Alice Springsby Nikki Gemmell
Phillipa "Snip" Freeman is an artist and a wanderer, proudly in control of her own world. That is until an envelope arrives, mailed by her grandmother before her death. It contains a check for $30,000 and one simple instruction: Hunt him down. With the note in hand, and with Dave, her handsome traveling companion by her side, Snip embarks on a journey into the Australian outback to find her father, Bud, and to unravel the terrifying silence of her childhood.
Snip reaches Bud in the communal land of the Aborigines, and thinks that perhaps she has found home. But the shadow of past mistakes looms large over the territory, and Bud must flee. Desperate for her father's love, Snip follows. On the run together in the fierce desert, they speak of past hurts and betrayals. Finally, in a confession that will change Snip forever, Bud reveals the dreadful secret behind his self-imposed exile.
"Mesmerizing . . . One of the few truly original voices to emerge in a long time." --Time Out New York
"Gemmell tells her story in a jazzy, nonlinear, chopped-to-fragments series of short chapters, a narrative style as compelling and exotic as the landscape itself."--The Baltimore Sun
Nikki Gemmell, formerly a radio journalist in Sydney, Darwin, and Alice Springs,Australia, now lives in London and is a producer at the BBC World Service. Her first book, Shiver, was a bestseller in Australia and has been optioned for film by Roger Donaldson, the director of Dante's Peak and Species.
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Read an Excerpt
"She walks to a river gum and runs her hand across its shiny skin that's broad as a person's back and slides into a sit with her own back leaning against it and stares for a very long time at the great stretch of blue arching above and around her, at the shin-bone beauty of a lone ghost gum against a reddened hill, and she lets the spreading slowness push through her, she lets a stopping wash over her like a cool bath after a sticky-hot day, she lets a stopping like a tonic flood through her."
Thirty-year-old Snip Freeman, like the Yapa tribal people of the Australian desert with whom she identifies, touches the earth lightly, breezing over the land on her way to the next town, leaving little behind that the wind won't carry away. Though she was born to the wet and green of the coast, Snip's rebirth in the arid outback bonds her to the landscape for life. The vast emptiness of the desert mirrors the way her mind wants to be, free of the moldy clutter and noise of city ways and compromise. In the desert, she hears music instead of noise.
Throughout Alice Springs, Australian-born Nikki Gemmell's second novel, the land asserts itself. Snip is calmed by it; it fills the silences of old secrets and rubs out the "pushy noise" of TV, the "quick white talk" of parties, the chatter of urban life. "There's a hum of breeze in the desert oaks. There's a whisper of song in it," she says. Gemmell's own language takes on the same musical quality. Her prose has a jolting rhythm to it, a step-hop step-hop pattern, as in the sentence "The where-they're-at in the other-half stakes is quickly, cleanly established." Snip says of the outback, "Later later is the rhythm of this place."
The original title of the book was Cleave, which means both to cling and to split apart. Gemmell's way of bonding words into new compounds (hurt-cold milkshakes, childhood-cheap food) seems to echo this title, both uniting words and clashing their sounds against each other. Phrases strike like a flint, telling her story in quick, hard strokes that clash and spark. Fierce, angry, hurt, hard, bash, and sting are words that crop up again and again. Her language takes on the same harsh beauty as the landscape. The searing heat and dryness of the bush country reduce everything, including language, to its essence. After three weeks in an Aboriginal community, Snip has "totally lost the art of talk, dinner-party talk, she feels as if the wind and dust and sun and stars have blown it cleanly out of her."
