The case for Kim Scott's That Deadman Dance
Tony Hughes-D'Aeth, University of Western Australia
If you had to argue for the merits of one Australian book, one piece of writing, what would it be? Today, we start an occasional series in which our authors make the case for a work of their choosing. See the end of this article for information on how to get involved.
The novel is a “contact” novel in that it deals with the frontier of cultural contact caused by European colonisation.
The setting is the south coast of Western Australia, which saw the earliest protracted contact between Europeans and Aboriginal people west of the Nullarbor. Sealers and whalers used the coves and islands of this sunken coastline to base their shore operations. Ships anchored for periods of months and interacted with the local Noongar people.
In 1826, fearful of the French sniffing around, a garrison force was sent from New South Wales to the site now occupied by the town of Albany. Three years later, in 1829, the Swan River colony was founded. In 1831, the southern garrison was withdrawn and the settlement came within the administration of the new colony.
Scott’s novel takes place through these years of informal colonisation, in which the fragility of those arriving was felt more acutely than it would be later in the colonial timeline. Certain pragmatic compromises were reached. This obligation to play nice was, as the novel makes clear, driven by practical realities.
The colonists were few and isolated, they were profoundly ignorant of local conditions and heavily reliant on Indigenous knowledge for water and the basic navigation of the interior. A range of relationships ensued, certainly not equal, but distinguished by forms of genuine exchange.
It is in reference to this informal colonial period that the novel teases out its central tantalising idea. For here, Scott shows us, was a moment where the absolute guarantee of cultural supremacy was not fully assured for the coloniser, and in that shadow of a doubt something briefly flickered into existence. Just the tiniest of counter-historical possibilities comes to life, that things may have been otherwise.
Now, why is this important? Needless to say, it was contact history – how violent it was or wasn’t, whether we are obliged, if we concede it wasn’t honourable even in its day, to offer recompense in the present, and so on – that were at the heart of the history wars in the first decade of this new millennium.
The first thing to say is that Scott is completely cognisant of these debates. Not one wrinkle of these painful and protracted exchanges seems to have escaped him. How tempting it must have been to wade in, particularly when the temperature rose and a degree of hysteria became more or less normalised in the national discourse.
And yet what should a novelist do if he or she wishes to treat these crucial matters in their creative work? What if that novelist is, like Scott and many other Indigenous Australians, a descendent of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestors?
In Western Australia, the key Indigenous literary figure in thinking this matter through is Jack Davis. Davis’s plays, especially, set up a crucial relationship between the process of colonisation and the current Aboriginal reality – indeed, the current post-colonial Australian reality.
The mode Davis uses is, for the most part, a kind of elegy. He too nominates a brief moment in his version of the colonial encounter where both sides co-existed. This ends with the killing of the Swan River elder Yagan in 1833 and the Pinjarra punitive expedition of 1834.
The next great traumatic moment is the serious ramping up of legislation designed to control Aboriginal people in the early and middle decades of the 20th century. This instituted a whole new wave of damage by systematically removing Aboriginal people from their land and family connections (including, crucially, language) and insitutionalising them in missions and “Native Settlements”. In Davis’s plays these events keep reaching out of the backdrop and grabbing the characters by the throat. The experience is of a sleepwalker trying to wake-up and thinking she does, only to realise that she has “woken” back inside the nightmare.
One needs to think about Davis to understand the bold wager that Scott makes in That Deadman Dance. Scott has said in interviews about this book and in his afterword to the novel that he wanted to write a novel from the point of view of Aboriginal confidence. He writes that he was “inspired by history”. What!? This is a history of decimation, of cultural annihilation, of losses so profound that we as a nation struggle even to contend with them, let alone deal with them. So how can Scott be inspired by this? In his author’s note to That Deadman Dance, he writes:
I wanted to build a story from [Noongar] confidence, their inclusiveness and sense of play, and their readiness to appropriate new cultural forms - language and songs, guns and boats - as soon as they became available. Believing themselves manifestations of a spirit of place impossible to conquer, they appreciated reciprocity and the nuances of cross-cultural exchange.
This is not misty-eyed idealism. Scott’s novel is not in denial of the brutal realities of the colonial process. In his day-job Scott deals with issues of Aboriginal health. Beyond his writing, but somehow connected to it, he has also undertaken an arduous but heroic attempt to regenerate Noongar speech – the whole thing proceeds by grass-roots meetings. There is no-one who knows better than Kim Scott the profound fracturing of Noongar society in the wake of nearly two centuries of colonisation.
But the novel is not narrated from this point. It is narrated from the point at which cultural accommodation did occur, however roughly, and so is, as the Marxists says, a really existing possibility. It is like the shard of a meteor. It seems insignificant when weighed against the earth’s crust and all its oceans, but it is nonetheless there, a mute declaration that another world exists.
Scott’s That Deadman Dance is by no means a flawless work by the categories one might use to judge such things. It is overlong, perhaps, and though less so than Benang (his previous novel), it still does seem to circle back across itself, muddying its own waters. I can also see why this might also be an intended, and certainly an apt, effect.
It is a great book because it makes from an impossible situation a possible way forward. This is a moral achievement as much as it is an aesthetic or literary one. It’s what we demand from our greatest writers. It’s what history has demanded of Kim Scott.
He doesn’t give us hope based on platitude, but a mechanism through which to build a better world, a world in which things can survive together.
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Tony Hughes-D'Aeth does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Western Australia provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.