Anne Brewster reviews Borderland by Graham Akhurst
by Graham Akhurst
Graham Akhurst’s debut young adult novel Borderland is a tour de force. It is a coming-of-age story, set on the lands of the Turrbal, Yuggera and Gungarri people. We are introduced to Jonathan Lane, the first-person narrator, who has just graduated from St Lucia Private, an oppressive private secondary school where he had been a scholarship student. His time at St Lucia had not been an altogether happy experience for him. We are told that he ‘hated the attention he got for looking different and being poor in a school full of rich white kids’ (6).
The novel opens as he and his best friend, Jenny Pohatu – who also graduated from St Lucia – have enrolled at the Aboriginal Performing Arts Centre (APAC) in Brisbane where they are studying acting and dance. Jenny is a beautiful, popular young woman – warm, intelligent and articulate – and a supportive, caring friend and mentor to Jonathan. But Jono does not completely fit into the social world at APAC. He struggles with identity issues. He lives with his mother – a single mother – but knows little about his family: only that his mother grew up in Cherbourg with her parents and that her father was a lawman who also worked as a police officer and later died in jail (72). Jonathan does not know from his mother who his people are or where his Country is (71). He feels like he is in limbo, with ‘no community, language or tradition’ (68). The moving portrait of a struggling young man who doesn’t know his ancestry recalls in some respects Melissa Lucashenko’s powerful second novel, Hard Yards.
Self-doubt and insecurity plague Jonathan at APAC where he struggles to fit in and feels like a ‘fraud’ (22), convinced that people see him as an ‘impostor’ (22). He tells us that he measures himself even against Jenny. She ‘owned her Ngarabal heritage proudly’ and was active in the community. She ‘tried to get [him] to go to all the rallies at Musgrave Park and every other Black event in town’ (6). He feels that ‘she knew so much more about mob and culture than [he] ever would’ (6). At APAC, some of the other students mercilessly torment him as a coconut and he has major issues with anxiety as a result. On top of all this, he has a huge crush on Jenny, who is busy flirting with other students.
Jonathan seems to be spiralling downwards, mired in anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, when he has a stroke of good fortune in landing a short acting role in a documentary film being made for the Aboriginal community about mining on First Nations Country. Jenny has a factotum role in the same production and the two head off excitedly to the fictional town of Gambarri, for what they think will be a fun adventure in the Queensland bush. The trip turns out to be far more difficult than anyone in the group expected with strange happenings disrupting everyone’s plans and delaying the making of the film. Jonathan’s encounter with the land and the people in it is hugely challenging and transformative, opening up the possibility that he may be able to find a way through his crippling self-doubt and move his life forward.
These opening scenes establish the novel as a bildungsroman about the yearned for – but painful getting of – knowledge. They are a powerful evocation of the inner world of a young Aboriginal man, infused with searing affect – strong conflicting feelings of love, fear, remorse, hope and responsibility – as he slowly learns about his heritage and the urgent obligations and sacrifices this knowledge brings with it.
As Jonathan struggles with the aggression and violence directed to him as a so-called ‘coconut’, he becomes aware of a different terrifying liminal zone impacting on him and his life – physically and psychically – but not in ways which he initially recognises or understands. Magpies dive apparently threateningly into his personal space, and, as the action ratchets up a level, strange ‘hallucinations’ beset and derange him. These ‘horrific visions’ set off panic attacks. He feels his life is in mortal danger after he encounters a malevolent spirit from the Dreaming. Eventually, after numerous false leads, he meets an ally who can provide a measure of guidance and help him protect himself from the ‘sickness’ in which he is enmeshed. He finds answers to some of the questions that have tormented him. But, in the process, further questions are raised.
Akhurst chooses a non-realist mode of fiction to invoke the Dreaming and the young man’s acquisition of difficult knowledge (which is both dangerous and protective). In numerous ways the narrative does touch upon the referential and documentary real – for example it acknowledges Country paratextually in the book’s front matter and outlines the consultation process Akhurst undertook in writing the novel. Further, within the narrative there is a documentary recognition of histories of struggle such as that against the damage caused by fracking in Gungarri Country. Nevertheless, a hybrid non-realist textuality emerges at points where it facilitates the fictional figuring of the Dreaming and of Jonathan’s engagement with the spirits of the Dreaming. Akhurst identifies this non-realist narrative practice as ‘the fictional… rendering of cultural and cosmological elements’ which has been undertaken in an ethical way which avoids ‘the appropriation of story, intellectual property, and heritage’ (ix).
