Australian author Bruce Pascoe writes in the dark arts of true story. His latest work, Dark Emu, shatters myth, open wounds and shines a radiant light across the dark matter of the tales we dare not share.
Interview by Jade Richardson
In the beginning was the word, and the word, in this case, was sorry.
Sorry is a very loaded word in Australia. Sorry kept the nation on the edge of its wonky seat for generations as we wrestled with our ‘native issue’. A little word like that – quite a pretty word really – nearly tore the nation in half, and risked the spilling of even more blood, beer and Sauvignon Blanc than usual.
Sorry is a word that breaks spells. An open sesame for the dark spaces that lurk, unloved, unexplored, unwelcome in us all as individuals, and as members of the messy Earthling story. But sorry – as award-winning Australian writer Bruce Pascoe is here to point out – is only the first word in this healing journey, and certainly not the last.
‘Everybody’s hurting and nobody wants to talk about it,’ he says. ‘In Australia, we’ve got a dominant culture that has fabricated an impossible story to justify a history of theft, violence and misery and has damaged its own soul in the process.’ And the end result of that? ‘A nation of black people constantly reduced to despair, a nation of white people tumbling into depression, addiction, violence and sadness, and a planet in trouble all over the place,’ he says.
‘I’m telling an Australian story, but it’s a very global conversation – one we have done a deliberate but stupid job of ignoring for a long time. There’s a wound in the soul of the world and we’re all paying for it.’
He has hit such a live nerve with this dark medicine that his passport bursts with stamps from Mongolia, Britain, Ireland, America, India, New Zealand and soon Indonesia, where he is invited to speak this month at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Bali, about the power of breaking taboo.
Bruce Pascoe is an indigenous writer whose white-fella heritage links to Cornwall in England, and whose Aboriginal bloodlines span Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmania country, Australia. His is one of the excruciatingly few voices left of the most ancient surviving culture on this planet. The reasons for that are dark and terrible. They are part of a shadow that haunts the Australian culture, and all cultures really, in the same way your own wounds, grief and abuses haunt you – you know… the ones you’re too ashamed to admit.
His people were on the land in Australia while the pyramids rose and fell, and all through the Crusades. They were there as Alexander marched his elephants, as Egypt crumbled under famine, all through the plunder of the Incas and while Jesus melted on the cross. If you want to imagine what true sustainability looks like, you will need an Aboriginal eye to see it, but that’s not really likely, because the Aboriginal is regarded still, Bruce argues, as the lowest grade of life on their mighty land, Australia.
As author of twenty-nine books, winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Prize, and subject of growing acclaim, Bruce is using words, lots of them, and with tender ferocity, to turn Australia’s gaze, and perhaps the world’s, toward the stories we dare not share.
For starters, he wants to clear up a few true facts about Australia’s past. His most recent work, Dark Emu, is a non-fiction study of precolonial Aboriginal culture and conditions. It is a carefully told and well-evidenced proof that no, Australia was not empty and uncared for when the British colonists arrived – and yes – Aboriginal people were very much involved with cultivating, settling and working the landscape using engineering, crop raising, irrigation, horticulture, building and patience – which is nothing short of gob-smacking news to your average Aussie.
‘We’re a nation told from childhood that Aboriginal people were filthy and stupid and lived under bits of old bark held up by sticks, eating witchetty grubs,’ he says. ‘That was the story the colonists made up when they got here, to steal the land and break the soul of the first people. It’s a story they refined to a terrible precision across America, India, Africa and everywhere. The same one they keep telling today, and it’s keeping us all, on both sides, stupid. Believing this utter nonsense robs us of our dignity and worse, it damages the land and shuts us all off from the beauty of what life here is really about.’
That beauty, he offers, ‘is the wonderful thing Aboriginal people have been trying to share for 220 years! It’s what we learned from 100,000 years living on this country; that the Earth is alive, it’s the great mother of us all, we are made of her. When we care for her, when we connect back to country, we feel better, we make good decisions, we prosper. We stop living like rats in a cage, and give up this idea of dominion. You’ll be amazed at how beautiful it is – this way of living honestly, gently, in love with the land.’
Dark Emu is an important political book because it shatters the idea that Aboriginal people were, in Bruce’s words, ‘backward, useless and unintelligent’, the loose validation for their dispossession, dismantlement and decimation by white settlers from 1788. But it is an important book morally, too, because it cuts a step for all of us – of every race and nation – to speak the truth, to retrace our pasts and let whatever shadows lurk within us have their rightful place in story.
Which brings us to the second big word in Bruce’s re-creation tale. The one that makes him a powerful and sometimes unpopular writer in his homeland. It’s another great Australian expression: tough!
‘Sorry if this is uncomfortable,’ he says. ‘But tough! Bad luck! Sorry does its job, but it doesn’t fix the problem – as anybody who suffers knows. Our stories, everywhere, are based on the lies of oppressors and the silence of the heart broken. Things are going backwards around here. We’ve got a nation, if not a planet, in serious trouble, and it’s time we sorted a few things out.’
