Rating: 3 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Read Around the World Challenge
Mullumbimby is the story of Jo Breen, a former musician, divorced from her husband, bringing up her daughter Ellen as a single mum. Jo lives in Mullumbimby, a town in New South Wales, where she earns a living mowing the grass in the white people’s cemetery. Jo is a Goorie woman from the Bundjalung nation. Her ex-husband Paul is a white Australian. Jo wants to reconnect with her Aboriginal roots. She is instantly likeable, warm and ready to laugh, easy going and a hard worker for the things she believes in – family, identity, and respect. Mullumbimby focuses on Jo’s attempts to re-establish herself on tribal land and reveals the conflict that forms the history of land appropriation and informs the native title claims process in Australia, as well as the conflict between different generations of Aboriginal people.
The author of Mullumbimby, Melissa Lucashenko, is one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal writers. She shares a heritage with her character, Jo. The novel is peppered with Bandjalung words mainly from the Bundjalung and Yugambeh dialects, a glossary of which is found at the back of the novel. Some of the meanings are apparent from the context of their use, but I did flip back and forth between the glossary and the narrative from time to time.
I really like Australian fiction, but everything I’ve read so far has been by Australians from a European background. I’ve wanted to read something written by an Aboriginal writer for a while, but didn’t know where to start. I read a review of Mullumbimby on Words and Leaves and decided that Lucashenko’s novel was a good entry point.
Dadirri, or meditation, is key to Jo’s reconnection, she believes. The heart of being Aboriginal is sitting quietly, looking and listening, observing the world until what matters becomes clear. Her Aunty Barb told her
Sit still long enough and you see everything clear, bub … Sit until the superficial bullshit falls away …
When Jo stands in the Mullum hills, looking across her ancestral homelands, she removes her shoes to feel the earth directly and raises her arms to the sun, because
It seemed to her, facing the dawn, that anything might be possible now, and as if the day – this morning, this sun upon these hills – called for a kind of reverence that she could barely express.
We in the West could all learn from this, it seems to me. Modern life has disconnected us from what matters, and left us stressed, bound as we are to a treadmill existence of proving our worth. That’s how I feel, anyway. It’s something that I’m working on. The yoga class I started didn’t completely gel with me, but I know that the moments of stillness, the being present in the now, are good for my head and consequently my body. Mr Hicks and I were in the Lake District recently. We went up Aira Force, and being in woodland beside strongly rushing water, climbing a steep hill made me feel connected to the planet in a similar way to Jo removing her shoes to feel the earth beneath her feet. I’ve also started taking a moment to rebalance my priorities at work when I feel the (largely self-imposed) pressure start to mount. Just a moment of reminding myself of what matters and sitting quietly, feeling my body in relation to my surroundings, works wonders for calming down my amygdala. And then I have to stop my self-mockery of being so hippy-dippy and New Age. Because what’s wrong with using ancient techniques that are present in so many different cultures, from hermitic Christianity to Aboriginal, Hindu and Buddhist spirituality, when they counter the anxiety that comes from our modern way of life? Further into the book, Jo makes a similar connection between the Aboriginal tradition of dadirri and the Buddhist meditation her friend Therese introduces her to on a weekend retreat. It has led me to reconsider the tiny bit of yoga I’ve learned recently, and now I do a round of Salute to the Sun while I’m brewing the tea.
I wasn’t even two chapters into the book and I’d already got a lot out of it. Then Twoboy and his brother Lazarus arrive with a generational claim to the Bundjalung land. Twoboy has a law degree and is all set to use the whitefella’s law to win back Aboriginal territory. For Twoboy, the land he’s claiming back is a symbol of freedom, of a return to the status Australia’s Aboriginal people had before the European settlers came and forced them into a cringing way of life. For Jo, the land she buys with the money from her divorce settlement is about independence, not having to live the way her parents’ generation thought Aboriginal people should live, and not having to rely on a man. Jo and Twoboy almost inevitably become involved romantically. Their love affair is occasionally clichéd, almost too much to take seriously, but Lucashenko uses it to show how the misguided aim of an older generation, to raise their children to assimilate with the white world that surrounds them, can damage individuals and alter their relationship with themselves and with their community.
