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Kim Scott’s Aborigine novels are about recovery – in the sense of healing and of regaining what was lost, writes Bron Sibree

Published in the Sunday Times

Kim Scott, Picador Australia

Kim Scott writes tales about Australia’s indigenous history that resonate so deeply in the marrow you’re never the same after reading them. Tales that beguile as deftly as they overturn preconceptions about his nation’s frontier history.

Scott, 60, often called Australia’s most important novelist, is the only indigenous author to win the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary prize) twice. Most recently he won it for his 2010 novel That Deadman Dance, which proffered a form of hope, as one reviewer put it, not “based on platitude, but as a mechanism to build a better world”.

Notions of hope and possibility are seamed, too, into his new novel, Taboo, his fifth, which is contemporary to its bootstraps yet soars on mysterious ancient resonances. It’s a novel of heart-aching sadness, wry humour and incalculable beauty that revolves around a group of Wirlomin Noongar people who accept an invitation to visit a 19th-century Aboriginal massacre site on a property in Western Australia owned by elderly white farmer Dan Horton. A site where Horton’s ancestors once massacred theirs.

Among the Noongar characters who make the journey is teenager Tilly Coolman, who was briefly fostered by the Hortons as a child, and whose sad history gradually unfolds, exemplifying the harsh contemporary realities for many indigenous people.

This is a book, says Scott, “about damaged people at the interface of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies, our history …” He breaks off at the word “recovering”. “That’s a very important word for me for this book – recovering through connection to precolonial heritage and a transformation occurring because of that. And in the case of Tilly, it’s recovering or healing through connection to community as well as place and language.”

Indeed, all the Aboriginal characters in Taboo cling to the belief that reconnecting with ancestral land and language will heal a devastating legacy of loss and damage, and it remains, says Scott, “a preoccupation of many of us. I have worked in prisons with language, I’ve heard people talking in these terms. So that’s what I’m exploring, recovery and transformation.”

Indeed, this soft-spoken professor of writing at Perth’s Curtin University has witnessed transformation aplenty during his two-decade long involvement with the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, a language and culture recovery project which has “deeply informed” the novel. Drawing on various genres in magical and daring ways, Taboo reflects his desire to shift archetypal indigenous stories into the wider, global literary canon.

“There’s deep mythos potentially available to us in them,” says Scott. “I’ve talked often about the notion of anchoring a shimmering nation state to its continent through its indigenous heritages, and language is part of that; but it’s not just Noongar, it is many, many languages. And I wanted to signal the significance of these languages vis a vis Greek and Latin. There was a renaissance of those languages, and here we have even more ancient languages and a landscape that is truly ancient in which those languages are embedded.”

He speaks too of “the paradox of empowerment through giving”, citing an incident during the project’s early years when key Noongar elders invited a member of one of the old pioneering farming family’s along. “I remember saying, ‘No, they stole our country, we’re not giving them this as well,’ but they insisted. And when the elders called this particular individual to the front and gave him these [Noongar-language] books, he was crying. That made me realise there’s a transformation of power relationships in the storytelling situation.”

Scott was a schoolteacher who turned to writing poetry out of embarrassment to be teaching literature without writing it himself. Now, several books and a swag of awards later, he remains a passionate believer in the transformative power of storytelling. “I’ve been transformed through reading,” says Scott. “It’s one of the most exciting potentials of writing stories, that possibility. It’s the immersion, the dwelling inside the story that’s transformative.” – @BronSibree

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