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Pictured is a piece of graffiti defacing a cliff in the national park near where I live, probably drawn by a passing tourist or a bored teenager. It is nothing remarkable – just a name evoking an old rock star, scratched on with a piece of chalky sandstone gleaned from the edge of the walking trail.
The morning I came across this insignificant scrawl is a morning I will remember always – a little piece of ‘big magic,’ as Elizabeth Gilbert would say.
I don’t recall now what had triggered the fear and self-doubt, but I remember I had fled my writing desk full of the realisation that my protagonist was the most vilified specimen on the face of the Earth – a privileged white male. In the era of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter what was I thinking writing a novel about a f#cked up entitled boy-man? I had spent two years working on a book no publisher will touch. These were my thoughts as I trudged on full of self-recrimination and panic. Why hadn’t I been more strategic? I reflected on how the character had arrived – in a whoosh, fully formed, name and all, and how his mother had arrived with his name, and then other characters had appeared, making me fill page after page of a notebook in a frenetic vomit of words and ideas. The arrival was such that I abandoned another manuscript, the first draft of which I was excited about (now book three), because this shiny new story was screaming so loudly, the only way I could placate it was to write it.
And now here I was, two years later, contemplating changing the sex of my protagonist for commercial reasons, doubting the whole premise of my book. I was so overwrought, I had walked much further into the national park than was my custom, when I looked up to see my protagonist’s name scratched into the rock.
I have often wondered since, what made me glance up at that moment. I stood there choking on the wonder and joy that bubbled in me, laughing. An astounding coincidence? If my character had been called John or Josh – but Jagger? What were the chances? I chose to see it as a sign to trust my writerly instincts, that there was a reason Jagger’s story had sprung out of my subconscious, that his journey was vital and relevant to our times. The fear and choices he grapples with are, after all, choices and fears all of us are facing or will come to face in this decade in which the future of humanity will be determined.
I see this incident as a powerful reminder to keep my logical brain out of the process and write from that mysterious place we all go to in our dreams – to have the courage to trust in those wild fearless gifts that spring from the heart.
I can’t wait to share Jagger’s story with you, dear reader.
(For those of you who may have missed it, I talk about this phenomenon on this brilliant podcast on creativity -Getting it Down.)
To write a novel with resonance, a novelist needs to hold the big picture in their head at all times, to examine the micro within the resounding context of the macro. It appears to me, as a species, we also need to start doing this if we are to survive – it is imperative we grasp what is really unfolding here. Emerging from lockdown presents us with a remarkable opportunity to restructure, to make radical changes to ensure our continued existence, but instead, the media, the politicians, so many of us are breathing a cautious sigh of relief. The overall sentiment being – ‘2020 has been a nightmare. First the bushfires, then the pandemic, but it’s over now. Once we get our economy back on track, things can go back to normal.’
As I work on my second novel, which is set now, at the start of the ‘roaring twenties,’ I am holding the big picture in my head, and, to be honest, it scares the hell out of me. Things are not going to return to normal. The next disaster is just around the corner. The mega fires will return, another pandemic is extremely likely as biodiversity continues to break down and temperatures rise. We are about to experience super storms that will make Cyclone Tracy look like a walk in the park. Violent, torrential flooding will become the new norm. Insect populations, vital in the food chain, are on the decline. There will be ongoing food shortages as crops fail and water becomes our most precious commodity. These events aren’t thirty or fifty years away. It has started. We are in a state of emergency now, scrambling for survival. Societal breakdown is one step away. It is no coincidence the #blacklivesmatter movement has taken hold. In survival mode, any repressed social resentment will always rise to the surface. In a state of panic, it is easy to turn on each other.
I am not alone with these truths. Some of Australia’s leading novelists were asked recently what changes they would like to see as we emerge from lockdown. It was strangely comforting to hear so many of them brought it back to the fact that we are in a climate emergency. Kim Scott called this time, a time of pestilence and plague. He sees the pandemic as a warning. As we emerge from lockdown, he feels it is an opportunity to rebuild, starting at the foundations, with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to allow first nation people a voice that will be heard.