Some might lament that it’s actually well past that sort of time. Pascoe knows it. He sees the evidence everywhere. ‘I’ve got work to do,’ he says. ‘Me and the other writers and song makers. We’ve got to clean up the story, get back to the land, let the dark stories in so we can pass on a better future to our grandchildren. If you want to say it’s too late, that the whole place is going to hell, well, tell that to your kids and see how it feels.’
‘We’re living with a shadow,’ he says. ‘It shows up in depression, anxiety, addiction, alcohol, sadness – this guilt, if you like, it’s the conversation we’re too scared to have, it’s very painful to go there. It’s coming from the land, that has absorbed all this suffering, and from all of us, because we’re a part of the problem. But the writers, the artists, the song makers, they have to get involved with this. We have to risk it, endure it, withstand the bruises – because this is how we cure ourselves. It is good for all of our souls, for the land, for the future, for everything.’
‘All us writers, we need to get back to the country, and see her as the mother of all. Let her speak, do some listening. Feel it, the story that’s all around us, and tell that. I want to see writers everywhere going back to the land. Telling true stories. Ones from the heart, and not from the pocket.’
If you think about it, it’s the same everywhere. It’s the same thing broiling and simmering and farting away in nations all over the world; the same issue festering and aching in most of our own lives too – this deep, almost bodily knowing that something is wrong, someone did wrong, that there is very much a fly somewhere in the earthling ointment.
While we busily invent our histories, manifest our destinies and insist that the past is dead and gone, its victims and stories with it, Bruce’s writing takes us to the very edge of that black hole and begs us to jump in. ‘We can’t dodge the truth of it,’ he says, ‘not as cultures or as people. The past is where we come from, it’s in our souls. We’ve tried this idea, of ‘just getting over it’, but it’s not the way and we’ve got a planet in crisis and a mentality of war and murder and shadow to prove it.’
But what to do? I wonder. ‘People ask me that all the time,’ Bruce says. ‘And I say, ‘see that Aboriginal lady over there? Go ask her to come to your place for a cup of tea. Have a cup of tea, take the time, share some story. It’s enough. Those old ladies, they come to me later and say, Bruce, that was the first time in my life I’ve been in the house of a white person!’
‘You cannot accept the gifts of those you have lied about or silenced,’ he says. ‘And our people, we have so many gifts to offer. There are the plants we know that don’t damage the soil, that grow abundantly and require no pesticides or ploughing or irrigation. There are plentiful grains, ways with water and building – there is over 40,000 years of working knowledge about how to thrive and share and be happy on this country, but you can’t take that from a broken people you see as failures, can you?’
He named his book Dark Emu to honour the starless-void in the Milky Way, shaped like an emu and riven with ancient Aboriginal story about the power and beauty of darkness, emptiness, the creative spirit.
‘There’s a story told about how our people, these earliest of all people, were afraid of the dark,’ he says. ‘Nonsense! We revere the dark! We listen to the dark. We embrace it as part of the whole story, and it’s vital now for us all to go there, to get on track, risk the hurt and the fear and the grief so we can heal all that and move forward.’
This is the dark art of true story and here is an Indigenous man who’s applauded for bringing it to the table, proud to say he’s summoning up the spirit of his people. Here is a father, a grandfather, a mentor and bushman who sounds strong when he says he’s ‘busting a gut, doing the work’, chiselling the space for us all to just open our hearts.
‘I’m here to say, for all of us, it’s ok to look at the secrets, to get that stuff out, and cleared up and included. There’s a wound here,’ he says. ‘It’s made of shame and grief and a horrific lack of generosity. This is not a black man’s wound, this is the state of the whole place, and all the newspapers in all the world are reporting the repercussions of it every day.’
Bruce Pascoe, soft-spoken and funny, is pointing his finger, and his mighty pen as well, not at the stars, to which modern man is pinning his hope, but to the excellent darkness that holds them, offering us all a way home, to Earth.
Bruce Pascoe is speaking among a host of powerful voices at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia, from October 26 – 30th.
Bruce Pascoe is an award-winning Australian writer, editor and anthologist. He has published and edited Australian Short Stories Magazine 1982-1999, and has won several national literary competitions such as the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult fiction (2013), The Fellowship of Australian Writers´Literature Award (1999), The Radio National Short Story Award (1980) and the FAW Short Story Competition (2011).
His latest novels are Bloke (Penguin, 2009), The Chainsaw File (Oxford, 2010), Fog a Dox (Magabala, 2012) and Mrs Whitlam (Magabala, 2016). Dark Emu, a history of Aboriginal agriculture, was published by Magabala in 2014 and won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year. His film, Black Chook, premiered in 2015 starring Brendan Cowell, Jack Davis and Lynette Curran.
Bruce is a board member of the Aboriginal Corporation for Languages and lives in East Gippsland.
Jade Richardson has done most of the usual things along the way to poetry, including studying Law, Literature, and Criminal Psychology, getting sick, traveling, being melancholic and occasionally being slayed by the wonder of it all.
She won the Judge’s Prize at the inaugural Ubud Poetry Slam in Bali, as well as awards for her work in short story and erotica. She is published widely as a features writer, with a particular interest in fringe dwellers and Indigenous story-keepers, and has spent long stretches of time in tents, staring at the earth. She blogs at Passionfruitcowgirl.