbed, they clap clapped their hands at the two dark girls dancing dancing dancing like shadows in the hard sun.

At other times, Billy himself thinks with an Indigenous part of himself.

And we got something to tell.  Here first.  For a long time. This whole Australia land binds us. And we are fragments of a great…

A Dreamt time. A maybe rented time. A time the fabric of which is torn and rent and now not holding together, like a torn flag fluttering.

Like a magic carpet falling.

But we never had.

But is Scott’s rendering on Indigenous speech is authentic?  I would like to believe it is, but it is unlike that of other writers with the same aim.  Whatever its source, Scott’s words are accessible and beautiful.

The characters in Scott’s novel are sharply drawn individuals, their details preventing them from being the stereotypes that summarizing may make them seem.  Other than Billy and his wife, the handful of whites are there to aid the Indigenous people, but they know and care little about them.  They drink their “little whiskies” and make talk that doesn’t connect.  Some have drifted into their jobs and others are there for an exotic adventure. The school superintendent and his wife are ambitious and intent, but the wife is so endlessly angry that the blacks “took off their heads and hid them in their pockets so that they didn’t see or hear her and so she couldn’t tell who they were.”  The older blacks remember a different more vibrant time when they could use magic to defend or revenge themselves, but the younger people have drifted away from the past and have no realistic futures.  The teenager best at the old “blackfellow” skills and the one who is most open to Billy sniffs petroleum and is unable to read or write.  None of them understand why the murderers of a handicapped Indigenous boy are not punished.  If they have to obey white man’s law, why don’t the white men?

Scott offers no sense of what needs to happen to improve live for Indigenous people.  Sometimes Billy envisions being the person to write down their stories.  He records some of the tales the old people tell.  He doesn’t manage to listen to the tapes, however, much less to transcribe them, but he still dreams.

But Billy was not sure he was the man for that. Oh, he wanted to be. He wanted to be some sort of seer, a teller of tales, the one who gives meaning, and weaves the unraveling and trailing threads of the lives and histories here together so that people can be held up and together by the integrity and the sense of patterns.  He who sings the world anew so that you know where you are….

Billy thought it might be like magic.

Scott seems to have found a way to work that magic in his books, but does that really changes the lives of people like the ones he describes?

I strongly recommend True Country to all who love the play of language and, of course, to all who care about Indigenous people anywhere. While certainly not a YA book, I think this book would be a great one to read and discuss with young people from a variety of backgrounds.

 Fremantle Press has some helpful analysis and questions to consider on their page about this book.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2013 4:54 pm

    Thanks for pointing this out – I will certainly look it up!

  2. July 7, 2013 5:29 pm

    Lovely review, thank you. I’ve met Kim Scott (when I was at Curtin University, where he is now a professor) and went to keynote speech he gave at a postgraduate conference. It was a most inspiring speech, and I stood up to applaud him (no-one else did, but he did get lots of applause).

    He is passionate about his indigenous ancestry and the causes of his people. He does sing the world anew, and he has gone from strength to strength in his writing. At this time, a significant final offer has been made to the West Australian Noongar people by the WA government. The Noongars had claimed native title rights over much of the lower half of WA, including the City of Perth. Part of the offer is an act of parliament recognising them as traditional owners of the land, + a trust fund for govt payments, which will be used for social, cultural and economic programs. So it’s not just a cash deal. I don’t know how the Noongar people view it, but it’s the outcome of years of negotiation with them. It doesn’t shift the power, of course, but one of their leaders describes it as greater than some of the deals made in New Zealand, the Pacific and and the US.
    Kim Scott straddles both cultures and loyalties, an uncomfortable position which he has turned into art with a passion. His ability to ‘sing the world anew’ and weaves the unravelling threads together is respected by whites and Noongars, and I think he has made a difference.

    • July 10, 2013 12:36 pm

      How very nice and fortunate that you met the author himself 🙂

      • July 10, 2013 5:12 pm

        Thank you. That was before he won the Miles Franklin and other awards for That Deadman Dance. Since then he has risen to the rank of Professor, and I know it is well deserved. He is modest, kind, wise and passionate about his vision.

  3. July 7, 2013 6:19 pm

    How great to hear him in person, especially with his sense of how different oral and written language is. I don’t really understand about your native land title claims, but I hope his “singing the world anew” makes a difference. We need it everywhere.

  4. July 7, 2013 7:10 pm

    You ask whether the language Scott uses is authentic. I think it’s important to recognise that there is no way to gauge this because there were once more than 600 languages spoken in Aboriginal Australia. Which one will be the authentic one? It’s like comparing Finnish and Italian. Having said this, and having worked with Aboriginal writers, the small extracts you have here reflect the rhythms and idioms of some contemporary Aboriginal English.

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