Speakers: Stuart Baines (SB), Jeanine Leane (J), Ann McGrath (A), Jane Lydon (JL), Liz Conor (L), Russell McDougall (R), Audience (AU)
National Library of Australia
SECTION 1: Dr Jeanine Leane, Australian National University S: ... including the originally largely handwritten manuscript to the Capricornia which you’ll be able to view next door at lunchtime. We also have a series of letters written by Herbert to various friends and lovers about serious and light-hearted subjects. Those written to close friend Arthur Dibley often touch on Herbert’s concerns about the treatment of indigenous Australians which of course we will see writ large in his published stories.
Our keynote speaker this morning is Dr Jeanine Leane from the Australian National University. Jeanine has completed her doctorate in literature and Aboriginal representation after a long career teaching at secondary and tertiary levels. She has been a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, has completed a post-doctoral fellowship at ANU and is currently a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History, also at the ANU. Her 2010 volume of poetry, Dark Secrets After Dreaming: AD1887-1961, won the Scanlon Prize for indigenous poetry and her manuscript, Purple Threads, won the David Unaipon Award at the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and was shortlisted for both the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literature Awards. Please welcome Jeanine.
J: Thank you. Thank you for coming out today and I’d also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people whose land we’re gathered on today and for my privilege of earning my living here on Ngunnawal Country and also acknowledge Wiradjuri people who are my ancestors. Thanks.
Now it’s not very often actually I get to talk about Xavier Herbert really though or teach ... in a long career of teaching I have really only been taught two of his books ‘cause I was a specialist in Australian literature and ... but you had to sort of seek them out and I can’t say I’ve ever really been called on to teach his works too much either. So it’s interesting why. So Xavier Herbert for me is probably one of the most interesting and least talked about Australian authors and he’s just one of the many settler authors whose mind was pre-occupied by Aboriginal Australians. In fact it’s arguable that his two greatest novels, Capricornia 1938 and Poor Fellow My Country published in 1973 but with a very long gestation time couldn’t have been written without Aboriginal people as subject matter.
So then what is the difference between Herbert, or is there a difference, between Herbert and a long string of other authors who used Aboriginal Australians to express themselves and their concerns at the time of what they thought and what they thought were the concerns of the nation. But before I get onto that I just want to spend a minute deconstructing some of the problematic terminology that I’m confined to use and used in the opening. In particular terms that the author uses that I’ll refer to, half-caste, full blood, terms that you hopefully don’t hear anymore and ... but in particular I use the term subject matter and I believe that some of the terms that this ... that the author uses and that I’m going to talk about are important to use because at the time I think they begin to express what is a great Australian failure, not just for Herbert’s works but for many works in the settler literary canon that grapple with what they on the one hand attempt to represent as the Aboriginal problem.
So Aboriginal people as the subjects in Australian literature are vast and this is not usually questioned for why they are there or why Aboriginal people are used as subjects in Australian literature. Attention focuses largely around what each particular picture says at each particular time and Herbert’s is an enigmatic and problematic one but the subject position is very important here. The colonial subject are people ... can mean two things and for Aboriginal people I guess both. A people under dominion rule and a people as an object or a scene or something chosen by an artist for representation as a literary subject or this ... and so Aboriginal people are both the subject of a regime and the subject of the literary imagination and Aboriginal people probably occupy at this time the ultimate kind of subject object position in both colonial Australia pre-1901 and the nation post because we’re excluded and marginalised under the sovereign dominion but interestingly enough over represented in Australian colonial and national literature.
So from the late 18th and 19th centuries and the second half of the 20th century Aboriginal people were quite present in the national landscape through an abundance of perhaps footage, historical, anthropological, archaeological discourses, artistic representations and literary representations and amidst this abundant of images it’s interesting that there’s an absence of voice. There’s a silence. The subject matter, the Aboriginal people, don’t speak, we’re spoken for or spoken through.
So I am not entirely cynical about authors such as Herbert who tell an Aboriginal story. There could be some sense or some cause for cynicism to the extent that a number of Australian authors, settler authors, openly admitted that Aboriginal people, Aborigines, made good subjects for stories. For example, Katharine Prichard wrote Coonardoo after she visited a friend on a cattle station in the Kimberleys and witnessed a corroboree and later expressed to her friend and fellow author, Vance Palmer, that what she saw was dramatic and thrilling and could be produced largely for foreign or southern audiences. Patrick White likewise was inspired by the journals of explorer’s encounters with Aborigines in the interior for Voss and for A Fringe of Leaves inspired by Eliza Fraser’s journals. But on the other hand though I appreciate, for the large part, these writers couldn’t imagine an Australia or even someone writing in Australia in the second half of the century like righ ... White, sorry, or Herbert couldn’t imagine an Australia where Aboriginal people are writing as we are now.
