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Non-fiction review –
Journeys to the Interior

Journeys to the Interior
Nicholas Rothwell
Black Inc.

'Journeys to the interior' coverI’d read a few articles by Nicholas Rothwell and was somewhat ambivalent about what I’d read. I was unsure of his political perspective on life in the NT. He’d made some good points, but often his conclusions disturbed me; this was especially true of some of his pieces on the Intervention in the Australian.

There’s nothing better than having your opinion on a writer upended. This was the case by the time I’d finished reading Journeys to the Interior, his collection of essays and musings on his journeys through the remote desert and tropical country of NT.

It was fantastic. I was hooked by the first line in the prologue where he talked about the unfolding narrative of the land. This is someone who understands the country, I thought to myself.

The book is broken up into eight sections, comprising different aspects and subject matter of life in the NT, especially that of Indigenous Australians. There is a reverence and a deep understanding in his writing. This is not to say he comes from a modernist interpretation of ‘The Noble Savage’, an interpretation that still has currency, especially amongst young alternative travellers from down south. They appear offering advice to all and sundry on how to improve things, claiming anyone who is non-Indigenous and works with Indigenous people in a mainstream setting is complicit in their cultural demise.

No, Nicholas Rothwell has spent time, lots of time, listening, watching and thinking. He is also a well read and travelled man. He brings a prestigious amount of knowledge to bear on his writing, juxtaposing European philosophy and history with Australian, especially indigenous, history and spirituality. Not, as is commonly done, to measure anything Australian against the European enterprise and in doing so find Australia lacking, when, in fact, the opposite is often true.

Some of his pieces are really thought provoking, eliciting an in-drawing of breath and quiet contemplation upon conclusion of a chapter.

‘The Language of Nature and the Language of Man’ is such a chapter. As a writer (well aspiring, no-one’s given me a contract and I have a pile of manuscripts but I feel I’m in the game), this chapter really made me think about my writing.

Rothwell claims that fiction writing is primarily a European conceit, that the creation of fictional worlds to expose, or open up for discussion, the large questions of life comes from a way of seeing the world bound up in the development of European culture, a sort of rationality entwined with the notion of narrative. He goes onto say this is antithetical to Australia, to the way the land here works, the way life here is, especially in the NT. Consequently, Australia really can’t be captured in the written form.

Now, I’ve always had sneaking, although no doubt uncool, admiration for some of the precepts of the Jindyworobak Movement and their desire for Australian Literature to ‘…portray Australian nature and people as they are in Australia, not with the “European” gaze’. But the idea that the written word itself, in any attempt to capture some essence of Australia, is doomed to failure is startling. It didn’t make me stop writing but it made me think about my writing and writing in general.

I found his piece ‘Spider’, in the ‘Sightings’ section of the book, to be absolutely fascinating. I remembered reading about the case in the NT News. The story essentially said that an old Aboriginal man, of some repute in the art world, had gone for a walk into the desert and disappeared. There was a strong sense in the article that he was very old and possibly suffering from some form of Alzheimer’s.

Rothwell tells a story of a powerful spiritual man, a man who was in touch with the spiritual world, the ancestors, in a profound way. I’m the first to admit I am not at all spiritually inclined, and in fact vehemently despise anything smelling of religion. Yet, the way Rothwell tells this tale is so believable, so logical within the Aboriginal spiritual belief system – as he explains it – that it made me want to understand something I never will.

Journeys to the Interior is a must read for anyone who’s interested in life in the NT, especially ‘the outback’. It crosses history, politics and philosophy and is an easy read. Rothwell’s prose is beautiful, he moves you effortlessly through his world, offers profound insights all the while dropping in descriptions that capture aspects of the NT without being clichéd.

Sure there are some annoying aspects to some of what he says. He states that most Australians haven’t seen much of the outback and it feels like he’s condemning people for that. What he says is true enough, but then few Australians are given the opportunity to get paid to drive around the outback, as he was. I’d love to do that but my job isn’t such that I can wrangle that sort of a deal.

