Saturday, March 10, 2012
Book Review: Manhattan Dreaming.
She's been termed the Koori Bradshaw of Chick Lit, but Anita Heiss is all that and so much more.
I have many issues regarding the labelling of women writers as "Chick Lit" and Women's Literature". (Best left out of a book review, however I want it on the record that I object to the undermining of women writers and their stories by a label that with one hand pretends to celebrate women, whilst with the other it denigrates and devalues women's stories. And, yes I know I said one should embrace Chick Lit , it's a work in progress for me. I am getting there, and authors like Anita help me in achieving this. )
Manhattan Dreaming is the story of a modern, successful, urban Indigenous woman who breaks all the moulds.
Initially it's the story of Lauren Lucas and her journey of life, love and career and how all 3 conspire to find her half way around the world doing just that. Living, loving and working at a job the leaves her inspired and fulfilled, with lashings of men on the side. But there's so much more to this than a modern day love story for the modern day woman.
In these pages there's a deeper dialogue taking place.
MD touches lightly on incarceration rates for Indigenous peoples (Lauren's brother Nick is in jail through out the story), addiction (very subtlety done. Lauren touches on the topic in a discussion with Wyatt, and the repeated statement that Lauren's only vice is cakes and sweets suggests her acknowledgement of how Indigenous people and their consumption habits involving alcohol and drugs are often viewed in combination with the high rates of addiction that plague Indigenous peoples), touched on lightly is also the concept of how often Indigenous peoples consciously change or moderate their behaviour to accommodate others and to consciously attempt to break down some of the stereotypes, (ie. Lauren's being on time or early for everything in an attempt to break the stereotype of 'Koori time". I giggled out loud at this one as it is something I consistently do for those very reasons).
Other bigger issues touched on are Identity, I do love how even when describing characters physicality, Heiss doesn't tend to consign skin colouring to her Indigenous characters. (Because the reality is Indigenous Peoples have skin tones as varied as every other racial group) and the identity conversation is continued through brief allusions to questions of who and what is an Indigenous person.
The notion of addiction is again broached with Lauren's obsession with Adam. Highlighting that addictions come in many forms and even intelligent women can make really dumb choices when our hearts are involved. I love how this part of the story line pushed Lauren's growth, with each new man in her life we see her emotional maturity increasing. None of the romance is gratuitous and I find that really refreshing.
Cultural appropriation takes centre stage, Ms. Heiss's knowledge of the art world, especially Indigenous artists and their work is well researched and the shout out she gives to Indigenous artists (of all mediums) in her novels is nothing short of fantastic. (Check them out if you can. You won't regret it) I loved the questions she and colleagues touch on in regards to exhibits of Indigenous culture and the colonialist lens they are sometimes viewed from. (Does a bowl belong as an artefact or as an art work? Why are so many exhibits so male orientated? Viewing Indigenous peoples through a Western lens erases women and children from the culture, because Western culture has always had so little regard for women and children. )
But the thing I loved most about Manhattan Dreaming is that there are no less than 3 strong Indigenous women to act as voices and role models for Indigenous women. The Tiddahood taking pride of place. (Which all ties into connection to country and kin which is at the heart of Indigenous peoples culture everywhere) Australian Literature has a lack of modern urbanised female Indigenous voices. Anita Heiss fills that void with books full of heart, humour and wit.
The story is much more light hearted than I paint in my unravelling. But there's a reason these books are so important to me. They talk about the issues that my people face in every day snippets. Casually and conversationally, Heiss doesn't shy away from touching on the political. But she does so in a way that brings the reader in, that doesn't alienate them and in her approach, may make them want to know more and become more involved.
Heiss creates warm believable characters. Their depth and range is what brings you back to her words. You relate to them, you know people just like them and you want to be a part of their tiddahood. These are characters, that if they were real, you would want to be friends with.
And I think I may just have a wee bit of a crush on Wyatt.
EDITED TO ADD: Ana Australiana has some great questions on Manhattan Dreaming for reading group discussions on her blog over here.