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Benang, by Kim Scott.

November 1, 2013

Benang, by Kim Scott.  Fremantle Press (1999), Paperback, 502 pages.

A powerful and sophisticated novel about Indigenous/European interaction in southwestern Australia in the twentieth century.

Like the narrator in Benang, Kim Scott is descended from both Indigenous and European Australians, and like the narrator, he is concerned with what that heritage means.   In each of his books he has explored that question with different focuses.  That Deadman Dance, which won the Miles Franklin award, was an historical novel about the first whites to settle on the southwest coast of Australia and the Indigenous people who lived there.  True Country was a rather traditionally told story of a young man coming to teach in an Indigenous village and gradually realizing his own links to those he had come to teach.  Kayang and Me was an innovative combination of personal and family history written in partnership with a Noongar elder.  Benang is a complex and creative novel which traces a cluster of people, black and white and of mixed heritage from the beginning of the Australian nation down to the present.

In Benang, Scott tells several different stories from different time periods at the same time.  The narrator, Harley, has been raised and abused by his grandfather, Ern, a white man so devoted to the idea that race could be “breed out of natives” that he married an Indigenous woman.  When Harley reaches his teenage years, his grandfather has a severe stoke, and the boy becomes his sole caretaker.   Angry, and with his grandfather powerless, it is his turn to abuse.  Harley also explores the abundant papers and photographs that his grandfather collected “proving” the theory about race that he shared with leading Australian officials responsible for Indigenous people.  Two “uncles” of mixed race come and add their stories of the history of the extended family.  Harley, who has the strange ability to float in the air, combines the stories and retells them to others.

Scott moves smoothly from story to story, but the overall sense of the book remains mysterious.  People’s relationships to each other always seem to be shifting.  Much is made over who is “half caste,” quarter caste” and “quotroon.”  Restrictive laws define what is possible for each category, but an individual’s’ “race” is not always clear.  Some of the Indigenous people are pale enough to “pass” for white, making the whole theoretical structure seem unstable.

Quoting from official documents, cited in the back of the book, Scott provides chilling evidence of how Indigenous peoples were officially viewed and of the restrictions within which they were expected to act.  At the same time, he gives us the private responses of people struggling to survive and even thrive despite the laws.  At times some of the Indigenous have some successes.  Some manage to own land and educate their children, but they too are humiliated and prohibited from supporting their families.  White men marry native women, but then laws define interracial sex as a crime.  The problems seem endless, and yet people find ways to keep going.

Scott is an impressive writer, who like Alexis Wright, not only tells what happened to Indigenous people but uses those stories creatively.  Benang is the most experimental of Scott’s works.

The last book I read was The Inconvenient Indian, by Native American Thomas King.  Colonizers everywhere have sought to humiliate and control those whose land they want  in the same dehumanizing ways.  And yet King writing about Canada and America claims that Indians were made invisible; killed or pushed out of the lands claimed by whites.  Out of sight, out of mind.   Scott’s account reveals a different, more intimate treatment of Australian Indigenous people; the attempt to define and breed away native peoples.  Reading the two books together was a thought-provoking experience for me.

I strongly recommend all Scott’s books to all readers who want to understand the various ways in which race continues to plague us all.  And to those who enjoy creatively told stories.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    November 4, 2013 9:52 pm

    Kim Scott is on my list of authors to read. I should have gotten That Deadman Dance when I saw it in the library, but I didn’t snatch it up. Next time!

    • November 5, 2013 10:54 am

      Good. And That Deadman Dance is the place to begin. And you might like his Kayang and Me. His co-writer is a wonderful Indigenous woman and he ponders the issues of who gets to tell histories and general problems we encounter when start dealing with issues of diversity.

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