Wright, Alexis. Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth Artarmon: Giramondo Publishing, 2017. RRP: $39.95, 640pp, ISBN 9781925336337
Alexis Wright: Have you got a vision?
Tracker Tilmouth: No I don’t, not right at the moment. I have got a bit of a dream, but it is a nightmare.
Ostensibly, Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth is about a ‘visionary’ man. Yet this brief, shattering exchange, not more than three lines in a book of 580 pages, makes concrete something that lingers quietly like a smog, intangible and pervasive, throughout the entirety of this book; the immensity of what Tracker Tilmouth, through his life’s work, was really up against. And yet when reading this, one cannot help but imagine the sardonic smile that would have filled Tracker’s face when he spoke. And there lies the hope.
This book is the 2018 Stella Prize-winning biography, expertly and almost silently weaved together in the idiom of collective oral storytelling by author Alexis Wright. Composed of interviews with Tracker and his chosen selection of colleagues, family and friends, this is Wright’s ode, not only to the life of her friend, but to the multifaceted world of Aboriginal politics that he inhabited and helped to shape.
In attempting to tell ‘an impossible story, one that is almost too big to contain in a single book’ (blurb), Wright has drawn upon oral storytelling and the notion of consensus as literary devices that prompt the reader to draw their own conclusions amidst a vast landscape of memories and opinions. These literary choices are grounded in Wright’s own cultural traditions. As she remarked in her Stella Prize acceptance speech:
I am grateful for the storytelling skills of our culture and carried them into this book, which allowed, as Tracker himself wanted, everyone to speak for themselves, to tell their own part of the story. (Wright ‘Stella Prize’ np)
This in itself is a deeply political act, and the formal qualities of this book complement its content remarkably. Consensus is a model of decision making where a group or community arrives at an agreement by listening to the opinions and concerns of others, without being persuaded by a leader, or chief, as such. Wright draws on this as a common foundation for the diverse decision-making processes of Aboriginal Australia. While this is Wright’s structural framework, it is also something described in much of the story. Throughout, for example, Tracker and others frequently reminisce about the process of collectively sitting around campfires out bush in order to make difficult decisions during the Central Land Council’s early days. But likewise, the erosion of this in the sphere of contemporary Aboriginal politics concerned Tracker:
The trouble with Aboriginal society is that we have gone from an Aboriginal society to a quasi-North American society. We have got a council of chiefs, we have got elders, we have got this, we have got that, like the American Indians. An Aboriginal society did not have that, and we should still not have that. (579-80)
In his review of Tracker in The Monthly, historian Frank Bongiorno expresses his hesitations around Wright’s total reliance on oral history. He argues that the lack of any authorial voice means that the reader’s only way of assessing any claim in the book is against statements by others (65). My hunch is that this is the point. The book is big, complex and, at times, overwhelming, but so was Tracker and so is the world this book explores. Wright’s collection of personal accounts from fifty people provide the reader with a picture of the many, often contradictory, shades of Tracker Tilmouth. According to these accounts, he was tough, fragile, loyal, coercive, unreserved, a strategist, rude, bold, charismatic, supremely intelligent, a joke, a misogynist, and a proud father. Through this, I imagine the conclusions readers draw will be as diverse as the memories that have been recalled about and by this man, from people as various as the nursing sister Louise Bartram, federal politician Bob Katter, environmentalist and academic Jacqui Katona and political leader Murrandoo Yanner. That lack of unanimity is part and parcel of a consensus. Becoming comfortable with this is one thing that the book teaches its reader.
Tracker’s quest, beyond the attainment of land rights was their actual enjoyment, often asking in jest: Where now brown cow? This was the overarching question of his life, and he slid across political and social borders depending on who he thought was able to deliver this end-game. Influenced by his time in kibbutz in Israel, Tracker’s ‘vision splendid’ dreamt of the potential of dirt and water as Aboriginal assets that could bring about an Aboriginal economy which would wield real power within a colonised landscape. One incontestable and much repeated attribute of his personality, was the fact Tracker was full of ideas and visions. However, again and again throughout the book we hear people remark that they never understood why so many of Tracker’s ideas didn’t materialise. Instead, to paraphrase Tracker, we’re left with a proliferation of jumbo jets parked on community airstrips with no pilot. (266)
It’s the smog that stopped his vision splendour. The subtext of this book is that there were too often external forces ready to obfuscate the task at hand. Systemically the odds were against this bold visionary. In speaking of the divisions that land rights and native title have brought to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, Tracker states ‘the government does not really need to attack us, because we attack ourselves through the process they have devised for us.’ (407) As Doug Turner remarked, ‘Tracker’s madness gave him sanity.’ (475) These are powerful statements that should not be taken lightly. In the world of ‘Aboriginal affairs’, where burnout and bitterness is so often the order of the day, Tracker maintained his sanity by refusing to ‘feed cream to pigs’ (555). And while the book is a testament to the person Tracker Tilmouth, it is also testament to the bravery and boldness of his work within these conditions.
Bongiorno, Frank. ‘Big-picture Man’, The Monthly, February 2018,pp.63-65.
Wright, Alexis. ‘Alexis Wright’s 2018 Stella Prize acceptance speech’, The Stella Prize, website. Sourced at: https://thestellaprize.com.au/2018/04/alexis-wright-acceptance-speech/
Alana Hunt makes contemporary art, writes & produces culture through a variety of media across public, gallery & online spaces. She lives on Miriwoong country in the north-west of Australia and has a long standing engagement with Kashmir. The politics of nation making, the violence of colonisation, and the fabric of community pulse through her practice in quiet yet consistent ways.