A Gathering of Stories From Time Immemorial
With a focus on Place on the Mona Blog this month, Fiction Editor Lauren thought it high time she reviewed one of her favourite book releases from 2021, Flock: First Nations Stories Then and Now.
I would like to acknowledge the people of the Wiradjuri Nation, on whose land I write this book review today, and all of the First Nations groups who feature either as authors of or characters in, or whose land features as a setting for, the short stories in Flock. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and acknowledge that the land always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
I am a lover of the short story. I love reading them, writing them, writing about them, editing them. Everything about their poignant settings and matchbox characters, their fragmented dialogue and unresolved conflicts, I love all of it. So, when I hear a whisper than an editor has set about collecting those gems into an anthology, I quite literally cannot sleep until I have that collation in my grip. And when that editor is Ellen van Neerven - rural, Mununjali Yugambeh, author (to say her first novel, Heat and Light, is award winning is to vastly undersell it to you), poet, activist, non-binary, queer, preserver of First Nations stories - well, you'd better understand that I'll be anxiously pacing outside closed bookshops at dawn.
At first, it seems that van Neerven's introduction of the collection as 'part of a bigger conversation' because 'many collections have come before' Flock is just humility. But van Neerven is very importantly trying to situate this collection within the context of First Nations storytelling culture, giving us a bit of perspective because we are considering the bound, published kind of collections of stories, whereas what van Neerven wants us to see is the gathering of stories since time immemorial. Indeed, oral and symbolic (such as through art) storytelling is one of the mainstays in First Nations cultures in Australia. Unfortunately, some of these stories have been irretrievably lost to us through genocide, displacement and other traumas we have inflicted upon our First Nations people. But van Neerven's celebration of this element of culture is clear in Flock; the idea that there is such a span of stories tied intricately to our very continent, which have come before the ones we read now, is a thread that runs through all the stories that feature in the book.
Van Neerven's own short story, 'Each City', is itself centred on ideas about place, the first and most central of which is displacement and the accompanying lack of safety, uncertainty and isolation. When van Neerven's protagonist must flee her home because her musical activism has offended some dangerous people, she leaves behind her family, her girlfriend and her country. Van Neerven cleverly creates the same disorientation for the reader, refusing to disclose where she has fled to, the language spoken in the new country or anything that could be specific or identifying. Meanwhile, we know back home, the government are building 'Indigenous City Projects', as part of which there has been more displacement, echoing the movement of First Nations people on and off missions and into social house projects like those in Redfern.
The story has a dystopian tone to it, with its industrial descriptions of machinery, abandoned cities and an unknown entity hunting the protagonist across the globe, monitoring and surveying her. And yet, her grounded, very Australian, identity and those of her family defy the genre and there are moments of warmth and laughter.
'River Story' is written by another celebrated writer and activist living in the Minjungbal-Nganduwul community of the far north coast of New South Wales, Mykaela Saunders. Usually a poet, Saunders' short story weaves in poetic language to describe the way the local river has had such a central role in the lives of women in the community. Moving between the perspective of comatose mother and her long absent daughter, the river's constant presence becomes almost a character, too; one whose function is to facilitate forgiveness, nourish with food and vitality, cleanse convalescents, host births, carry away remains and enable people to gather and pay their respects.
The storytelling is non-linear, it moves back and forth between past and present, reality and imagination. The detail in the story belongs to the past and the present is dealt with sparsely; one episode takes place exclusively in dialogue by minor characters. So we are led to believe that it is the past where meaning is found, when the river was healthy and the central relationship between mother and daughter was strong. This is yet another hark back to van Neerven's opening assertion that the storytelling of the past, in its rich and detailed oral forms, is just as important as the print you read on the pages before your very eyes.
Cassie Lynch's 'Split' moves in a similar non-linear way, but she brings the past into the present physically, through recreating the landscape around the city of Perth. Bit by bit, the modern day, Settler Time Perth is swallowed up by the ancient Bilya. Lynch's protagonist journeys around Noongar Country as it looked and moved in Deep Time, ridding herself of her Anthropocene Air that has attached itself to her (and us) like a second skin, preventing us from knowing the air and water.
Then there are the more starkly confronting stories that do not stem from time immemorial but from modern trauma. 'The Golden Wedding Anniversary' by Gayle Kennedy, whilst jubilant in title, hides an ugly truth about how the couple celebrating their wedded bliss actually met. It is the unfortunately too common story about how hatred expresses itself against minorities and women in rural communities (and, I'm sure, cities). Melissa Lucashenko's 'Dreamers' is an antidote of sorts, demonstrating how an unconventional family can trascend colour and race, stereotypes, opinions and inexplicable grief. Jean, an Aboriginal housekeeper for May and Ted in the first half of the twentieth century, is an invaluable part of the family and companion for May. The three of them support one another through the loss of a child, a destructive fire and an invasion of hippies come to protect the trees. But Jean hides pain of her own, living in constant fear of being ousted, assaulted and reminded of the pain of her own child, another grim and relevant reminder of the strength of First Nations women in the face of what they've been forced to endure at the hands of white men and white government, and the ways their pain and experiences have been overlooked historically by white women.
If films are said to have all-star casts, Flock's authorship is bursting at the seams with prestigous awards. Multiple David Unaipon Award recipients, both NSW and Victorian Premier's Awards recipients, Miles Franklin Literary Award winners, Oodgeroo Noonucal Prize winners and Walkley Award winners. Flock is such a fitting tribute to First Nations authors who have such long standing careers and who have so many unique stories to share with us.