The desert is a sacred, powerful landscape that cleanses and purifies, stripping everything down to its essential truth. In the "scrubbed sunshine," soda cans are bleached silver. The just-rained-upon desert "cuts like menthol across the grime of the drive." The desert erodes the layers of Snip's experience, rubbing away the "roads paved with bitumen . . . The last swag stop and job interview and order pad." It is here that Snip returns to understand the buildup of experience and be made clean again. The desert is also the only place to force family secrets out of Snip's father. Like him, Snip has a hard time with words. She is better with color, images, and the physical world. She expresses herself bodilythe way the land expresses itself in the shape of mountains and ocre dunes. Snip wonders if everything "worth talking about has been exhausted long ago." She is impatient and distrustful of too much talk. Since childhood she has been caught between her mother's loudness and her father's silence. Her mother's "chatter has bitten Snip into a fierce, competing silence," while with Bud, her father, Snip is always "having to tell him things because she knows he won't ask, being forced into talk, which she hates." Silence divides her from her father, while talk separates her from her mother.
For Snip, clutter is always the enemy, whether it is verbal clutter or the natural clutter of lush landscapes. In the place where she grew up, where Snip has "no reverence for the land," the church is "weighted with ivy" and hemmed in by a cluster of headstones. The graves' bright plastic flowers are "shouting the vividness of the community," but Snip knows it's a lie. The flowers are plastic. Snip describes her mother, Helen, as "cluttered with clothing." Helen has tumbly hair, talky energy, jumbly vividness. In her quest for the truth, Snip strips away all artifice, everything that does not belong. What belongs, what is right and wrong, is another recurrent theme. For Snip, Shelly-Anne's Afghan dog is "wrong in the bush" just as the "scattered cattle bones or car parts in the distance" are "wrong in the land." Snip is constantly evaluating what belongs where, perhaps in an effort to discover where she herself belongs.
The bush is merciless to the unprepared, and men, especially, are dangerous. Their violence runs through the book, from the barbaric torture of Snip's dog, No Food, to the assault on Shelly-Anne outside her house, to Bud's horrific revenge upon Snip's mother. Men are even more threatening when it comes to love. They have the power to domesticate women and take away their freedom. When marriage comes up, Snip tells her friend Kate that "being made tractable [tame] is the thing she fears most." Snip, betrayed early on by the boys who exposed her as a girl, is determined to turn the tables. In many ways, Snip exemplifies the male archetype. Strong, silent, a wanderer, she doesn't hang around anywhere for long. She is muscular and gutsy, a loner and a heartbreaker. She does her best painting when she is alone, celibate. For Snip, unrestrained love is a weakness. Her lover, Dave, is described as "the son who's been swaddled with love and needs to split from it to grow into a man."
If Snip could love any man, it is Dave, an archaeologist who specializes in digging, stripping away layers to understand the past. For Snip, digging down and touching the land is the way to heal.
"Of course she must dig up the past," she tells herself when she decides to follow her grandmother's wishes. As a child trying to contact her father, she digs, and when she's stranded in the desert she wants to eat the sand. Then there is Old Queenie, the Yapa matriarch who cleanses herself of the missionaries' Christianity and goes back to her people's way by "going to the riverbed and stripping down and rubbing sand all over herself." Significantly, the epigraph that opens the novel is taken from the Oxyrynchus Papyri, the ancient biblical texts excavated by archaeologists in the Egyptian desert. They are words literally taken from the sands.
Only the purifying honesty and bare truth of the desert can deliver Bud and Snip from their pasts. Interestingly, after their ordeal in the desert, they both return to the water, Snip to a coastal retreat with Dave, and Bud to the sea he loved as a child. When Bud turns up at Snip's he says, "It's always raining now." He is always hearing rain and he doesn't know why. Exiled to the desert, it is the water that calls for him after his confession.
With Alice Springs, Gemmell has written a fitting hymn to the fierce, sensuous center of Australia, where, for Bud, Snip, and the Aboriginal people who live there, God is in the land. And, in Snip, she has created a female character of startling honesty and strength.
ABOUT NIKKI GEMMELL
Nikki Gemmell, formerly a radio journalist in Sydney, Darwin, and Alice Springs, Australia, now lives in London and is a producer at the BBC World Service. Her first book, Shiver, was a bestseller in Australia and has been optioned for film by Roger Donaldson, the director of Dante's Peak and Species.
