NewSouth Publishing, 325 pp.
REVIEW By KIERAN FINNANE
With her book Alice Springs, author Eleanor Hogan sets out to write an account that moves beyond “the polarities of political debate and media perceptions of Alice Springs”. This is stated at page 38, when I was already beginning to have my doubts. At the end of reading the further 261 pages, in a handsomely produced small format hardcover, these are confirmed. She has focused almost entirely on one pole, the bleak one, of a town all but overwhelmed by Aboriginal tragedy and dysfunction, and deeply divided along race lines. Tell me if I’m wrong, but that is the dominant media perception of Alice Springs, and for all her efforts, Hogan has just added to it, in spades.
I’m surprised. I remember hearing her read at writers’ events when she lived in town. Her pieces were almost always witty, with a sharp eye for people’s foibles, and they were strongly located in the life of the town as she experienced it. She could be acerbic, but humour seemed to be part of her take on the world. This book markedly lacks humour (despite the claims of the blurb).
It also lacks heart. A phrase from its early pages sticks in my mind. Hogan is describing Todd Mall: there are the tourists “identifiable by their strong walking shoes and hats with flyveils” (a cliché in itself), and there are Aboriginal people, drifting past in knots “like shoals of disconsolate fish”. There’s something coldly objectifying about this image and it’s never counter-balanced by something else.
Of course I, like anyone who has spent time around town, have seen individuals and groups of Aboriginal people who look sad, sick, inebriated, and others who look and sound angry, sometimes threatening. I also have often seen groups of Aboriginal people, men and women, stopping in the mall or the streets of the CBD, clearly pleased to have run into one another or – believe it or not – into their non-Aboriginal friends and acquaintances, talking and laughing, with babies passed from one person to the next to be showered with affection. Not to mention the groups of high-spirited children, or the youths with their fresh white shin-high socks, bright t-shirts and baseball caps, or the laughing girls, with their languid movements, plucked eyebrows and hair, sometimes with blond or coloured streaks, combed tightly back into a knot or ponytail.
There is a group of girls described in the book’s early pages: “They have huge brown eyes, wide smiles and long, slender limbs. Although dressed in grubby sportswear topped off with rough-edged, home-styled haircuts, they possess a lanky model like quality.” But Hogan (pictured at right) is immediately worrying for them, quoting from her own journal at the time – will they end up pregnant, or infertile from STDs or victims of family violence? Her worry is confirmed. Within three months the eldest of them is dead. This was J. Ryan, who died in January 2006, having been assaulted and raped by other young Aboriginal people and left for dead by the side of Grevillea Drive.
There is no denying the profound tragedy of this death and there are no doubt lessons to be drawn from it. However, apart from it confirming her generalised worry for the fate of girls in Alice Springs, Hogan’s account is mainly to make a point about white, middle-class residents having become inured to Aboriginal violence and suffering, an illustration of the “almost unspoken stand-off … between the black and white populations of Alice Springs”.
Almost all her material is mustered around these themes. Chapter Two on “The Gap”, for example, quickly becomes a discussion of Aboriginal drinking and the efforts to curb it. In so doing it offers a vignette of her attempt to talk to people who appear to be waiting “for cashed-up friends and family members to come out of the bottle shop with grog”. She mines her awkward conversation with them for all it’s worth, but it still doesn’t amount to much and I wonder why she’s included it. Perhaps it’s there to show some kind of effort to contact those “dark figures” drifting at the edge of her vision at all times. There’s plenty of talk about them, precious little with them.
She makes another attempt in Chapter Three when, despite feeling sick, she agrees to give an old Aboriginal woman a lift. This turns into a protracted and alienating experience. Hogan ends the account on a note of distaste from which she retreats into her own domestic realm.
The only encounter with an Aboriginal person where there’s a glimmer of warmth (as opposed to bucketloads of concern and preoccupation) comes later, when she meets the artist Marlene Rubunjta at the Larapinta Valley Learning Centre. Rubuntja touches her on the shoulder and Hogan feels liked. In the context of the book, it’s like the second shoe dropping, the human connection we’ve been waiting for that would give reason to all this spiritless enquiry. It doesn’t happen until page 260.
