Here Where We Live by Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Wakefield Press 2016
Willanski has extensive experience as an environmental volunteer and campaigner as well as a degree in environmental studies from the University of Adelaide, and this collection of short stories, which won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript award in 2014, reflects this interest. The collection includes eight short stories and one novella. Rather than falling within the traditional short story genre, however, her stories are offerings of moments of life, often those where mostly female characters face uncertainty, are at a turning point and come to a realisation about what it is that they desire from their lives and how that may affect their relationships. In addition to these environmental and human concerns – which ground the title of the book –, many of the stories are linked to Willanski’s research for her Master of Arts degree ‘about the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people’ and her discoveries about white people’s attitudes to Indigenous people, as she explains in her author’s note. As a result, in several stories characters ask each other or themselves whether they are racist, in others, white characters learn about Indigenous history or historical events affecting Aboriginal people.
In ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the narrator, an elderly white woman, is the only white woman attending an international women’s conference against radioactive racism with many indigenous delegates. The story addresses the universal problems of uranium and nuclear testing and is the most political. At the end of the conference the narrator has enough courage to disclose that her late husband worked at Maralinga. In ‘Karko’, children on a school excursion learn about the Ibis man who carried his nephew’s body down the coast, his tears creating a series of fresh water springs in the sand. In ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, a young man tells his girlfriend about the Maria shipwreck and the subsequent massacre of the surviving white colonists by local Aborigines.
All stories are set in South Australia – where the author lives and grew up –, mostly in remote places near the coast or in the country and she evokes the landscape very skilfully. All are written in spare prose, often with poetic and rhythmic elements, contemplative in nature, which contributes to giving them a haunting quality, as her creative writing mentor Brian Castro says in comments quoted on the book cover.
The first story in the collection, ‘My Good Thing’, illustrates these elements strongly. This is how it begins:
This is my daughter’s country. That mallee sea with the undulating dunes and the rockholes where we take her back to camp. Twice a year at least, but sometimes more. This is her house, hear near the sea where the bay sparkles beside one window and the mallee grows straight up to the back door. This is the yard where she plays. These are the dogs, her friends and guardians. These are her dark brown eyes, her chubby bronze hand on my pink freckled arm. These are her father’s eyes, her grandmother’s eyes, back to the Dreaming, looking out of a face just like mine. Her expressions are my expressions. I carried her, but she comes from this land.
The final story in the collection, ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, is the novella and requires a patient reader to solve the puzzle as to who is who. It interweaves two couples whose paths intersect: one elderly with a first-person narrator addressing their beloved, one young who have to decide whether to marry, written in third-person. Those who persevere with the puzzle will be rewarded with an emotionally affecting story about the meaning of love and the potential conflict between love and individual freedom. It hones in on the author’s preoccupation with the theme of women’s lives and how to resolve that tension between love and individual freedom, especially if there are children – or potential children – in the picture.
With the exception of ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the story about the international women’s conference against radioactive racism, which reads in part like a list of biographies of the delegates, each story in Here Where We Live provides much room for reflection about our own lives and our reactions to climate change and – for those who are white – our attitudes to Aboriginal people. Equally importantly, each is beautifully written.
To keep readers engaged, single-author collections mostly vary in voice, theme, setting, character preoccupations, etc, but Willanski’s Here Where We Live does not. So while I recommend the book, it is best not read sequentially.
– Annette Marfording
Annette Marfording is a writer, blogger and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authorshttp://www.annettemarfording.com/celebrating-australian-writing/ features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
Here Where We Live is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1283