River of Despair: Anita Heiss’s New Race-Fiction

Entering the fiction section of a large bookshop, covers carefully displayed face outwards, is like wandering through the makeup and perfume section of a large department store. This is literature for women—even the books written by men. Feminine and tasteful, here you will find the covers that win authors literary awards—surely the prizes are not given for the words. Among the prettiest books is a growing and influential literary genre—race-fiction or race-novels.

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Geoffrey Blainey is an enchanter, and unpopular on the Left for being so. When writer, broadcaster and La Trobe University history professor Clare Wright reviewed the second volume of his Story of Australia’s People in the Sydney Morning Herald she began like this:

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Do you need to when the tried and true magic still holds a rapt audience in awe and wonder? Does the dog in question want retraining?”

And she ended like this:

Blainey might have found a tad more room for ‘them’ in his narrative, but the ‘us’ remains steadfastly white, male, middle class and Protestant. A bit like the old dog himself.

In between, Wright suggested Blainey had not taken notice of the work that had been done in writing our history by her team and claimed that “the so-called ‘revisionist’ version of Australia’s story” is “the mainstream, not only in scholarship, but also in popular culture”. The victim needing re-education had sinned by being readable, conservative and old:

Blainey’s brand of conservative populism looks dated, a record of partial truths and unexamined assumptions. To update his story of the Australian people, he didn’t return to the archives, or the last two generations of history books, and ask himself a fundamentally new question: who are the Australian people? He remains locked in an “us and them” mentality.

Wright is wrong. Revisionist history does not dominate popular culture. Its makers have not read any history at all. They rely on what they remember from school and what they find on Google and Trove. Ditto for the makers of literary fiction—as for instance last year’s Miles Franklin Award winning race-novel The Yield by Tara June Winch. Ditto again for a new book also with a pretty exterior and dismal contents.

On the front cover it is called Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray and on the mirror image back cover the Wiradjuri words are translated as “River of Dreams”—bila means river. Its author, Anita Heiss, was aged fifty, she tells us, when she began a Wiradjuri language course (mostly online) at Charles Sturt University in 2018. The text is dotted with single words drawn from a back-of-the-book Waradyuri (her spelling) vocabulary list and her Aboriginal characters who speak excellent English keep translating their Waradjuri (the usual spelling) names into English for each other—strangely they don’t seem capable of constructing simple sentences in the newly recovered language—perhaps she missed that unit. Her novel is set in Gundagai and Wagga Wagga from 1838 to the mid-1850s. Interesting places and period; a shame the author never bothered to do any research but simply forced early-twenty-first-century intolerance, dogma and language onto our forebears.

A Gundagai prologue in 1838 introduces the novel’s central character Wagadhaany (pronounced wogga-dine): “She is a wide-eyed four-year-old with a spring in her step and a toothy smile that goes from ear to ear.” She is also irritating beyond her years and is listening as her father Yarri warns Henry Bradley, an imperious settler, not to build his house on a river flood plain at Gundagai, which has only recently been established as a “a service town” on the road between Sydney and Melbourne. Bradley ignores the good advice—“white men never listen”—and builds a one-storey house with an attic. Having introduced “us and them” the story moves along with the Great Flood of 1852.

Wagadhaany is now eighteen and, like her father, in “servitude” to the Bradley family—he is a stockman or shepherd and she their only servant. Readers are warned of what lies ahead when she observes, with suitable seriousness, “That the Bradley’s house also has an attic speaks of their privilege.” As a character she has not changed much since the age of four—she is still a prig. An oddity of this book, which enforces a racist division between Black Us and White Them, is how little empathy the author has for any of her characters. Black or white, they speak excellent English and enter and exit to perform their one-dimensional roles in this immature morality play.

The Great Flood occurs. It makes Yarri a hero (he is based on a real person) and allows Heiss to use the River of Dreams to wash away her unwanted white characters—the Bradley family is reduced to two surviving brothers, David and James. The event also serves to introduce a Quaker, the well-meaning but futile Louisa, dedicated to social equality and good causes. Her parents and husband were also deleted by the flood. Heiress to an English chocolate-making fortune, she may have lost family but still has chocolate in her handbag when we meet her. A pacifist Quaker, she carries a parasol with a knife hidden in the handle: “I don’t believe in weapons unless completely necessary.”

Louisa and James are attracted, though he is disgusted by her growing friendship with his black servant and tells her, “It is against the law for us to be in the company of their [dark] kind in New South Wales. We can go to gaol for doing so.” Louisa observes that the girl “is treated like a slave … and wonders how many other families in the new colonies use indentured labour”. When they marry, with readers already guessing he will turn into a drunken wife-beater, the problem of Catholic marrying Quaker is not seen by Heiss as a problem. Later, in the mid-1850s Louisa reads about terra nullius at the Wagga Wagga School of Arts, even though the term will not be published and applied backwards into our history for another eighty years. Louisa also claims, “Quakers have never supported slavery”. They did, in Britain’s American colonies in the Deep South before 1776.