AN INTERVIEW WITH NIKKI GEMMELL
Your first novel was set in the harsh environment of the Antarctic, and your second is set in the equally formidable dunes of the Australian desert. What is it about these punishing surroundings that inspires you?
Physically: the hum of the silence in them, the tall skies, the breadth of their land. Mentally: the ascetic life they force upon me. In the ice desert (Antarctica is the world's biggest desert) and the sand desert my life was spare. There was no clutter around me, few distractions, and I felt in a way that I lived closer to the surface of my skin. I had a clarity in those places that I find difficult to achieve in any of the cities that I've lived in. (They're too noisy to write in, their energy is too fractious and demanding. I'm constantly seeking fresh, wild places where I can just hunker down with my laptop and my solitude and focus on work.) I also felt that emotions were strangely heightened in the desert, particularly in Antarctica. Love, hatred, irritation, anger, joy: all of them seemed more intense, and all of this was fuel for my fiction.
I like the idea of colonising traditionally male domains of writing. Much of the literature about Antarctica, and central Australia, is extremely masculine. I wanted to muscle in on that territory in some way and write something fresh, a sensual, sexual, and emotional experience of those tough, cruel places that traditionally are "no place for a woman."
Snip is a quintessential feminist. She is strong, independent, confident, sexual. Did you set out to create a feminist character? Why did you decide to tell her story?
I wanted to write about a very real type of woman who facinates me, but I certaintly didn't set out to create a feminist character. Snip doesn't wear her feminism on her sleeve, and she'd perhaps laugh, or bristle, at being labelled a feminist. There is a type of woman who is very open about what she wants from life and sexual experiences and men in general, and goes about fulfilling her desires in a very direct way.
I don't actually see my protaganist as particularly tough, or strongI think she has an incredible vulnerability to her. Snip's veneer of hardness, her relentless running, and her "male" way of scoring with sex all mask a great uncertainty about her place in the world, and within her family, and in her relationships with men.
American and British readers in particular might be puzzled by your use of Australian colloquialisms such as bitumen, swag, ute, and fringe ("bangs" to Americans). Combined with the spare writing style, the unfamiliar words require readers to decode and decipher the text, almost the way ancient symbols are guessed at by archaeologists, or Aboriginal paintings are puzzled over by outsiders. What sort of experience did you intend for the reader?
I'm facinated by the clipped, economical way of speaking Aboriginal people have developed "out bush" in their communities. English is often their second, third, or fourth language (there are many Aboriginal languages still flourishing in Australia), and their way of using it can be extraordinarily precise, and surprising. For example, a fire can be cheeky, or a noisy dog, or kids, or tea that spills. When the dead are buried it is called "planting them," kids in the community are said to be "coming up strong." So much of the language is related to the land. The Aboriginal way with English sparks a wonderfully fresh way of seeing things, and it's poetic in a strangely modern and practical way.
One of my aims as a fiction writer is to find a unique voice. To, in a way, sign every sentence that I write. The voice of Alice Springs was inspired by the freshness, energy, and ingenuity of Aboriginal English. I know that some of the colloquialisms, expressions, and the writing style can make it a tough read, but hopefully a stimulating one too, and for me the prose is true to the particular world that I'm writing about and I didn't want to compromise on that. There's a bluntness out there, in the land, in the language, in the way people relate to each other, that I wanted to capture in the book.
Aboriginal tjukurrpa, or dreaming paintings, figure in the book, but you don't talk much about them directly. There is no explanation of their symbolism, only a fleeting mention of their trademark dot patterns. Is there a reason for the omission?