So on that it’s easy to be cynical about their representations in retrospect but I think that particularly with Herbert’s work who represents a great failure of ... he’s representing a great failure of an imagination of a nation that he sees is not going to come to fruition. So such writers as Herbert couldn’t imagine a future other than that which is bleak and incomplete or a limbo or purgatorial existence for both black and white Australians.
So writers such as Herbert though, although I have said he’s under-read and under-taught and under-discussed, still are considered as nat ... sorry, national writers. I’ve heard his book described as a great classic, the great Australian story. Stella Miles Franklin, well who we all know was a cultural nationalist, and the award named in her honour since its establishment in 1957 reflects this as well, this type of cultural nationalism and with only probably three or so exceptions, these being the Noongar writer Kim Scott, who won the Miles Franklin in 1999 for Benang and 2011 for That Deadman Dance and Waanyi writer Alexis Wright whose wonderfully vast narrative Carpentaria opens with the lines, a nation chants but we know your story already, won the award in 2007.
Most of the winners chosen for the Miles Franklin Award tend to reinforce rather than challenge some notion of Australians or phases of Australian life. And following the 40th century of the ... sorry, 40th anniversary of the Miles Franklin award in 1997 literary scholar Patrick Allington pointed out that most of the winning books could fall into three quite broad themes and the first of these are great comings and goings, leaving Australia and coming back, and in doing so realising what a great place Australia is. I’m thinking for example Jessica Anderson here, Patrick White, David Malouf, great journeys away from Australia that lament Australia or ... so that’s the first one.
The second one is Australia at war and once again David Malouf, Christopher Kott but noticeably only overseas wars and it takes until Kim Scott or Alexis Wright before any kind of frontier or civil war or cultural genocide gets a mention in this body of works that awarded the Miles Franklin Award. It’s mostly talking about wars, nationalistic wars like the First or the Second World War or that modern life is hell or modern life is somehow problematic and this has shifted these kind of ... the works that fall within this theme. They’ve ... it’s shifted a bit perhaps in the last 10, 15 years.
In particular I mentioned two Aboriginal writers but before that I tend to agree with Patrick that the overall ... overall the Miles Franklin canon was confined to the ... those themes and to some extent Herbert still falls within these three broad themes although there is an extent to which he pushes the boundaries of those themes. For example he is less concerned with comings and goings in his work although between Carpentaria ... sorry Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country there are comings and goings between ... but not between Europe or Britain like the other Miles Franklin award winning works exhibit or have ... are examples of but comings and goings between South East Asia, between Indonesia, between places that are close to Australia. So he’s exploring a different geographical sphere in terms of Australian positioning there and he’s talking about a lot of comings like comings of the settler and stayings too rather than goings. War definitely not so much perhaps the war itself but he’s definitely very thrown, very concerned by post-war changes and after that he’s noted to say that Australia became bourgeois after the Second World War and he was very disillusioned.
But definitely yes, on modern life the second points leads to the third one and yes, on modern life is hell, that’s probably the one that his work most complies with because he does grapple with changes and he grapples in a way that I think is quite pessimistic. But Miles Franklin said something though that is of interest, or always of interest to me, and then she said without an indigenous, with a lower case I, without an indigenous literature people can remain alien in their own soil. So I think she’s right about that. Creating an identity and a literature of place is an important facet of shaping a socio-cultural landscape however Miles Franklin, like Herbert and like Percival Stevenson and other notable literary critics and essays at the time they could only imagine this new nation as a Commonwealth, as a loyal exile of Britain, as the sort of isolated socialist utopia with a small population and the Second World War changed that ... those kind of aims and Stevenson, for example, said in 1935 a new nation, meaning Australia, a new human type is being formed in Australia and culture in Australia, if it ever develops indigenously, with a small I, begins not from the Aborigines who have been suppressed and exterminated but from the British culture and I think that Stevenson et al express a belief at the time, that was held at the time, they’re no more or less perhaps racist than any other author mentioned.
