That Deadman Dance

That Deadman Dance

Title: That Deadman Dance
Author: Kim Scott
Publication date: 2010
Country/culture: Western Australia/Aborigine


For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)


What’s it about?That Deadman Dance

Bobby Wabalanginy is a young Aboriginal boy living in Western Australia in the early 19th century. As European settlers and American whalers come to colonise and trade in the area, Bobby makes friends with everyone and tries to build bridges between the groups. However, the force of history is not on his side: problems begin to occur between the different cultures, and Bobby must make a choice between his ancestry and his future.

What did I find out?

All of the books I’ve read so far this year have been told in a straight chronological line: the earliest events are narrated first, and the rest of the story then develops as it happens. In The House of the Spirits and Shark Dialogues, the period of narration is decades rather than weeks, and references are made at earlier time points to events that will unfold later on, but the books’ narratives are still essentially linear.

That Deadman Dance is the first story I’ve read this year that hops back and forth in time. It begins with the period 1833-35, then skips back to 1826-30, then forward to 1836-38 and 1841-44; it also features occasional glimpses of Bobby as an old man in the future, entertaining tourists with the stories relayed in the novel.

This rang bells with me, as in the novel I’m writing, I seem to be skipping back in time a lot myself, mainly to tell characters’ back stories. I’m not sure whether these count as flashbacks, or whether they fit comfortably into the ‘current day’ narrative, but I have been worrying that it might not be a good technique to use. However, this is the way the story seems to want to be told at the moment, so I’m running with it!

I guess I’ll find out whether it works when I’ve finished the first draft and read it back – but at least That Deadman Dance has reassured me that hopping to and fro in time is not, of itself, a bad thing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed…

What do I now see differently?

Again I’m harking back to the previous books I’ve read for the Book Diaries this year. This is the sixth – and it occurred to me as I read it that four out of these six feature the sea as a key element in the story.

In Lagoon, aliens land off the coast of Nigeria; Cold Storage, Alaska is set in a fishing community (with some scenes also on a cruise liner); and Shark Dialogues takes place primarily on the islands of Hawaii, its very title evoking the sea creatures that play a crucial role in the main characters’ lives. That Deadman Dance is set on the coast of Western Australia, where the indigenous people look out from their harbour to the great beyond – from where the colonisers come to disrupt their lives.

It may be because last year’s books – 20th century classics – turned out to be predominantly American that I’m noticing this shift. The United States is such a huge country that the vast majority of it is nowhere near a coastline – and so we perhaps can’t expect its writing, as a whole, to necessarily have a close connection with the ocean.

I live in an island country, however, and we are used to the sea featuring in our lives almost daily, whether we live near the coast or not. Bad weather warnings, bank holidays, offshore wind farms… all these help to make up the fabric of life in the UK, and I don’t think I realised how much I’d missed the sea until I noticed it cropping up regularly again in my reading. I now need to consider whether it has a part to play in my own novel…

How will this inspire my writing?

The Noongar people in the book have – like many other indigenous cultures – an oral storytelling tradition. While Bobby does make some progress in reading and writing, his primary method of communicating stories is through performance: talking, singing, dancing. This reminded me that writing is not the only means I have at my disposal for getting my ideas across.

I used to belong to an amateur dramatics group, but quit so that I could spend more time writing. I don’t regret this for an instant, but I did always feel at home on the stage – so I’m now wondering whether there are ways in which I can combine my own writing with performance, to make full use of all my talents (such as they are!).

One possibility that springs to mind is our local poetry open mic night, Voicebox. I used to attend this regularly, albeit to listen rather than contribute, but I haven’t been for ages. It may be time to start going again – and not just to listen to the other performers. I need to have a serious think about what I could write – and perform – here myself.

I’ve also been considering recording audios of performance for this very website. This is only a vague plan, so it’s not likely to come to fruition any time soon – but it is now afresh on my radar.

A musical interlude

I know this song has nothing to do with dance in Indigenous Australian culture, but the vibe of the song and its lyrics still resonates: the insistence on dancing to your own beat, in the face of intrusion and criticism by others, seems highly relevant to Bobby Wabalanginy’s situation. 