My sentiments align as I imagine an earth where the First Nation Elders of the world have a say in all decisions. Vision what kind of world it would be if those who have an inherent understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, those who do not see nature as something to conquer or profit from, but as our life blood, our mother, our home, are allowed influence. It is, after all, our disconnection to nature that has landed us here.
Heather Rose spoke of how water is to become of enormous value to our country. That we must stop selling it off, giving it away. She also called for a universal basic income, citing that a healthy, well-educated, diverse population will be better prepared to handle the changes that are coming at us. (I am watching Ireland closely – a brave little country trialling just this).
Elliot Perlman not only stated that we need to unequivocally accept the phasing out of the burning of fossil fuels – ‘we have no choice. It’s critical we do this’ – but he also demanded action in respect to social media, insisting that social media platforms should be subject to laws that apply to traditional media.
How does this relate to the climate emergency you may ask? Unless reforms to social media are instigated, democracy is dead, and if democracy is dead, then we the people no longer hold any power. According to an article by BBC News, published in 2019, Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm that utilised data mining to target people susceptible to persuasion, influenced, through social media platforms, outcomes of the following elections – (in all instances, these campaigns were won by a tiny margin) – the US 2016 presidential election which brought Trump to office, the UK Brexit referendum, the Ukraine election in 2004, the Kenyan election in 2013 and 2017. The company played a controversial role in Nigeria’s 2015 presidential election and in the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional campaign in Kedah state in 2013. It influenced four elections in India including the 2014 general election which swept Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. And lastly, landed Jair Messias Bolsonaro as President of Brazil, only by 55.1% of the vote. Bolsonaro then proceeded to accelerate the burning and clearing of the Amazon rainforest.
Even though Cambridge Analytica was brought down through internal whistle blowers whose conscience got the better of them, if you think similar companies aren’t currently in operation, you probably also believe that purple unicorns will fall out of the sky to save us from rising CO2 emissions. Targeted manipulation through social media is one of the leading threats to our survival. I watch with horror what is unfolding in the US at present, the wildfire of social media, stirred up by a deranged narcissist as he heads into election mode, and my heart goes out to poor America.
As I hold this huge messy picture in my head to work on my novel, which to my surprise, is imbued with humour and love and an unstoppable sense of hope, despite it all, I can’t help but cry out in despair at the loss of opportunity as we emerge hurrying and unthinking from lockdown to ‘stimulate the economy.’ It takes me to a vision my protagonist experiences of ‘all the men and women stuck in the silver cages of the cities of the world, crippled, trapped and starving, resorting to eating their money, running towards a tsunami, offering fistfuls of dollars, but a wave of humanity comes crashing down. Who will eat who? Where are all the aphids?’
(Image by Barbara Stevens)
I have been hesitant about sharing this, in case you think I’m ‘bonkers’ but I feel we could all do with a bit of magic in our lives at the moment.
The following is a true story.
The morning Beneath the Mother Tree went to print, I was beyond tired. I had been up all night proof-reading over last-minute changes. A walk into that soft early morning light when the world is full of new possibilities was all I could do with a heart that was pumping fast, processing the terrifying truth that all was unchangeable now. My words would be trapped there forever in black and white, then distributed for the public to ridicule or find fault. I was so wired I felt as if I would never sleep again and I kept fighting the urge to ring my publisher to tell her I had changed my mind – I didn’t want to be published after all.
I jogged to the beach trying to outrun my racing thoughts, pushing through the panicking mind barrier into the physical to calm myself. I hit the edge of the scrubland and stepped onto the sand to hear the soft sound of a flute in the distance. I was so tired, at first, I thought it was my imagination jumping through hoops like a trick pony. But no. It was real. Someone was playing a flute. I had never heard flute music while standing on my local beach and I have not heard it since.
