Kristina Olsson's launch speech for Stone Sky Gold Mountain
I too would like to acknowledge and thank the traditional owners of this place, who have always cared for it. This storied place will always be their land, Aboriginal land.
Well. Those of you who know me will know what a technophobe I am, and will be wondering why someone who can blow up a photocopier and disable a computer just by walking past them is doing this very important job. Especially tonight.
The answer is pretty simple, really: this is a bloody brilliant book. I would have risked all kinds of technical breakdowns and malfunctions to launch it. It is brilliant and it is groundbreaking. Mirandi has taken on one of Australia’s most difficult and enduring problems — its amnesia around our collective histories — those of race and racism, of privilege, of class and identity. She’s flayed our body of acquiescence, our denial, our collaboration in a great forgetting.
This book will lead you through our collective amnesia around those issues, particularly as they relate to the 19th century in remote northern goldfields of Australia. And it won’t let you un-know some things ever again.
It’s true that we haven’t had a lot of information about the specific circumstances and places that have come under Mirandi’s gimlet eye in this book. We know about the great European explorers of northern Australia, we know about those who assumed ownership of vast tracts of the north, destroying Aboriginal culture as they went. We may even know bits about the northern gold rush.
But there’s been little detail about the circumstances of the arrival of Chinese people on those goldfields, why and how they came, their interactions with Aboriginal people. Still, this lack of knowledge may have been wilful. Perhaps we’ve never really wanted to know.
Mirandi has brought us a tough and visceral story about those goldfields, about Chinese people and their lives there, and about the locals. But she tells this tough story through characters so engaging, so recognisable, and authentic, that we don’t realise – not at first – the weight of what they have come to say. What Mirandi is looking in the eye. In fact she has become the great explorer of what happened here: discovering and dissecting race and racism, privilege and class, exile, identity. Injustice and misogyny.
All the things this country is built on! But seen through the microcosm of this particular time and this particular place on the north Queensland goldfields.
Each of these characters is utterly themselves. They are not ‘types’. To me they are more than three-dimensional: I can see the way they move, I can hear them speak. Even the baddies, of which there are several.
But the main characters are a Chinese brother and sister, Lai Yue and Ying, who have fled poverty and slavery in China to try to recoup their family’s losses. Ying has come to the goldfields disguised as a boy. This probably doesn’t need much explanation to the women listening out there: we understand instantly why a young girl in a male-dominated, violent, filthy and lawless place would do this. It’s unspoken, summed up in this character, but LET’S SPEAK IT: she wouldn’t survive. She wouldn’t get work, she’d starve, she’d be at the mercy of the violent and the mad, the unrestrained.
This is the lot, as it turns out, of the two other female characters: Meriem, a lower-class girl from Queanbeyan and servant to Sophie, a prostitute. Both are vulnerable to the lawless mood of the goldfields and the town.
The endurance of these women, and what they suffer, is emblematic not just of the times but of Mirandi’s preoccupations as a writer. Her fabulous and Stella Prize shortlisted novella, The Fish Girl, was also concerned with historically silenced characters, women who have faced exploitation and exile and cruelty, women fighting for agency, for dignity, to live their own lives in their own way. She might just be talking about 2020.
Mirandi takes a sharp scalpel to colonisation, to the colonialists’ mindset, to white supremacy, racism, arrogance and the violence that accompanies them. In The Fish Girl and now in Stone Sky, Gold Mountain, she is concerned with characters silenced by gender, by race and class and also by shame.
She asks questions about how women, then and now, operate in a world where safety is not guaranteed. She asks questions about the hierarchy of race: in this book the locals, the Australians, see the Chinese as low on the evolutionary scale, but both locals and some Chinese people treat Aboriginal people as lower than that. There must always be someone on the rung below our own, and what does that say about us?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course. We have our own hierarchies, even now: in the way we have treated and still treat our First Nations people, the way we treat asylum seekers, the way we treat anyone whose skin is not lily-white. In this book and in our own times, we have a collision of forgotten histories – some willfully forgotten. Books like this one insist on remembrance.
And it isn’t just about women’s histories. There are shocking reminders here of what men – many of them immigrants and newcomers – suffered for their difference. Some of the scenes in this book might have come from yesterday’s, last week’s news. I think of the scene in the Chinese store, in Jimmy’s shop, when a group of rancorous and offensive men – Mirandi names one of them just ‘Grey-shirt’ – shoulder their way in and begin insulting and intimidating gentle Jimmy with racist slurs and demands. The simmering violence is terrifying. This scene felt familiar to me, as if I’d lived through it – which I haven’t. But then I realised that, of course, I’ve seen such scenes on the news, seen them reported in court stories. Some things don’t change.
These scenes are made all the more powerful by the privileging of the non-Anglo voice; we see things, as if for the first time, through the eyes of others, from their point of view.
I have to speak briefly about the evocation of landscape and place here. Mirandi brings us her characters’ surroundings in rich detail, and through the thick heat of the tropics. Anyone who has spent time in the north – and I have – will feel it on their skin. The cloying humidity of the coast, the dry dust and stillness of the plains. And both landscape and characters are told with a lyricism that will fold you into the story, page after page, until you’re thinking in their speech rhythms, in their phrasing.
When I put the book down – and I have read it twice – this is what I missed. Being party daily to the wonderfully crafted dialogue, to the dreams, the thoughts, the dailiness of these people. They – and the writer – translate their worlds through this rhythmic language so that, when you come to the end, you too think in this rhythm, speak in it. It is an extraordinary achievement.
In one of her interviews after her shortlisting for the Stella, Mirandi said: ‘I write of the things that have moved me.’
It’s plain that this story, these people, have not just moved Mirandi but become part of who she is. This happens with the best writing, I think, when empathy and compassion and an incisive mind inform character and narrative, and the lessons learned in the writing move in with us, as writers, sit at the desk with us. Change us.
This book will change you, too. I urge all of you out there to read it. Order it now! In this strange new world we live in, change is daily, but what this book gives you might alter you – in the best way – for much longer.
I want to add that this book and many others being published during this strange time will not have the advantages that, say, books published last year had the ordinary advantages of bookstore appearances, a book tour, festivals. It’s an incredibly tough time to promote a book, and an incredibly tough time for bookshops. Even libraries are closed and can’t lend you the book.
So, please, buy several copies of Mirandi’s book and others! If you’ve lost your job, as many of us have, if you’re broke, save up for it – we’re all going to need good books over the next few months to cheer us and sustain us.
Huge congratulations, Mirandi, huge admiration and love for you and this book, my friend.