They are a product of this national belief. They’re a product of the passing of the Aborigine and Herbert comes in on the tail end of that national belief. So yeah, the passing of the Aborigine or I think the passing of the Aborigine as we were perceived in the national imagination or trapped in the literary imagination of national writers and national writers get by, like the nation itself really, by creating and recreating an imagined state. Like all modern nations they’re the product of some sort of collective imagination of a group of citizens and Herbert begins to grapple with the national picture, particularly by the time he comes to write Poor Fellow My Country. Carpentaria perhaps ... Capricornia, begins with more hope I think but yeah, he grapples with the national picture and in doing this he has ... he expresses a huge amount of lament and he laments the promises of something unfulfilled and my understanding of 20th century Australian history is the ... not that it’s a question of whether you were a nationalist it’s more of a question of what kind of nationalist you were and the years between 1945 and 1975 Capricornia had been completed by then, Poor Fellow My Country just published and was being written during these post-war changes were difficult ones.
So between 1945 and 1975 the Austra ... the debate around Australian nationalism was a difficult one for both conservative and radical camps and the isolationist tradition of radical nationalism began to crumble after World War Two and the white Australia policy that Manning Clark described as a giant act of protection became more and more unsustainable as massive immigration from Italy, Greece, eastern Europe, etc, made necessary by post-war economic growth radically altered the population and the debate on Australian nationalism was very intense during that time.
Australian historian Geoffrey Serle, for example, in 1967 in an essay called ‘Godzone: Austerica Unlimited’, said it has always been difficult to be unselfconsciously Australian. It was briefly possible perhaps in the 50s after that the US took over. And in the same year in an essay called ‘The New Australian’ Geoffrey Blainey spoke of utopias, of the pa ... of the future vaguely glimpsed at or of the past more confidently envisioned.
So post-war Australia became fully fledged in the minds of these historians and Herbert himself a fully fledge bourgeois society and it was against this profanity, this irresponsibility of this new bourgeois Australia that Herbert rallies, that he reacts to and his protest forced him back to a point in time from his point of view when the Australia that he imagined was still possible. When the future was still open not closed and this meant the years between 1936 and 1942. And in between the time that elapsed between Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country I believe that Herbert came to feel and understand a tremendous sense of betrayal and he felt betrayed by the promise of those years and Capricornia most poignantly comes to fruition during that time and begins with a promise that ends rather bleakly.
But Herbert at least tried to mount a substantial critique of what the nation is built on and what it was built over but there are things from which he can’t escape because he is part of the nation. So in looking at his narratives, his two narratives, more in detail, in depth, I’d like to ... I’d like you to consider three major themes or three major tropes that comes through them all and one is blood, one is land and one is belonging and these mean different things to the different characters in the book, Aboriginal characters or settler characters.
So Herbert’s two narratives that represent Aboriginal people as you know are over 20 years apart in terms of production and 30 years in terms of publication and the most vivid and striking thing for me about these two works as an Aboriginal reader is that they’re asking the same question of the readers, and that’s by the author’s own admission, and raising the same problems by the author’s own perception that he raised in ... raised earlier but they are still unresolved and accentuated as time has passed and the problems still are blood, land and belonging.
In Poor Fellow My Country he asks the same the questions more explicitly, more forcefully and more brutally and to me also his consciousness of Aboriginal presence and the future and the nation is probably one of the bleakest and pessimistic of all but Herbert actually knew Aboriginal people personally whereas some of the other authors that I have briefly referred to didn’t or only briefly encountered them. As literary critic Geoffrey Dutton noticed Herbert grew up with the raw material of Capricornia and as a child and an adolescent he grew up with full blood and mixed blood fringe dwellers and I think it’s the mixed blood fringe dwellers that are the real concern of his work and the motifs of blood and fringes are very prominent.
So he worked on a Darwin newspaper as ... and was a fettler in the Rum Jungle where he boasted of inheriting a harem of lubras from his predecessor and among other jobs between 1935 he was a superintendent of Aborigines in Darwin and for 10 years he struggled to write a book called Black Velvet and with the help of his wife this is the manuscript that became Capricornia in the early 1930s and Angus and Robinson rejected the manuscript in 1934 because they found it too long, too depressing and also I think another reason could be because Herbert is so critical, so unflattering of Australian settlers. His representations of Aboriginal people are also problematic but he is quite brutal, quite unflattering about the settlement as well. The idea of pioneers and his more ... he does probe perhaps the cost of that to an extent.
