Heat and Light, Ellen Van Neerven.
Heat and Light, Ellen Van Neerven. St Lucia, Queensland : University of Queensland Press, 2014.
Australian Women Writers
A beautifully crafted book combining family history, speculative fiction, and stories of contemporary life written by a talented Australian Indigenous woman.
Ellen Van Neerven is an accomplished young writer of Dutch and Indigenous descent. She works as an editor for Black&Writes!, an organization encouraging Indigenous writing. In this book, as in many of the books of good non-mainstream writers, she writes about her own people and the problems and joys they encounter—some particular to their identity and others more universal in nature. As Van Neerven stated in an interview with Anita Heiss, she wants “Aboriginal voices to be heard and Aboriginal lives to be represented.”
Although I loved this book, its unique structure makes it difficult to review. This book is loosely structured into three parts, held together primarily by connected themes and the intensity of Van Neerven’s voice. In the first section, “Heat,” we are introduced to three generations of an Indigenous family. Different characters tell different parts of the story, leaving readers to fit the narratives together. The third section, “Light” is another cluster of contemporary stories even less connected than those in “Heat” and dealing with a range of topics around identity, loyalty, and personal relations. My favorite part of the book was “Water,” the middle section of the book and a gem of speculative fiction. Set in the future, Australia has elected a woman as president who promises to do right by Indigenous people. One of the nation’s new projects is to reshape a group of islands off the coast into “Australia-2” and then encourage Indigenous people to move there. A young woman is hired by the earth reforming company as a “Cultural Relations Liaison” to those already living on the islands who are about to be removed. Both human and alien, they are politely called plantpeople or sandpeople; impolitely they are considered “weeds.” The woman gradually becomes acquainted with the sandpeople and it becomes clear to her what her job entails.
A gritty realty underlies all Van Neerven’s stories as Indigenous people relate to each other and seek to survive in a world dominated by whites. Themes circle around questions of identity and conflicting loyalties. The majority of her characters are Indigenous women. Men and European Australians are also sympathetically portrayed at times, but she writes from within and for the Aboriginal community. Many of her characters are lesbians, either just beginning to identify as such or long embracing their sexual preference. Her book would go along way toward helping young women struggling with their sexual or Indigenous identity.
Yet the appeal of Heat and Light goes far beyond that particular group of readers. Van Neerven is a fine writer and storyteller. She writes deliberately in her own unique literary voice, yet her prose is graceful and a pleasure to read. At times her words only obliquely convey what is happening in a story, pulling readers into her text as they assemble the clues she provides. While many of her stories are highly personal, her futuristic tale is also political and the section of the book I liked best.
I strongly recommend Heat and Light to all readers who enjoy fine writing, with a touch of speculation, about people whom many of us barely know. Check out the review of this book by Whispering Gums.