Stranger Country, Monica Tan, Allen and Unwin
Monica Tan is a 30-something journalist, a Sydney-dwelling, inner-city leftie with a frank, earthy vocabulary and a liking for a drink after work. Feeling fried from her fast-paced position at the Guardian, she quits her job, buys a white 4WD, stacks it with camping supplies and heads off for a year beyond the continent’s rim, into the red-stained interior to experience Country with a capital C.
She’s a city-slicker, alright. Although she learns a lot – how to make fire, negotiate country roads, gut a fish – she thinks wheat is harvested in bales, confuses meteors with comets, and refers to check shirts as ‘plaid’ shirts and utes as trucks, these Americanisms no doubt a product of her savviness with the latest media. But she ‘awakens’ to bird-watching, getting up early and infrequent showering.
It might be a cliché, but she hopes her year on the road will also awaken her to the land and its history. And, indeed, as soon as she hits Lake Mungo in outback NSW, she is reoriented to the Indigenous way of looking at time elastically, as well as initiated into unsettling questions about unreconciled cultures, perpendicular viewpoints. Here, for Indigenous people, bones in the sand, no matter their age, are not archaeological curiosities, but family members to be cared for.
She contrasts the prevailing Indigenous attitude to the land with the plundering attitude of mining companies, especially in the Pilbara, a Tolkienesque dystopia of flame-belching towers and gouged earth, where rock art sites have been destroyed, even though companies are mostly forced to protect areas such as the extraordinary Burrup Peninsula where there are thousands of petroglyphs spread across acres of iron-red boulders. She notes our hypocrisy when we deplore the Taliban’s iconoclasm while ignoring the same in our own back yard, though she misses the irony of criticising mining companies while burning tank after tank of fossil fuel for her self-driving enlightenment. As she notes elsewhere, there are no easy answers, complicity is rife.
As an Australian with Chinese background she is keen to find out about the Chinese contribution to Australian history, and muses that Australia’s lingering tight cultural connection to Europe is odd, considering Asia is so much closer. She wants to test the Chinese Australian city-dweller assumption that country people are racist, and feels comradely with Indigenous people because of a shared history of being discriminated against. But Indigenous and Chinese experiences differ. She is surprised and pleased to learn that the Chinese were so prevalent in Darwin that they experienced little racism, but she discovers the ‘uncomfortable truth’ that Chinese immigrants helped displace Indigenous people, and in our modern cities today Chinese Australians are simply part of the larger scramble for wealth so dissonant to much Indigenous experience.
At the mouth of the Murray River she thinks the mingling of fresh and salty water could be a metaphor for cultural harmony, and notes that the Chinese concept of ying and yang has resonance with Indigenous belief. But then again, she realises, things are not that neat.