Eventually in 1938 W.J Miles took on and published Capricornia in time to enter the sesquicentenary literary competition and after Herbert won the prize for Capricornia he wrote to Miles Franklin and said when the news came, the news of the award, I was stunned for a moment but only for a moment and I promptly bought a case of beer and called on all the bums, bagman, Greeks, Chows and yeller fellas about and got well and truly tanked and so it is the yellow fellows or these people ... the people who are half and half in this limbo state who occupy Herbert’s consciousness because no matter how small or how large their blood quotient of Aboriginal blood may be the blood is obvious and it impacts on their ability, one’s ability, to be truly black but at the same time prevents one from being white or acceptable to whites either and so there are two representations of dominant, prominent, of Aboriginality that span Herbert’s novels.
There’s the full blood savage, most vividly read through the character of Bob or Bob Wirridirridi and the mixed blood fringe dwellers in both societies, Norman, for example, in Capricornia and Prindy in Poor Fellow My Country. So Norman’s mother, Norman in Capricornia, is a traditional woman of the Yurracumbunga tribe and his father is white but in a brilliant visual image when Norman is born the reader’s first image of Norman is the colour of a cigarette stain on his father Mark’s finger and so the image of mixed blood children here, a stain on the white man’s hand, has been quite an enduring one.
But Norman is an essentially flawed character because he dwells in two worlds but he’s unable to belong to neither. He’s sent to the south to be educated like a white man and he emerges from this sojourn as elegant, intelligent and highly skilled but on his return to Capricornia, which is the Northern Territory, he is just a yeller fella and Norman’s ambivalous identity impacts on his ability to form meaningful relationships with blacks or whites and when he flees to the bush to avoid trouble he hears the song of a golden beetle, the song of promise. It’s a song of promise, it’s a song of return or the promise of return to something lost but later when he is lost and stranded and he is unable to read the weather he takes comfort in this song and he takes comfort in the full bloods he meets. One of the old men tell him proper good country this one, plenty kangaroo, plenty buffalo, plenty bandicoot, plenty yam, plenty goose, plenty duck, plenty lubra, plenty corroboree, plenty fun, plenty everything, number one good country, more better you sit all the same with black fella hey Norman but Norman can’t own his country, he can’t listen to it, he rejects the song of the golden beetle and he can’t stay and accept the offer of this older man and he dismisses the beetle song and the lifestyle of the people he considers the full blood.
So when dealing with whites Norman repudiates his Aboriginal heritage and in this way he is for the settler imagination a true half-caste, he’s caught between the full bloods who accept him but who he disavows and rejects and the white whom he emulates but who reject him and this ambivalent situation leads to the tragedy at the end of the novel where Norman ... where does ... sorry, where does Norman belong in the nation. Even though he acquires a white man’s legitimacy through his inheritance of a property he has no children, no prospect of a partner who will accept him either black or white. He has no capacity to continue his line and this inheritance is a tenuous one at least and most likely impossible to continue.
And Poor Fellow My Country opens with Prindy, the central character, described quite distinctly in blood and I’ll just quote from our first introduction to Prindy. He could pass for any light skinned breed, even tanned caucasian, but his eyes were grey with curious intensity of expression probably due to their being set in cavernous Australoid orbits. His nose fleshed and curved in the mould of his savage ancestry, he could be anyone, a beautiful creature to any eye but the most prejudice but in Australia he was just a boong. So the plot of Poor Fellow My Country, as I see it, is essentially a custody battle for Prindy, this young Aboriginal boy who’s half settler, half Aboriginal, but neither and it’s a battle for the heart and mind of a young boy who could be many things to many people but it is his Aboriginal blood, even though he’s actually described as a quarter-caste, that is the strongest point of his identification and leads ultimately to his demise.
Every religious viewpoint, every cultural force, every family connection wants a piece of him from Bob Wirridirridi, who is the sinister representation of a clever man or a witch doctor, Dr Cobbity, Faye McPhee the journalist, Kitty Windyer the classical musician, he is a genius even to Rifkah the holocaust survivor to Monsignor Leonard, even to Lord Vesty, who is actually a representation of ... sorry Lord Vaisey who is actually a representation of Lord Vesty from Victoria River Downs Pastoral Company at the time. Everybody wants to claim Prindy because he has so much potential, he’s a genius yet Prindy grows from adolescence to manhood through a series of events some of which are comic and many of which are tragic and violent but it is his Aboriginal blood that dictates the course of his life.