Impervious to the real history of our country, either Heiss is tone deaf to its language or her clumsy use of modern vocabulary is a deliberate device to turn the unforgivable past into the dogmatic present. After the flood there are “news reports” and “body counts”. There has been no funeral for the family members after their bodies are discovered but a “special service” for the dead is held in the Catholic Church—we used to call it Mass. The servant girl accompanies the surviving brothers in their mother’s clothes, which miraculously survived the flood. The incense makes the girl sneeze and the priest “speaks with a very thick accent [Austrian?] and Wagadhaany has to listen closely to understand every word”. So she speaks Latin? In the congregation the mourners “are holding onto their Bibles and prayer beads”—we used to call them missals and rosary beads—and Anita Heiss went to Catholic schools. At the end the priest reads from Ecclesiastes—which Wagadhaany then analyses. She is very clever, though she doesn’t seem to notice that the words she is citing come from a Protestant Bible published in the twenty-first century. Late in the novel, Louisa “spends her time visiting the latest speciality stores”. The Australian Book Review praised Heiss for her research.

Race-fiction is a tool of miseducation using falsification and invention to support modern racial politics.

A front cover quote by novelist Kate Grenville states that Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is “A powerful story of family, place and belonging.” It isn’t. The idea of Aboriginal family life she conveys is fantasy. Black family life, in the Heiss version, is singing, dancing, feasting. Everything Aboriginal is superior: “even the simple sharing of food among [white] families is not common”. At the camp the men return each night from working on local properties to “join those who have been hunting and gathering. The food is shared among everyone. It is this way of not living an insular existence that she relishes most.” Is she thinking of the Aboriginal camps when the men ate their fill and then flung the leftovers to the women and the dogs? Can the author even distinguish between Aboriginal traditional foods and the new settler treats? When Louisa offers to make her tea Wagadhaany thinks that she does not want “English-style tea”, she wants billy tea to make “her feel normal again”.

Within the back-of-the-book notes is a newspaper article that suggests the real Yarri may have murdered a sixteen-year-old girl only months after he became a flood hero. Heiss notes this unresolved story and writes, “I chose to create a fictional Yarri whose role in the rescue could allow him to be a symbol of extraordinary and largely unacknowledged heroism at the time.” The newspaper article, in the real language of the time, which Heiss avoids, gives a far more nuanced view of race relations. Sally McLeod was a “half-caste” girl—Heiss describes her as Aboriginal—well known and speaking good English. Yarri is named and his fuller Aboriginal name is given, his father is known and also the country he comes from. These were individuals. The girl lived sometimes with Aborigines and also at white houses where the settlers were said to be kind to her. It was claimed that Yarri had taken her to be “his ‘gin’” but she got away. He followed and killed her. Aborigines told a settler, who went out “with his sable friends” and recovered the body. It was no hidden secret who her white father was; he was referred to as a Mr McLeod who was then away “buying bullocks for the Melbourne market”. The article, written from a settler perspective, suggests far closer connections than allowed for in Heiss’s Black/good, White/bad platitudes.

Louisa has a “Quaker sense of human rights and social justice”. At one point she and Wagadhaany are baking bread which “she intends to share with the townsfolk”. They make a single loaf. To help and improve the lot of the Aborigines she visits the nearby Aboriginal camp and offers the women elders pumpkin scones—which they hesitate to take for fear of being poisoned. Real station housewives did offer real food to real Aborigines who came to their door.

Heiss’s Aborigines appear to be living in permanent and fixed camps. Before Louisa enters her life the servant girl Wagadhaany has been given a bedroom without windows, though it is not explained what purpose the room could serve. After returning to her family at the Aboriginal campsite for a feast of kangaroo she sadly complains that “she’d rather be five to a bed with family than alone in that dark box of a room”. What bed at the campsite? Who are the family members the naked eighteen-year-old is sleeping with, and what were their actual living conditions?

Where Heiss is ecstatic, Blainey is more careful: “Ultimately the abandoning of the nomadic ways often impaired health. So long as Aborigines had moved regularly they left their excreta behind them: mobility gave them a sewage system.” He also mentions they had “no tradition of washing clothes or even faces”. Heiss’s grandfather might have found her descriptions of the Aboriginal camps rather gemütlich but if the reality was seen he would have changed his mind, quickly.

Larissa Behrendt is published by the University of Queensland Press (of which Heiss is a director) and she has offered her praise: “Anita Heiss is at the height of her story telling powers in this inspiring, heartbreaking, profound tale that explores the deep, eternal connection to country and the resilience of the human heart.”

