TEXT review


Imagining Reconciliation

review by Moya Costello

 

Meg Heggen
Dreaming of More Than Foxtails
Meg Heggen, Lismore, NSW 2011
ISBN 9780646551982
Pb 146pp AUD25 (original price, now try Amazon)

 

The subtitle for this work of creative nonfiction is A Melancholic Narrative Negotiating the Antipodean Experience of Settlement in Lismore NSW. Lismore sits within the far-north coastal rainforest area of Australia’s New South Wales (NSW), known as the Northern Rivers, which is part of the country of the traditional owners, the Bundjalung nation. As Heggen describes it, the consistent heavy rains flow from the Nightcap Range onto the hills of various surrounding villages such as Federal, and then further down onto Nimbin and elsewhere, including Lismore.

Heggen’s book could be usefully read alongside two books that cover the same geographical area, and historical period, from white invasion to the present: Rob Garbutt’s The Locals, published by Peter Lang in 2011, and Jennifer Hoff’s Bundjalung Junjun: Bundjalung Country, published by Richmond River Historical Society in 2006, a book that Heggen draws on. Heggen goes from Port Jackson in the late eighteenth century to Lismore in the mid-nineteenth and onwards, from its rivers to its forests and floods, birds, vegetation and vegetables, and from sickness and reservation to potential reconciliation.

Dreaming of More Than Foxtails, a work by a ‘whitefella’, a term often repeated throughout the book by Heggen, captures the zeitgeist – the passionate and sincere need of many Australians to redress the history of race relations in this country through personal action.

Heggen is a former student of the local Southern Cross University, and a resident of the Northern Rivers since 1980. In the book, she knowingly and lovingly details the history and contemporary state of landmarks in Lismore. As a current resident in the Northern Rivers, I am particularly taken with texts about the history – social, cultural and geographical – of this place where I now find myself. Local river, street, infrastructure and government utility names come alive on the pages of Heggen’s book: Wilson, Girard, Fawcett and Rous.

Lismore’s Wilson and Leycester creeks historically swell the Richmond River in high rainfall and in turn flood Lismore. In this landscape of rivers, there are many causeways and bridges. In Lismore’s CBD area, the creeks are crossed by the Coleman and Fawcett bridges, which form, ironically, ‘a boomerang’ overlooking ‘the juncture of the waters’ (109). Heggen uses ‘bridge’ as a metaphor for the potential reconciliation of blackfellas and whitefellas. But at present, as Heggen describes it, beneath the bridges and near the creeks are places for the local Indigenous peoples to camp, and for anyone who is homeless to sleep.

An image of Johnson grass sways across the book’s cover. It’s the invasive species, Sorghum halepense,which successfully competes with the native species, Swamp Foxtail Grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides. It is a shame that the beautifully delicate Australian native does not grace the cover as it does the book’s title. For Heggen’s book is a whitefella dreaming of the (sup)planting of Indigeneity. But the image of Johnson grass may be used ironically, referencing dispossession and invasion.
 
This is a self-published book, and self-publishing increasingly characterises the contemporary arts, music perhaps most noticeably. Despite the courage and energy revealed in this act of self-publishing, the book does also reveal lack in relation to the collaborative skills associated with trade publishing. In layout it appears to be switching inexplicably (without any readily discernible pattern or consistent reasoning) in font, font style and margins. This undermines legibility and disrupts reading flow. Perhaps that’s its purpose though: to perform unsettlement and, perhaps also, to perform in the layout, in mimesis, the practice of song cycles.

The text also needs editing. Heggen is in love with the long, complex sentence, but to the detriment of readability, clarity and impact. Of the many examples of this, here is just one:

We must bridge the gap if there is to be any chance for the realisation of meaningful public rhetoric around issues of reconciliation with those who declare they are made by the “billing” and the “wamankan”; those who take warning – and act accordingly – with the replies of the “mirram” rather than taking notice of the utterances of white youth who smatter graffiti over metal, timber and concrete, or twitter textual messages on iPods, iPhones or Blackberries across a widening digital divide; or even the empty words of politicians spoken with fear and anxiety in case their admissions give rise to more perceived failures in negotiating anything more than a pleasant state of co-existence while endeavouring to share the country/kuntri between those with apparently disparate interests. (113)

By the time we get to ‘politicians’, we’ve forgotten what the original premise of the sentence is. Although ‘between’ goes with ‘bridge the gap’, by the end of the sentence we have at least three if not four parties specified – in which case, ‘among’ would be better suited. ‘More’ is doubled awkwardly. The single sentence needs to be divided into three or four: separate descriptions of what is to be done, by whom and how would make a powerful impact. At the moment, that power is dissipated in confusion. You might look back at how you had to make your way through this text as the timber workers in the cedar industry might have made their way through the dense, dark and wet rainforest of the Big Scrub which once, filled with red cedar, spread from Byron Bay to Lismore.

This is a richly researched book, and Heggen is clearly enamoured of reading and research. But, again, editorial work could have cleared out unnecessary approaches to referencing while not sacrificing actual references. The following appear often: ‘according to [name]’, ‘as [name] relates’, ‘both [name] in [book title] and [name] in [book title]’, ‘as [name] writes’, and so on. These act as interruptions in the text; they are all you begin to notice; the actual thesis of the text gets lost. This is also a book that would have benefited from an index (there are abundant footnotes). But I am conscious of the work and added page numbers, and hence cost, that would result from such an inclusion. 

Hopefully, we will look back at this moment to see a range of writers, Heggen among them, in what we might recognise as a groundswell of activity, the aim of which was to fill the culture with a rewriting of history, a revisioning of race relations, and a remaking of place.

 

 

Dr Moya Costello teaches writing at Southern Cross University, in the School of Arts and Social Sciences.

 

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TEXT
Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
http://www.textjournal.com.au
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo
Text@griffith.edu.au