If you have read Beneath the Mother Tree you will know that the book begins with the protagonist, Ayla, standing on a beach, hearing someone playing a flute. She follows the exquisite music to its source with her head full of the Far Dorocha – her favourite Irish myth in which a black-haired man lures mortals with his flute playing, only to trap them in the faery realm.
When full comprehension washed over me – here I was standing on my local beach hearing the sweetest flute music, reality mirroring the opening scene of my book which was scheduled to go to print in the coming hours – I started to laugh in utter, crazy delight at the unfathomable coincidence.
Of course, I had to follow the sound, with thoughts of Ayla dancing in my head. My skin was on fire with the magic of it. Who would dare to play a flute so early in the morning with the valley so quiet? Was Far Dorocha about to appear in my own life? Had I summoned him by writing that opening scene in my book which had sprung entirely from my imagination?
When I located the source, of course it was no Far Dorocha, it was an elderly man sitting on the veranda of a usually empty holiday house two streets back from the beach.
I smiled most of the way home though, knowing suddenly that all was going to be fine. I chose to see this wonderful coincidence as a sign that my book, even though its feet are placed firmly in reality, would fly like the sound of a note on the wind, piercing and strange and otherworldly for those willing to open their hearts to it and start reading.
I am happy to report, a year and a half later I continue to receive beautiful messages from readers who have done just that.
(The accompanying image is by the phenomenal photographic artist Brooke Shaden. www.brookeshaden.com)
I would be on my own, trapped without a car – so no possibility of a fast get away – for seven days in a small town at what looked like the end of the world on the map. The end of Australia at least. This is how I started to think, after the exhilaration of learning I had been chosen as one of the 2019 Gooluwatu Writing Retreat recipients, had worn off. The little black dot on the map which represented Goolwa in South Australia (where the residency would take place) began to take on sinister qualities. I became convinced there was a local serial killer who watched for lone travellers to arrive, who had a garage full of black plastic barrels waiting to be filled (it wasn’t that far from Snowtown!) I gave my overactive imagination a good talking to and booked a fifty-dollar flight from Sydney to Adelaide before I could change my mind.
By the time the residency came around, I arrived in a frost-bitten Adelaide marvelling at how I could blow fog rings with my breath and thankful for my thermals. There is one bus to Goolwa which leaves daily from the central bus station in the middle of the city. It cost me $12 and weaved through postcard winery country before arriving in the cute seaside town of Goolwa as the last rays of sun bled crimson across the sky. The bus stop closest to Gooluwatu is conveniently positioned near a shopping centre, so I bought my supplies for the week, and then the lovely supermarket lady who served me offered to order me a cab. There is only one cab in Goolwa, and this lady appeared to have an intimate relationship with the driver. Goolwa was proving to be friendly and welcoming, far from the ‘Wake in Fright’ imaginary town I had dreamt up.
When I arrived at Gooluwatu – a two-minute cab drive away – I was so impressed with the quality of accommodation, I broke into a spontaneous dance. Was I really going to have this large, luxurious house all to myself for a whole week to write, write, write? I cooked up a huge pot of soup which I planned to live on for the rest of the week. Who had time to cook when there was writing to do? I had a first draft to finish – forty thousand words to write in six days and my initial day was already over! The next six days proved to be the most productive writing time I have experienced. What a valuable exercise it is to isolate yourself physically from your family and friends, from all other work and responsibility and immerse yourself in your writing work. I lost track of time, often waking in the middle of the night with ideas and working for a few hours, knowing I could sleep whenever I wanted or write when the urge came. If I became stuck on a plot snag, I would ride the bicycle to the wild windswept beach and walk the shoreline. This was Storm Boy country. I could feel Colin Thiele sitting on my shoulders. Sometimes I would ride into the historic village and have a coffee at one of the groovy little Cafés. Goolwa embodies the word picturesque and everything is within bike riding distance. Some days the tourist in me fought with the writer in me, but the writer always won, and I would return to the keyboard with the plot knot unlooped and teeming with ideas.
