I’m about to recommend you read an amazing collection of stories that includes a novella about an Indigenous Australian women who has sex with a female plant called Larapinta.
But let me explain.
Heat and Light isn’t like anything else I’ve read. For starters, it’s written by a young Mununjali woman. This year I decided to make a conscious effort to read at least five Indigenous Australian novels, as I realised that I could spent my whole life avidly reading, and never pick up a book penned by an Aboriginal author. That, as far as I’m concerned, is a disgrace – on my part, as well the publishing industry’s.
I’m so pleased this was the first book I read as part of this pledge; I really, really enjoyed it. Ellen Van Neerven has created something that is mystical, real, engaging and edifying. It deftly weaves Indigenous heritage into the narratives in an integral and cohesive way, and successfully captures in its cross-hairs the intersectionalities of race, sex and sexuality.
The book is divided into three parts; the premise and imagery of the middle story, Water, will stay with me for a long time. It has slight dystopian feel about it – the political elite in Australia, at some point in the future, decide to make reparations to Aboriginal people by establishing Australia2. To do this they must evacuate the islands around Brisbane currently inhabited by the ‘plant people’. The allegory to what happened to the original inhabitants on this continent over 200 years ago is a clever one.
In this story, Aboriginal woman Kaden is hired as a ‘cultural liaison officer’ to tend to the plant people, and ultimately to make them amenable to being uprooted.
I’ll be working with what they call the ‘sandplants’. There’s a lot of talk about them in the media lately, all sensationalist crap, I reckon, like asylum seekers in the naughties. I don’t really know much about them to be honest. I don’t want to call them ‘sandplants’ – ‘sandpeople’ or ‘plant people’ seems more sensitive, but I don’t know which to use.
Within a few hours of being on the job, Kaden meets Laprinta:
Seeing them for the first time, I am struck both by how startingly human like they are, and how alarmingly unhuman they are…. Laprinta is less green than the others. She has wild frond-like hair across her face, bleached pale pink in parts, perhaps from the sun. She has a face that’s like you and me… Am I blind not to notice much difference?
It is an absolute testament to Van Neerven’s ability that she can write about Kaden forming a strong attachment, and then eventually a strong attraction to Laprinta that seems not only reasonable, but tender. ‘We make eye contact as I step out of my jeans. The kiss is like a crash…. I feel like all I can hear in my head is a speedboat travelling through water’.
When the time comes for the plant people to form a resistance against Australia2, history does not repeat itself exactly. This time, Aboriginal Australians stand shoulder to shoulder with the plant people.
While Water was the stand out story for me, the first and third parts of the book are also brilliantly written. The first part of the book, Heat, weaves a patchwork of vignettes into a bigger narrative about different generations of the Kresinger family. It has elements of magical realism (‘The first time Pearl Kresinger was taken by the wind we were both twelve’), moments of insight (‘The stories we construct about our place in our families are essential to our lives’), but also, inevitably, tragedy (‘Lena had been hit by two cars while walking across the road to pick up Amy’).
The final third, Light, contains a number of short stories – some are just a couple of pages long, others extend to a chapter’s length. The uneven length of these stories meant that I invested in every page, in case the tale was over before I realised. These stories too held insights (‘”I’m so glad”, Sigrid says, “that I’ve finally met a real Aboriginal”‘) and flashes of imagery that are still settling in my brain.
This year Van Neerven jointly won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award – Indigenous Writers Prize; the judges declared Heat and Light as a ‘work of fiction by a born novelist’. She has also been named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist. Ellen Van Neerven is most definitely a writer to watch. If she can convincingly write about sex with plants, this woman can write about anything.
Feature photo credited to: Banar Fil Ardhi.