Saturday, July 7, 2012
what happened and how things were
First, the formal warning about these things: this post may contain the names of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are deceased.
Lisa Hill shouted me a sandwich once and I have not forgotten it, therefore, because one thing leads to another, etc, I have been reading a chapter from the book Don't Take Your Love to Town, which is a memoir by Ruby Langford Ginibi, a Bundjalung woman from the town of Coraki in northern New South Wales. Lisa is running an Indigenous Literature Week on her blog and it was either this or I read Alexis Wright's Carpentaria again, which I wasn't in the mood for, or reviewed Doris Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, which is written in the language of comic strip information boxes, "Little did he know that soon devastation and desolation would shatter this tranquil environment," and so on until you want to kick somebody but probably not Doris Pilkington because she is a granny; hence it would be disrespectful and you would look like Satan.
My chapter (which I found on Google Books) is Chapter One. Langford is born and grows. "Autobiography," wrote Carole Ferrier in an article about the book (Ruby Langford Ginibi and the Practice of Auto/biography), "has been the dominant genre over this time for most Aboriginal women writers, including Labumore (Elsie Roughsey), Glenyse Ward, Sally Morgan, Doris Pilkington and Mabel Edmund. In writing autobiography, they have been able to construct a visible identity as indigenous women within Australian society, and to write about aspects of the past that have been hidden from view as Langford Ginibi puts it `so we don't get left out of the next lot of history'" That article was published inside a Langford study pack in the late 1990s but the idea of memoir evidently obtains in the same group of authors now, more than a decade later; the Wiradjuri Jeanine Leane's Purple Threads (UQP, 2011) is a fictionalised autobiography, like Proust, and when Crikey interviewed the Rembarranga-descendant Marie Munkara about Every Secret Thing, (UQP, 2009), her reason for writing was the one that Ferrier suggested, to construct a visible identity for indigenous women within Australian society, expressed by her like this: "I really only wanted to write down some of the funny stuff so that one day my daughters would be able to know what happened and how things were for their mother, grandmother and other people."
That idea of not wanting people to be left out was the most useful one to have while I was facing this bit of Langford's work because she puts a mass of people in, she names people, she describes people, a neighbour enters, the neighbour receives a name, the neighbour waves and vanishes, and various numbers of these souls have no bearing on the story as a story, by which I mean that they do not push a narrative forward or even provide insights into the behaviour of the autobiographer, but she remembers them and so they go in. They are not left out. Christina Stead, when she was a teenager, wanted to write an encyclopaedia of unfamous people. Langford has done something like that, but it is a memoir. It has connective tissue.
And when I look at one of the other books I'm reading at the moment, a translation by Lewis Thorpe of The Journey Through Wales, a twelfth-century travel account written by a highly educated Welsh-Norman Archdeacon named Gerald, I wonder if this is how Langford's book will seem in the future. Gerald's book is autobiographical too, and his sense of structure is somewhat like hers, he names and describes incidental people and events as he remembers them, with a chronological framework around it all like a box. His ambition is not exactly the same as hers, he is not recording his family, and yet he too is motivated by the idea of preservation and rescue. "I published the Archbishop [Baldwin]'s Journey Through Wales, thus preventing his far from easy mission from ever being forgotten," he says. "What one owns must perish, but what I have will live. Possessions pass away but my skills live forever."
The descriptions in both books sit there, Gerald's and Langford's, these fossils in the fossil-bed of autobiography, and by these fossils we detect the long-dead dinosaurs, which are both "a certain knight named Gilbert, surname Hagurnell" who "after a long and unremitting anguish, which lasted three years , and the most severe pains as of a woman in labour, at length gave birth to a calf," and also a teacher named "Miss Pie, and she taught us to sing" in the Australian town of Casino where the author's family "rented a wooden house on the Lismore Road."
Miss Pie and Gilbert Hagurnell are preserved because the lava of someone else's memory happened to wash over them just there, they are baked in place, two silhouettes created and maintained, not the full creature but an idea of them; and Miss Pie would probably not have recognised herself from that description. "Listen," she would have said. "I am an encyclopaedia of my own."