Although I initially liked Jo as a character, as the book progressed, I went off her a bit. She had a fair few weak points. All the time she was bemoaning her teenage daughter’s adolescent attitude, she seemed as adolescent as, if not more so than Ellen. Her determination to be independent and self-reliant is born of fear of rejection, but also plays out as extreme self-obsession. She doesn’t cut the people who love her much slack, pushing them away at every opportunity. Her behaviour towards Twoboy was irritating at times, more like the kind of plot device you’d encounter in a soap opera than a believable relationship between two adults. I also found some of her attitudes towards others distasteful, in particular her unwillingness to understand the nature of her friend Chris’s depression which she frames as a mysterious illness that stops Chris from helping others, mainly Jo, out.
For all that the farm was only twenty minutes from town, maybe she really was more alone than she recognised. Chris was regularly depressed for weeks on end and Therese spent half her free time in Brisbane getting a fix of the city lights.
… it suddenly occurred to Jo: it might be a good idea to ring someone. Chris. No. Chris was depressed in bed, was no good to her today, no good even to herself.
… Jo knew that Chris loathed visitors when she was sick; her mysterious depression made her less welcoming of her friends, not more.
If I were Chris, and I had a friend that I only saw if I bumped into her in town or if she called on me because she needed a favour, and who either ignored me when I was depressed or resented me for not being able to go to her, I’d find myself a better friend. But maybe Chris doesn’t see Jo as a friend as much as an acquaintance. I didn’t find out, because Chris was mostly cipher.
While I understood the anger against the descendants of white European settlers and the way Jo talks about them, her willingness to use racial slurs to describe non-white but non-Aboriginal Australians was a struggle for me. It might be accepted slang in Australia to call people with Southern European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern heritage a term that when used in Britain is extremely offensive, and people of those ethnic groups might be reclaiming the word as their own, but given Jo’s own life experiences, I expected less casual racism from her. It made me question, as it always does when I encounter it, how anyone who endures discrimination can indulge in hate speech of any kind towards other groups that are also discriminated against.
I enjoyed the passages that were rooted in Aboriginal tradition. I learned that everyone has a spiritual totem, such as a bird, a reptile, a plant, and they are responsible for the stewardship of that totem. So Jo and her community greet animals, plants and features of the landscape in order to show their respect and to maintain their connection to the world. There are similarities with Shinto in Japan. I found this on the Australians Together site:
In an animistic world every thing is interconnected, people, plants and animals, landforms and celestial bodies are part of a larger reality. In this world, nothing is inanimate, everything is alive; animals, plants, and natural forces, all are energised by a spirit. As such, humans are on an equal footing with nature; are part of nature and are morally obligated to treat animals, plants and landforms with respect. In this world, the invisible and the visible pulse with the same life and the sacred is not separated from the secular, they are interconnected and interactive.
But also in this world, the unseen spiritual forces are stronger and hold sway over all nature. A healthy respect for the power of spirit forces is learned from early childhood, particularly in relation to religious or social taboos. These spiritual forces are believed to have the power to make rain, foster natural growth, assist in hunting and food gathering and even to the finding of spouses or partners. It is also believed that they have the power to act against the wishes of people if the correct ceremonies and/or rituals are not practised or observed. And it is believed that crossing the boundaries of social taboos will also incur their wrath.
Lucashenko gets this aspect of Aboriginal tradition across without seeming didactic. Quite rightly, it’s something the characters live rather than expound upon. I was disappointed, though, that there wasn’t more in the way of exposition around the subject of Native Title. Lucashenko must have known that her readership would be as much white as it is Aboriginal, but a lot of the backdrop felt as though she assumed more knowledge of Aboriginal culture and history and how it links to land and water rights than I, for one, possess. What Lucashenko includes is really interesting, but I felt as though she had missed an opportunity to create something deeper and more multidimensional.
Jo eventually finds her connection and starts to act for herself and her daughter, instead of drifting and reacting to events around her. She listens to the spirits of her ancestors, and follows where they are leading her. The message is that the traditional way of doing things is best. The token gestures handed out by the whitefella are meaningless. I liked Jo again by the end of the book. She’d redeemed herself.