Aboriginal paintings are extraordinarily complex. A lot of them involve what's called "secret sacred" elements which a white person would not, generally, have explained to her. It was a deliberate decision on my part to keep the symbolism vague, because I do not have the knowledge to explain the paintings' complexities (and would never be given it to a full extent, as a non-Aboriginal person) and because I didn't want to pinpoint the tribe, and community, that I was describing. Aboriginal paintings are very site-specific, and by describing certain dreamings or tjukurrpas I would have identified the group to certain readers.
Excrement, blood, urine, spitthe whole gamut of excretions and bodily fluids flow plentifully in Alice Springs. What is the significance of putting in so much of what most writers leave out?
Excretions and bodily fluids are all everyday elements of our livesand they are more intrusive than usual in Aboriginal communities and I felt that to give an honest depiction of life in those places I had to write about them. Perhaps that comes from my background as a journalistthere's a part of me that wants to be a faithful recorder of the truth, however unpalatable it may be. I wanted to write, honestly, about what I saw and smelt and tasted and heard. Perhaps this is also a particularly Australian trait, to be very direct and frank. I notice it particularly among some Australian women. For example, a certain type of "Aussie chick" who's almost shockingly blunt (especially when talking about men and sex) and swears like a trooper, and I wanted to explore that type of character with Snip. There's something of it in myself, so I guess it bleeds into my writing. I've lived in London now for almost three years and I can feel myself becoming more "scrubbed" in a way, and perhaps masked I feel that I'm not living as honestly and cleanly (and swearing as much!) as I was when I was in the desert.
There is a tremendous reverence for nature in Alice Springs. The desert and Snip's connection to it are beautifully rendered. At one point Snip says, "The land she grew up in feels like corrupted land to her, because it's been swept clear of the people who told stories about it over thousands of years." What can be done to remedy that? Do you consider this an environmentalist's book?
In Australia, that's such a loaded question. Aboriginal people have lived on the continent for forty thousand years, whereas European settlement is little more than two hundred years old. And yet Aboriginal people are marginalised, and much of their tribal land, threaded with their songlines, has been taken from them. In the 1990s the issue of land rights for the indigenous population divided the nation. There were several landmark court cases, and the recognition of Aboriginal people's rights to some of their tribal lands caused deep dissension among white people across Australia. Personally, I'm a strong supporter of land rights. I don't consider my book an environmentalist's book, just as I don't consider it a feminist one. I did not set out to write with a political agendathe novel reflects what is close to my heart.
Snip is very skeptical of marriage, and we don't come across any happily married couples in the book. She is also thirty, that magical age that makes moms everywhere panic if their daughters aren't married. For the first time in her life, Snip seems to be considering settling down, taking note of her maternal urges. She finally sees that Bud is standing between her and the men, or man, she loves, and is determined to shed that baggage. Is marriage obsolete/unnecessary/impossible for a woman like Snip?
Snip is fascinated by the idea of marriage, but is not sure that she could ever make it work for her. She doesn't know if she could ever comfortably slip into its inherent rigidities, and she's wondering if there's perhaps another way. I also wanted to touch upon the difficulties, for a woman, of being an artist within a marriage, of all the solitude and selfishness that creativity demands. I think it's much harder, still, for a woman than a mani.e., the perception that the time they're consuming to create is time that they're taking from other people and other duties. There are difficulties being a woman and an artist, for life intrudes, and love. Snip's solution had always been to live in a masculine way. Can creativity and a conventional marriage peacefully coexist for a woman? Snip is terrified of finding out, of trusting that perhaps a way can be found.
The picture you paint of outback culture is fairly rough. Isolated, rugged, it is almost a frontier culture. What sort of changes are in store for a place like Alice Springs?
