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True Country by Kim Scott A trip to Aboriginal Australia

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

True Country by Kim Scott (1993) French title: Le Vrai Pays. (Translated by Thierry Chevrier with the help of Marie Derrien)

Kim Scott is an Australian writer born in Perth in 1957. His mother is white and his father is Aboriginal, from the Nyungar tribe. He’s an English teacher and he spent some time teaching at an Aboriginal community in the north of Western Australia. Kim Scott explores the issue of the white colonization in Australia and its consequences but also gives a written memory to Aboriginal culture and simply uses his mixed origins to give a voice to his Aboriginal people.

A few years back, I tried to read his novel, That Deadman Dance but I had to abandon it. Not that I didn’t like it or that it was lacking but my English and my knowledge of Australia weren’t good enough. I needed a French translation. And the only books by Kim Scott available in French are True Country and Benang. I shouldn’t complain though, True Country has only been translated into French and Benang into French and Dutch. We are lucky readers here, thanks to Les Editions du Rocher and Actes Sud.

Lucky me, Lisa from ANZ LitLovers had not read True Country yet and she accepted to read it along with me. Her review is available on her blog and it’s going to be a real treat for me to discuss this book with an educated Australian reader.

The starting point of True Country is the arrival of a new set of teachers in Karnama, an Aboriginal community in the North of Western Australia.

There is a Catholic mission in Karnama and a school for Aboriginal children. Alex is the new principal of the school and he came with his wife Annette and his eight-year old son, Alan. The English teacher is Billy, accompanied by his wife Liz. Billy is mixed white and Aboriginal and as you can guess, he’s based on Kim Scott’s personal experience as an English teacher in rural Australia.

Karnama is isolated, the teachers are ill-prepared for their task. The climate is terrible with intense heat during the dry season and torrential rains during the rainy season. Nature is not exactly welcoming with crocodiles and all kinds of dangerous animals and plants. The isolation is vertiginous for a European. Hours until the next city and in case of medical urgency, they rely on the Flying Doctors.

In short chapters, Kim Scott relates life in Karnama for Billy and Liz. He shows the clash of culture between the white and Aboriginal inhabitants. It’s a strange ambience in Karnama where the Whites still feel superior to the Aborigens. It is definitely a colonial atmosphere, like in Africa during the English or French colonization.

The Whites have all the positions with responsibilities and run the place. They have better houses with air conditioning. We witness their diners where they complain about the Aborigines and how they are not to be trusted. The teachers have trouble getting the children in school on time and with proper pupil attire. They just don’t have the same way of life and unfortunately the teachers think that theirs is the right way to live. The approach of life and the vision of the world is different from the start. A striking example is the notion of house and home.

Locals come to the teachers’ houses unannounced, invite themselves in and touch their things. Their own houses are open and not so private or personal. Their behaviour irritates Liz or Annette. This is a detail that tells all about the clash of culture. It shows the different approach of life, with a focus on property and privacy on one side that has no equivalent on the other.

Both parts mean well but this is something that is ingrained from childhood and accepting what is seen as an invasion of privacy on one side or refraining from coming in on the other side requires a lot of going against gut reactions and it’s not easy. Education about homes and houses comes from far away in our lives. Even in Western countries, we have differences. In France, it’s very impolite to help yourself in someone’s fridge unless you’re at a good friend’s house or staying with your family. It’s more relaxed in the USA and when French students go to stay with an American family, they receive written instructions about how to behave and this thing about the fridge is mentioned as “Do it, they won’t understand why you just don’t help yourself”. I’ve done stays like this and even a simple thing as helping yourself in a fridge is difficult to do when you’ve been told from a young age that it is not polite. Your mind must take over and remind you that it’s allowed there and you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable doing it. And despite everything you might tell yourself, you still feel uncomfortable taking a bottle of water in the fridge.

So, imagine what happens with such different conceptions of homes as between Nyungar and Whites.

I liked that Kim Scott doesn’t sugar-coat the situation and doesn’t deliver a black and white (no pun intended) vision of life in Karnama. He shows Aborigines misbehaving and the ravages of alcohol. According to a note left by the translator, Aborigines have a poor tolerance to alcohol due to genetics dispositions; they get drunk very fast and they are mean drunks.

