lip lit: mullumbimby
I’ve never read a book quite like Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby. With most books I read, there are aspects which will remind me of something else I’ve read, or make me think of another author I’ve read. And it could just be that because I’m still working my way through the millions of published books which have been released into the world that when reading this book, it felt like nothing I’d ever encountered before. Or it could be because Lucashenko’s style is so unique, her characters surprisingly lovable and her turn of phrase so full of dry wit, that the whole combination is a wonderful recipe which no other author has yet stumbled upon.
Mullumbimby is set on the Arakwal lands of the Bundjalung Nation in New South Wales, where Lucashenko’s protagonist Jo and teenage daughter Ellen are trying to carve out a home for themselves on their recently purchased farm. The land Jo has purchased is part of the lands where her ancestors once lived, and Jo is pleased to have managed to claim a piece of it for herself and her daughter. Then Jo meets and falls for Twoboy, who is fighting in the courts for Native Title rights to the Bundjalung lands, something which Jo can’t quite understand. She can understand wanting to be recognised as the owner of the lands; what she can’t understand is why it matters so much to Twoboy if white people grant him a piece of paper confirming it or not. Jo’s just as happy to skip the bureaucracy and get on with things on her own farm, as she tries to find her place within her country.
This book is written in such a way that it makes it impossible to rush through. I felt myself drawn to each word on the page, absorbing each and every one, to ensure I felt the full effect of their impact. Luschenko’s writing rejects all clichés as she carefully builds each character for the reader, dropping snippets of information here and there, in the context of the story, never stopping the flow of the narrative to explain. I loved the characters of both Jo and Ellen, and the dynamic between the two of them. Jo is the caretaker at the local cemetery, of the farm she’s bought, of her horses and, although she tries to be of her daughter too, Ellen is at an age where she doesn’t want to be taken care of. Luscachenko’s exploration of the relationship between a teenage girl and her mother is beautiful, contrasting stubborn independence with an overpowering need to still be looked after.
But more than that, this book toys with the idea of home, place and connection to the land. The characters in this novel know their history and are proud of it, while at the same time feeling almost ashamed that they no longer live as their ancestors did. They still have some of their language, but those fragments which are left become harder and harder to recall. Despite this, Jo’s connection to the land, and to the animals, is engrained deeply within her. There is a poignant section in the book where Jo suddenly starts noticing fences, all these fences, dividing everything and everyone up, keeping people in and keeping people out: ‘the dugai had come and planted that bloody flag of theirs at Botany Bay, and in the intervening centuries had taken it upon themselves to lace the country tight, using bitumen and wire and timber to bind their gift of a continent to themselves.’ An imprisonment of a land which was once granted freedom.
Mullumbimby isn’t a book written to evoke rage or point fingers at what white Australians have done to the country. It is a book written to make the reader consider and honestly think about what has happened, and make the reader understand the connection which can, and has, for thousands of years, existed between a land and its people. But to reduce Lucashenko’s book to only a book about land and Native Title is an injustice. At its core, this book is about Jo and her daughter and their relationships with each other, their friends and family, their land, and their home, and everything which eventuates because of these relationships. Mullumbimby is a wonderful read, which shows that acceptance of the past, no matter how damaging, is the only way to move forward into the future.