Essay

Blood and bone

Unsettling the settler in Aboriginal gothic

Seek company of others who refuse to accept cultural amnesia, who refuse to once again be left out of history. This is active reckoning through recognition / transformation / action: a rememory collision; a fight-flight-guide response; an embodied literary intervention to the ongoing project of colonialism and all its attempts to smooth dying pillows.
Natalie Harkin, Archival-Poetics: ‘Haunting’

she forgot:
that all land on this land, since the landing of white man
has been haunted
Raelee Lancaster, ‘haunted house’

 

I’M SURE that without giving a specific example you would be able to generate a mental image of gothic horror, even if it resembles something like Bela Lugosi as Dracula or Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster – images that have been immortalised (pun intended) in the collective conscious by the success of Universal Studios’ early 1930s run of pre-code genre cinema.

Prior to the emergence of this cultural cornerstone, the gothic had spent around 150 years gestating in the margins of popular fiction in Europe, ruminating on anxieties of modernity as society and culture began to accelerate through the radical changes brought on by innovations in scientific discovery and the Industrial Revolution. The boundaries that previously contained class and social life were becoming more fluid and shifting into new forms, and this was fertile ground from which the gothic genre could emerge. As one classic example, the decay of the aristocracy coinciding with the arrival of a middle class led to the haunted mansion becoming a backdrop for gothic literature, representing these changes in material settings as they in turn began to represent crumbling and decrepit social orders.

Despite the prevalence of Enlightenment ideals of order and rationality (according to Western thought), the thematic concerns of gothic literature and its imaginings are situated in the ‘irrational’, among things that cannot be neatly categorised, things that are in excess.

As European empires expanded globally, so too did the available contexts for variations of the gothic. Australian renderings of the traditionally European gothic tropes shaped a great deal of early settler-colonial literature. And while Aboriginal writing is not obligated to respond to colonial writing, writing into traditions with our own perspectives has the power to destabilise and unsettle dominant narratives that were constructed without our consent.

Aboriginal authors are using the tropes that populate European gothic fiction for political ends to demonstrate resistance to colonisation: a physical colonisation of land, of Country and of bodies as well as a psychic colonisation that rewrites and erases our histories, stories and subjectivities.

 

JULIA KRISTEVA’S 1980 work Powers of Horror is a comprehensive exploration of the ‘abject’. In Kristeva’s own words, the abject is ‘what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.’ Her psychoanalytic-based approach to theorising this concept has impacted modern analysis of gothic and horror, and my identifications of Aboriginal gothic through Kristeva’s abject explain experiences of horror when the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the body are no longer contained – blood, saliva, sweat, faeces, urine, semen, etc. When these secretions are no longer contained within the ‘boundaries’ of the body, they rupture the sense of what is ‘self’ and what is ‘other’. Secretions and excretions from the body complicate an innate psychological separation, affecting the tensions of separations between mind and body. Kristeva draws on the already well-established field of psychoanalytics to create her contentions and arrive at her theories. In the interests of gothic (as a literary genre), Kristeva extends her theories to explore the boundaries that separate life and death. The horror of decomposition generates the memento mori, visceral reminders of our own inevitable death and decay.

Relative to this is the ‘monstrous’, a category, like the abject, that interrogates the boundaries of where self and other begin and end. But unlike elements of spillage, or the abject’s internal being made external, the monster itself is a separate and external being or entity. Monsters and the monstrous have travelled through the evolution of gothic fiction and into the contemporary through the vampire, werewolf and zombie, to name just a few. The underlying factors that continue to make these characters compelling is their ability to reflect social and political anxieties to their audiences. The monster is one ‘engaging in forbidden actions’ and a social ‘deviation’.