In one of his many letters, Herbert’s letters, cited by his biographer Frances de Groen, Herbert wrote if white fellows don’t confront and fully understand or make reconciliation with what has happened in the invasion of black Australia and the mucking up of the initiation and other processes they will keep stuffing up even if their hearts and minds are in the right place as Jeremy’s is. The rest of them will be spineless cowardly bastards who have no understanding of the country that they live in.
Yet his attitude to Aboriginal people is very ... is enigmatic to me because on the one hand he expresses what appears to be great concern but on the other hand his constructions ... his representations of Aboriginality have no hope, they’re hopeless but then again a lot of his characters are quite ill-fated so what to make of that I’m never quite sure. The more I read him the more ill-fated I find his works.
Okay. Sorry, I lost my ... there it is. Okay. The failed initiation scene that concludes Poor Fellow My Country is an example of such a hopeless future. The author never witnessed an initiation and admits to constructing the scene to make a point but it is a very problematic one. The initiation procedure itself is cruel. The Aboriginal Elders are like automatons, devoid of human emotion and empathy. They are led by the Pookarkka. Led by the Pookarkka they rape and brutally murder Prindy’s pregnant fiancé, Savitra, for intruding on a ceremony. Prindy then undergoes a trial by ordeal and is speared. Prindy’s white grandfather, Jeremy, who wanted him to belong to both worlds and did not oppose the initiation, in fact encouraged it, is brutally killed in this scene and in this scene I am trying to think back to some of the earlier comments that Herbert made about embracing or settlers embracing Aboriginal Australia or coming to terms with Aboriginal Australia, he used all those words but then as he constructs such a brutal and fatalistic scene for all concerned I’m wondering how his readers could have possibly done that at the time ‘cause I am ... I still find it hard to see how that could happen from such a scene and I still find that scene really disturbing.
In both narratives the mix blood children, Tocky, Prindy and their offspring die in tragic, violent circumstances and Herbert’s contribution to Australian literature on race and the nation for me is that his discourse on race purports to distain racial prejudice but his exploitation on the other hand of racial stereotyping for comic and melodramatic effects serves in some ways to feed the prejudices that he seeks to attack.
Felix Marr, who I once did a radio interview with on rare books and Capricornia was one of the rare books that they featured on the AB ... on an ABC 666 segment and I once did an interview with Felix Marr who is a musician and composer who wrote a précis for Poor Fellow My Country for the Baz Luhrmann film Australia. And Marr was a personal friend of Herbert’s, he knew him well, he read Poor Fellow My Country several times and he saw Poor Fellow My Country not only as the great Australian story but as the great Australian song and I mean certainly there is plenty of music in the novel but for me it doesn’t really synchronise and it can’t come together, it’s contesting rather than complimenting and for me I think it’s the great Australian angst and I’ve discussed this book with some of my Aboriginal colleagues and Poor Fellow My Country, given that it does depict post-war Australia from the vantage point of the 60s, when we look back on the history of country and people from where I stand these decades were for us times of heightened activism, radical change and reasonable optimism for our future.
For example Aboriginal scholar Cliff Watego wrote in 1988 that the most important waves of social change filtering from abroad was the ascendant position and activism of the blacks and the swiftness of the media to report on such events and Watego went on to say that during the 60s many educated Australians were conscious of the indications of change despite the conservative Menzies era and he went on to argue that the prevailing mood abroad cannot be discounted as having a prefe ... having an effect on relations at home and some examples of that are the 1946 Aboriginal stockmen’s strike, the 1963 Yolngu Bark Petition, the 1966 Wave Hill walk off, 1965 Freedom Rides, the 1967 Referendum and the re-establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 as evidence of this and so I wonder sometimes whose country does Herbert see poor in the face of such resilience.
But Herbert wrote a letter to his wife, Sadie Norman, and said of course Prindy is myself, just like Darcy, Jeremy and Clancy is all my parts and this is the key I think to interpreting the novel. Prindy’s a symbol not just of Aboriginal people embodied through youth and unrealised potential for Herbert but he is also a symbol of an Australia for Herbert that he sees passing with unrealised potential and that will die quite tragically like Prindy does. The death of a certain set of ideals I guess.