I wondered what the perspectives are for people living in Karnama. They are trapped between two cultures and none of them expressed itself totally. There are no jobs in the sense of “Western capitalism” jobs and the traditional structures of the Nyungar seem to have disappeared. They are in a weird no-man’s-land, not integrated in Western civilization and already too out of their ancestral way-of-life to live it.

Pindan Country _ Kimberley, Western Australia. From Wikipedia

All these misunderstandings, the hopelessness of the locals’ future and the latent conflict between the two communities make the atmosphere a bit heavy, on the verge of a catastrophe. During the fishing trips, the swimming parties and various activities where Whites and Aborigines mix and do something together, you have the feeling they live on the razor’s edge. On both side, they are always a hair away from making a tiny mistake that could turn an innocent outing into a drama.

With his mixed origins Billy is a go-between. He’s open minded and curious about Nyungar culture and traditions. He’s in search of his own past and it’s easy to see why he took this teaching position. He starts recording old Fatima’s stories to keep track of their oral culture and to find a bridge between him and his pupils. He wants to use these stories in class, to have teaching material the children can relate to.

The other Whites’ motivations are unclear. Why did Alex and Annette choose to come to Karnama? Does it help one’s career to have done time in the bush? I missed out on the psychology of the characters. I would have wanted to know more about their past, their inner thoughts and their struggles. I didn’t bond with any of them except Billy and Liz. I think Liz is the most remarkable character of the book. She’s nonjudgmental and reaches out to the locals. She probably followed Billy to Karnama and takes everything in one stride. I would have loved to hear about their relationship, how they came here and what kind of discussion they had at night. This lack of information about the characters made me see the book as a written reportage, a succession of chapters where I followed Billy and his relearning of his ancestral roots and customs.

This leads me to an important stylistic part of True Country. The narration alternates between Billy’s point of view and an omniscient narrator that represent the voice of the Nyungar people. This narrator is like a God’s voice observing the humans living below and commenting on their actions. It’s is full of wisdom with a mischievous sense of humour. It opens the book with a welcome chapter,

First Thing, Welcome.

You might stay that way, maybe forever, with no world to belong to and belong to you. You in your many high places, looking over looking over, waiting for a sign. You’re nearly there, nearly there.

You’re trying to read a flat pattern, like the sea, the land from high above. Or you might see your shadow falling up in this page. And maybe that’s all you’ll see and understand.

Or you might drift in. Fall or dive in. Enter.

Wind drift, rain fall, river rush. The air, the sea all around. And the storming.

You alight on higher ground, gather, sing. It may be.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s there you belong. A place like this.

The Aboriginal narrator is the one that stands back and comments. It’s not part of the action but gives subtitles. It’s another middleman between the reader and the scenes that unfold on the pages. Sometimes it comes right in the middle of a page and it forces the reader to stop and think about what he’s reading. It’s someone taking your arm and saying “hold on” Look at the scenery. Look at the interactions between the characters. Take your time, observe and listen. It’s often a very poetic voice.

This change of point of view lost me in That Deadman Dance. Reading in French helped.

This is why I want to praise the work of the French translators, Thierry Chevrier helped by Marie Derrien. I loved the footnotes they left in the book. They were enlightening about Australia and the Aborigines. That’s a perk of reading a good and annotated translation. The translator goes further than transcribing the English text into French. With his French background, he knows when a French can get lost in the text or might miss something important. The footnotes touched all kinds of topics. There were explanations about the fauna and flora because it’s so different from ours. I enjoyed immensely the comments about Scott’s style pointing out things coming from his Aboriginal side and how it seeped into his English. I laughed at a comment about Australians and their beer bellies, I appreciated help about car models, agriculture and other local things that are foreign to me. He gave indications about the huge distances between cities because they’re hard to imagine here. In France, a long drive is 800 km, which is about the distance between Melbourne and Sydney which seem very close from one another on the map above. In True Country, the translator was holding the reader’s hand, helping him through the foreignness of the place and of the culture. I might have missed out on the English but I got so much more from the translation that I’m happy I read True Country in French.

I read True Country with the Aboriginal voiceover holding my hand and the translator holding my other hand. It’s been a fascinating trip to Karnama, one I would haven enjoyed more if I’d gotten to know Billy and Liz better.

In any case, I’m now better equipped to read A Deadman Dance in English. I’ll give it another try, probably after my trip to Australia.

  1. January 28, 2018 at 10:46 pm

    Thank you for your review. I look forward to reading it.


