Mystery novel about field research in an Aboriginal community
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Red Dirt Talking” by Jacqueline Wright is a novel about Annie, a recent anthropology graduate who receives a grant and ethical permission to research massacres for her master’s thesis in a remote Western Australian Aboriginal community called Yindi. In her late 30s with plenty of personal issues left behind in Perth, Annie is eager to get started with her research and ignores Mick, the community project officer, when he advises her to take things slowly. When the connections she starts to build in Yindi take her research in a different direction, she finds herself in the middle of a child’s disappearance.
This is a very rich, considered novel that unflinchingly explores the hubris of academia and the disconnect between urban and remote Australia. It is hardly surprising that it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013. Annie is a fascinating, idealistic character who, despite the dysfunction in her own personal life, is convinced that interviewing Aboriginal people is going to solve all their problems. Wright does an excellent job of lancing Annie’s presumptions about both the magnitude and the nature of her own importance. I also think that academic failure and practical difficulties following research plans that are scrupulously checked by supervisors and approved by ethical committees is a really interesting concept to unpack. Quite a few years ago, I conducted field research in Indonesia for my own master’s thesis and the cringe-worthy mistakes I made and dead ends I hit helped me really empathise with parts of Annie’s story.
I also felt that Wright did a really good job critiquing Annie’s white saviour complex. The extent to which white authors should be writing about the stories of people of colour is something which is being debated hotly, most recently through discussion of the novel “American Dirt” and the #OwnVoices movement. However, I think that Wright struck a good balance with this book because of her obvious research, lived experience and, most importantly, consultation with Aboriginal elders and authors. Wright effectively used the perspectives of lots of different types of characters to explore white attitudes to Aboriginal people and the lingering impacts of massacres, deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal people. Maggot in particular was an interesting character who, as the garbage collector, collects snippets of gossip as he drives around Ransom, the town closest to Yindi. Through Maggot’s eyes, we get to see the people that Annie has met through a different, sometimes more sinister light. Wright is a very flexible writer who convincingly captures the essence of the many characters.
This is a good book, but it is not always an easy read. Wright packs in a lot of information in a relatively short novel, and there is a broad cast of characters, some with more than one name, that can take some time to get your head around. I also felt that all the threads that had been so carefully laid down by Wright did get a little tangled right at the very end.
An enjoyable, engaging novel that explores different points of view, tackles important issues and is worth the work.