2016 Wordstorm – Day 2
Image by Paz Tassone.
This was Tony Birch’s first visit to Darwin and without him realising I spotted him just as I arrived at the Mirembena on Cavenagh Street, wearing a bright orange t-shirt, looking up. I wondered what he was doing but then it dawned on me. Tony was, just like his young, character Ren in the novel GHOST RIVER, looking at birds. Ren, I recalled, spends his days at the library researching birds and sketching them for hours. It was the perfect way for me to see him although I felt like a voyeur.
The great thing about living in the Northern Territory is I meet people and I see them for what they are almost immediately. This place has that magical affect on me. I think the Northern Territory’s greatest draw card for artists and writers is its ancient history, its natural beauty, it’s raw-rugged totemic landscape; here you are somehow always closer to the natural world, the flora and the fauna and this seems to attracts and allure artists and writers to this part of the world and at the same time it is a great leveller as this place reminds us we are all experiencing a fleeting moment in time in a much greater drama than ourselves.
Before I came to Darwin, I read Tony’s novel GHOST RIVER. At first, I began by thinking this was a modest book with understated prose seen through the eyes of two 13-year-old-boys, Charlie “Ren” Renwick and his mate Sonny Brewer, who live in the slums of Collingwood and play by the Yarra’s polluted banks, but pretty soon I felt there were stronger, more profound forces at work. The boys encounter the river men and an odd friendship and appreciation of each other develops but there is also the story of the ever present, silent, breathing river that haunts this book. I found this part of the book incredibly moving. This was the novel’s strength. Just when I thought GHOST RIVER was a simple story I was hit by one great revelation after another; what I was reading here was a deep meditation on land, environment degradation, pollution, family, and friendship and non-traditional family bonds.
The story is set in summer 1968, just after the hanging of Ronald Ryan, the last man to be hung in Victoria.
Tony’s view of the world, as we experience in his writing is tough, often understood through his world weary characters that are outcastes: alcoholics, itinerants, homeless, children brought up in dysfunctional families where the threat of violence is ever present. Yet, there is code of honour amongst these wayward characters, often looking for redemption, that can be deeply emotive so I was looking forward to his author talk at twelve o’clock at the Darwin City library on day two of WORDSTORM.
As a speaker and a reader Tony is equally compelling and generous. Tony started writing late. He published his first book, SHADOW BOXING after he turned forty and he has been prolific. He is currently the the inaugural Bruce McGuinness Research Fellow within the Moondani Balluk Centre at Victoria University and is looking at climate change and Indigenous systems not bad for a man who began life with a checkered career; he has written five books in ten years. His early influence was Juno Diaz.
Life was clearly challenging, Tony was expelled from Richmond High school took up a job in an abattoir but then worked for a while as a fire fighter and this taught him about discipline, responsibility, he learnt to work in a team and he was given positive-recognition. He trained and was a very good athlete as a child but when life became difficult he took to the drink and tobacco early but fire fighting got him back into shape. This coincided with him running marathons. He realised the power of dedication. All this prepared him for his future career as a researcher, a poet, short-story writer and novelist. He came from a violent background – his father drank alcohol and was violent – but Tony’s training helped him, he became more resilient and he went back to school, finished school and ended up with a Doctor of Philosophy in history. He is proud about his Indigenous heritage, his scholarship, he writes history and literature, and he is upset about climate change and homelessness and he wants his stories to address these themes so readers are alert to it in such a way that they do not ignore it ever again.
Listening to Tony further added to my understanding of his writing and in turn he gave me a better insight into my own writing practice too. GHOST RIVER is on the long list for the Miles Franklin award this year.
Why write a memoir? Marie Munkara received a call from Penguin to write her story. Marie Munkara’s OF ASHES AND RIVERS THAT RUN TO THE SEA was launched at 5 o’clock at the imposing Northern Territory Library by Chris Capper. Outside the large window is a wonderful view of Darwin harbour, just on the right it flows into the Arafura Sea and across that sea in the distance somewhere lies the Tiwi Islands.
OF ASHES AND RIVERS THAT RUN TO THE SEA is a complex, family story that begins on the banks of the Mainoru River. It is ultimately Marie’s personal story about identity and belonging and highlights the devastatingly brutal policy of assimilation and the pain inflicted on her and her family when she was removed from them because of her lighter skin.
This is Marie’s fifth book and it is about her journey back to the Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land in search of her family twenty-eight years after she was taken away.
She has approached this very dark period of our collective history, that sadly impacted on her, with cheeky humour.
In the evening, my wife and I saw the play, THE PACKAGE that was made by three Alice Springs based artists. It was a touching mediation on life, a play without words and these artists managed to bring out strong emotions from the audience. This production raised the important question: why are our old people packed away?
THE PACKAGE revealed itself to us via puppetry, animation, mask and physical theatre to tell a story about a lonely, elderly woman in the twilight of her life. The story raised a number of questions about the various packages we carry in the span of our lives. birth, growing up, childhood, sex, love, marriage, trauma and death.
There were moments of confusion for me but THE PACKAGE is still in development and apart from a few quibbles it resonated with the audience particularly for one woman who recently lost her mother who also experienced dementia. After the play there was a feedback session and I appreciated these artists enthusiasm. I liked the fact that this play raised the ever present question of how do we treat the elderly in our society.
To finish of the evening, there was an open mike night featuring Beth Yapp, Red Dirt Festival director Laurie May, the Australian Poetry Slam Chamion (2014) Zohab Zee Khan, the respected Valanga Khoza, cartoonist Eleri Harris, comedy and ABC writer and producer Leisl Egan amongst others.
– Christopher Raja
Christopher Raja is the Wordstorm 2016 festival blogger. Having migrated to Melbourne from Kolkata in 1986, he now lives and works in Alice Springs. His co-authored play, The First Garden was published by Currency Press in 2012 and shortlisted for the Chief Minister’s Book of the Year in 2014. His debut novel, The Burning Elephant was published by Giramondo in 2015.