On my last day, as I locked the door behind me for the final time, then dragged my feet toward the bus stop, my heart was full of gratitude. In my laptop and backed up on a USB was a complete first draft of my second novel. It was surprising and fast paced and I had fallen deeply in love with my characters. I will be forever grateful to Lynette Washington for granting me the time and space to achieve this. Applications for 2020 retreats close on the 31 October 2019. Apply here.
The week my debut novel was published, something terrifying occurred – I was invited by the ABC to ‘continue the conversation’ for the up-coming Q and A program on ABC TV. I would be unscripted, answering caller’s questions live on national radio and live-streamed on Facebook.
My gut reaction was to scream – ‘no thanks’ – and run away to hide in a hole, but the publicity it would mean for the book was too valuable, so two weeks later I found myself feeling like I was going to vomit, sitting in the ABC Sydney studios as I watched the panel of highly accomplished Australian novelists (pictured) grapple with the question – ‘How can diversity and insight in literature be provided by writers if they are restricted only to write about their own culture and are not able to express their understanding and empathy of other cultures in their society?’
Michael Mohammed Ahmad, author of the award-winning The Lebs argued vehemently that no one had a right to fictionalise or write from another culture’s perspective. Trent Dalton in reply, posed a question which went something like – ‘But Mohammed, what if I researched really well, spent a whole year living within that culture, immersed myself in that other person’s shoes?’
This issue of cultural appropriation proved to be the most explosive aspect of the night, and I noticed the Anglo-Saxon panellists answered it as if they were walking on cut glass. When this question was asked of me as we ‘continued the conversation’, I also felt unsure as to how to answer such a complex question in the limited amount of time available. If I could go back to that moment without the time restraints and debilitating nerves, I would have answered like this –
Yes, Beneath the Mother Tree contains Aboriginal characters and I am not Aboriginal. However, my Aboriginal characters are only ever depicted through the eyes of my non-Aboriginal characters – i.e. through my perspective. I knew from the start, that I as a privileged, middle-class white woman, could never understand in that flesh and bone level the complexities of what it means to be Aboriginal in Australia today. I am more than happy to leave that to wonderful Indigenous writers like Melissa Lukashenko whose phenomenal Too Much Lip has just been short listed for the Miles Franklin.
My initial desire for the book was to balance the Irish mythology with the traditional Quandamooka mythology, but I soon realised, after speaking with Uncle Bob – my Indigenous content advisor and facilitator – to do this would be problematic. There were certain things Uncle Bob couldn’t tell me, because he didn’t know himself, things to do with women’s business. There were certain aspects of Aboriginal lore and law which are meant only for certain individuals within the hierarchical construct of their community. There were different versions of the same myth. Whose version do you tell without causing offence? There was another Minjerribah Elder who said to me in no uncertain terms – ‘These are our stories to tell, not yours.’ So, out of respect, I backed away.
At the same time, my research was taking me into the ancient history of the Quandamooka tribes and their connection to country in relation to the landscape. It was this aspect I began to focus on in the book, not in an overt way, but it is there in a subtle almost subterranean level, just as it is for the contemporary non-Aboriginal Australian walking over landscape today – for those aware enough and informed enough to tune into it, because Beneath the Mother Tree is, after all, a contemporary tale. For instance, in the book it is never stated outright but implied – through the fact that the birthing place on the island would need to have had a constant supply of fresh water close at hand – that the mother tree was the birthing place for the original inhabitants. For the astute reader, this gives the action that occurs beneath the tree at the climax of the story a whole new reading.
But finally, it was when I discovered the true, shocking history of what happened to the original inhabitants of the Quandamooka during colonisation that my eyes were opened to the fact that the mob on Minjerribah weren’t sitting around talking dolphin dreaming, they were too busy surviving, healing, working together to fight against ongoing systemic racism and generational effects from this initial trauma and all that followed. It was this history that began to hang like a shadow over the action in the book and which I began to weave throughout the contemporary setting.