And so in the time that elapsed between when he wrote Poor Fellow and ... sorry, between when he wrote Capricornia and Poor Fellow many things had happened for Aboriginal people, many positive developments, and the half-castes he depicts from my close reading in Herbert’s narratives are symbolically half people, half formed beings, incomplete in their blackness and their whiteness and here therein I think is the problem, those who are neither black or white can’t develop or progress in either of these narratives and such figures have either been trapped in static traditionalism that is a figment of his imagination or they perish like Tocky, Prindy and Norman and unfortunately as the bleak endings of both narratives foreshadow that the need to be considered ... sorry, foreshadow that Herbert could not imagine a future for other Australians, either Aboriginal or not, and his works need to be considered I think not so much for their failure of prediction as Aboriginal people have proved to be resilient in the field of literature particularly so since the late 80s but I think his works need to be considered for their ability to articulate a great Australian failure, probably the great Australian failure of race relations, race relations with Aboriginal people and with post-war immigrants like Rifkah.
And also I ask too when I’m reading his narratives why is the advice of Aboriginal characters like Prindy, who is a genius, disregarded. Why is the advice of his mother, who straddles two worlds quite successfully, disregarded too? Prindy is the only one for whom the whites around him appreciate but this is problematic for Herbert who by his own admission lives through the character of Darcy and why is it Darcy who makes the decision that Prindy should be initiated into Aboriginal society not the Aboriginal society itself and particularly not his mother and why does he seek to preserve him in the past that is in all other ways, as far as Herbert’s concerned, gone and why has he got ... why has he sought to put him in a past that he goes to great lengths to portray as brutal and regressive and I’m not saying it was like that but that’s how Herbert constructs it. So why does he want to put a boy with so much potential there.
So in concluding perhaps I would like to perhaps consider why Herbert is so under taught and under discussed perhaps, except in circles ... except in specific literary circles and I’d like to offer the following reasons. So as a literary figure both in his own time and retrospectively he was quite unconventional and this may seem a contradiction but one of man ... but in the many great Australian traditions of
non-conformism but I think this is a myth, like many other Australian myths, that Herbert questions, like the nation founded in peace or the nation that’s never experienced any civil unrest or the nation that has never had to implement martial law and he was shameless and open about his bad behaviour. In his own biography, for example, a disturbing element, he’s shameless about the relationships he has with Aboriginal women, particularly younger Aboriginal women and he got up the nose of some of the great lit ... some of other ... his literary contemporaries at the time, such as Patrick White.
Also Herbert’s works challenge some of the dearly held settler myths of foundation and I think he comes closer to any other settler author perhaps to telling the truth or the literary truth about settler violence and the irresistible attraction that white men have for Aboriginal women. Miles Franklin said that ‘black velvet’ was the skeleton in the colonial closet but beyond making this statement she did nothing, nor did any other literary person, one of her literary peers, to open that closet, Herbert did and the initial manuscript that, as I mentioned, eventually became Capricornia was originally called Black Velvet and it’s ... you know I wonder sometimes why he didn’t keep that title and I can only speculate that it was too explicit for any potential publisher at the time and he had enough initial difficulty in securing a publisher for Capricornia anway.
So at the time of writing too Herbert was quite radical. He wrote in the 30s and he wrote in the late 60s and he did name the Aboriginal people that he was writing about. He named the Yurracumbunga people in Capricornia and the Laperna people in Poor Fellow My Country and that was radical at the time compared to other settler authors whose representations of Aboriginal people were well known from the late 1920s onwards. For example, Katherine Prichard’s 1929 novel Coonardoo doesn’t mention that she’s depicting the Njikena people in the north-west Kimberley region. They are just the Aborigines.
Some decades later in the 50s when Patrick White ... Patrick White neither acknowledges the country of Dugald or Jackey Jackey in Voss, 1957. They were also just the Aborigines. Alf Dubbo in Writers in the Chariot is the abbo or the half-caste and in a Fringe of Leaves his female protagonist, Ellen, now in the place called Fraser Island, goes through an ordeal with a tribe. This later novel of White’s is particularly interesting because in the course of writing Fringe of Leaves White did actually speak to some of the descendants, briefly, of the Butchulla People who rescued Eliza Fraser on whom he loosely based his character Ellen and the Butchulla People had a very different version of the story as a rescue, not as a captive narrative, but White chose to disregard that story or chose to ignore that story and more ... and ... because, I think, it was more important to construct a generic representation of a tribe back in 193 ... 1836 and more poignant to this discussion is that White knew he was conversing however briefly with a people who belonged to a place but he chose to ignore this and it was important to construct this generic representation and placelessness of the tribe of noble savages.