    • January 30, 2018 at 2:42 pm

      You’re welcome, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. January 28, 2018 at 11:53 pm

    I’m still working my way through Helen Garner’s 800 page of non fiction for one of my Australia choices.


    • January 29, 2018 at 1:48 am

      800 pages of non fiction, I admire you…


      • January 29, 2018 at 6:44 pm

        about 3/4 of the way through at the moment


        • January 29, 2018 at 8:26 pm

          I suppose it’s good or you would have abandoned it.


  3. January 29, 2018 at 1:20 am

    Kim Scott is one of our finest current authors so I am glad he is being translated. This is both the work that got him started and his description on that start and on his beginning to investigate his own aboriginality. You might find it best to go on to Kayang and Me which is a memoir, written with his ‘aunty’, of his journey home. Just one small point, Noongars occupy the south west corner of Western Australia and this novel takes place 2,000 km away. I’m up north myself but when I get home tonight I can give you a link to a page on my blog which shows the location of all Indigenous Australian language groups.


    • January 29, 2018 at 1:40 am

      Yes, that’s correct, Bill. The Noongar people are from the South-west, and I think Scott actually lives in Perth. But the novel is based on his own experience teaching up north in the Kimberley, and the Author’s Note says that it’s not hard to identify the fictional Karnama back to a specific community (i.e. Kalumburu, the northernmost settlement in WA according to Wikipedia). But Scott says if you do that, “then it’s no longer Karnama. In terms of its character Karnama could, it seems to me, be one of many Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia.”


    • January 29, 2018 at 2:14 am

      Thanks Bill, I’ll be grateful for the link.
      I think Lisa answered better than I could about the location of the book.
      It was a fascinating read for me but it’s not easy for a foreigner. I didn’t have a lot of points of reference or knowledge to help me understand it better. That’s why I was so grateful for the translator’s footnotes.
      I wonder if Kim Scott helped with the translation.


  4. January 29, 2018 at 2:01 am

    Well done, Emma. I haven’t read this in full as I hope to one day read this book, but I love that you’ve read it. It is so important for non-Aussies to know a little bit more about indigenous Australian culture and contemporary issues. How great that books like this are being translated.


    • January 29, 2018 at 2:09 am

      Thanks, Sue.
      I was rather proud to discover that French is the only language in which it’s been translated. And a bit sad for the book because it’s a window to another culture and issues we rarely hear of.

      Lisa’s review is worth reading, she has another vision because she’s Australian and much more knowledgeable about the topic.

      I was very interested in it but terribly sad for the state in which people live there.

      I would like to hear a discussion between Kim Scott and Sherman Alexie, who is a Spokane. I wonder how they’d compare lives of native people in Australia and in the USA.


      • January 29, 2018 at 10:53 am

        Yes. I’ve been to Lisa’s post too, Emma. I agree with you re Alexie and Scott. Not enough people think of the Native American people’s story.


        • January 29, 2018 at 4:16 pm

          Sue, you might have remembered Cassie Wilanski’s ‘Here where we live’, which you reviewed and which contains a (imagined) story about a deputation of Australian Indigenous women at a First Nations conference in the US.


        • January 29, 2018 at 8:30 pm

          If you’ve never read Alexie, his short stories collection Ten Little Indians is worth reading.

          The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian is based on his life and describes the life of a Spokane teenager who decides to go to the Whites’ highschool instead of staying on the reservation. Excellent book.


          • January 29, 2018 at 10:49 pm

            Thanks Emma. He’s been on my radar for some time but I haven’t read him. Will try to do so one day.


  5. January 29, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    Emma. My maps of Australian Indigenous language groups are here –
    The story is located in the North-West, on the coast between Derby and Wydham on your map.
    Kim Scott found that his father was a Noongar, from the south west, but there are 14 language groups within the Noongar and he is a Wirlomin, from the area on your map east of Albany and south of Kalgoorlie.
    So there is the best part of 3,000 km and a number of major language groups between where he comes from (I think he was brought up in Albany. He is now a professor at Curtin Uni in Perth) and where he was posted as a teacher.
    I live in Perth, having been brought up in Victoria at a time when Indigenous people were kept out of sight, and am doing my best to understand, but even here where Indigenous people are far more visible, the white community and the indigenous communities have very little contact.
    If you read more Scott, and particularly Benang and Taboo, it is important to understand that the Wirlomin were the victims of a massacre in about 1880, the Cocanarup Massacre, which I have written about here –

    And in answer to your question (somewhere during today) their are no ‘native’ police. There were in the olden days but their purpose was to assist the regular police, particularly in Queensland, to hunt down Aborigines suspected of crimes under British law.

