As a new mother, I observed myself teaching my children the myths I had absorbed as a child. As a fourth and fifth generation Australian of mainly Irish descent, I taught them to look for signs of faeries in the coastal scrub or hollows in the mother trees. When the curlew cried, I asked…was that the banshee wailing? I was also inadvertently passing on Indigenous myths I had picked up along the way from Aboriginal friends at school. ‘Three curlews…someone’s about to die,’ or ‘Don’t go into the swamp, the bully man will get you.’ I became aware that not only had I transmogrified my ancestor’s myths to suit this new ‘bright scraggly landscape’, but I had also taken on some of the local mob’s folk lore. Was this mongrel mythology I had created the right way to teach my children to connect to this country? Was I transgressing boundaries? Were my ancestor’s myths still relevant in this foreign landscape? I became haunted by a question I had subconsciously been asking myself most of my life, a question I feel many Australians wonder about. ‘How should we connect to this country, the only place we have known, when our ancestry is from a country on the opposite side of the world?’ Many of us are, after all, aliens in our own home.
On reflection, I think this was what I was doing in the writing of Beneath the Mother Tree – examining my own connection to country through the form of a fictional story, in the hope that I would find an answer to this question.
Pictured is a bush-stone curlew that was nesting on the footpath outside my parent’s house the last time I visited. The curlew features heavily in my novel. The cry of this bird at night is blood curdling – like that of a woman in pain.
This image is of a moss covered mangrove root system. One of the Quandamooka breeding habitats of the mosquito.
Unless you have lived on a sub-tropical island and experienced the full extent of every season you can’t begin to imagine the ferocity of the mosquitos at certain times of the year. I knew in Beneath the Mother Tree, which is set on an island peppered with tea tree swamps and a large mangrove habitat, mosquitos were going to play a major role in the story…just how major I didn’t realise until I started writing. My research on these blood sucking winged killers led me to liaise with one of Australia’s leading entomologists, Stephen L. Doggett, who is the Director of Medical Entomology at NSW Health Pathology in Sydney. Stepping into Stephen’s world was like entering through a door into another planet. Touring around his work space in the research department at the Westmead hospital was eerie and surreal as we entered humidified rooms full of ticks and flies and mosquitos, even sections devoted to the growth of maggots (excuse me while I vomit). I saw hardworking scientists hunched over large microscopes studying the minuscule innards of the microscopic as I manoeuvred past terrifyingly large canisters of liquid nitrogen.
It has been an absolute delight getting to know Stephen. When we first spoke about my manuscript I remember he asked if it was a romance. I replied that there was a love story involved. He rolled his eyes and said that he ‘hated that kind of thing.’ I felt awful that I was going to force this poor clinical scientist to read my novel full of myth and romance. A few weeks later I heard from him, he had been up most of the night reading my ‘damn book’. He couldn’t put it down, he said, and he particularly liked the love story. The next day he sent through two pages of notes on the entomological sections. Beneath the Mother Tree would not be the book it is without Stephen’s expert entomological guidance. Thank you, Mr Doggett.
And if you are interested in bed bugs, he has written some books of his own on those ugly little bloodsuckers!
Even though I knew the Aboriginal characters in my debut novel ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’ were only ever going to be told through the gaze of the non-Indigenous characters, I still wanted the guidance of an Aboriginal consultant, to ensure I, as a person of mainly Irish heritage remained culturally sensitive. Growing up in the Quandamooka area, I already had connections to the vibrant Aboriginal community which still exists on Minjerribah so it was a natural step to consult with revered Ngugi elder Uncle Bob Anderson of Mulgumpin. Uncle Bob was very interested in what I was trying to explore – my own Irish heritage sitting within this wild landscape. He literally embodied my exploration, being Aboriginal on his mother’s side with Celtic heritage on his father’s side. It was always an honour and a privilege to sit and yarn with Uncle Bob and his lovely wife Cathy. Uncle Bob, over the years, without realising it, led me on a journey of self-discovery, revealing to me how ‘white’ I was in many of my expectations. He also revealed the landscape I had known and loved most of my life in a transformative way. I learnt how vital it is that all Australians come to this deeper understanding of our country for true healing to occur…and on reflection, I think this is one of the main themes that emerged in ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’.
This picture is of Uncle Bob and I outside his house on Minjerribah, taken by his wife Cathy Boyle. As you can see I am a bit enamoured.