Gothic fiction is also marked by its relationship to temporal settings. Often, a haunting takes place, which is usually the present ruptured by an intrusion from the past. This is a reflection of a ‘Western’ conception of the way that time passes with linearity – past, present and future – or simply just ‘clock time’. This is not so cohesive with an Indigenous way of understanding time. A fantastic research collective called Bawaka, based in the Yolngu region of north-eastern Arnhem Land, has produced work I have found incredibly enriching when considering time outside linear conception. The collective is named for its Country and is made up of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Bawaka refers to time itself as ‘co-becomings’, and this encompasses time as more than linear, time as a multiplicity (although it should be noted, as Bawaka Collective has pointed out, that this concept is drawn from a specifically located source of Yolngu knowledge and does not represent the knowledge system of all Indigenous groups across this Country).

 

THE SEVENTEENTH AND eighteenth centuries’ Age of Enlightenment illuminated a new and rational perspective on reason and science with goals oriented towards pursuing knowledge, freedom and happiness. Gothic texts occupied the ‘shadowed’ spaces, the dark side of the rational, those occupied by the irrational. In this way, from a Eurocentric perspective, all places south of the equator take on the role of the antipodean ‘shadow’, as cast by European Enlightenment. The space that became known as Australia was designed as primarily a penal colony; it would be a place to transport convicts. This is a powerful image in a gothic paradigm: the dark ‘underside’ occupied by those who have ruptured the boundaries of civilised society. From the settlement’s inception, the anxiety of the coloniser emerged through texts reflecting experiences of early settler isolation, disorientation and other hardships associated with the ‘inhospitality’ of the foreignness of the landscapes being colonised. These ‘new’ landscapes were rendered in literature as the ‘irrational’ in contrast to the rational order of European society as it attempted to graft onto these new settings. These stories took shape through many tropes specific to a settler Australian gothic, including haunted homesteads, lost (white) children in the bush, Black ‘savages’ in the shadows. A literary mode and tradition was building alongside the ‘nation’ itself.

The anxieties reflected in these stories contribute to the larger, overarching anxiety of ‘nation-building’, but they also come back to the idea of the monstrous. In Worrying the Nation: Imagining a National Literature in English Canada, academic Jonathan Kertzer suggests the paradox of:

how nature can be unnatural, how one’s home can be alien, and why, as a consequence, the boundaries of the self seem so amorphous. The monster is utter exteriority: the outer world receding beyond human mastery. And it is utter interiority: the psyche’s undecipherable underside.

Here, Kertzer is illuminating the connections between ‘unbelonging’, the abject and the monstrous. To experience nature and the natural landscape as so alien is an uncanny experience and one that is reflected in the tone, construction and imagery of the earliest settler renderings of gothic literature. While Kertzer is referring to a specifically Canadian settler-colonial context, the observation also applies to Australia. To settler-colonial psyches, everything on this continent appears to be ‘inside out’. The antipodean landscape is rendered ‘inhospitable’ to the coloniser, the native wildlife ‘monstrous’ in its foreignness. Even the white swans of Europe are reflected in this dark mirror, inverted as our native black swans.

Aboriginal gothic plays knowingly on tropes of ‘unbelonging’ that have been generated since colonial arrival. Its authors acknowledge that the settler has never truly been settled here. While these so-called ‘black savages’ lurk ‘monstrously’ in the shadows of ‘inhospitable’ landscape, there exists a library of stories and knowledge from millennia, laws of relational, reciprocal and honorific practices spanning time immemorial. The ‘utter exteriority’ suggested by Kertzer could be – if the perspective of the narrator is inverted – the spectre of the ghostly white man arriving. In the temporal fabric of this coexistence, colonialism is haunting and occupying, unwelcome on our ancestral homelands. This significantly destabilises the dominant settler tropes and calls into question the legitimacy of the literary fundamentals of any Australian gothic that desire to tame and lay claim to Country. As Bundjalung poet and researcher Evelyn Araluen suggests:

A more realistic recollection of the iconographies of nation-building would return to the supposed central anxiety of the settler subject: does the land actually want you?

 

KIOWA (NORTH AMERICAN Indigenous) author N Scott Momaday writes from what he coined as ‘blood memory’ / ‘memory in the blood’. This is a creative methodology where ‘tribal’ memory can be accessed through genetic inheritance from our ancestors – participation in culture, for example, and the feelings of fullness and connection that can be experienced through this.

