Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here Where We Live. Adelaide, South Australia: Wakefield Press 2016. RRP: $24.95, 160pp. ISBN: 9781743054031
Willanski’s Here Where We Live, is a brave and honest look at the relationship between white Australians and Indigenous Australians, through a white Australian perspective.
Willanski, a white Australian herself, has written the short story collection based on her theoretical exegesis. During her research she discovered how often white authors wrote for or on behalf of Indigenous people, rather than acknowledging that they were the best people to tell the stories themselves. She also looks at ‘Indigenous invisibility’ (ix). She describes this as the phenomenon wherein white writers ignore the current existence of Indigenous people and describe them in the past tense, as if they and the cruelty that happened to them is no longer a current issue.
Willanski’s intention is to make the absurdity of these ideas extremely clear. She infuses discomfort and tension in the stories ‘Stuff White People Like’ (39) and ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’ (71). Willanski delivers the blunt truth to her readers and makes them re-evaluate their current thoughts on these matters:
‘Well it’s just that Aboriginal people already know about having school outside.’
‘I know,’ said Oliver. ‘What’s your point?’
Clay looked at him again, then said, almost irritably, ‘Well you’re taking something they’ve been doing for thousands of years and putting the white seal of approval on it.’
‘But the missionaries took it away,’ said Oliver.
He didn’t say it, but it was implied, and they didn’t know what to do with the implication: Oliver would be giving it back. (50)
Willanski acknowledges how occurrences of Indigenous invisibility can be passed down to younger generations. In ‘Drought Core’ (7), her protagonist is reluctant to answer her daughter’s questions about Australia’s history despite having moved to an Indigenous community. Similarly, her daughter is only concerned about the deceased people’s thoughts, neglecting to consider the thoughts of her living Indigenous classmates.
Willanski writes stories that rotate around the presence of complex Indigenous characters and settings told through white narrators and protagonists. Willanski not only illuminates the issues that would arise if a white Australian wrote from an Indigenous Australian’s perspective, she also creates a desire in the reader to read more work by Indigenous Australian’s themselves.
Without the opportunity for Indigenous people to write their own stories, thousands of years of history will be lost. By not doing the stories justice or by missing story elements entirely, white writers are enforcing a new kind of oppression on Indigenous people. Willanski is not preachy in illustrating this. On the contrary, she often uses techniques as subtle as irony to make this message obvious to the reader.
In ‘Karko’ (53), for example, it is understood that the Indigenous character Dion is upset by the behavior of the children around a sacred site. Readers can see the situation as a metaphor for the barbarism of Australia’s history, but they don’t hear Dion’s thoughts or understand his feelings. They can only see through the eyes of the white Oliver.
Dion was looking out the doorway at the view of the ocean and the swarm of children ransacking the ochre cove…
…Oliver said, ‘Hey, Dion,’ again, and tried to give him back the ochre.
For a second Dion just stood there, jostled by the returning kids. Then he looked down at Oliver and said, ‘You’d better keep it.’ Oliver thought Dion hadn’t understood that he was sorry he’d taken it. He tried to give the ochre back again, but Dion looked down finally and said again, ‘You’d better keep it. It’s too late now.’ (61)
Aside from her thoughtful examination of her exegesis, Willanski is a strong writer who creates settings that are as complex and layered as her characters. There are often parallels between the people in her work and the landscape, and they are often described in unusual ways. Even readers who are not familiar with outback Australia are given a clear, detailed understanding of the setting. Willanski’s love for the setting shines through the work.
Here Where We Live not only demonstrates Willanski’s thorough research and knowledge of her topic but also showcases her skill with writing prose. The stories that she produces in this collection reflect the beautiful and often somber descriptions of their settings. Readers can appreciate both the honest subject matter and the rich language used within this work.
Lucy Walding is a Queensland-based writer. She holds a bachelor of Arts (Creative and Professional Writing) from the Queensland University of Technology.