Historical fiction novel about the impact of colonialism on Wiradyuri people and country
Content warning: racism, colonialism, natural disaster, sexual harassment
I have read a few books by this author and I was really excited when her new historical fiction novel was released back in 2021. I picked up a copy from Read on Books in Katoomba while my significant other was running an ultramarathon, but it has been waiting on my shelf since then. I overestimated how many books I could read during the recent Dewey’s 24 Hour Marathon but this was the second in my stack of blue books and I was determined to read it.
“Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray” by Anita Heiss is a historical fiction novel set in the 1830s about a young Wiradyuri woman called Wagadhaany who lives in Gundagai and works for the Bradley family. Despite warnings from the local Wiradyuri people, the white settlers ignore warnings about building their town on the Murrumbidgee River floodplains and disaster soon strikes. As the waters rise, Wagadhaany and the Bradleys, who refused to leave, make their way to the roof of the house. Although her father heroically rescues many of the town’s residents, after the flood, the impact of colonialism is as strong as ever. The surviving Bradleys decide to move to Wagga Wagga and insist on taking Wagadhaany with them. Devastated to leave her family and her country, Wagadhaany must find a way to be true to herself and her culture while navigating the expectations of the various white people in the household.
This is a beautifully crafted, utterly readable story about the real and ongoing impact of colonialism. Despite the heroism, ingenuity and talent for droving displayed by the Wiradyuri people, they are slowly dispossessed of and excluded from their land. Wagadhanaay was an wonderful protagonist who grows in spite of adversity and finds her own ways to resist and connect with community. Having read “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman” some time ago, I felt like Heiss did an excellent job depicting the seemingly well-meaning, condescending yet ultimately self-serving early white feminism that ultimately perpetuates white power structures. In a way, this is almost worse than some of the blatant racism Wagadhanaay experiences and witnesses. As a reader, seeing Wagadhanaay’s labour and relationships being exploited in this way is utterly heartbreaking. However, Heiss’ use of research and empathy makes these situations completely believable. I also really enjoyed how she wove through Wiradyuri language throughout the book, and the generosity of including a glossary of Wiradyuri words at the back of the book.
A bittersweet novel that, while unflinching in its depiction of colonisation, radiates warmth through romance, family, community and culture and resilience in the face of adversity.