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Book Review: After Story, by Larissa Behrendt

First Nations lawyer, Jasmine, takes her mum, Della, on a literary tour of England. Bound together only by the labels of family, Jasmine resents her mother and their shared connection but hopes that the trip will help them heal from the trauma of their shared past.


As each story of money, power and colonisation is presented within the walls and structures of Western literary history, mother and daughter learn to reconsider the powerful influence and ageless significance of their own First Nations culture.


I was initially drawn to this story by the literary references: two Australians travelling the English countryside to find the locales of the greatest writers on my shelf? I was hooked.


But I stayed for the message. Though I have no First Nations ancestry myself, I felt so much pride in my country's origins while I was reading this. It's not my story to tell; it's the story of the communities whose stories mark the land and create meaning.


Maddy holds After Story by Larissa Behrendt, with the Melbourne skyline in the background. Image: Madeleine Corbel, 2022.


A warped history


A major message Larissa Behrendt conveyed in After Story (UQP) was the warping of history, and how our knowledge is shaped by the telling of it. A Western translation of the events from the past entangles our own perceptions of culture and place, not to mention what we deem as important to learn about in the first place.


We tend to revel in our European buildings, old cathedrals, plaster walls and classical arches – and yet we don't seem to give a damn about the spiritual life of a tree that's hundreds of years older than these structures. We make it compulsory to learn the history of settlement without considering the impact of genocide on a population older than we can fathom. We worship the quills of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen (as we should, don't get me wrong), but fail to afford the same literary and cultural space to stories that have been told by women in the Australian bush for thousands of years.


This reminded me of some of the arguments made in Bri Lee's book, Who Gets To Be Smart. Though this is directed at educational funding and how we define intelligence, there is a lot of questioning and soul-searching about institutional gatekeeping. Who misses out on an education in Australia, and who should we be listening to? Which stories do we tell, and why?


This story made me question the way I have learned about literary history, and who decides how I learn that history. The Australian curriculum is changing, and we're learning to consider the way that Australia has been moulded by generations of racism and selfishness. But through the eyes of Jasmine and Della, I'm beginning to see how far we have yet to travel.


Listening


Throughout their tour of England, the characters come across people who aren't willing to listen. They spout their own lineage, writings, opinions and accolades for their own ends without listening to the wisdom of the people in their immediate circle.


We view knowledge as something that is earned through a piece of framed paper resting on an office wall. Again, don't get me wrong, I'm working pretty hard for that piece of paper myself, so I'm in no position to rant about the downsides of institutional learning. But what is often forgotten is that knowledge exists in all forms and wisdom can be found in experience.


Jasmine's mother, Della, is a source of wisdom and strength. Though she never forces her culture on others and seems engrossed in the information presented to her on the literary tour, she is undoubtedly complicated and knowledgeable herself. Her past experiences, frustrations and traumas combine with cultural pride and individualism to create a brilliant kaleidoscope. I was in awe of her.


The wisdom of family, the strength in shared culture, the beauty of travel and the power in learning through listening forms the backbone of this book.

In this Ted Talk, Tai Simpson discusses the wisdom woven inherently into Indigenous First Nation stories. Video: TED, 2021.


A path forward


The writing captivated me totally and the literary tour scenery had me wishing to explore the same places. I want to learn more about the culture of the earth beneath my feet. There's so much to discover and this book opened my eyes (and my ears) to the ways in which we're taught to think about history – and how those should change.


What’s the last story that made you think deeply?


As always, thanks for reading with me,

Maddy x

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