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Red Dirt Talking, by Jacqueline Wright.

July 9, 2013

Red Dirt Talking, by Jacqueline Wright.  Australia: Fremantle Press, 2012.


A complex and entertaining Australian novel about a white woman who comes to an Indigenous community looking for information, only to find herself changed and involved in the concerns of the community.

 Annie is a 40-year-old anthropology grad student seeking to conduct oral histories about a massacre that occurred in an isolated region of West Australia.  Her plan is to gather the evidence for a paper to present at an academic conference.  Her goal is to promote her own career and, she believes,to get UN recognition of the needs of Indigenous people.  Initially she has no interest in gaining the community’s respect or in listening to what they want to tell.  Gradually she adapts to how the community functions and is drawn into their problems.  Their search for  for a young girl who is missing adds an element of mystery to the plot.

This is a very good novel, but I read it too soon reading after Kim Scott’s True Country to be totally fair to it.  Both that book and this one highlight Indigenous life through the experience of a white outsider who comes and lives in the bush.  The author’s style and their main  character’s approach are different, however.  In True Country Billy comes wanting to listen and absorb, but Annie arrives sure of her conclusions and wanting evidence to provide what she thinks she already knows. The mistakes she makes in relating to the Indigenous people are somewhat comic.  Gradually she becomes more deeply involved, and we see more of how the Indigenous community actually functions. We also see a variety of ways in which whites can and do cause pain for them, sometimes without realizing it. Gradually Anne finds her own balance and is able to be helpful when she let others take the lead.

The language in which the Indigenous characters speak in Wright’s book is also unlike that of Scott’s.  For me,  his language is more literary and accessible, but that may not be true for Australian readers.  As gongyla has kindly reminded me, there were some 600 languages used by Australian Aboriginals, and none can be considered “the” authentic one.

Much of Wright’s novel is written in the third person, with Annie’s actions and concerns central.  Other chapters are narrated by Maggot, the man who is the garbage collector, school bus driver, and mail deliverer. The plot and subplots are excellent, if at times confusing to me.  I had trouble following some of language and slang which Wright used.  And there were more characters than I could handle, sometimes the same ones going by different names.  But those are my problems, not the book’s.

Although Wright is not an Indigenous person herself, she has worked in their communities and writes knowledgeably and sensitively about life there.

I strongly recommend Red Dirt Talking for all readers interested in Indigenous Australians.

This book was also published by Fremantle Press. It also has some helpful analysis and questions to consider.

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