I was so moved by Rosanna Stevens’s Canberra launch speech for Where the Trees Were, that I have included it here for all to read. If I have pulled off half of what Rosanna suggests, them I’m thrilled. We’re all little fish, but it seems to me that only by learning more about the natural world, and all of the histories of those places where we live, can we know ourselves – and this country.
“Let’s begin by acknowledging the First People of this country, the Ngunnawal People, on whose land we meet tonight to launch this book. I acknowledge their elders past, present and future, and extend my acknowledgement to all First People present here this evening. This always has been, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
“Initially, I found it hard to imagine a way I could talk about all the things that happen in this book without being disappointingly vague: this is no fault of the writer, in fact I was marvelling at how one book could contain so much complexity and simplicity while I audibly swore at the book for containing so much complexity and simplicity. Where would I start from, I wondered, if I were going to praise a book about trees, that is also not about trees? It turns out, I just needed patience. Like all good writers, Inga had quite naturally planted her own metaphor for the entire story right toward the end of it, and when I read these two pages, they winked at me and enticed me to make them come alive this evening. The scene is a pastoral one – set around a river that sits central to our protagonist – Jayne’s – childhood memories and adventures. She is living out her final weeks of high school and has taken herself to the river to pick mushrooms.
After all the rain, I took an afternoon off, at the river. All my major assessment pieces were in, and sometimes field mushrooms grew under the tree where Kieran had fallen. I had a craving for mushrooms on toast. Mum did them up with cream and parsley and pepper, and since I had stopped eating meat, she was trying hard to come up with new dishes we would all like. Especially leading into exams.
I couldn’t have timed it better; some of the mushrooms were just opening out, fresh pink gills beneath the white caps. I soon filled a bucket but left it on the bank. The river was demanding my attention. It was as full as I had ever seen it, creamy, and sliding past rather than flowing. There had been heavy rain upstream, washing a lot of soil into the water.
There was talk of another flood at Forbes. It happened every seven years, sometimes worse than others. I always thought rivers flowed to the sea, but ours flowed west, into great marshlands and then the Murrumbidgee. They were big on rivers at school, with our houses named after them. I had learned the whole history and course of the Lachlan, the reference to it in “Clancy of the Overflow”, and the building of the dam. But I got its real name from Ian: Kalare. He was in Murrumbidgee house, the only one of our rivers still carrying its Wiradjuri name.
I bent to pick up a stick, to stop myself slipping, and realised that it wasn’t just silt and muck sliding past. It was a seething crust of shrimp, and yabbies in all sizes and colours poking their claws up through them, as if calling for help. Every now and then a claw would snip a shrimp in half, but perhaps by accident. I couldn’t tell if they were feeding or just trying to breathe.
A turtle popped her head up through all that living flotsam and pushed through to the shore, blinking, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. It was how I felt, too. A water rat scampered up the bank and sat not ten feet downstream. We watched the river together. It was one of those moments when I couldn’t turn away, in case I missed something, and in case it was gone when I looked back. Then the fish started coming up. First just their noses broke the surface, as if sniffing. Then the water boiled and surged and turned an even more awful brown. Hundreds of them breached at once: catfish, yellowbelly, perch, things I didn’t recognise. All sizes and shapes swarmed together, from fingerlings to a great old Murray cod, all gasping for air. I could hear them sucking.
Of all the days not to have a camera.
I did what anyone would do, waded in and started grabbing fish. They were slippery, but couldn’t get far. I went for the silver perch, glinting like jewels, and threw them up on the bank behind me. I stopped at two plate-sized fish each, but not before I had slipped and fallen in. I was wet through and slimy with mud and filth. I picked shrimp out of my hair, unhooked a crayfish from my sleeve, and threw them back. Then the water seemed to clear a little and the fish thinned, the yabbies dived, the turtle and water rat disappeared underwater with a plop. The river was back to normal, full and brown, but flowing on by as if nothing unusual had happened.