As a ‘white’ writer in Australia publishing a book which contains Aboriginal content, there is always a certain amount of apprehension involved, but I took solace in the fact that I had written my story, not anyone else’s and I had written it from a place of love and respect. The book has been out in the world for ten months now and the overall critical response has been, to my utter relief, overwhelmingly positive but I did meet a reader recently who was bitterly disappointed that I didn’t write from an Aboriginal perspective and didn’t include more Aboriginal content. I replied that the real problem here, I think, probably lies in the way we chose to market the book. Including the word Indigenous on the cover blurb set up a certain expectation for her – that this will be an equally dominant part of the narrative when really the story is about an Australian woman of Irish descent struggling with her sense of belonging within this haunted landscape. I explained that my publisher and I felt it was too important an aspect not to include in the blurb, because as far as we can ascertain, Beneath the Mother Tree is the first traditionally published novel to depict some of the horrific events that took place within the Quandamooka during the early days of colonisation. I apologised that I was unable to include more Aboriginal content and pointed her in the direction of Melissa Lucashenko’s brilliant Too Much Lip. Here’s hoping it wins the Miles Franklin!
As I look back on this remarkable year, I realise how often my goal posts for success shifted and how this was determined by the demon of self-doubt who continually rose up to undermine my confidence. I always thought being able to hold my book in my hand, to see my words in print would be the pinnacle of success…and at the time, it was. My heart burst with joy at the sight of her when I pulled her out of the box – opening pages at random, stroking her cover, sniffing her like a pervert. This was soon followed by paralysing anxiety as we waited for the reviews. I believed the book would be vilified and I would be ridiculed. For the first time, I found I couldn’t write. I couldn’t even concentrate on listening to an audio book in the car. When the reviews came, I was overwhelmed with tear-filled relief, until the demon of self-doubt began to dance in my mind again – undermining my confidence, filling me with the thought that ‘people were just being polite.’ When random readers began to send kind messages, part of me danced and sang in ecstasy, while another part had her eyes narrowed, arms crossed, never quite believing. To top the year off, my book made it onto a top Australian fiction reads for 2018 list, making me want to hire a sky writer to blaze across the endless blue – ‘Heaven is on earth.’ Until the green-eyed demon of self-doubt began to whisper her sweet nasties in my ear. ‘Your book only made one of those lists. Most papers didn’t review it because it wasn’t good enough.’ Etc, etc and so forth. How I would love to kill her, this demon who always tears the edge off my bliss. I want to drive a stake through her heart. All I can do in the face of her is write.
And as I return to the daily act of placing one word after another, it dawns on me that this is success. It lies there in the process – the outcomes are irrelevant. I am doing what I love…the rest all falls away and is actually not important.
Now my first ever author talk, meet and greet, book signing circuit is over, I have had a chance to reflect on the whole nerve-wracking experience, and I realised that I quickly developed some coping mechanisms – one of which was wearing a hat! So when I recently heard author, Alison Tait, on the ‘So You Want to be a Writer’ podcast mention the authorial jacket she likes to wear when doing author talks, I knew exactly what she was talking about. My hat wearing happened accidentally, but it has become an emotional prop – to the point that if I don’t have a hat on, I don’t feel like D.M. Cameron. It isn’t a particular hat, any old hat will do – it gives me somewhere to hide and makes me feel safe. It began at my first author event in Adelaide where my publisher is based. It was the middle of winter, so before I left for Adelaide, I threw a hat into my bag at the last moment thinking it might be freezing that far south.
At the first book store we went to, they wanted to take photos – which to my horror, I didn’t realise would occur as frequently as it did – and my hair was a mess, which is often the case, so I grabbed my hat out of my bag and plonked it on. My publisher, Anna Solding, said ‘The hat looks good. You should wear it’ – and so I continued to do so.