There are a few other Aboriginal voices, from interview material, the predominant one being Darryl Pearce. I can understand the appeal; on a good day he could be pithy and incisive. However the events that led to his sacking from the enterprise arm of the native title body, Lhere Artepe, and his subsequent departure from Lhere Artepe itself, put a different complexion on the comments she records, especially when they concern the purchase of the three IGA supermarkets. Rather than try to deal with that complexity, Hogan dismisses it as sounding like “the not uncommon story of an Aboriginal organization struggling to manage the competing demands of different family groups” and, as she somewhat patronisingly puts it, “running economic enterprises within western structures”.
Hogan’s interview base generally is narrow, almost all of them, like herself, from within the social justice sector. The only non-Aboriginal voice, other than those offering analytical commentary, is that of a motel manager, tending towards – you guessed it – racist views and practices. Her interviewees are not without their insights, of course, and nor is she, but this is well-trodden ground, worn to the bedrock by the end of the book.
The opportunities Hogan gives herself to break out of this framework are not taken. She attends the Beanie Festival at which a tenuous connection allows her to revert to the material of a previous chapter, in which a trio of Aboriginal sisters from Tennant Creek – lives mired in alcohol and violence – have come before the Supreme Court, one as the victim, two as the accused. She goes to the annual Pintupi show by Papunya Tula Artists and is soon discussing carpetbaggers and sweatshops. She hangs a chapter about sport on a local AFL grand final, but the discussion is all about racial divide and conflict on the one hand, and the potential for sport to do some social engineering on the other. She uses charming descriptions of the seasons in Arrernte as epigraphs on chapters that start with seasonal weather changes yet does not introduce us to their author, Veronica Dobson, nor reflect at all on the manifestations of Arrernte as a living language within the social and cultural life of Alice Springs. Even the chapter about white women, which cries out for Hogan to step in from the sidelines, withers under her jaundiced gaze: she speaks of the “sexual prospects for do-gooding, middle-class white women”; of “litters of children … deposited with successive women” by one man; the “eighties trucking dyke aesthetic” that has hold of the lesbian population; the allure for women of the landscape “because of the presence of so many circular and rounded shapes”; of the “‘Olive Pinkers’, following in the tracks of a patron saint”. Her allusions to the “lively cultural and sporting communities to join”, to the sense of “possibility” that decided her to make a life here for a number of years are not followed up.
This book is one of a series on Australian cities, published by NewSouth (University of NSW Press). All the other titles are focussed on the seaboard capitals, authored by some of the best-known names in Australian writing. Hogan’s Alice Springs will gain prestige as a result but sadly, it will be unwarranted. Overall, she by-passes her subject. For all her investment in detailed physical description, the town Alice Springs does not come to life. It’s there as a husk, crumbling under the weight of depressing statistics and policy failures, of rumination on “Indigenous policy” (her professional background), of lamentation over Aboriginal suffering. The “snatches of hope” she identifies are paltry indeed, found in a few statistics and programs. The dust jacket blurb portentously promises that this “red, calloused earth … is where the real world ends” – ironically pointing precisely to the book’s failure. The “real world” is apparently elsewhere, the places where “expatriates” (Hogan’s term for people like her) go back to; by this book’s reckoning Alice Springs is just a basket case.
Above: The book cover – Alice Springs? No, it’s Roma Gorge in the West MacDonnells (photo by Ryan Tews.)
UPDATED, 4 November, 2012, 3.37pm:
The View from Here
Well-known Alice Springs lawyer RUSSELL GOLDFLAM (at right) launched Hogan’s Alice Springs at Talapi Gallery in Alice’s Todd Mall on September 27, 2012. Below are his speech notes, offering a quite different assessment of the book.
As it happens, this isn’t the first book I’ve helped launch about Alice Springs in this delightful gallery space. The last one was Rod Moss’s The Hard Light of Day, a book which was widely praised for unflinchingly telling a no-holds-barred story of the troubled and tragic trajectory of the members of a local family. And as it happens, the book we’re here this evening to launch, Eleanor Hogan’s Alice Springs, is also unflinching, and also contains stories of trouble and tragedy – but it is a completely different book.