The profound story-telling includes at least one minor miracle. On page 204, “Wagadhaany holds a book up, unable to read herself”, but only sixty-two pages later “Louisa has sent her [Wagadhaany] to read to the children.”

In the world of Heiss, sexual relations between black and white means rape—only rape. That young people of different races may have enjoyed sex and sought each other out is beyond her understanding. When her characters do turn to sex the writing—let’s say, it speaks for itself.

Now working for Louisa and James on their new property in Wagga Wagga, a day of branding cattle is interrupted by the lunch break so that Wagadhaany can serve the men rabbit stew and notice the presence of a handsome young Aboriginal drover. His name is Yindy and he is racially abused by the whites even though he is the most accomplished drover. It is never quite clear that the author actually knows what droving means. Yindy eats his rabbit and damper and is impressed: “He thinks her face is perfectly round and bright in the sun and he is immediately filled with warmth.” Some of the men return for second helpings while others try “to get a short kip in before the long afternoon’s work that awaits them”. On first seeing her, Yindy asks himself the vital question, “Is she Wiradyuri?”

Then that night, after the hard day branding, Yindy heads for the river and as “the dirt drifts away with the current” and “the moonlight hits the surface of the lagoon, he slowly sinks and lets the world above wash over him”. More of the same until he notices “a woman, naked”. He realises who it is: “He is mute but he is also grateful. It is enough for him to know that she has been naked, nearby, in the same water as he, and with that thought there is a simultaneous tug in his loins and his heart.” Personally I’d be worried about leeches and mosquitoes.

Nothing happens, this time. Another river scene begins as a repeat of the first with Yindy washing himself and seeing Wagadhaany: “He isn’t sure, but the blood running through his veins seems to pump faster, making its way to his loins.” Naked in the river, “He feels his nyinmaay rise beneath the water but tries to ignore it”. In the water they talk, she leaves, he is left, “his loins aching”. She too is dissatisfied, lying sleepless: “How she wanted to reach out and touch the droplets of water on his chest, feel the muscles in his arms, know what was hidden beneath the surface of the water.”

And yet, perhaps the sex writing with Yindy’s procreation parts out of view could suggest why Aboriginal women found the mysteries of young clothed white men enticing, just as young white men found naked black women irresistible. The mutual attraction, proven by the existence of so many children of mixed descent, seems obvious—yet seldom described or admitted. And also, the conflicts that broke out all the time between Aboriginal men over women was surely created by the nakedness of all concerned. In tribal life the attraction of a young warrior to a young woman married to an old man would have been obvious. The old men had visual and undeniable evidence for suspecting rivals.

Louisa has also noticed the attraction Wagadhaany feels for Yindy and encourages her. If a young servant girl on a sheep station had been allowed to wander around at night bathing naked in the river she would have had a reputation—among black and white—that would not have easily been washed away.

There is more race/politics/sex. Though Wagadhaany “wants to stand in the river with him and discover what lies below the ripples”, she rather destroys passion by breaking off to explain to her eager lover, “I belong to the Bradleys. There’s a master and servants law.” Heiss has discovered the Masters and Servants Act 1840 No 28a and again and again uses it to confine her poor heroine to serving her cruel employers and not allowing her to return home to her parents. Aged eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave home. A helpful note at the end of the book gives more detail and this explanation: “It is likely that the Masters and Servants Act applied to Aboriginal people in theory. Though it is uncertain, it is highly probable that the legislation played out in practice, too. It is fair to assume that the Wiradyuri people lived in fear of it.” While we have been absent at the back of the book for this doubtful explanation, the sex bit has been continuing without us and we return as Yindy “takes his hands from her bulbul” and more, with “the water lapping around their bodies”.

Heiss is a product of the ideology-dominated school classrooms and university lecture theatres of the 1970s and 1980s where the teaching of classic literature had been abandoned. For those who were deprived, the denial of their culture has denied them maturity. Comical though the bad sex scenes may be, Heiss clearly equates them with her pronouncements on race and history. Seeking inside herself for the language and ideas to present these deep emotions, she emerges, like the 1980s school child she was, sounding like Judy Blume.

Soon Wagadhaany will be pregnant. Louisa calls the local doctor and at the end of an uncomfortable racist interview about the girl’s pregnancy she is offended and says, “Your bill will be paid as soon as you provide the paperwork.” Then Wagadhaany goes to the Aboriginal camp to give birth to twins. Soon afterwards she will have a daughter. No doubt pleased with her fictioneering, the author appears to have no idea of the inflammatory material she has introduced. In traditional life, according to Blainey, one of those lovable twin boys would have been killed because the mother could not carry about two children at once. It was also normal practice for a mother to breast-feed children until the age of three or four. Heiss writes that Wagadhaany “likes that they have big appetites”. She simply is blind to the reality of her words. And the girl born the following year would also have been killed, for she could not also be fed and carried about by the young mother. Despite the river of platitudes there is no empathy for the real lives of these people, and how could anyone who claims to be interested and sympathetic to the plight of the Aborigines not be aware of these bitter realities?

