Journeys to the Interior
I’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.