Paul Collis, the author of Dancing Home (UQP 2017), won the 2016 David Unaipon Award for an outstanding unpublished manuscript by an Indigenous writer. This award has paved the way for Aboriginal voices to be heard; for our country’s first storytellers to tell their stories in their own words, in their own way. The result is always impressive, sometimes surprising, and always informative. And while previous non-fiction winners have presented knowledge and historical truths, the fiction winners are no less important, conveying truths and prejudices through fictional stories.
In Dancing Home, we meet Blackie and Rips, two damaged Aboriginal men just out of prison. Blackie is bent on revenge against a white cop – an old schoolmate – who was instrumental in his false incarceration. Together with their new mate, Carlos, they embark on a road trip back to Wiradjuri country. It’s the land of Blackie’s ancestors, specifically his grandmother, who – although she has passed on – continues to make her presence felt in Blackie’s life, inhabiting his dreams and pricking his conscience. As the three men cross country, fuelled as much by hate and revenge as by the drugs they take along the way, we become intimately engaged with their histories, their families and their dreams. We come to see them not merely as drug-addicted and dangerous criminals, but as proud men struggling to do the right thing by their families and friends, despite society’s harsh reception.
The language and dialogue of Dancing Home is raw and authentic. The characters are presented as flawed and weak; they are frightening and threatening. But through the characters’ own introspection, and the incidents that have shaped their lives, we begin to see past that carapace to what is beneath. And under that hard shell are men who value beauty and family, men who respect their elders and their history and their land, men who strive in the face of persecution and battle on in the face of discrimination and prejudice. We start to understand the complex layers of racial and social barriers that they must navigate; we are given a glimpse into what life is like for these men. We see the human similarities that join us, rather than only the differences that set us apart.
For many reasons, Dancing Home is an uncomfortable read. It tells of violence and brutality, of betrayal and addiction, of poverty and disadvantage. But it also glows with an inner sense of self-sacrifice, and a message about belonging. Blackie is a character I felt I knew; despite his many failings, I felt he was someone I would like. He has a good heart, and he operates within his own morality. The book raises many questions about race; it doesn’t attempt to answer those questions, but leaves us pondering their repercussions.