Red Dirt Talking
Jacqueline Wright, Red Dirt Talking, 2012
To create fiction, writers must be able to write about people who differ from them, whether by gender, sexuality, race, disability, class or age. Yet the representation of Indigenous characters by white writers has been made problematic by the long colonial history of erasing the humanity and culture of Indigenous people and by their frequent portrayal as stereotypes, such as “good” or “bad”.
Red Dirt Talking is full of Indigenous characters, and Jacqueline Wright has said that she “agonised over her characterisation of Aboriginal people, keenly aware of a long history of white people speaking for them without permission to do so.” When she won a bursary to do a PhD, she used it complete this book and write a mini-thesis about the ethics of representation of Indigenous people by non-Indigenous fiction writers.
It is not for me to judge, but it does feel that Wright has got it right, because her characters live and breathe. They are not stereotypes but complex, multi-layered individuals, each with their own unique mix of strengths and weaknesses. We get to know them by what they do, what they say, and especially how they say it. Wright once worked as a teacher-linguist in a remote community, and appears to have a fine ear for language.
And that applies equally to her white characters, of whom there is also a multitude. Reviewers have found it hard to keep track of all the characters, and I often had to use the Kindle search facility to work out who someone was. But I wondered whether this profusion was deliberate, to reproduce a complex reality and to demonstrate what it is like for an outsider like Annie to come to a community where everyone knows everyone else and understands the relationships between them.
Annie is an anthropology graduate who has made a mess of her own life, yet unthinkingly believes she knows what is best for Indigenous people and expects them to accept the way she has decided to help them, within her timeline and postgraduate study needs. One thread of the book is the story of her re-education.
There are many other threads, including the mysterious disappearance of a girl during the custody battle for her; the lives of Maggot the Garbo and his mates who support him in his struggles with the police and the council; and the role of family in Indigenous lives.
Red Dirt Talking is engrossing, thought-provoking and great fun. You may need to keep track of the players in a notebook or a device, but it’s worth it. Most of the pleasure of reading the book comes from the voices of the main characters.
Thank you to Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers, whose review alerted me to the book and prompted me to read it. For an example of voice nailing a character, see Lisa’s “Sensational Snippet” of Maggot the Garbo describing the seasons. Other informative reviews are by Ed Wright at The Australian and Janine Rizzetti at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip. For more information see Jacqueline Wright’s Facebook page.