what i'm reading: mudrooroo, nadine gordimer

I read a short novel called Wildcat Falling, said to be the first published work by an Aboriginal Australian. It was published in 1965, but was released in the US only in 1992. The book was OK, a first-person narrative of a poor, intelligent, mixed-race young man, a "bodgie" - the Australian equivalent of a British "teddy boy" - leaving prison to little opportunity on the outside.

The more interesting story is the author, born Colin Johnson, known as Mudrooroo, who I gather became a controversial semi-celebrity figure in Australia. He lived a nomadic life, living all over the world, from the London jazz scene, to a few years in India, where he became a Buddhist monk, to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury with readings at the famed (and still wonderful!) City Lights Bookstore. He still writes and teaches about Aboriginal culture.

Apparently some people challenged Mudrooroo's claims of being part aboriginal, and his refusal to respond or get involved in any way inflamed his critics.

To really understand the story, I'd probably need Australian newspapers on microfilm, but I found a few things about it online. This essay was confusing without the proper background, but I did like this bit:
What the critics of Mudrooroo seem not to appreciate is that to acquire an Aboriginal identity (regardless of how) in 1965 was not exactly something that people were queuing up to do. To be regarded by the dominant society of Australia 1965 as being a "boong", "coon" or "Abo" was a passport to discrimination, prejudice and poverty, and many light-skinned Aboriginal people opted to assume a non-Aboriginal identity (Indian, afghan, Maori, etc) to escape the extreme difficulty of life as an Aboriginal person. To have been bestowed with an Aboriginal identity and then embrace and live that identity among Aboriginal people when times were tough is, for me, sufficient for Mudrooroo to be regarded as a member of the Aboriginal community. It aught to be remembered that many of those who (often opportunistically) opted to pretend that they weren't Aboriginal in return for acceptance in the white community were reviled...
This parallels with African-Americans who "passed" as white in pre- civil rights days - and the reverse. Most African-Americans are of mixed backgrounds, but to live as a Black person in America is to be Black. In other words, race is a social concept, not a quality of "blood". Mudrooroo's genetic heritage is unknown, but does it matter?

I'll probably read at least another short novel by Mudrooroo, to get a clearer picture of his perspective.

Right now I'm finishing July's People, by Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer and Nobel Prize Laureate. Gordimer sets up scenarios in which characters grapple with the poisonous fruits of racism. She's incredibly adept at teasing out and expressing all the complexities and nuances of personal relationships.

This book takes place during a violent revolution; the racist regime has collapsed. A white Afrikaner family - liberals who oppose the system - have obstinately stayed in their home long past the point of safety. They are left with no way to flee - and will surely be killed in their home if they stay. Their trusted house servant, July, has managed to smuggle them to safety, and so saves the life of the family of five. The action of the book begins immediately after their harrowing escape.

July takes the family to his own village. Not only is the formerly privileged white family now living in a mud hut amid squalor and deprivation, but all the past customs and relationships have been twisted and turned upside-down. The "July's people" of the title are both the dirt-poor black Africans of the huts, and this white African family for whom he used to work, and now both protects and masters.

It's very complex and surprising. Gordimer's novels make you understand the implications of racist domination in a deeply personal way - what it did to people's psyches, how the poison travels through society forever.


Anonymous said...

They sound good. I'll try to find them.

Take a look at Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe, by Andrew Meldrum. It is his own account of his life as a journalist documenting the corruptions and challenges facing the country under the threat of a government that is fully against a free and democratic press. A great read - truly gripping and an utterly fascinating look at life under the Mugabe reign.

laura k said...

Hey, if you tried to find every book I post about, you'd have to work in a lib... never mind. :-)

That book sounds really interesting. I'll also try to check it out.

The best book I ever read about Apartheid was Move Your Shadow, by Joseph Lleyveld. It won the Pulitzer Prize the year it came out (1986). It's a portrait of South African society at every level - white, black, urban, rural, all economic levels. Very eye-opening.