Christine Regan reviews Heat and Light by Ellen Van Neerven
by Ellen Van Neerven
Reviewed by Christine Regan
In Heat and Light Ellen Van Neerven tells us stories exploring ancestry and identity and the experiences particularly of Aboriginal women and girls in small Australian towns or dwelling on the metaphorical fringes of Brisbane and the surrounding regions, where its young Yugambeh author is based. As its title (taken from the Tracy Chapman song ‘Smoke and Ashes’) signals, Heat and Light is interested in the elemental, particularly sexual desire and familial bonds, the dangers, hopes, and sense of identity and place sought through these relationships, and the harsh natural environment on Country. Heat and Light is a book in three parts written in a simple, spare colloquial prose and has a tripartite formal and temporal structure, with ‘Heat’, ‘Water’, and ‘Light’ respectively focused mainly upon the past, the future, and the present, and the presence of the past in the present is one of the unifying themes of the collection. While ‘Heat’ and ‘Light’ contain a series of mainly realist short stories, with some mixing myth and reality, ‘Water’ is a speculative fiction novella with elements of satire and political allegory, in a collection that traverses genres. Van Neerven’s achievement with Heat and Light has been recognised by receiving the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Aboriginal writer in 2013, and in 2015 both the Dobbie Literary Award for a first-time author and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelist Award.
The strongest writing in Heat and Light is mainly in ‘Heat’, which is comprised of interrelated stories about incidents in the fractured history of three generations of the Kresinger family, told from different narrative viewpoints and shifting between different times and places. The stand out story in the book is the first story, ‘Pearl’, whose eponymous protagonist is a free-spirited agent and object of desire, existing outside black and white codes of morality, and a mystical outcaste, both victim and shaman-like avenger. In ‘Pearl’ disrupted family histories and the search for identity – a major theme in heterogeneous Aboriginal Australian writing – is the consequence not of official state policies of the removal of children, but of the pack rape of an Aboriginal woman by white men. The itinerant Pearl gives the baby conceived in rape to her married sister Marie, who presents the boy as her son, while Pearl’s name disappears from the Kresinger family history. ‘Pearl’ is alternately narrated by an old woman in the local store, and the young Amy Kresinger, to whom the woman tells the true story of Amy’s ancestry, that she is the granddaughter of Pearl not Marie, disclosing family secrets and local historical silences.
Interestingly, the story and character of ‘Pearl’ seem inspired by the Chippewa novelist Louise Erdrich’s short story and character ‘Fleur’, which is also adapted as a chapter in the novel Tracks. There is no anxiety of influence here, as Van Neerven has commented that she was reading Erdrich when writing ‘Pearl’, and she employs the classical method of imitation well, adapting borrowed elements of language, plot, narrative structure, and characterisation to enrich a story that is her own. Fleur and Pearl are both native women whose mystical powers, sexuality, and daring make them pariah figures, the subjects of malicious gossip and fearful mythologies generated by the locals who try to drive them out of town, and we learn about both characters indirectly through jealous narrators. Fleur is a shaman believed to be the desired creature of the waterman monster of Chippewa myth, Misshepeshu. She seemingly drowns in the lake twice, and is said to have caused the deaths of the men who pull her from the waters the first time, and the man who approaches her ostensibly dead body the second time. Comparably, Pearl is a mystical creature of the wind, which seemingly takes her life twice when she goes out into wild storms and makes physical gestures resembling embraces. She is wind-hurled first into the waters, only to mysteriously re-emerge two days later, while the man who tried to save her was drowned. The second time Pearl dies is when the windman lifts her into electricity wires, ‘and they curled into each other like lovers as she was jolted.’ The electricity that killed her is conducted out of her body and into the brother who touches her and ‘he takes her place.’
Fleur is raped by three men who work with her in a butcher’s shop and Pearl is raped by three men who come into the café where she works, and both women seemingly conceive during the rapes. The attackers of both women die shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances. It is wild winds that destroy the town where Fleur is attacked and distract the townspeople from noticing the absence of the three men, who are found days later frozen to death. Pearl too is associated with the wind and later Kresingers continue to associate the wind with their spiritual ancestry. The wind is also a motif in ‘Heat’ for the way the past pervades the present and history repeats itself. The rape of Pearl is followed, two generations later, and in the third story ‘Hot Stones’, by the pack rape of Mia, a young Aboriginal girl. The schoolboys’ savage attack is a more extreme expression of the hostility the schoolchildren routinely direct at the dark-skinned, recognizably Aboriginal Mia. There are of course many differences between the works including Erdrich’s lyrical prose and engagement with history. Fleur, for example, attempts to save her tribe’s land and traditions from white encroachment in the era of the Dawes Act (1887) that served to destroy the Indian land base and in turn culture. Van Neerven’s first book focuses mainly on individual odysseys and family histories that register social issues of racism, domestic violence and mental illness.
A light satirical engagement with contemporary Australian politics and history is presented in part two, ‘Water’, which imagines a fantastical future as a fresh way of talking about past and present realities, notably in its allegory of the imperial genocide of the ‘plantpeople’, who are revealed as Aboriginal ancestral spirits. The final part of Heat and Light is comprised of ten stories mainly set in contemporary Brisbane and narrated by young, gay Aboriginal women finding space for self-expression and self-definition in the relative anonymity of the city, often having left small towns to attend university. Another interesting literary influence evident in stories from ‘Light’ and recurrently in the book is the magical realist novelist Jeanette Winterson. The young loners narrating some of these stories are searching for sexual connections of different kinds with other women, and the recurring motif of oranges as a gift to a lover, and a desire that does not fit the received social expectation, alludes to Winterson’s North of England lesbian bildungsroman, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Coincidentally, Van Neerven mentions that it was a mandarin Melissa Lucashenko handed to her to calm her nerves at an early book reading. The support Van Neerven has received from Lucashenko and other Indigenous Australian writers, including through high public praise of her writing, is the beginning of locating her in a lineage of Aboriginal women writers. Lucashenko’s literary influence is perhaps manifest in Van Neerven’s use of a light Aboriginal English in gritty, colloquially told tales of young working-class Aboriginal women in particular. Van Neerven’s influences in Heat and Light are Indigenous and European, local and cosmopolitan, and enhance the sense of her potential and readers’ interest in future publications.