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 general blog 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.