I had to work hard to understand Alice but eventually I grew to love it and now it's under my skin and won't let me go. It's a fierce little place, and it's like nowhere else on earth. There's the distinctive, flint-sharp smell of it, the willful sky, the dust that claims your boots several minutes after you've stepped from the plane, the power of the land (throughout the settlement there's a scattering of sacred trees and rocks and outcrops). And oddly, for such a frontier town, Alice seems a woman's place. It's an important area for Aboriginal women, with sacred sites of extreme significance to them, and both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women seem very strong out there. The first day I arrived I swallowed a fly and was told by a female neighbour that it was good for me, and that seemed to sum up for me the attitude of its women. On that day I was also told that the town was good for women, that they find themselves out there. Alice is changing in terms of Aboriginal people gaining a firmer voice within the white communitythere are now Aboriginal-owned car dealerships, shopping centres, and art galleries in the town, and that's a good sign.
Australia seems to be in the midst of a cultural boom and is attracting a good deal of international attention with new writers and filmmakers. What is going on down there? Do you still feel part of the Australian scene?
There is a growing confidence in Australia as we look less to Britain and more to our place as an English-speaking nation within the Asia/Pacific region. Our artists no longer feel a desperate need to leave Australia to gain currencywe can do it from home, we have the support network around us now. We no longer feel we're isolated on the edge of the worldwe're in the world. That said, I've moved elsewhere. I'm living in England and it's a symptom of the relentless gypsy in me that constantly pushes me from place to place, just like Snip. I'm always seeking fresh landscapes to write about. Although I no longer live in Australia, home will always fill my heart. I go back often.
Who do you read for pleasure?
Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, Salman Rushdie, Annie Proulx, Kerri Hulme, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Les Murray.
I'm also a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines. A phrase, a quote, or a picture can spark a scene (or even a novel). Alice Springs began with a newspaper photograph of an old miner's face. The photograph stayed stuck on the wall, above my laptop, as I was writing the book.
- A review of Alice Springs in Time Out New York noted that "Snip Freeman is a woman's womanindependent, resilient, and brimming with searing sexuality." What does the reviewer mean by that statement? Why is an independent woman brimming with sexuality a woman's woman?
- The book's prologue begins by describing Snip as "a woman who turned her back on a man who was drowning." It concludes by calling itself an "account of a man who used to lie with his head in the saddle of her back, to try to pin her down." Both have the ominous ring of the past tense. Is Bud's death to be the genesis of another wave of family secrets and guilt?
- The environment is a powerful force. It changes Snip's body, slowing her walk, thickening the skin of her feet, furrowing her hands with fine lines. When her utility vehicle's gas tank is punctured in the desert, stranding her and her father for days, the desert's heat even stops her menstruation. Consider your own environment. How has it changed you? What effect has it had on your community?
- Snip's mother is a feminist, a working mom who taught her daughter "to urinate standing up" because she "was so incensed with the way the world treated women." How is Snip's feminism different?
- Snip has an aversion to the trap of marriage and suburban life, but she longs for a home and community. At the close of the novel, Snip asks Dave for "the freedom to come and go." And she doesn't know if her request for that freedom is too selfish. How important is marriage for a young woman like Snip? Is a conventional relationship possible, or even desirable, for her? Is her request selfish?
- The church Bud helped build and attended for over twenty years has no windows. When he returns to Snip after his ordeal in the desert, he says he has given up on churches because "they're places that have no reverence for the land." What sort of transformation did Bud go through in the desert? And Snip?
- Toward the end of the book, Dave insists that he and Snip "don't belong" in the Aboriginal community. The entire text of Alice Springs is peppered with references to what does or does not belong, what is right or wrong, what is female and what male. There seems to be a constant searching for codes of behavior and even rules of aesthetics. Do such rules exist? Where are they found?
- How is Snip's art different from, or similar to, the paintings made by the Australian Aboriginals? How does their art differ from the art of Native Americans? How is it similar?
- In Alice Springs there are a number of serious crimes committed, notably the dragging of No Food and Bud's violent attack on Helen. We witness how the Aboriginal people come to terms with violence and enforce justice in the "big sorry." Snip's only means of recovery from such violence is forgiveness. How does the Aboriginal way differ from white forms of justice? Is it more primitive or more sophisticated? Is it more or less effective?
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