Kim Scott: That Deadman Dance
It’s been over ten years now since Kim Scott published his acclaimed second novel, Benang, which among other distinctions won (in a tie with Thea Astley) the Miles Franklin Award in 2000, making him the first indigenous writer to be so recognised. In the meantime he produced a children’s book, and Kayang and Me, written in collaboration with Hazel Brown, one of the elders of Scott’s Noongar people from the south-western coast of Western Australia, an oral-based history of the author’s family.
I wasn’t familiar with these earlier works unfortunately, but that hasn’t affected my wonder and delight at this new book, which seems to unfold like a magical dream. And I mention the latter non-fiction work because it no doubt influences this novel – here is an attempt, and I would say a marvellously realised one, to meld the experience of early colonial contact from the perspectives and in the voices of all of the participants: the Noongar of course, ancient Aboriginal custodians of this spectacular coast; the early settlers, predominantly convicts and their wardens, as well as those free men with what we might call the ‘colonial spirit’, of starting anew in ‘virgin’ lands; and the early whalers, who were indeed the initial reference point for the indigenous encounter with the Other.
Scott begins his tale in the early 1830s, focussing on a fledgling colonial outpost not far from present-day Albany. His narrative follows both black and white, and is divided into several parts, proceeding linearly over a little over a decade, but including as well a prequel of sorts back to the mid-1820s. It is a periscopic style that enables us to observe the shifting perspectives over time among all the participants, newcomer and traditional owner alike, as the ‘progress’ we know from our history books unfolds.
The over-arching narrator is Bobby Wabalanginy, whose life story spans the duration of events under examination, and beyond. Scott, in some gently ironic asides, looks forward to when Bobby is an old (and tragically isolated) elder, acting as a guide and nominal ‘Aborigine’ to tourists who now call this country their own. He remembers the old tales, but must be careful how he recounts them lest he should offend – some things he must mutter under his breath.
So we have the tales of well-intentioned Dr Cross, ambitious Mr Chaise, the guard Killam and convict Skerry – each with their own vision of the bounty the country can afford – and Bobby’s people, fishermen and hunters: Wunyeran, Menak, Wooral and many more. What starts as a tentative reconnaissance by both sides of knowledge and attitudes separates over the years into a more combative relationship. Bobby, who as a boy learns English from Dr Cross and is intrigued by what he comes to understand of the colonial enterprise, becomes the man who stands on the literal knife-edge between the old world and the new.
It’s hard to imagine we’ll ever again have an account of this period, fiction or non-fiction, with such veracity as this, and I mean that particularly in terms of the psychological. For here we get absolutely convincing portraits of the attempts at understanding on both sides. But perhaps the particular historical tragedy, other than the ravages of disease, was that the active fascination that people such as the Noongar had for Western ways led them (as Scott notes in an afterword) to never suspect that they were putting their very identity on the line in their encounter with the white man, the ‘horizon people’. Their ‘confidence in themselves as manifestations of the spirit of place and of the impossibility of that spirit ever being conquered’ turned out, as we well know, to be severely battered, if thankfully not completely extinguished.
Scott’s enormous achievement then, in this fascinating and beautiful book, is to register that openness as it once existed, and, without judgement or didacticism, and only a quiet nod to the tragedy that was and continued to unfold, to give us a poetic and wise vision of what form our cultural life could still take today.
Surely Kim Scott, with That Deadman Dance, has one hand on next year’s Miles?