“While I soaked in the language and rush of this luscious and crustaceous scene, I was reminded of the Yolŋu theory and story – a First Nations community up north, from where the band Yothu Yindi hail – of gaṉma. Gaṉma is one of my favourite stories, and as a white person from the mountains I know so little about it, but what has been told to me is that there is a point at which the salt and freshwater meet to form a foaming body of water that is both and neither. There are small anchovy-like fish that live in gaṉma – gunmurra. Yothu Yindi sing about gunmurra. These fish are one of the few creatures who enter this brackish, swimming among the stirred up foam that exists like connective tissue between watery worlds. It is an ancient metaphor, but I have heard this story used to illustrate the two worlds that now exist in Australia: the Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The little fish are those who enter the water between worlds, to try and learn how to live, represent and navigate that difficult territory. It has always seemed to me that First People are often forced to be fish between worlds: but colonisers get to choose whether it’s a place we are ready to enter.
“Earlier this year, Hannah Donnelly, a writer and Wiradjuri woman from NSW who grew up on Gamilaroi country, wrote a piece concerning the ways in which white writers depict native and colonised country, for the Writers Bloc website. The piece, titled, The Unnatural Way of Things, stated:
‘Today when I read Australian literature I am perplexed as to how writers continue to colonise country through their writing… Australian literature perpetuates a white central narrative rooted in a colonial ignorance of country so deep and untrue. My favourite colonial angle is the old trope: ‘My personal narrative of connecting with the alien landscape’.
‘I could tell you that since settlement, hundreds of our native species have become extinct. That your narrative of connection felled ancient trees for farming, killed our totems, degraded our topsoil and polluted our water systems. It is not the landscape that is alien; it is you who is alien to our landscape.’
‘Our species are far more than a casual backdrop. The story within our native species cannot be separated from the narrative. Species signify whose country you might be imagining. At the mention of a particular tree you could be identifying that the location is a sacred space protected by spirits. Species can signal the season and where the dhinawan is sitting in the stars on the horizon. They are creation.’
“It is not my place to reassure you that Where the Trees Were ascribes to Donnelley’s call for a change in perspectives and awareness by white writers. It is not my place to tell you how successfully or deeply this book interrogates the relationship between black and white, colonial and native country through a plot. But what I can say is that unlike many contemporary works of literature by white writers, Where the Trees Were engages very exactly with a story about native land, colonisation, responsibility, and belonging to place. I am excited to listen to the most qualified responders, reviewers and critics of all – the First People of this country whose presences are strong and crucial to the plot of this book. By swimming in this water, Inga is offering us as readers, a place to begin to understand what white Australian literature can be if it makes native country and cross-cultural conflict so glaringly present, through a seething crust of stories of human friendship, love, loss and growth. Inga’s book is a little fish, swimming in this area between white and First Nations culture, history, and environment. As I read Where the Trees Were I felt like I was watching a development in Australian writing – I was watching Inga wading into the water where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers are already swimming strongly. I was watching her show me that we can also learn to swim in this churning body of intermeshed stories and lives without denying the side of history white writers come from.
“Of course, a novel isn’t a novel without it being being able to seamlessly carry off even more complicated layers of life than we could possibly imagine. I feel like I can absolutely get away with figuratively pressing this book into your hands right now, and I’m going to take full advantage of this opportunity – I have never read a book that has made me miss my childhood, or want to go camping, more. This book made me realise I was not the only kid in Australia who decided tying meat to string and throwing it into a hot dam would successfully yield yabbies.
I have never read a book that has articulated better exactly what riding a bicycle down Northbourne Avenue in the heart of winter feels like: of anybody, you all here tonight should appreciate how rarely Canberran experiences are reflected in the Australian literary imagination. We got one! This book accurately describes the public service as part of an interesting queer feminist plot. And among all that flotsam, Where the Trees Were sustains a universal story: one of realising things as we grow up into teenagers, and carrying those realisations into adult responsibilities.
“This book has all of the things, tied into two intertwining stories, set out in the signature Inga Simpson way – sixty two short, edible chapters that form a tapestry between memory and now. And no matter where we are from, we, like the water rat staring from the shore in disbelief, are invited to watch and be part of Inga and her protagonist, Jayne’s, complicated and thriving world. We are reminded to celebrate that the human and every element of the world around us are destined to intertwine, and there will always be rich and complicated stories there.
“It is with great pleasure that I announce Where the Trees Were very much launched.”
~ 6 April 2016 @ Muse