First Nations poet Evelyn Araluen has won the 10th annual Stella Prize with a debut poetry collection that confronts the cultural evasions of an unreconciled Australia with a tender fury.
Australian poetics is the target of Araluen’s dark satire in Dropbear.
Her poetry deftly dismantles the literary mythos that conjures the Australian landscape as ghostly, haunted and empty, or else reproduces it as a cultural commodity in the guise of “Australiana” kitsch.
In either case, this mythos does violence by refusing to acknowledge the living presence of Aboriginal people, of Aboriginal lands and their custodians, or else by conjuring up hollow tokens of Aboriginal presence in a variety of gaudy, empty or shell-like forms.
Both are acts of silencing.
A descendant of the Bundjalung nation, born and raised on Dharug Country, Araluen is co-editor of Overland literary journal.
The chair of the Stella judging panel, award winning Bundjalung author Melissa Lucashenko, described Dropbear as a “wild ride” that is both “comical and dangerous” – just like the legendary predatory marsupial after which the collection is named. (This creature, of urban myth, is said to kill unwary prey by dropping on their heads out of bush canopies.)
The judges described the winning book as:
a breathtaking collection of poetry and short prose which arrests key icons of mainstream Australian culture and turns them inside out, with malice aforethought. Araluen’s brilliance sizzles when she goes on the attack against the kitsch and the cuddly: against Australia’s fantasy of its own racial and environmental innocence.
Taking aim at Australiana
Dropbear is both deeply funny and deadly serious.
Araluen indicts the “ghost gums” that proliferate across literary landscapes in regions far beyond their natural habitat.
Each is artfully unravelled to expose the racial mythologies that pervade and are perpetuated by these popular childhood texts.
It is easy to skate along the seductive surface of Araluen’s poems, swept along by the rhythms of language and dancing images.
Take “Dropbear Poetics”, for example, which condemns the ironic consumption of Australiana kitsch by pseudo-revolutionaries with their “f**king postmod blinky bill” and “gollywog ashtray snugglepot”.
Or “Bad Taxidermy”, a tour de force of cuddly kitsch, in which the reader encounters images of “Kylie Minogue in hotpants and a hot pink koala knit” that generates a “bidding war on eBay”, alongside an “Instagram ad for Australian Native Birthflower charms”, a Tasmanian Devil with a “faintly otter-like lift of his small dark paws on the acrylic shelf”, and a “lungfish nailed to a birch board”.
None of this is innocent.
For non-Aboriginal readers, these cultural commodities may present themselves as an ironic coming to terms with Australian identity.
They may appear to offer a paradoxical way of being at home in an alien landscape, a supposed resolution of guilt, cringe and crisis.
But for Aboriginal people they are part of an ongoing invasion – a reinvented colonial mythos that appropriates and silences the history, culture and languages of First Nations people.
In Araluen’s poems, these cultural commodities are not being ironically replayed but clinically dissected, and shredded.
“Bad Taxidermy” finds Araluen shouting at “the man laughing in the anthropology museum” and “angling my reflection out of photos of cabinets with drawings of my ancestors rubbing sticks”.
But there is also love, warmth and care in this collection, in its evocations of family and in tender poems for the things, places, experiences and peoples that have been “erased, exploited or violated in the short but haunted history of Australian literature”.
Dropbear reaches down into everyday lived experience, in essays such as “To the Parents” and the poem “Moving Day”, a reverie on the meaning of moving home when home has been stolen or destroyed.
Dropbear offers a poetics of resistance. It is, as Lucashenko points out: “A playful beast, a prank, a riddle, a challenge, and a game”.
But like the mythical creature for which the collection is named, it is not gentle and can be “dangerous”.
It offers no easy or cosy reconciliation with history.
Read this collection, and it may change the way you see. Or else, as Lucashenko says: “If you live here and don’t acquire the necessary local knowledge, the dropbear might definitely getcha!”