A storyworm, like an earworm, can be a dangerous thing. It’s something you can’t get out of your head. It sticks there. Fattens there. And sometimes—if you’re lucky—it grows into a book.
Steve Hawke’s storyworm gnawed up years of his brain-space, eventually becoming the full-length novel The Valley.
Set in the Kimberley, this riveting, multi-generational tale evokes people and country with clarity.
We can taste the bacon and egg burgers at Willare Roadhouse on the way to Fitzroy Crossing, can feel the saltwater country receding and the river country rising, can see the murky green of those late-season waterholes along the river.
It’s a remarkable achievement, in that there’s only one main whitefella in the book, Billy Noakes. The rest of the cast are countrymen and women.
Was Hawke, as a whitefella himself, concerned about writing in an area specifically related to Aboriginal lives and experience?
In short, after spending over 40-years living and working in Derby and Fitzroy Crossing, the answer is ‘no’.
He said the important thing is understanding which mode you’re working in.
“You need to understand whether you’re in your own creative world, or if you’re working with a story that belongs to the mob.”
“I wasn’t writing The Valley for the mob, though it is important to me that the Indigenous people who read the book enjoy it. But this is my work of fiction, my own creation, and my responsibility,” Hawke said.
“One of the things I like about the book, is that it takes the remote Indigenous world on its own terms. The book sits inside that world. It’s not about reconciliation. It’s not about white and black. It’s not something political, something bigger than it is. It’s just about these people’s lives.”
“The Valley’s been written with a good heart and it evokes that world in a positive way. It’s important, writing with good intent, and whether you do it well or not.”
Hawke’s also worked on stories that do belong unequivocally to the mob, such as the 2013 Magabala Books’ publication A Town is Born: The Fitzroy Crossing Story and on Jandamarra, a play based on the famous Bunaba hero of the same name.
“Jandamarra—it’s not my story, I don’t own that story. But there’s been a strong collaboration over the years,” Hawke said.
And they’ve been significant years: Hawke wrote the very first newsletter for the Kimberley Land Council, was on the frontline at the famous Noonkanbah dispute, has worked for many years with Bunaba Cultural Enterprises, and can read in the Bunaba language.
Now based in the Perth Hills, he misses the Fitzroy River and misses hanging out with the mob.
“It’s a really unusual place, Fitzroy Crossing, because it’s unquestionably an Aboriginal town … I knew I’d keep going back. It’s where I live in my head.”
The Valley couldn’t have been written without this reverence for country. The story’s built upon those colossal cornerstones of humanity: love, longing, betrayal and grief—but it’s shaded a uniquely Kimberley hue. We read of run-down pastoral properties with rubbish herds, the pressures of flying to Perth for dialysis, the dredging of dark ancient secrets, and of delicious, blachan killer stews.
In her diaries, Miles Franklin offers a scathing critique of one of her contemporary’s use of dialogue. Referring to Christina Stead, she writes, ‘Her characters do not talk in the Australian idiom or rhythm. They are windbags of the stuff one gets in this kind of novel abroad—in translations from the Russian & German. A new and powerful writer but not necessarily Australian.’
No-one could level this critique at Hawke, with his ear for phrases like ‘more better’, or ‘Twelbinch been killim’. Hawke’s dialogue is dexterously constructed, true to the rhythms of the Kimberley and distinctly Australian.
“Representation of language on the page was important. We had to consider the use of apostrophes or no apostrophes. Getting the grammar right was about accuracy, about capturing rhythm.”
His characters are also quintessential Kimberley—particularly the old cowboy Two Bob.
“Two Bob is an amalgamation of all those old boys I knew—the ones with vast knowledge of cattle and country. I just love the Two Bobs of this world, they’re the greatest people going. It’s a world that very few Australian know anything about and it’s a pretty important part of our history in many ways. The Valleyis about paying homage to that world.”
Hawke acknowledged the role of the novelist, and indeed of the reader, in welcoming the unknown.
“If people didn’t step outside their own worlds, we’d be a lot poorer for it. The world of the arts is about crossing boundaries,” Hawke said.
It’s a good thing Hawke let this storyworm fatten up, for we’d also be a lot poorer for not feasting on it.
The Valley is a Fremantle Press publication and you can read more about it here.
By Madelaine Dickie