Phillip Hall reviews Tracker by Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright. Tracker. Artamon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-925336-33-7

 

Phillip Hall

 

There is a minimalist elegance in the cover design of Alexis Wright’s new biographical tribute to First Australian visionary and leader, Tracker Tilmouth. The book cover features a black-and-white image of an old Akubra in its bottom right-hand corner set against a plain white background. The name of the book, Tracker, is in glorious ochre. Alexis Wright’s name is in silver and is, therefore, linked to the grey tones found in the hat. The Akubra is now more often associated with the aggressive elements of right-wing politics. This book offers both confrontation to, and comfort and protection from, such dangerous interests. Tracker is another essential read from Wright: its subject is a charismatic leader, political thinker and entrepreneur; and the book itself is a model for a new type of biographical method. The hat of the cover once crowned a superlative force and intellect.

Wright begins her project with the following question: ‘How do you tell an impossible story, one that is almost too big to contain in a single book?’ She begins her reflection on this question by offering the following thoughts on First Nations identity:

In all honesty, an Aboriginal writer would admit to being hard-pressed to understand all the nuances and depths of differences, or what is really in the heart of another countryman’s or countrywoman’s song, the deep inner spirit of their traditional country, and its full significance in our world. You cannot. Too much has happened. Too much about this country is never resolved, and this is also what has shaped us. And we learn to guard what we know too much. (1)

Wright notes that Tracker Tilmouth was ‘one of the few brilliant statesmanlike leaders we have had – one who stayed close to his own people, and who really had the capacity to push back the boundaries for much of the action that shapes how we think and have thought about our times’ (7). She also observes that ‘there was nothing normal about [Tracker]’ and that ‘a Western-style biography would never do for someone like him’ (7). She highlights that ‘the problem with creating this book was the question of how you would write a story about someone who challenged all expectations’ (12). But this was a challenge given to Wright by Tracker himself: ‘I want you to write something for me, Wrighty’ (12). So how has she approached the task?

To answer this question, Wright went back to Tracker: ‘Wrighty, I just want to bookend this. Let others tell the story. Let them say what they want’ (12). And so Wright, together with Tracker Tilmouth, began to develop a new kind of strategy for writing a biography:

This was how Tracker envisioned this book, which he wanted to call The Unreliable Witness. He was simply saying what our mob say time and again, Let people have a say. Let them tell their own stories. Let people speak for themselves. This is a reasonable response to a lifetime of confronting the legacy of our stories being told and misrepresented by others, as has been happening since the arrival of the First Fleet. Tracker made stories happen in reality. For him, stories were for changing reality at whatever level it took to make something happen. These were not stories that could make people live happily ever after, they were stories to make people’s lives better by making a difference, and along the way, to create amazing memories. (12)

Wright calls this biographical method a ‘collective memoir’ as the stories in Tracker are told from many points of view: ‘This book helps to explain some of [Tracker’s] ideas and his significance as a leader of his times. There are many voices in these pages. The contributors were all chosen by Tracker. He wanted them to tell their parts in the story.’ (12)

Wright concludes her introductory essay with the following celebration:

Tracker the phenomenal life force with great intelligence, quick recall, plenty of vision operating on multiple fronts, had a precise insight into whatever political or commercial states of play were happening in the Aboriginal world across Australia. He had it all in his mind, and being anywhere near Tracker in action was like James Joyce once saying, of Finnegans Wake, this was going to take them a hundred years to figure out. (15)

Part One of Tracker is called ‘Trying To Get The Story Straight’ and begins with Tracker’s compulsory removal from his family at the age of two, and his childhood spent in a children’s home on Croker Island. This section of the book is a powerful example of the new biographical method that Wright and Tracker Tilmouth have developed for telling this story. It is a searing interrogation of the racist values that made the Stolen Generations possible. But in allowing parallel memories and stories to exist side-by-side, while it does document the personal devastation that this government policy caused, it also highlights unexpected and original viewpoints.

In the memories of William and Patrick Tilmouth (Tracker’s brothers) and in such friends as Peter Hansen, a picture emerges of the child Tracker as a good-natured rascal: a ‘Dennis the Menace’ (69) and ‘cheeky little bastard’ though ‘very intelligent’ (73). These stories of joyous mischief and adventure are powerful testament to childhood resiliency. But, remarkably, the reflections on what it was like to live ‘inside’ the Stolen Generations is not only provided by First Nations people. A major contributor to this section is Sister Lois Bartram. Bartram was the housemother of the cottage where Tracker and his younger brothers were sent to live. And as adults the Tilmouths remember her so fondly: she was ‘a good lady’. And a tiny lady, she was only tiny. She put the fear of God into all of us’ (33); ‘she was brilliant’ (33); ‘she was just an amazing, amazing, amazing woman’ (34); ‘she was a really good role model and staunch as anything. She lived her life in honesty. She was a very sincere, honest person. Righteous’ (34). So, from the beginning, we are positioned to value the point of view of someone who worked for the church organisations in administering this government policy of the compulsory separation of children from their families. This does not justify or excuse the scheme, but it does give an unexpected viewpoint. Sister Bartram says of the 1950s, when she was helping to run these children’s homes, that ‘there was no talk of a Stolen Generation. Not just the term but the fact, and I was completely ignorant of the fact that Aboriginal children were compulsorily taken from their parents’ care, and put into institutions’ (32). Sister Bartram also relates how:

I was twenty-five when I went to Croker. It seems young now but I did not feel particularly young then. I had done general nursing training and mid and infant welfare, and when I did infant welfare we had to read a book by John Bowlby which was called Maternal Care and Mental Health. He knew what he was talking about. His work was about the effect on children when they are denied maternal care right from birth, but also the over the years too, and it was really disturbing. It explains a lot of things I think, as to how people get into trouble in later life and so on. And it really hit me as to what dire effects it can have. That affected me greatly and I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to go into childcare for children who for some reason could not stay with their own families. (31)

The way Wright allows these narratives to exist side-by-side, valuing all points of view, is remarkable. Obviously, not all people who worked in the system were as loving and generous as Sister Bartram, but her experiences of working for this terrible program adds to the achingly intimate response that this memoir documents on the Stolen Generations. And despite the Tilmouth brothers’ luck in being cared for by someone like Sister Bartram, in adult life there were still the tragic consequences of growing up separated from family and Culture: legal difficulties, substance abuse and suicide attempts. In later years, when Tracker learnt the truth about his separation from family, he returned home: ‘Getting back to Alice and getting back to Central Australia, it was extremely difficult finding out where you belonged. It was difficult because you did not know where you came from.’ (82)

From such disadvantaged tragedy, Tracker Tilmouth worked tirelessly to become a dynamic leader who advocated for First Nations self-determination, creating so many opportunities for land-use and economic development. But this biography not only celebrates the life of a remarkable Australian, it also points the way forward to a new type of biographical method, one that esteems First Australian storytelling, tolerance and magnanimity.

 

 

Phillip Hall worked for many years as a teacher of outdoor education and sport throughout regional New South Wales, Northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. He now resides in Melbourne’s Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. Phillip’s poetry and reviews can be seen in such spaces as Best Australian PoemsCordite Poetry ReviewPlumwood Mountain and Verity La while his publications include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press), Borroloola Class (IPSI) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press), and most recently Fume (UWAP, 2018).

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