Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Some thoughts on the Miles Franklin winner "All the Birds, Singing."

In The Australian a couple of days ago, a noiresque (is that a word?) photo of Evie Wyld headed up an article on her recent Miles Franklin win, and the commentary under the photograph ran: “Miles Franklin winner Evie Wyld is an English writer—and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Later in the article I read again, “…I call her an English writer —and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Both those statements, made in such close proximity to each other, seemed to suggest that perhaps an English person should be the very last person to receive Australia’s most prestigious literary prize; the declarations seemed to be compensating for something. There seems something unsettling, perhaps, that the British might be able to write more compellingly about our country than an Australian, a fear residual of the cultural cringe phenomenon—that maybe the rest of the world (even Britain) does it better than we can ourselves. Perhaps. Evie Wyld has an Australian mother, and—to borrow the phrase from The Australian—that counts for something, maybe she is not entirely British. But the veiled defensive commentary in the article raises an interesting idea, one explored and occasionally stated by authors writing from outside Australia in some way, that sometimes one has to be on the outside in order to express the inside, that  one has to be away from one’s country to write about it with any insight and clarity. Distance in this case is not a tyranny, as Geoffrey Blainey maintained, but a lens through which the truth about one’s own relationship with one’s country can be more clearly examined, perhaps understood. David Malouf spent many years writing about Australia from outside it, and author Alex Miller has seemingly done the opposite—migrating to Australia in order to write about England. 

Wyld’s novel seems to embody this dilemma, the way distance does not stop stories from invading each other, the past breaking into the present, the ways that experiences in a far away place are not really so far away; that they have a way of bridging oceans and years and haunting, even ravaging, the present. Distance, in her novel, seems to open new and pervasive connections, and often sinister ones. The strange black creature who brutally attacks Jake’s ewes bears a strong resemblance, for this reader, to the black creature with the glowing red eyes that appears and haunts the images in Nude, Black Dog and a Tent by a Black Pool by Arthur Boyd. We learn that the story haunting Jake is the tragedy of the youth Denver, part-Aboriginal, whom she loved and deeply resented when he overlooked her for another girl—the resultant heartbreak being the catalyst for Jake starting the fire that killed Flora and led to Denver being seared so badly that he suffered burns that destroyed his eyelids and mouth. The fact he was blamed for Jake’s own criminal act, seems to manifest in the strange black beast that rattles Jake’s front door on the island, destroys her sheep, and even one time pants and waits outside Jake’s locked bathroom door. This imagistic, abstract portrayal of racial conflict emerges at times in a more concrete way, mainly through the dialogue of the Australian characters. Through their voices, Wyld makes several references to “whiteys” not belonging to Australia, that “we shouldn’t have come to Australia to start with. Look at us—crusted with skin cancers. The sea wants to kill us, the bush wants to kill us. You know there’s a shell up north—you pick it up on a beach, thinking you’ve found something pretty to hang round your neck, the fucker shoots out a poison arrow that’ll disintegrate your kidneys? It’s fucked, and we shouldn’t be here.” (167) 

This conflict pervades the work, and Jake feels throughout the novel that she has no place—she escapes her own home after the fire, and drifts to Darwin, Port Hedland, and then finally to an outback sheep station. We don’t ever find out how she manages to end up buying a farm on an English island, but even there she doesn’t fit—she never goes to the pub, doesn’t connect with any of the locals. The two people with whom she forges some sort of relationship are an older man feeling adrift from his land and son, exiled upon and from his own property, away from the house he cannot return to because his wife’s ghost haunts him, and Lloyd, the drifter who arrives one night on his own mission to ritualize the cremation of someone or something—again, we never find out the identity behind the ashes. 


So the stories are loose in some ways, fragmented and never pieced out in full logical detail, but the connections between them are the strong points, the ways they invade each other. Who are we, neither English nor accepted by and in the land we invaded? The sins of the past, the contemporary injustices against indigenous custodians of the land, are forcing their way into (and maybe catalysts for?) the psychic disenfranchisement of modern Australians. We can’t leave, and we can’t fully be in the land either. The end result, Wyld suggests by her enigmatic closing scene, is to have the courage to stand, gazing at the beast, the nameless “shadow beneath the green canopy” and hold hands with another, and no longer refuse to run.

 (1) Romei, Stephen. "Singing Evie Wyld's Praises for Miles Franklin Win." The Australian 5 July 2014, sec. Arts: n. pag. Print.

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