I had been looking for this book to become available in the US for more than a year when I learned that Kim Scott was visiting my small city in Virginia. It was wonderful to hear him speak and to be able to buy the book. I should explain that he was here at the invitation of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, the only art museum in the US that is wholly devoted to Aboriginal art. One of his previous books That Deadman Dance, was one of my favorite books from 2018.
He is a Noongar man from Western Australia. He has a great interest in language as a connection for community; that interest is evident in this book and in his remarks here in Charlottesville. He spoke of his involvement with the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Story Project with enthusiasm.
Taboo is a modern day story of Noongar people returning to a farm that had become a forbidden place because a massacre had occurred some generations back. The descendants of the Horton family still owned the land, and were working to make amends to those for whom this was an ancestral land. The opening of a Peace Park was a time to mark this return. The Horton family, while actively involved, did have reservations about the term “massacre.”
In the process we meet a lively group of characters, the twin Gerry brothers (Gerald and Gerrard), the blind, elderly Nita, magical Wilfred, and Tilly, a young woman. Tilly did not know her father, or know that he was Aboriginal until she was grown and she began to visit him in prison. He had become respected in the community, teaching others language and other knowledge of ancestral ways. Along the way Tilly fell victim to a sadistic man who ensnared her and others with drugs.
The book begins with a runaway truck tearing through a little town and coming to rest on its side, frightening many, harming no one. The truck is not mentioned again until the end when we know all the characters and their stories. The crash of the truck liberates a spirit that is the culmination of a multi-prong effort of the disparate group to reclaim the land that had become taboo. Having avoided it for years and suffering from its loss, many were moved to revisit the old people who had lived there, knowing those spirits would be pleased to see them and hear them bring the language back.
The process of journeying back to the land involved recounting the stories of many, along with very specific descriptions of the natural world they would see. In one instance, one of the twins tells how they had planned to visit the massacre site:
They would do it in sequence. One place, there is a rough and boulder-scattered gorge, its steep sides strewn with grasses, with everlasting flowers and ferns brushing the rocks, and jam trees and yate trees towering over them. Parrots and parakeets call and call, their voices bouncing above pools of water. Sometimes a small waterfall calls a journey to a halt. There was a skull there for a time, a human skull jammed in a deep stone crevice; too deep to retrieve, too deep to see the bullet hole.
The many passages describing the landscape that one or more of the characters passed through created a dreamy feeling.
Reclaiming the heritage that has been stolen as happened throughout Australia is an admirable life work. It is apparent that the deliberate killing, taking of land, suppression of language and culture has resulted in the marginalized population. Finding those roots and rebuilding a viable community is a momentous task and I am in awe of the contributions of those who work toward that goal. I appreciate the the two books I’ve read by Kim Scott both as literature that includes me and as community-building work.
Kim Scott, Taboo, Small Beer Press (US publisher), 2017, 287 pages. Available at the UVa library in the Kluge-Ruhe Center and from Amazon.