The persistence of time and memory brings ancestors to the present through our bloodlines, a coexistence of ‘past’ and ‘present’ that will be also carried into the future. The things that connect us to our ancestors transcend temporal understandings as rendered in European gothic tropes: the ‘past’ informs the ‘present’ in a cultural lineage, but the relationship is ongoing rather than linear. That is, there is a distinction to be made between a sense of linear time (Western modes of considering time) and nonlinear time (which is more cohesive with the ways that we as Aboriginal people may consider time). Bloodlines may represent ‘lineage’ in this past/present/future, but in practice they resist once again. Blood moves differently to time, and it’s the way in which we stay connected. The ‘past’ of our ancestors lives on in the present, in our bloodlines, blood ties and blood memories, and it will continue on as ‘more than linear’. If the abject is that which is in excess – and uncontained – still, for us as Indigenous people, our blood is our vitality, our connection, our memory.

While her work is not genre fiction, Natalie Harkin demonstrates the innovative ways that these tropes are deployed in literature – in Harkin’s case, poetry – by Aboriginal people for political ends. Harkin is a Narungga woman, poet and researcher whose creative and critical work responds to findings in the South Australian state archives. The archival material she discovered revealed the extent to which surveillance records dominate and cast a shadow over the lives they claim to represent. These materials included letters between her grandmother and great-grandmother in contrast with official correspondences and reports made by state departments for and about domestic placements. Of particular interest is the way that Harkin’s 2019 collection Archival-Poetics is sectioned into parts: ‘Colonial Archive’, ‘Haunting’ and ‘Blood Memory’.

What I find relevant to renderings of an Aboriginal gothic in Harkin’s work is its questioning of the colonial obsession with blood. This obsession was the justification for ripping children away from their families: the Stolen Generations, a brutal method of containment and ensuing surveillance of the bodies who housed the blood of ancestors. Terms such as ‘half-caste’, ‘quadroon’ and ‘octoroon’ were developed to categorise bodies and lives by blood quantum and to justify the brutal policy that removed and surveilled them.

Eugenicist programs that informed the violence of the Stolen Generations sought to eliminate us by ‘smoothing the dying pillows’ – this phrase dates back to the appointment of a Chief Protector in South Australia to ‘watch over the interests of the Aboriginal people’ and ‘smooth the dying pillow’. Conversely, and simultaneously, the continued fixation on blood also exemplifies the horror of the other as it bleeds into the perceived racial purity of the white settler-colonial mindset, both literally and figuratively. The monstrous ‘other’ of Indigenous bodies and the abjection of ‘impure’ blood justified the colonial project’s terms of Indigenous annihilation. However, our blood is life affirming: it allows us to trace lines to our ancestors, and ultimately it provides strength. These lines – bloodlines – assert and reassert our ongoing presence and survival in spite of the genocidal intentions of the settler-colonial machine.

In ‘Memory Lesson 9 | Blood on the Record’, Harkin writes:

BLOOD – flowing           stirring           spilling           dripping
                 mixing           blood

These words conjure the abjection of excess, the gothic trope of the horrors of the uncontained, as an evident preoccupation for those responsible for maintaining archival records. The choice of words in her sequence simultaneously encapsulates the life force of blood as legacy from ancestors while mourning the bloodshed of early frontier violence. It is the archives and their records that attempt to secure bodies and lives in an unmoveable place, to contain the ‘other’ in a permanent and fixed state. But the desire for fixity is somewhat illusory and, as Harkin’s poetry suggests, blood is more than a quantum: it is an embodiment and connection. This expression of blood appears to be obscured from archival records, and Harkin, through her voice, illuminates what has been hidden from sight.

However, what Harkin actively resists, as she reckons with narratives of violence and persecution of blood quantum, is colonial logic. Instead she uses blood as a means to repatriate embodiment to the lives within the archives where what is being represented is vitality, connection, the living heartbeat of our ancestors.