After almost 400 pages of race-fiction, and mistreating the Murrumbidgee, the narration ends and then the real tragedy of what has gone before is revealed in a final note by the author: “I acknowledge that my role at the University of Queensland [she is a Professor of Communications] affords me time to work on significant projects [!!] like Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray …” This, in Heiss-talk, speaks of her own privilege. Division pays well in Australia.

13 thoughts on “River of Despair: Anita Heiss’s New Race-Fiction

  • ChrisPer says:

    Even in relatively innocuous places, the projection of the present ‘values’ on the past characters is irritating. Perhaps a writer purports to have been WW2 bomber crew and writes ‘lol’ in ending sentences. Perhaps an aristocratic, romantic heroine in Regency England wants to have a husband who respects her autonomy to the point of not rescuing her when she is drowning.
    It’s tripe.

  • padraic says:

    Tripe is right ChrisPer, and what happened to “Cultural Appropriation” that made the author of “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith” “apologise”? But then he was not from the “white” women” academic brigade who appear to be honorary Indigenous – a bit like the Japanese being “honorary whites” in the Apathheid era..

  • Katzenjammer says:

    Recently I scored a copy on eBay of one of the Witchetty’s Tribe issues. Perhps it would have been a more authentic source for the tale teller’s research.

    Aside from the snake oil being fed to us horrible whities that we know eventually washes off like water drops on duck feathers, the real long lasting harm is the convictions being bred among born again indigenes in towns and cities with three of their four colononial born grandparents or seven of their eight imigrant greatgrandparents, that this is genuinely the single main element of their personal heritage. Scared of the bush in the dark night, wouldn’t know squat about where to find water, would probably eat toxic bush tucker, and too scared of spiders to use their web as a wound bandage, but I’m a real Aborigine from the tribe of – tell me again please, how is my heritage pronounced.

    But how did that breast-thumping lust-in-the-water extract from a MIlls and Boon tale manage to sneak into a Pocahontas style story.

  • NFriar says:

    @Michael Connor.

    Wow – you have aced it again.
    This is exposing the division caused by the left, right, and middle.
    Simply – like Pascoe – never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
    Just make it up as you go along.

    “Division pays well in Australia.”

  • pgang says:

    As a man (self-identified, last time I looked) I think it is necessary to correct the misinformation that the blood ‘makes its way to the loins’. In fact it seems to have some sort of permanent residency in that region.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Classic case of cultural appropriation by a privileged descendant of a colonial power. Typically from such a paternalistic viewpoint, an indigenous society is misrepresented and defamed. I’m amazed that the author hasn’t been cancelled by the woke world she inhabits.

  • Lonsdale says:

    Anita Heiss is one of the Aboriginals who took Andrew Bolt to court, and won. She does the cancelling.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Lonsdale, I’m sure you are right, but my point is still valid. As the book is about individuals from two cultures, whichever way the author identifies, cultural appropriation must occur. Although the author may not culturally identify as such, the fact is that she is still an actual descendent of the colonial power. The review above makes it clear that both cultures concerned are misrepresented. If one descends down the rabbit hole of identity politics, and takes its premises seriously, a book of this type cannot be ethically written by anyone.

  • Lawriewal says:

    It is a great pity the author, so skilled in Aboriginal Culture, did not give us some examples of original aboriginal writing -what symbols they used (as letters) and the grammar they used.

  • padraic says:

    Oops. I made a mistake. Apologies if required. I don’t follow the world of contemporary academe very much and I had thought with the name and the appearance that the author was of European descent. But I don’t resile from the rest of the comment.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    padraic, Wikipedia tells us that Ms Heiss’s “mother, Elsie Williams, was born at Erambie Mission, Cowra in Wiradjuri country, while her father, Josef Heiss, was born in St Michael in the Lungau, Salzburg, Austria”, consequently of mixed ancestry/descent (as are most of us one way or another), so your attribution is not so much incorrect as incomplete. Wikipedia tells us Ms Heiss “is an Aboriginal Australian”, so presumably that’s how she identifies. Descent and identity are not necessarily partly or entirely the same, the former being genetic, the latter being cultural

  • padraic says:

    Thanks Ian. Point taken. I only identify culturally as an Australian. The 4 different sets of my great-grandparents came from culturally diverse European nationalities with whom I have no connection apart from the English language and general social traits common to all and a pride in what they achieved after arrival here. I can’t see the sense in having to identify culturally with one out of the four. It’s easier to be me, in the present.

  • Adam J says:

    I always enjoy seeing the painting A Scene in South Australia by Alex Schramm. And I believe that not only were scenes like this more common in the past, but that knowledge of them now is correspondingly rare. A world turned upside-down.

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