These books bring together stories written at different times since the 1980s. They reflect on life before globalisation, the Internet and the mobile phone, with an Australian focus and a hint of Gothic.
Radiant Sands is a collection of short stories based on my experiences in the Australian desert in the 1970s and 1980s. The stories are entirely fictional, although imbued with the truth of time and place.
Many tourists spend time in Central Australia visiting well-known attractions such as Uluru. Some seek a deeper encounter through art, bush foods and cultural experiences. The work of artists and photographers supports a growing appreciation of the stunning beauty of the land in its many moods, and the achievements of the Aboriginal people, although there is still so far to go. The present is still imbued with the past: past histories, past struggles, past hopes and dreams, past failures.
The stories in Radiant Sands take us into that past. They are set at a time when communications were limited, roads were made of dust and gravel, visitors were scarce and the interface between white and black Australians reflected the unthinking racism of the early frontier. Today, it seems almost unimaginable. When I lived in the desert with my husband and two children we were over two hundred miles from the nearest store at Oodnadatta. The road was impassable after rain, there was no telephone service, no electricity, mail and supplies came by truck once every two weeks, and we relied on bore water carted in tanks in the back of the Land Rover. We lived in a caravan, which burnt down, and then in a tent and an aboriginal shelter, or wiltja. We cooked over an open fire and ate damper, jam and tea along with tinned foods and hunted meat. The nearest non-indigenous neighbours lived on a cattle station homestead forty kilometers away. It’s almost impossible to be so isolated anywhere today, even in the most remote desert areas. The land is criss-crossed with tracks and roads, creating grids used for mining exploration and an ever-increasing rush of four-wheel drive tourism with two-way radios and gas-fuelled refrigerators. Some even have television with satellites and solar panels.
The stories here explore the very different desert world of not so long ago. An isolated lady anthropologist disappears mysteriously in the desert. Are the dogs to blame? A hard-working and well-meaning medical sister struggles to know how to live with the demands of her clients in the outback settlements. Then her new nursing sister dies in a dust storm. Other stories in Radiant Sands reflect themes of love, loss, longing and confusion, with a taste of Desert Noir.
Last Patrol is the final story in the collection. Novelette length, it is set in and around Maralinga in the 1950s-1960s, when this remote part of Australia became the main site of British atomic testing. Maralinga remains an iconic event in Australia’s history. The Australian public was kept largely ignorant of the tests, their dangers, and the effects on the Aboriginal people on whose lands they took place.
In the early 1980s a public inquiry was announced. The Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing in Australia took place in 1983-4 presided over by Chief Justice “Diamond Jim” McLelland. I was one of the two anthropological advisors to the Royal Commissioner. We were walked around on blasted fields still full of plutonium. I had to throw my favourite shoes away.
The Report of the Royal Commission is available in pdf form online in two volumes.
The story of Last Patrol is wholly imaginary. The theme may be troubling to many, in all kinds of ways. Australia has managed to put almost all of this past history out of mind, as if obliterating it from representation will make it go away. Still, I don’t believe these painful and ultimately traumatic relationships should be suppressed. The suffering of Aboriginal people from the nuclear testing in Central Australia was beyond terrible and no amount of compensation can remedy it. The efforts of a few non-Aboriginal people to help them were completely ignored. Nobody then believed there were people left out in the desert when the bombs went off, and evidence given by Aboriginal people at the Royal Commission made no difference because it could not be authenticated. It was “oral history” and, by implication, fantasy. If this wholly fictional and imagined story at least opens up the memories of this time again, that will be for the good.
REVOLUTIONARY BABY is set mostly in the cities and suburbs of Australia in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Suspended between the twentieth century past and the millenial future, the era between the 1950s and the early 2000s becomes increasingly strange to us today. Revolution was in the air: politically, in the family, in gender relations, between the generations. Some were pursuing revolution on the streets, while others lived as if nothing had changed for a century. A young University student is drawn into the student revolution but finds it’s definitely not for her. A pregnant feminist asserts her independence by marching against the Vietnam War and goes into labour beneath the banners. A wealthy widow has cosmetic surgery in Bangkok but turns her back on beauty to become a Buddhist nun. An ardent revolutionary writes his master-work in the communes of northern New South Wales, but after his death his daughter throws all his writings away. Funny, sad, sometimes shocking, this is another step into the bizarre world of the new Australian Gothic.
NOTE: I designed draft covers for both these books using landscape images which were published previously on this site but Keith Draws took the books’ themes and ran with them to somewhere very different. Grateful thanks and acknowledgments to Nick Rains and Ilya Genkin although only Nick’s wonderful image of Central Australia is used in the final composite image for Radiant Sands.
I am still exploring the possibility of using a number of other photographs as illustrations in both books but copyright clearance is difficult and download costs from Amazon may make it prohibitive. I may publish the photographs here on this page, with notes for those interested.
Publication date for both books is likely to be February/March through Amazon for Kindle and paperback,also e-books for Kobo, Apple and others, and in print by ordering direct from Australian booksellers. Special orders for signed copies in Australia will be available from the Blackwing Press website (under construction).