Harkin uses hauntology – the assertion that social and cultural pasts are always present, persisting and in a constant state of returning, just as an actual ghost or ghostly figure might be – to explore questions of how the past is lived with while we are in the present. The similarities between hauntology and Bawaka’s ‘co-becoming’ mean that an Aboriginal gothic can come into its own. Applying a ‘more-than-linear’ temporal framework to Aboriginal authored texts can be destabilising; it can illuminate previously unwritten narratives. And these can begin to speak back to the stories of colonial dominance.

This shift in temporal perspective complicates the trope of gothic haunting in its traditional literary forms, and therein lies its power. Generally, a haunting represents a rupture or an eruption of the past in the present. I am thinking of hallmarks of a colonial Australian gothic that depicts unsettling stories of haunted homesteads in an alien landscape. The hauntings that are rendered within an Aboriginal gothic, however, play knowingly with this trope. If the colonial project sought to cover over Indigenous lives, bodies and knowledges, then when Aboriginal embodiments rupture this temporal reset – I’m thinking terra nullius, for example – an assertion of being occurs. The colonial project of covering over – as revealed in Harkin’s poetic and academic response to the archive – is coming back to haunt its own structures of domination through our persistence and resilience. We are still here.

Just as Derrida derives hauntology from Karl Marx’s contention that ‘a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’, Harkin’s Archival-Poetics may suggest that ‘a spectre is haunting Australia – the spectre of colonisation’.

 

TARA JUNE WINCH’S award-winning 2019 novel The Yield may not immediately be recognisable as a gothic novel in the traditional sense, but it folds in many of the literary devices and much of the conceptual material outlined above. Its story is separated into three narrative strands led by August Gondiwindi, Albert Gondiwindi (August’s grandfather) and Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf (who seems mysterious at first, but whose narrative presence emerges at the novel’s denouement). August’s third-person narrative serves as the anchor, the present timeline, with the others interwoven throughout. Albert’s main presence comes through a dictionary of Wiradjuri words, the reverend’s through a first-person letter written in 1915.

The interweaving of these narratives creates a sub-motif of returning in the book, elements of the haunting, of ‘memory in the blood’. While not reconstructing a fictionalised account of her own direct ancestors, Winch nets the broader experiences of Aboriginal people since colonisation as it disrupted cultures and livelihoods by means of violence and dispossession. The Gondiwindi family and its experiences – such as the forced removal of Albert – represent the experiences of Indigenous people throughout the colonisation of Country, culminating in the Stolen Generations, and the effects on subsequent family lineages.

The novel’s first chapter is a small first-person section from Albert, who reflects on his life as he announces his own imminent passing. This indicates Winch’s particular construction of time and temporality, as Albert’s presence for the rest of the novel is from beyond the grave. His dictionary entries become for August what the visits Albert received from the ancestors when he was younger had been to him: instruction, guidance, sources of knowledge to be kept alive.

The dictionary sections also recount Albert’s visits from those spirits of the Ancestors, which he calls time travelling. But in contrast to a European gothic tradition of rupturing and terror, of haunting and unbelonging, Albert’s time travelling provides cultural guidance and insight. I see this as an expression of the Bawaka Collective’s work on relational, agential and multiple time: Albert, through many of his dictionary entries, is preoccupied with time, time passing and time’s agencies. Foreshadowing the revelation towards the novel’s end, Albert mentions a cemetery, a site he cannot find. He says:

it seems when I ask the ancestors, they show me many places – too many unmarked gravesites all over this Country – and they cry, and they say they weren’t responsible.

The Yield’s main events take place in an area called Massacre, which immediately evokes a sense of ominousness and unease: this setting has a history unreckoned with. Also mentioned is Poisoned Waterhole Creek. Winch’s use of these names creates a sense of haunting throughout the text’s three main narratives. Albert refers to how the place got its name in a dictionary entry for ‘war – nadhadirrambanhi’: ‘the river ran with blood then and the dirt turned forever from yellow to pink. Massacre Plains had been born.’ The coupling of Wiradjuri language with significant events indicates the deep history of Country, beyond records kept since colonisation. To me this passage also indicates the perspective that mobilises an Aboriginal gothic, that the ‘monster’ is colonisation itself, its brutal force disrupting the land. And Albert’s dictionary entries themselves reveal the ‘monster’ – in the context of an Aboriginal gothic – as settler colonialism. Furthermore, an Indigenous inversion of the settler gothic trope suggests that Country is not passive in the process. Albert has been able to write back and tell stories of how Country has adapted and resisted; he has been able to write about ancestors who are not haunting but taking care, helping to make sense of the rupture in time and place. As in Harkin’s Archival-Poetics, Winch gestures to a timelessness that reckons with an imposed force and that resides in our embodied selves.