I have found it serves many purposes –
1) I never need to worry about my messy hair. I can’t be bothered with product and blow drying and styling. Who has time when there are so many words to write and stories to tell? One can simply pull a hat out of the bag and like magic, messy hair disappears.
2) It helps me step from shy Donna Cameron, into confident articulate D.M. Cameron…at least that is what I try and convince myself is happening, and most times it works, except for my first ever Q and A at Yankalilla Library where I completely froze, and my mind became a blur of white noise. After what felt like a ten-minute silence, I asked the interviewer to please repeat the question. Nothing could save me in that moment, not even a hat.
3) I am by nature quite an emotional person, so when I do feel shy or overly emotional, which has happened a few times – I blame it on the glass of wine I’m often handed on arrival – I tilt my head, so the audience is blocked out and I take a moment to gather my thoughts. This came in very handy at my Avid Reader event when Ngugi elder Uncle Bob Anderson dubbed me as an honorary Oodgeroo (paperbark) woman. I was moved to tears and was able to hide under my trusty hat to pull myself together in order to speak.
Now if I know D.M. Cameron needs to make an appearance, I don’t step out of the door without first throwing a hat into my handbag. If you, like me, at times find the whole author event phenomenon slightly overwhelming, I highly recommend the use of an authorial hat.
‘Country lives too, it arrives and yearns and changes. And maybe it remembers, for the past is never over. Not even for stones and water.’ Tim Winton. Island Home – a memoir.
When I read these words by the insightful Mr Winton, I remembered the first time I sensed memory in the landscape. I was camping at Red Rock on the New South Wales coastline. I had walked out of the campground to the end of a dirt road and discovered a sheltered beach. To the right of this beach was a headland made from a distinctly red rock. There was a track, which I followed to the top. The South Pacific Ocean appeared to have no end. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the view, I looked into the crashing waves below. The white foam swirling over and between the red of the rock inexplicably filled me with an incredible sense of melancholy. I knew if I didn’t walk away I would start weeping, so I followed the path down the other side of the headland back towards the campground and came across a plaque.–
In memory of the victims and survivors of the blood rock massacres. Understanding their sacrifice will make us stronger. We as Gumbaingirr people have survived many conflicts over ownership of our traditional lands, including a massacre where many were driven off the headland at Red Rock (Blood Rock). Gumbaingirr descendants, especially women, still avoid this headland.
I was shocked by the fact that I had sensed the tragedy in the landscape before knowledge of it. Years later, when I started writing Beneath the Mother Tree, which is set in the Quandamooka area, I was equally shocked that I had never sensed the tragedies that had occurred in this landscape so familiar to me. Here I was, now in my forties, hearing stories of the Quandamooka massacres for the first time. Suddenly I saw this place, my heart country, through the eyes of the local Ngugi, Nunukul and Gorenpul people. There was heartbreak and violence scattered through-out the land. Unlike at Red Rock, however, these stories aren’t officially documented. There is no plaque on any of the massacre sites. These truths were passed down orally through the generations. My Indigenous mentor for the book – Ngugi elder Uncle Bob Anderson told me how his own grandmother Winyeeaba Murriaba, as a three-year-old, hid in the bushland and witnessed one of the massacres that occurred on Mulgumpin (Moreton Island) in 1832, when soldiers shot down at least twenty of her people. Uncle Bob writes about this in his book History, Life and Times of Robert Anderson Gheebelum, Ngugi, Mulgumpin. The more I sat and yarned and the more I researched, the more I started to see this landscape in an entirely different way. As the world of my book formed in my head, I found the red ochre of the Quandamooka merged with the Red Rock of the Gumbaingirr people’s massacre site to form the headland of Mud Rock in my novel. I realised, all over Australia there were death spots yet to be uncovered, yet to be written about. There are still many plaques to be unveiled. I found myself asking – how can we move forward into a new future where we respectfully live together, if we are emerging out of different pasts?
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.