The Jakarta Post
Kim Scott (Pan Macmillan/File)
Before departing for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), Kim Scott reflects modestly on his journey — from teaching in remote communities in Australia to becoming, perhaps, the country’s most critically acclaimed novelist.
The author has twice won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Benang: From the Heart and That Deadman Dance, and his latest work, Taboo, is in line for this prestigious award as well as the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.
Engaging with stories of the aboriginal Australian Wirlomin Noongar people reclaiming identity and culture in southwest Western Australia, Taboo shreds colonial power in the most artful way.
Scott, who is also a descendant of the Noongar people, began his writing career seriously when he was teaching secondary school level kids.
“I felt a little fraudulent telling kids about how you’re meant to write when I’ve never had anything published myself. The first novel I wrote while still teaching in secondary school,” he said.
“Writing is a perverse pleasure and I used to like it when I was innocent about it, playing around with writing. But increasingly there’s been a lot of anxiety about it, and that takes away the pleasure, to some extent, so I try to rediscover the play.”
“Taboo is a bit like that — you work on the craft, artifice, the playfulness of how you construct stories, how you put them together — and focus on that rather than the big ideas stuff, which inevitably is in there somewhere.”
Scott’s inspiration for his novels come from the Wirlomin Noongar people’s old stories.
“For me, the issue is how to have some of the old stories I work with, in the Wirlomin Language and Stories recovery project, inform a contemporary Australian literary novel. I wanted to do that without being exploitative or reductionist in any sort of way and without being too overt and obvious.”
“Something I had noticed in a number of old stories we were working with, was not only do you have the archetypal stories that talk about a single protagonist moving away from home, facing contests and challenges successfully, then orbiting back home having grown and enriched and better able to contribute and expand the world of his own community; you also have, on occasion, those protagonists failing and either dying or being really damaged.”
“Even more so in these ancient stories, people are healed, if not brought back to life by a member of their family breathing into them and giving language back, making them speak again. I thought that was a really important thing ancient stories could offer in a contemporary sense: recovering Noongar community through reconnecting with precolonial heritage and community development, through ancient story and song.”
The style of writing in Taboo shifts like different places in the story, but Scott denies that this has anything to do with bringing out aboriginality in some of the characters.
“I get a lot of comments that my writing is non-linear. With this one I was trying to get myself out of that and bring in the craft and playfulness. And because it’s indigenous literature — it’s about the issues and never just because of who I am — I try to seduce […] lure people into it. It’s not intended to suggest anything to do with the aboriginality of the characters,” he said.
“In fact, a lot of my writing is trying not to posture aboriginality,”
“I leave it open, try to open doors for people to come a bit closer.”
Taboo examines power relations affecting indigenous people, but avoids using Noongar words. These are kept safe, through phrases like “the ancient language”.
“It’s partly that posturing business. If you want it to be anything other than very provincial, it has to speak about circumstances in other areas of Australia, where there are many different aboriginal languages,” Scott said.
In the last couple of novels, Scott said he had had a sort of dual focus between the Noongar language recovery project work and his own literary work.
“I can use the literary work to shine a light on the community development and language recovery. That feels very authentic and organic, as opposed to putting in some words that look Aboriginal, which no one — or very few — can understand. In the Noongar community, I don’t have a great lot reading my novels, because of literacy levels and other things,” Scott said.
“Having Noongar words and an accompanying glossary marginalises your readers and pushes them back. I don’t think that’s a way to operate; I think you try and lure readers in close, then get them to feel the discomfort once they’re close.”
Part of this discomfort is generated through the experience of a teenage female protagonist in Taboo, and Scott has his own reason to put a young girl at the center of this novel.
“Part of the perverse pleasure I take in writing is risk. My wife, when I first talked to her about using a female protagonist, admonished me and said I can’t do that. But that’s the perverse pleasure that interested me,” Scott said.
“Most significantly, I was working with power relationships. And to have a young woman in those circumstances was to talk about vulnerability […] and a power relationship that I think is deeply characteristic of Australia and our history.”