I wasn’t able to find much background cultural information that might have helped me understand Mudrooroo’s novel more fully, but I’ll put some initial thoughts down.
The most striking aspect of this novel for me was the motif of self-liberation. In the opening dream ceremony, the small group of aborigines paints and dresses each person to signify Europeans, though Jangamuttuk, the dreamer, does not want to “ape” the European; instead, he is seeking to adapt European cultural forms in a way appropriate to his own culture for the purpose of the ritual. Jangamuttuk’s purpose was to enter the realm of the ghosts and bring his people into contact with that realm “so that they could capture the essence of health and well-being, and then break back safely into their own culture and society” (3-4). In other words, Jangamuttuk would enable them to break free of the demons of sickness that were killing off their people so that they could later escape the island in which they were being held by the British mission.
The power to define and take away and (de)legitimize through writing are very real issues in decolonizing anthropology and other academic disciplines, and I like how that power of pen and paper is addressed in the novel. In an early conversation with his young wife Ludjee, Jangamuttuk tells her, “I see in vision, right in front of my eyes, that sickness comes from that ghost, and when we die, he binds us to him. He writes us down in that big book of his and we are trapped for ever. But I watch out, I know what he is doing, and I can free [our people].” (29-30) Ludjee makes a similar comment later on when she is asked by Fada to take off her clothes and pose with old artifacts from his house — a net and wooden chisel — for a drawing of an “authentic” shellfish dive (when in fact the shellfish along with other wildlife have disappeared since the arrival of whites). Fada tells her, “I’ll put you down on paper,” to which she whispers, “Capture my soul” (53). After reading those scenes, it made me think, too, about why I mostly dislike writing. It’s productive insofar as writing – or better, discussion – helps clarify and give dimension to one’s own ideas, but I don’t like writing – academic and, especially, personal – because I don’t like the feeling of being tied to those words. I like having the freedom to change my mind in the abstract rather than in text, to keep words and thoughts among physical bodies/minds whom I choose, to keep my ideas embodied and available to recall when I want and on my own terms – not vulnerable and open to prejudiced interpretation by those for whom those words may not be meant. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about oral traditions – the embodiment of identity and history, its necessary localization within its proper context, the ownership of one’s own words.
The potential brutality of literacy is briefly but poignantly illustrated when Fada approaches the African sailor Wadawaka (angry because he thought his son invested too much trust and authority in him) and threatened him saying, “I have your future in the ink of my pen” (75). At the end of the novel, too, as Fada and his wife Mada prepare to leave the island for London and place their son in charge, Fada wants to leave the church standing as a lasting monument to his work there, deciding it must have an engraved plaque placed on it. “If history was to be history, it had to be signed and thus secured for all time.” Ironically, soon after they had gone, the aborigines and Wadawaka took the remaining ship to escape the island and left Sonny in his drunken loneliness in front of the chapel. Jangamuttuk, Ludjee, and Wadawaka in their power of the Dreaming pushed a boulder down a steep slope, and it crushed the cemetery and Fada’s “monument to history.” In a beautiful metaphor for the reclaiming of history, place, and identity after colonialism, the island had “reclaimed the structure to examine it at its leisure,” and the boulder stopped rolling a hundred meters offshore, “a monument to the awesome powers locked within the earth” (146).
Throughout the novel, one can see how the aborigines find their freedom in their own culture. Ludjee, for example, when she was asked to pose for Fada stood at the edge of the rock, and filled with the female power of the ocean and the connection to the ancestors, dove in and out of Fada’s sight. “She was beyond his control. She was free in her tradition…The ghosts had sung to her, made her lose her Dreaming and languish in misery, her femininity imprisoned in the dreary ghost cloth which hindered all movement and action” (59). Jangamuttuk could see her and her Dreaming companion Manta Ray with his shaman vision, and though he wished to join her, he could not because his two young novices could not yet have this knowledge of only the initiated. “Fada, immersed in his own collecting of knowledge, saw nothing” (60).
Interestingly, the author describes the myth the aborigines created to explain the missionary Fada’s presence. In it, the whites are seen as ghosts, “and London as a cold forbidding realm filled with so much suffering that a human could not survive in it.” The author continues, “It was impossible for Jangamuttuk to imagine the amount of pain that went into forming the lives of ghosts, such as Fada, and correspondingly the amount of effort needed to bring such people into a state of health” (32). With the amount of suffering that’s grown out from within the oppressive cultures of Western societies, it’s depressing to think where many of them/us look to find their/our freedom now. It seems more often to be money, fame, drugs, power, sex, etc. Maybe (big maybe) there’ll be some reverberation in the West from what’s been happening in north Africa, and more people will start finding their freedom in “revolution” – in the return to the source.