But jealous quibbles aside, this book opens up the NT in ways few previous books have done. That’s not to say it’s a definitive guide – it’s not, but coupled with a few others (An Intruders Guide to Arnhem Land by Andrew McMillan, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Richard Trudgen and The Outsiders Within by Peta Stephenson come to mind), it contributes to an understanding of a place and people whose history has long been more myth than reality for most Australians.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rohan Wightman is a Darwin-based writer & teacher. He’s been shortlisted for the NT literary awards four times, including this year. He has been published in Going Down Swinging and has been shortlisted in a few other writing comps and won a few less well-known comps. He started writing when he was young but really hit his stride when writing for Squat It, the magazine of the Squatters Union of Victoria, in the late 80s. He has piles of manuscripts but no publisher. His under construction website is www.rohanwightman.com

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Comments

  1. Thanks Rohan for a beautifully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking review. I share exactly your initial ambivalence about Rothwell, his writing and where he’s coming from, from reading his journalism and essays (although I prefer these to his journalism).

    I’ve been toying with reading one of his books for a year or so but haven’t yet got around to it. This book sounds the perfect place to start and from your review it seems it covers exactly the sort of material I’m interested in. And like you, I find the idea that Australia can’t be written fascinating.

    Thanks again. I’ll be checking it out.

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  3. Thanks Jane. Yep Journey’s a good into to Rothwell. The idea that Australia can’t be written fascinating. Makes me wonder, if he’s right than maybe film is the medium to ‘write Australia’ certainly Australian cinemotographers are world renowned and understand light like few people do. Having said that I’m unsure about his premis generally. Maybe Australia is to big, broad and diverse demographically and geographically) a place to be captured in a single text, although I think Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert makes a bloody good fist of it. If you read Journey’s let me know what you think.

    Regards,

    Rohan

  4. Good thoughts Rohan. I will definitely be reading the Rothwell, if only to be bamboozled by his claim that Australia can’t be written, as well as pondering what you say here. Especially as next month I’m due to start a new project on just this question, writing Australia. I agree that Herbert does a pretty good job of writing Australia and I also think Alexis Wright does a rather spectacular job of it in ‘Carpentaria’.

    I’m also really interested in your suggestion that film might be the medium with which to write Australia. Something I’ve thought about a bit, especially as my partner is a visual, film/video kind of guy. And it’s something we discuss. Very exciting to be taken back to these questions by your post as I”m about to explore them in depth. Will certainly keep you posted on what I think of Rothwell. I expect I’ll get to it some time in July/August.

  5. I really enjoyed his book Red Highway, which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

  6. nice review. i agree totally with the ambilevance to the political nature of Rothwells writing. When he moves away from the political point scoring that he makes in some of his Australian pieces his writing can be quiet profound and beautiful. Spider in particular highlights that. The understanding that shows to Indigenopus spirituality is great. I remember reading that when it was first published and being struck by it.

    I agree with Jane that Carpenteria does a great job of writing Australia. I actually think another that does that is Kim Scott Benang as well. They open up insight into a fiction world that deepens ones knowledge of the factual world around them which to me is what ficition in part should do. But perhaps that’s the European idea of fiction that Rothwell is talking about. Nevertheless interesting.

  7. Thanks Jeff for mention of Red Highway, which was the book I was toying with reading. I’ll also check it out – I’m assuming if you enjoyed it its politics can’t be too suss.
    And thanks Scott for mention of Benang which I’ve had for years but have still not read. Shall put it at top of reading pile.
    I’m interested in your point about the European idea of fiction – that its about opening insights into a fictional world that deepens knowledge of the factual world, if I read you correctly. Actually, one of the reasons I loved Carpentaria so much is it seemed to me one of the first novels that’s truly Australian (whatever that means). So look forward to seeing what Scott does in Benang. And to thinking about European vs non-European ideas of fiction. Maybe what Wright has done is fuse European ideas of fiction with Australia.

  8. Yes after reading Journies I’m feeling very inclined to read more of his work and Red Dust sounds great, thanks for that Jeff. Carpentaria is indeed a unique novel in Aust literature, I’m still reading it but it’s descriptions and narrative structure, as well as the characters place it as a truly Australian (if that term has any meaning as you pointed out Jane)novel. It really breaks with that more conventional structure that is the modus operandi of the ‘great classics’ and at times seems to be more magic realism piece. Wright was supposed to be at Wordstorm, the NT Writers’ festival but sadly she never made it onto the program so dunno what happend there. A pity though as I would have loved to hear her talk about her writing.

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