Akhurst insists on the fictionality of the ‘cultural and cosmological’ aspects of the novel and makes a significant paratextual interjection to differentiate fiction (characters and imaginative events) from the specific materiality of the real (in this instance Country). However, it is beyond the purview of this short, non-Aboriginal authored review, to detail the binary between the real and the imaginative. Both elements are entangled within the narrative. A Kokomini man, Akhurst outlines the protocols which guided his writing practice:
While this novel is set primarily on Turrbal, Yuggera, and Gungarri Country, specific places, characters, and events existonly in the author’s imagination. Great care was given to the fictional rendering of cultural and cosmological elements in thisnovel to avoid the appropriation of story, intellectual property, and heritage. All Dreaming stories and cosmological elements are fictional. The stories and totemic symbolic meanings in this book are fictitious and of the author’s imagination. (ix)
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In the ‘fictional rendering of the cultural and cosmological’ the novelist portrays Jonathan gaining insight, physical strength, knowledge of and connection with his ancestors and an ability to protect Country. When Jonathan returns to Brisbane and his mother, he is ‘a new man’ (71), as his mother had predicted, with new friendships forged and old friendships reconfigured. But it is also with a new awareness of his and others’ mortality.
Is this entanglement the ‘borderland’ of the title, where the cosmological meets the everyday, and where First-Nations novelists carve out new imaginative temporo-spatial textual zones for action and transformation? The borderland also seems to me a trope for the bildungsroman, Jonathan’s passage from anxiety and doubt to self-realisation and well-being as a young First Nations person. This is itself a troubled and fraught process for Jonathan. Towards the end of the story, for example, when he has established a more secure sense of belonging, Jonathan pauses to reflect on his journey: ‘it felt as though my identity was something others decided’ (197).
Jonathan’s psychical journey is embedded in his physical journey into rural Queensland. The crew with whom Jonathan is making the film is a motley group with their own crises, confused agendas and troubled identities. In negotiating the relationships between these complicated personalities Jonathan also comes to understand more about the film they are making and the implications it has for all of them. He also comes to a political awareness of the need to protect the land from exploitation and expropriation.
Needless to say, the novel is not dry or didactic. Akhurst is an adroit storyteller and has a keen ear for the nuances of dialogue. This allows him to flesh out his characters as complex and believable, revealed to Jonathan and themselves as at times vain and a touch self-seeking. There’s plenty of clever humour here and some of it is quite far-reaching such as the irony with which Jenny is portrayed (which, it seems to me, is both gentle and potentially devastating). However, essentially, this book has a light touch even if there are many twists and turns, including adjustments to some of the characters’ most cherished beliefs. Some, like Jenny, have answers deferred. Perhaps Akhurst is setting up the narrative for a sequel. Borderland is an assured and well-crafted book. Akhurst handles all aspects of the multi-layered and challenging story adroitly, especially the suspenseful and charged connections between the key characters. Here is an example of the novel’s narrative intensity:
The lights in the house came on suddenly and I saw the dark figure of a man in the window. It looked as though he was staring directly at me. He moved to the front door and the entrance to the verandah lit up. A blackfella around Keith’s age walked slowly down the front stairs, his dark eyes, under a furrowed brow, locked on me. I felt incredibly uncomfortable but returned his gaze. He had thick wavy grey hair. His skin was dark and weathered; his body wiry. He wore similar clothes to Keith without the wide brimmed hat. He had a rifle strapped to his back. He looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place where I’d seen this man before.
‘This is Norman, my head ringer,’ said Keith.
‘Evening all,’ Norman said, and nodded. His wavy white hair moved in the wind. ‘I’m gonna head out and take a look at that fence real quick.’
‘Yep, see you in the morning,’ Keith said. ‘Now everyone, grab your bags and let’s head in.’
I could feel Norman’s eyes on me. When I reached the car I turned, and he was standing right in front of me.
‘I see you, boy,’ he said. A vein pulsed along his temple as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. I didn’t know what to say. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Norman’s steely eyes stared through me for a moment before he spoke again.
‘And so does Wudun.’ (150)
ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.