The point of reading widely – of reading at all, really, but especially of reading widely – is to engage in as many experiences different to your own as possible. It’s why I joined the Queer Book Club this week, why I continue to read books from as many different countries and time periods as possible. But I never really properly appreciated the true value of wide reading until I participated in ANZ LitLovers’ 2015 Indigenous Literature Week.
I elected to read Tony Birch’s Blood, a novel I’d had on my bookcase since about 2012; and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, a collection of short stories that I hadn’t managed to get to for July’s Queer Book Club. I’m only a little way into Heat and Light, but I’m going to call it now and say that both of these books were wonderful, and so challenging in ways I’d never anticipated.
Blood is about Jesse and Rachel, and their life on and off the road with their mum Gwen, who can’t seem to keep a boyfriend or a job, but who for all her terrible decision-making skills loves her kids too much to be away from them. It’s about Jesse trying to find his place in a world where he’s only ever a visitor, and toying with the terrible choice between being free of his mum and leaving his little sister behind.
The book opens with Jesse in police custody, his custody officer trying to convince him to tell her what has happened. What follows is an account of his life, the decisions he’d made and the decisions Gwen has made that led their little misfit family to the point where the book begins. When I finished the book I actually had to go back and re-read the prologue a few times, just to be sure that I understood the way the books event’s progressed chronologically, because what actually happened was nothing like what I imagined had happened.
Jesse’s voice is brilliant, clear and eloquent but not overly sophisticated for the twelve-year-old he’s supposed to be. He describes places and situations in a way that rings true, and having driven around Australia a bit I had no trouble picturing the roadsides and landscapes they passed through. Jesse is also just rude enough to his sister and to Gwen that you never feel like he’s unreliable as a narrator – but I had the idea that if the book were to continue, the lies might just start to pour out.
I’m not sure whether it was because it’s a road trip novel, and that’s pretty much the way I’ve experienced Australia myself, but I really related to Blood on a level that surprised me. I could see the drying paddocks and small sleepy towns as they rolled past Gwen’s little car, imagine the sort of dilapidated houses the little family would stay in as the sorts of houses you see alone on the outskirts of a town. On some levels Blood talked about the Australia that I know, the one that I’ve experienced myself.
On the other hand, there are parts of Jesse’s experience that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. After all, the driving he did with Gwen and Rachel wasn’t a holiday, it was their whole life. Every time he was introduced to an adult that he came to trust, Gwen sent them away, looking for greener pastures. His father, a character who we never actually meet (for reasons that become apparent as Gwen moves from boyfriend to boyfriend without ever looking back), was an Aborigine, a fact which is only brought up a couple of times but which clearly affects the relationships he’s able to build with the people he meets.
Because it’s only mentioned once or twice, Jesse’s heritage is a subtle thing, but it made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which I view society – the way I automatically cast every character I meet as white, usually with dark hair, and with emphasis on each event and action which demonstrates their intelligence – in other words, a reflection of the way I see myself. I was struck recently by a post I saw on the internet which stated that there is no truly open casting for film roles – if a character’s heritage isn’t explicitly stated, it’s assumed to be white, and so casting is only opened to white characters. It’s assumed that for a character to be something other than white – Aboriginal, Indian, Native American, Ethiopian – there needs to be a reason, something central to the story. The default character is white, and as much as I was disgusted by that idea when I read that post, that’s also how I read characters myself.
And that’s why I try to participate in things like ANZ LitLover’s Indigenous Literature Week – these events challenge the way we read, encouraging us to read better, more openly, with more consciousness of the way we see the world and all the characters in it.