    Finally, a year or so ago Lisa sent me a lovely little book, ‘Two Sisters’, about and by some of the last Indigenous people to come out of The Great Sandy Desert in northern Western Australia. If you write to me at theaustralianlegend.gmail.com I’ll send it to you.
    And start preparing a wish list of hard to get or big Australian books, as I am planning to hold my 70th bithday in Paris in Easter 2021. I should be good for 5 or 6 kg and Lisa, who has said she’ll be there too, might be good for a few kg more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 29, 2018 at 8:47 pm

      Many thanks for the links to your posts, they are very interesting.

      You’re planning a trip to Paris!! That’s great! My trip to Australia will not include Perth, we don’t have enough time. We finish with Melbourne where I plan to buy books since I’m allowed to have 30kg of luggage.

      Will it be your first trip to Paris?


      • January 29, 2018 at 9:09 pm

        Clearly some time in Readings Bookshop is in order! Maybe the branch that’s in the State Library of Victoria so that you can see the dome at the same time.
        But I would also say, that reading as much Oz Lit as you can manage before you come will enhance your trip. I had a ‘Year of Russian Reading’ before I went to Russia because it was a place so unfamiliar to me, and I learned much more from that about the country than all the guide books and travel books. You could try some of the books listed here: https://anzlitlovers.com/2011/01/26/the-anz-litlovers-list-of-best-australian-books/


        • January 29, 2018 at 9:13 pm

          I knew you’d recommend a bookshop!
          I plan on reading at least one Australian book per month this year and yes, it will enhance my travel experience. (and that of my children because I’ll have things to tell)
          I have my amazing list of book recommendations plus your list. I won’t have time to get bored.


          • January 29, 2018 at 11:32 pm

            Ah, yes, I haven’t recommended any books for children… can you get Possum Magic by Mem Fox in French? It’s a picture book, but older children like it too because of the jokes.


            • January 30, 2018 at 12:27 am

              Can I recommend The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (with all Lindsay’s drawings).


              • January 30, 2018 at 2:44 pm

                I’ve read it upon Lisa’s recommendation.

                It was surprisingly hard to read. I had to check out pictures of the animals, I didn’t know what they were and I had no idea about the traditional pudding stuff.


            • January 30, 2018 at 2:45 pm

              My kids are probably too old for that (16/13)
              I’m open to graphic novels and comics recommendation, though.


      • January 29, 2018 at 10:24 pm

        I’ve never been a fan of travelling, but my daughter spent six weeks in Europe renting apartments a week at a time, with her three kids last year – March, April. My ex wife and I joined her in Paris then went on down to Avignon for a week, though I spent some of that time giving my Eurail pass a workout to Barcelona, Madrid, back to Huesca then local services over the Pyrenees to Toulouse.
        At the end of the week we trained on to Milan, Naples, Venice, Athens, the Greek islands and so on. Found everywhere, including France despite its waitstaff’s reputation for aloofness, enormously friendly.
        links just for photos –


        • January 30, 2018 at 2:46 pm

          What a great trip! Lots of km but I guess not by Australian standards.


  6. January 30, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    Lisa, we didn’t discuss the literary side of the book.

    What did you think of the characters, the omniscient Aboriginal narrator and the description of the country?