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill A MockingbirdTitle: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publication date: 1960

What’s it about?To Kill a Mockingbird

Scout Finch and her brother Jem live with their father Atticus, a lawyer, in a quiet Southern US town. Against a backdrop of childhood summers spent inventing games and being fascinated by local recluse Boo Radley, Scout narrates the tale of her father’s most controversial case: one destined to bring out the worst – and also the best – in their friends and neighbours.

Where did I get hold of the book?

The university library… again… But rest assured some new sources will come into play from next month onwards!

What did I learn from it?

You know how you can suddenly experience a flash of insight, which, when you think about it, you realise is actually something you’ve always known? That’s kind of what happened here.

I was mulling over the character of Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, and how refreshing it was to see a ‘weirdo’ not portrayed as ultimately bad or untrustworthy, but in fact genuinely nice and kind (if a little eccentric). No evil villain with captive damsels in his basement or terrifying plans to run amok with a firearm – just a timid guy who prefers to keep himself to himself.

It struck me that if anyone is going to appreciate the quirks of the loner, it is likely to be a writer. While some writers may be the life and soul of the party, writing itself is a solitary pursuit, one that is undertaken at a time and in a manner peculiar to each individual. So it should not come as a surprise that a fictional oddball should receive a sympathetic rather than a judgemental treatment from the person wielding the pen.

In our modern world of social media, where every innermost thought is expected to be turned into a post, a meme or a humorous image, and where the introverted, the unconventional and the idiosyncratic are increasingly regarded with suspicion, it makes a refreshing change to see one of the great recluses of literature turn out to be, in his own way, as much of a hero as Atticus Finch.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The joy of To Kill A Mockingbird lies in the childlike perspective of Scout, the narrator. We watch the unfolding of events in her town through a child’s eyes, which naturally do not see as much of the world’s ugliness as those of the adults around her – and yet perhaps they see more clearly than those that have grown tainted with racial and other prejudice.

Scout and Jem, although gradually exposed to the unpleasantness surrounding them (and being personally involved in the final climactic showdown), are essentially kept at arm’s length from the worst of the troubles – and I think this is largely due to the protection they receive from their father. Although we, as adults, are aware of the challenges Atticus must be facing in his work, we read about them with a casual lightheartedness that can only come from a child who is sheltered from the true horrors of what grown-ups are capable of doing to each other.

This reminds me that there are several ways in which even we adults may be protected from the more troublesome elements of life; and how this is so important for finding the strength to go on.

Whether it’s a boss who protects us from the frustrating vagaries of an organisation that it’s not our job to have to negotiate; a parent or spouse who takes care of complicated family relations to smooth the way for us; or a writer who holds our hand through new experiences, so that we get a feel for what is out there without having to walk through the fire ourselves… all these people make it easier for us to navigate the world, to venture on to fresh paths with some of the danger and uncertainty removed, and to have the confidence to strike out in ways we may have been too fearful to attempt before.

This book has given me a renewed appreciation for all the people throughout my life, from childhood to adulthood, who have protected me from things that might have stopped me from becoming who I am now. I am here because of them, and I will not forget this.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Two things!

  1. Bearing in mind my above comments about how writing can help us figure out a path through life, I’ve determined that next year will not just be the year I write my novel: it will also be the year I get some short stories down on paper. I’ve had several ideas for ‘what if?’-style speculative fiction, and I’d like to think these ideas will encourage my readers to look anew at a familiar subject and consider how the world could be different, and (who knows?) better – and then go and make it so.
  2. I frequently take walks out in the country, and often use this time to work through issues, generate ideas and solve problems. However, I’m very aware that in doing this I’m missing out on the sheer enjoyment of being in nature for itself alone. And so I’m going to take a lesson from the children in To Kill A Mockingbird and attempt to savour the moment. I won’t necessarily be making up games as I walk, but I’ll definitely try to put aside some of my adult cares and appreciate what I’ve got while I’ve got it.

A musical interlude

Totally off at a tangent, this one – and yet at the same time, completely obvious. It’s Wake Up Boo! by the Boo Radleys.

It’s also quite appropriate, as Wikipedia describes it as being a ‘song about the change from summer to autumn’ – which, as I’m writing this on the first day of September, is precisely where we are.