But when Herbert names the people he writes of they become at least geographically and historically connected to an Aboriginal country that the nation seeks to consume, to say the least, and the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples becomes very uncomfortable at some points for the settler reader and it’s a lot easier I think to displace, as in the earlier narratives, generic Aborigines like Prichard and White do because they can be represented as wandering and drifting aimlessly through the pages of their narratives and across some newly acquired settler property and you could say that White and Prichard are a product, moving on from this, of their times and apart from Aboriginal people ourselves there were very few settler people who were aware of or who recognised Aboriginal diversity but when you consider, as I’m asking you to consider further, that David Malouf wrote Remembering Babylism ... Babylon in the 90s, post-invasion, post bicentenary and more particularly he was writing as the Mabo claim was paying out ... playing out and still didn’t name the people whose country he was writing about.
This makes Herbert ... when you consider that, this makes Herbert all the more radical for his time and this leads me perhaps to one of the final points on why and I can’t decide whether the book was forgotten or whether the book is repressed, whether it vacillates between ... whether his works vacillate somewhere between the two but these are just possible suggestions, but Herbert implicates himself within the settler violence and the culture genocide. He does this in his own autobiography, to a lesser extent in his fictional forms but he doesn’t stand outside or above the story as some of the other authors do or he doesn’t use a stepladder approach, he doesn’t exempt himself from the violent process that the nation has been built on whereas I think some of the other authors are in danger of doing that.
So Herbert, the stories articulate the great Australian failure of an imagination of a nation, Australia, caught somewhere in the promise of a golden age, of an interwar Australia, especially in the 1940s and 30s and 40s, that was Herbert’s golden age and he feels betrayed and he writes of the realism of failure but for who. Who is betrayed by the nation, what is the nation and Poor Fellow My Country is written, I believe, on the cusp of the great failure of the imagination. The great failure of ideals for Herbert and people like Herbert, that particular settler audience that he was writing for and that he is a part of and he feels the betrayal of ideals and broken promises.
More recent books that are also positioned on such cusps are, although they’ve won some of the nation’s most prestigious awards like the Miles Franklin Award, are also positioned on the cusp of failures or difficult changes and they’re also under read as well. So I offer that perhaps by way of explanation that these books capture an important sense of change, disappointment, failure. Another book like that is Alexis Wright’s book Carpentaria which is written on the cusp of the disappointment of the failed promise of reconciliation and the failed promise of an apology as it was written at the time and it’s also greatly under read even though it’s a Miles Franklin winner.
So Herbert is betrayed by his ideals and his Aboriginal people are betrayed by a fate, a destiny, by events that they can’t escape because he can’t imagine Aboriginal people outside of a past that is a very static dreamtime and in the great Australian passion or tradition to aspire to great things there’s the great Australian emptiness, the great Australian silence. Herbert’s books have been described as the great Australian classic, it’s also the great Australian lament, the great Australian failure of isolation and utopia and of a national and socialist utopia with a small relatively homogenous population and Herbert’s dreams are in tatters and this is represented through the characters if Prindy, Norman and Tocky, a dream. Herbert is stuck in a dream. His Aboriginal characters are stuck in a dreamtime, a timeless place removed from historical co-ordinates and his ... and Herbert is trapped in a historical moment, a time warp like the song of the golden beetle in Capricornia that Norman hears and could hold so much promise, this brief song, but it goes silent and Norman fails to embrace it and Herbert sees that ... and I see that as very symbolic, that golden beetle that Herbert constructs there, it’s very symbolic of what he sees as the end of a golden age for an Australia that he believed in and he rages very much against this death, particularly in Poor Fellow My Country and the promise of a nation made all the more bitter I think because he rages against an unfulfilled promise, something that he can only imagine of ideals not brought to fruition. Of half formed dreams that will never come to fruition, never develop. A bit like the half formed people in his narratives that will never fully come to their potential and so he was not a person of moderation, he was one of great extremes, of peaks and troughs, of rises and falls and perhaps I think didn’t appreciate the decline of one thing or the death of one dream might just be the awakening of another. Thank you.