Moss’s account was unique and extraordinary, because he did something very very few non-Aboriginal people who have come to live in Alice Springs have ever done: he became intimately and profoundly connected with a group of town campers, and documented his adventures with them over an extended period.
Eleanor Hogan’s experience, and her account of it, are much more ordinary and familiar, and for that reason, in a sense more authentically representative: a smart and sympathetic visitor arrives, settles in, gets in turn intrigued, astounded, horrified, confused, engaged, gob-smacked, alienated and beguiled by life in Alice, makes a home for herself, gets down to work, and, then, after a few years, pulls up stakes and leaves. That’s what happens to most of us who come here. We don’t get adopted by and tangled up with a family of traditional owners. We are fascinated by Aboriginal culture, but we are careful not to intrude, and we soon discover that living in suburban Alice Springs is not at all like being a participant-observer documentary-maker on location in some exotic tribal village. What we get are glimpses, and intimations, and clues. But insights and epiphanies are elusive and, well, not the stuff of everyday life. Indeed, it’s all a bit discomforting, and it’s often more than a bit awkward.
And so Eleanor has compiled Alice Springs: part field guide, part journal, part almanac, distilled from a blend of personal vignettes and carefully collated facts. She has a squiz at Alice though her own cool eye, and she also talks at length to friends, colleagues, community leaders, elders and, on occasion, men and women she just happens to come across, so there are many voices and viewpoints jostling for attention here. I was one of the people Eleanor interviewed when writing this book, and it is a bit disconcerting, but also in a way reassuring, to see one’s own half-forgotten words swimming up to the surface of the page. Indeed, the Alice Springs Eleanor Hogan depicts is very much the Alice Springs I live in: she spends a lot of time down at the criminal courts, where I work, and she spends a lot of time chewing over the messy and unpalatable business of how come our courts are so full of their daily misery, which is what I chew over too. If you work in the area of human service delivery in Alice Springs, you’ll find this book takes you through the landscape of your own life.
But that doesn’t mean that Alice Springs has been published with us, or at least primarily with us, in mind. It’s part of a series on Australian cities – so far, all the State capitals (except, curiously, Perth) have been covered – designed, I think, as an annotated atlas of metropolitan Australia, primarily for armchair travellers. So it’s not just for the people who live here, but for the sort of people who might think about living here, or the sort of people who come up for a holiday and a look around, or the sort of people who might think about doing so, one day. Because, let’s face it, there are far more Australians who have a picture of Alice Springs in their head than any actual Alice Springs dust in their pockets.
So writing a book like this is freighted with responsibility: the responsibility not to mislead would-be visitors about what they’re in for, and the responsibility to do justice to all those jostling, jousting voices and viewpoints. Oh, and it’s got to be a good read, and it has to fit the series format, and it’s important not to offend anyone, and, oh yes, keep it edgy but accessible, and funny but serious, and smart but not smart-ass, and don’t lose the all-important narrative thread, and don’t forget, dialogue: dialogue is what keeps it real, and Eleanor, always remember, this is your book, so tell your story in your voice. It’s a mystery to me that anyone would actually start a book like this, and a miracle that anyone would actually finish it. But she has, and here it is.
I was a big fan of Eleanor’s now sadly discontinued 1000 post Alice Springs blog, The View From Elsewhere, the only blog, I have to confess that I’ve ever followed. El’s Elsewhere was sometime sly, sometimes shy, always wry. It was set in Alice Springs, but what marked it out as special, is that it was about Eleanor, and perhaps, I don’t know, you’d have to ask her, perhaps it was for Eleanor. But although there’s a lot of “Elsewhere” in “Alice Springs”, this book isn’t about Eleanor (although El is there, hovering, occasionally putting in an appearance). It’s about Alice Springs. And it isn’t for Eleanor, it’s for us, and also for them, all those people elsewhere with some half-baked idea or other of Alice Springs knocking around in their heads. This isn’t The View from Elsewhere. This is The View from Here. It doesn’t mislead, it does do the warring voices justice, it is respectful, but doesn’t shy away from Alice’s sharp edges, it’s an accessibly good read, it’s funny and serious, it’s smart but not smart-ass, and yes, there’s real dialogue for good measure. And as well, it’s in the voice of El.
Which is why I have great pleasure in declaring the pages of this book, open.