In a previous blog post, I articulated the notion that Kumakana is a Young Adult fiction, not simply because its protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl, but because it satisfies a range of other criteria commonly associated with what young readers are drawn to. The question that then follows on from this is, ‘What type of story is it?’ This is at once a more difficult question to answer because Kumakana breaks rules, crosses boundaries, and invites criticism from political spaces—that it treads on sacred ground.
Let me say at the outset that it doesn’t, and I will address issues of perceived cultural appropriation in a forthcoming post. All the same, I think it proper to acknowledge the difficulty of this point, and the introduction to the book does address my engagement with south west Indigenous cultural artefacts such as language and very general spiritual concepts that are well within the public discourse and require no special knowledge. The fact that I have invented a spiritual basis for what I call the Natural Order is so that I can write of the possibilities of myths and legends that predate European colonisation of the land.
The introduction to the book is prefaced by the following:
This story was produced on Aboriginal land. I acknowledge and recognise the strength, resilience and capacity of Australia’s Indigenous people whose persons and spirits remain part of this country and without whom this work would be impossible.
Why is this important?
Apart from simply paying respects to a culture and its custodians, it’s also important because the style of storytelling that Kumakana is—its genre if you like—is magical realism and adventure. It’s anew Australian fairy tale.
Primarily because of particular limitations in Western thought around the way the fantastic is considered, magical realism is most usually associated with writing drawn from Indigenous sources. Don Latham writes that it was ‘once associated almost exclusively with Latin American literature [and] can now be found in literary works from around the world.’ It’s possible we have Gabriel Garcia Marquez to thank for this, but in a more contemporary and postmodern society, magical realism has much to offer the desires of the young adult reader.
The adventure of Kumakana lies in how Lavender Jensen enters the Kumakana forest where it becomes increasingly obvious that she is out of her familiar everyday world and entrenched in a world of the disconcertingly abnormal. As the shadow of danger intrudes, she becomes increasingly threatened. Her presence ignites tensions between two clans of cunning, voracious predators, and the enigmatic guardians of the Natural Order, the Gronups. The life and death struggle that ensues leads her to discover ancient lore, inner strength and hidden talents, which, in her hands, become the key to the future of the mysterious world within the forest and, perhaps, her world outside.
In most respects, this follows tropes made familiar in stories such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz, but unlike those, the world of Kumakana remains a real world. The forest retains its real character, the proportions between the characters and the landscape remain as they would under any normal circumstances.
What changes, and what invokes its magical realism, is the dissolution of the boundary between human and animal, the disruption of the narrative by a form of magic that is not ‘wish’ or ‘spell’ based.
The magic of Kumakana is far more pragmatic and has the effect of subverting the common notion of magic more usually found in YA fantasy such as that of Harry Potter or Merlin, where a wizard holds gifted powers executed by incantations or wand waving. The following two passages from the manuscript illustrate the inversion:
‘What, like magic?’
‘Magic?’ he challenged. The whites of his eyes shone in the dark. ‘Like your ball’s magic?’
‘No, more like, you know, “abracadabra” and poof! … we’re out of here.’ And to demonstrate, she waved the bone she held in her hand the way she’d seen in the movies.
‘That’s just made up stuff,’ Jerramunga said. ‘Real magic doesn’t work like that. I know about magic—’
(Kumakana p. 52)
‘My grandad said. I told you … We’ve lived here since the beginning of time. He knew all the stories of this place from way back in the Dreaming. He was Ngungakatta. It means man of great wisdom. He knew everything about everything … Gronups and all the spirit creatures. We don’t want them to see us or they might use their magic on us.’
‘Thought you said magic was just made up stuff.’
‘What you were talkin’ about is just made up stuff. Gronups have bush magic, the most powerful of all magic. They control everything—the wind, the sounds, the water …’
(Kumakana p. 53)
The extraordinary side-by-side with the mundane
The spiritual custodians, the Gronups, are not spirits themselves, but agents of the spirits. They carry out pragmatic functions that enable the animals to recognise their positions and roles within the Natural Order. But increased pressure from animals who have immigrated from foreign lands, who do not have Gronups assigned to them for grooming, who are not members of the Natural Order (at least in a local sense), has impacted the sustainability of life in the Kumakana . There are also refugees: birds and animals whose lands have been taken, their forests and bush destroyed for agricultural purposes, increasing the pressures on forest life.
Kumakana invites the reader to enjoy the majesty of a forest in which some of the world’s largest and most mysterious trees can be found while, at the same time, being challenged by beliefs that set aside all rational thought. The animals live by a code that guarantees their survival, but the effects of European colonisation on life in the forest has increased pressures on that sustainability.
In many senses, Kumakana represents an in-betweenness that is reflected in teenage life.
Teenagers sit on the edges of childhood and adulthood, and the thresholds between them are frequently indistinct. This same sensation is true of Kumakana, where Lavender Jensen sits in a liminal space that transcends the reality of being trapped in a scary place and the magical realm of being at one with the animal world. While she has a foot in both, she is never really in one or the other, and this sensation is what gives rise to the book’s magical realism.
The cultural work of Kumakana is achieved through its expression and shaping of the long term effects of colonisation on the south-west Australian landscape, but to do so it needs to draw on life as it might have been prior to the upheaval of invasion. The central theme of the work might be a message to the reader to ‘let go your beliefs’ because failure to do so will place the meaning of the work out of reach.
Kumakana means to question the established social order on multiple levels. At one level it presents the idea that destruction of a social order comes at a great cost, a cost which is borne by many; at another it shows how life needs belief systems in order for social orders to function. But, perhaps most importantly, Kumakana questions how established social orders aim to control the actions of others, especially such actions as those that give rise to thinking and writing in a space that may represent a culturally different one from the one given by that same social order.