Review: Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki

An archive is a “cold unfeeling place”, Elfie Shiosaki writes in this collection of poetry and poetically rendered archival material. Archives are “seas of remembering” and “forgetting”. But perhaps, Shiosaki asks, they can also be sites of “reimagining”. Shiosaki, a Noongar woman, reimagines the archives to stunning effect to trace her family’s history and the brutal and dehumanising state regime that persecuted Noongar people during the 20th century.

The collection centres on Shiosaki’s great-grandmother Olive Harris and Olive’s daughter Helen, Elfie’s grandmother. Both speak directly through oral histories recorded in 1994 and 2017 respectively. Olive’s aunt Mary and uncle William were prominent activists in the mid-20th century. Shiosaki includes excerpts from William’s letters to newspapers and Mary’s testimony during the 1934 Mosely Commission in which they argued forcefully for treating Aboriginal people like, well, people. More personal still are Olive’s father Edward’s harrowing letters to the notorious A. O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines, pleading for his daughter to be returned to him after she was taken into state “care” at eight months old. Shiosaki shapes each of these archival documents on the page as poetry across three sections, Resist, Survive and Renew.

It is an elegant and profound technique. Despite, or because of their artifice, you can feel the presence of the speakers and writers in the spaces between the words. Carefully juxtaposed images of father’s and daughter’s handwriting – a letter; a writing exercise from a mission school where Olive was sometimes kept in solitary confinement – both celebrate the bond between parent and child and highlight their separation. Two of Olive’s lush paintings on paperbark included in the collection show her hopes of wholeness. Flocks of birds wheel overhead; an emu family in the foreground feeds contentedly.

These archival materials are separated by poems and short pieces of prose, most notably a series centring on Koorlang, the Noongar word for child, and Ngalk, mother or sun. In the first, Koorlang runs away to spend an afternoon by a river, the sun “uprooting the heat from the earth”. She “dreamed the river in, made herself a dusk offering” and then evaporates to become the clouds and then the rain, “returning colour to her mother’s boodja [Country]”. Later Koorlang will visit a paperbark swamp where her “grandmothers’ voices swirled around her feet in clouds of silt”. This Koorlang appears to be the poet herself. Same title, different person, but not really, the words braiding generations of mothers and daughters together.

Those archives, they’re not just dead pieces of paper and words. They are their own kind of violence. Records of Slavery is just that: entries on Olive’s “personal history card”, recording where, when and who she is working for in the indentured work system, and how much the government is retaining supposedly in the name of her own welfare. It is through such records that the state surveilled Aboriginal people. In Venus Shiosaki writes of her great-grandmother meeting her friends by the seaside, where they named her for the goddess. The story is not in the archive; it’s a moment when Olive “evaded the surveillance of the government” which “could never hold the beauty of a daring Noongar woman”. “I could feel the cold gaze/on my family//on me,” Shiosaki writes in The Gaze. Cold, dead, patriarchal: how different from the vital poems situating Koorlang as one among many, human and more-than-human? But if the archives subject the people within them to violence they also expose the perpetrators, such as A. O. Neville in Now:

the way he looked at her

then

determined

the way

we look

at him

now

Homecoming ends on an ambivalent note. In Starstruck Koorlang camps beside a river, under stars “as old as the universe” which knew “every story story that had come, and would come”. They know that “a great white cloud over the horizon” would cover the sky, “for a time”. Koorlang worries the “coldness would never leave her” but she hopes that “she would be able to hold her family together in the silence”. So much contained in one poem, so much time: the desolation of colonisation conceived as stillness and eerie quiet; the perspective that it is only temporary, something to outlast.

Gay rating: not gay.

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