RHC 2019: Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: An #ownvoices book set in Oceania.

Jo found that the pieces of land, dismembered from each other, the orphaned parts of the now-dissolved whole, were to be found on the maps all numbered the way the graves at the Mullum cemetery were numbered… The way that convicts – rapists and murderers – were numbered in prison.

We have family in Melbourne, Australia, and I’ve had the extremely excellent experience of visiting twice. Between people I care about living there and having taken a couple of extended trips, I always perk up when Oz comes up.

Most of what I know about Australia comes straight from my sister-in-law and her family, including the very little I know about Aboriginal rights. I’ve been at events and looked at programs that included a Welcome to Country statement, which seems to me to be much closer to the front of the white Australian consciousness than the equivalent circumstances in the United States and Canada. I mean, words are cheap, sure, but it seems like a start, at (the very) least.

So I was looking forward to reading Mullumbimby, and I was not disappointed. Granted, it took me a minute to acclimate to the vocabulary. Lucashenko includes a fair amount of Goorie language in the text, and it’s not set apart by italics or anything. There’s a glossary in the back, which was tremendously helpful, but at first I was doing a LOT of flipping back and forth.

That is 1000% okay (I’m thrilled to have a handful of Goorie words at my disposal now!). I ran into some trouble though because there’s not a glossary of Australian slang, of which there’s also a fair amount. Again, this is okay, since now my Australian slang knowledge is broader, but there was an added Google dimension to those first few chapters. I mention it just to let you know that if you are also an American reader planning to read this, it is absolutely worth getting through the first thirty pages or so. You’ll not only be fine after that, you’ll also know more language stuff, which is my favorite kind of stuff to know.

I guess I should also mention how raw the characters’ speech is (read: they say ‘fuck’ a lot). But to be clear, the interior and exterior voices in the novel are hands down its biggest strength. The sarcasm, grittiness, playfulness, and luminosity in the language was a true pleasure to read.

The language is one of many really smart ways Mullumbimby brings a diverse, complicated society to life. And by diverse, I don’t just mean white/Aboriginal. The Aboriginal characters in the book are by no means a unified front, especially given that a Native Title dispute is at the heart of the book. It’s a complex, emotional conflict that Lucashenko navigates with incredible lucidity, particularly given how unfamiliar I was with the subject.

The Native Title conflict is just one permutation of the overall conflict between Australia’s violently silenced past and its future-facing present. The protagonist, Jo Breen, is a Goorie woman who has used her divorce settlement to buy land. Owning land is a profound change of circumstance for Jo, and her connection with it is presented as very real, even though Jo herself, let alone her sullen, angst-ridden teenage daughter, doesn’t fully understand it.

But at the same time, Jo works for a cemetery, mowing the grass over white Australians’ graves. White bodies are very literally part of the land, too. Similarly, one of the book’s major themes is the fencing in of the land, demarcating with arbitrary numbers, borders, roads, etc. That idea becomes painfully literal [mild spoiler ahead] when Jo’s beloved horse Comet dies tangled up in unexpected barbed wire. Horses, of course, aren’t native to Australia. In other words, everything in the novel resists a simple Aboriginal=good, dugai=bad reduction without shying away from the realities of colonialism and of systemic racism.

I think the point that I’m trying to make is that Mullumbimby isn’t calling for the erasure of the past two centuries of Australian history, but it is calling for a stronger acknowledgement of the damage done during that time. Its Aboriginal characters are full participants in white and Aboriginal Australian society, and their cultures are dynamic, adaptable, and fully compatible with the present and with the future. The book makes it very clear, though, how many hurdles have been placed in front of them and how deep the wounds of colonization still run.

It’s also funny, which I don’t think I’ve stressed quite enough, and romantic (dreadlocked laptop-hogging love interest Twoboy is hot, if wildly imperfect). This is the kind of book that you move into for a little while and are sorry to see end.

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