Beyond these notions of haunting and of temporality is the ‘absent presence’ of August’s older sister, Jedda, missing without a trace. There are many layers to analyse here: it cannot be a coincidence that Winch named this character Jedda, also the eponymous character in Charles Chauvel’s 1955 film. But Winch is also subverting the settler-colonial gothic trope of the lost white child, where Jedda as a character may also represent the spectre of missing Indigenous children across the globe but particularly in Australia, with its ongoing racist policies of child removal.

Within the novel itself, Jedda’s disappearance lingers spectrally. While August left her home to live on the other side of the world and distance herself from the pain of her unresolved disappearance, it is painful for her to return to the site of this trauma – and when she does so it is to bury her grandfather. Albert weaves stories of August and Jedda into his dictionary, sometimes reflecting on his shortcomings as a guardian in failing to protect her.

As the novel draws to a close, August (and the reader) discover that events in Massacre were taking place over a traditional burial ground. Unearthing the bones of the Gondiwindi ancestors (a very gothic image in itself) further inverts the gothic tradition by enabling August to come full circle and to heal – rather than be haunted by – her history. The discovery of the burial ground also brings all three narrative strands together.

In an act of reckoning, the discovery of this cemetery ties in with Albert’s dictionary (itself based on a preliminary and rudimentary one compiled by Reverend Greenleaf) and is able to stop a mine being built. This uncovering allows the Gondiwindis to be recognised as their own civilisation and to continue to maintain and protect Country with assertiveness and agency.

 

IN EARLY 2021, I presented a conference paper on Aboriginal gothic and was contacted by an international scholar who has authored an entire monograph on this subject. She reached out to me and mentioned being unhappy with ‘Aboriginal gothic’ as the term for the kind of literature I’ve been describing here. She asked if I had been able to come up with something more fitting.

I spent a great deal of time contemplating her prompt. Perhaps, I suggested, ‘gothic’ (with its heavy burden of Eurocentric history) was not quite adequate – and nor was the somewhat reductive qualifier ‘Aboriginal’. But when the two combine to make a uniquely ‘Aboriginal gothic’, is that where the real power of the term comes to life? It suggests to me a mode of reclamation, on our own terms, turning the tropes that sought to vilify and erase us into a powerful mode of resisting by literary means.

When I talk or write about an Aboriginal gothic, I am acknowledging the playfulness of Blak ways of using the language of the coloniser. This is a concealed weapon, forged from the constraints of the imported English language and mastered to continue to resist in favour of our narratives, our lives and our storytelling. The gothic that we repurpose and reimagine is our own literary act of reckoning, and as a method of truth-telling it is destabilising – the continuation of unsettling the settler.

 

This essay was commissioned by Grace Lucas-Pennington as part of ‘Unsettling the Status Quo’, thanks to support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

 

References 

Araluen, E, 2019, ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the ghost gum’, Sydney Review of Books, 11 February, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/snugglepot-and-cuddlepie-in-the-ghost-gum-evelyn-araluen/ 

Bawaka Country, Burarrwanga, L, Ganambarr, R, Ganambarr-Stubbs, M. Ganambarr, B, Maymuru, D, Wright, S, Suchet-Pearson, S, Lloyd, K and Sweeney, J 2017, Co-becoming time/s: Time/s-as-telling-as-time/s’, in J Thorpe, S Rutherford and LA Sandberg (eds), Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Research (pp. 113). 

Harkin, N 2019, Archival Poetics, Vagabond Press. 

Kertzer, J 2016, Worrying the Nation: Imagining a National Literature in English Canada, University of Toronto Press. 

Kristeva, J 1982, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press. 

 

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