  7. January 31, 2018 at 12:47 am

    *chuckle* I knew I was going to have to confess sometime…
    I’ve never been to the real Australian Outback so reading the description of the country was for me, just the same as for you, reliant on Scott’s descriptions and drawing on what I’ve seen in TV docos. But I think there was more going on than just describing the place… I allude to it a little bit in my review when I say that the portrait of comparative white privilege shifts when Billy falls in love with the land. Most Australians, I think, would know that this love of land signals Billy’s Aboriginality because they have a spiritual relationship with their land, – what they call their country, that is their own particular ancestral bit of it (which is usually a vast area). And the reason why Billy who up till then has been presented as a person living a privileged White life, is now *under*privileged is because he is an urban Aborigine who has been denied his country, his language, his spiritual connections and so on and by contrast with the other Aborigines, they are materially poor but spiritually rich because they know who they are, and crucially, they are still living on their land. (And the back story for all this is decades of assimilatory policies which privileged Aborigines who were ‘white enough’ to pass for white, but if they did they had to hide the fact that they were Aboriginal, which is why Billy’s parents concealed the fact for so long).
    Australia’s Black history is complex and hard and bitterly contested as well, and I have been learning about it for years now and still know very little, so if the annotations in your edition didn’t explain some of this, it would be difficult for many readers to notice, I guess.
    As to the characters: Billy is the interesting one not just because he is the central character but because the author has pulled off his duality really well. Again as I say in my review, the novel is not just about Billy’s education and initiation into his own Aboriginality, it’s also about educating the reader as we go along with him. That omniscient Aboriginal narrator speaking Aboriginal English (not Standard Australian English which is what Billy speaks, though that changes) is pulling us along with him, teaching us too. It is remarkably skilful writing.
    And it explains why some readers might think that the characterisation of the others is a bit limited. Most of the Whites are cameos of racism even though some of them at least have gone there with good intentions of trying to help. And most of the Blacks are cameos of damaged psyches because Scott wants to show that these communities become dysfunctional when traditional culture is forced to change. The one character I’d like to know better is Liz, because, well, I think women readers would identify with her frustrations. But the book only shows what she says and does, never what she thinks. We never get inside her head as she witnesses the change in her husband and experiences a value system that is wholly foreign to her and potentially can alienate her husband from her. But IMO that, again, is deliberate: Scott would say that Liz’s story is not his to tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 31, 2018 at 1:23 am

      Great answer. I was wondering what you would say from when I saw Emma’s question. My impression was that that voice in the background was the land, the community. And I certainly agree that he had to say Liz was there, but no, he couldn’t speak for her. And when you think about it, through all his novels there’s never any boy-girl stuff going on, it’s just a man and his people, in the most poetic language. He truly is one of our greatest writers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 31, 2018 at 4:42 am

        I haven’t got time to look for it now, but what about the girl in Taboo. Do we see inside her head?


        • January 31, 2018 at 6:36 am

          I don’t remember properly either, but you’re right, the protagonist in Taboo is a girl, Tilly (I went back and looked that up).


          • January 31, 2018 at 9:41 am

            Yes. That’s the first time Scott has done that…


    • February 3, 2018 at 12:05 pm

      Sorry for the very late answer, Lisa. The end of the week has been hectic.

      Thank you so much for your insightful comment.

      I understand what you say about the shift in Billy’s world when he connects with the land. He’s eager to learn about it, how to fish, how to swim in the river without drowning, how to pay attention to the animals, the plants and the dangers.

      There wasn’t any note about Australian black history. I think I can imagine a bit of it from American literature. I’m thinking of The Human Stain by Philip Roth, here which was a real shock for me.

      France has its history of racism and of slavery in islands like La Martinique. I’m not saying we are examplary in our treatment of coloured people.

      However the idea of trying to pass as white or be ashamed of having black origins or counting how many percentage of black blood someone has in them is totally foreign to us. I’ve never heard of it. People are white, black or métis that’s all. Again, I’m not saying there’s no discrimination because there is, but more that the percentage of négritude, as Césaire coined it, doesn’t count.

      I probably missed a bit of the Aboriginal English, some things must have been lost in translation. (but not everything) And I agree with you, the Aboginal voice over is helping the reader understand what he sees. It opens your eyes, removes some of your cultural filters or blinders.

      As a Western reader, I really missed seeing into the characters’ minds.
      However, the fact that we don’t put us in the same position as the characters. We don’t know more than them what’s going on in Billy’s head, how he feels about reconnecting with his culture, how the local Aborigines see him.
      But still, I would have liked to hear Liz’s thoughts. Perhaps it’s one of those books that’d deserve to be rewritten from her point of view. Same story, same events but with her as a narrator.

      And while I admire this book for its honestly, for the beauty of its style, for the fascinating message it conveys, for the educational view it gives us to the Aborigine issue, the lack of psychological insight about something as intimate as Billy and Liz’s journey prevented me from truly loving it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 3, 2018 at 8:12 pm

        I know what you mean. It was a journey they were taking together, and even if he didn’t want to present her PoV, he could have put the PoV of a husband thinking about her, worrying about her, being concerned about how hard it was for her and so on. Still, it’s a first novel, and first novels are never quite the way we want them to be!

        Liked by 1 person

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