It is nearly impossible to write about the brutal reality of settler-colonialism without destroying all hope for a more equitable and just future. However, in That Deadman Dance, Kim Scott manages to focus on the everyday violence of Australian colonialism while simultaneously highlighting the possible reality of mutual learning and understanding. That Deadman Dance does not have the complete devastation of Scott’s earlier book, Benang, and although language plays a central role in the story, form, and ideas, neither is it imbued with the practical approach to working towards a better future that is found in the books arising from Scott’s language projects.
That Deadman Dance focuses on two periods of settler-colonialism in Australia’s west. At the heart of the book is Bobby Wabalanginy, who follows the trace of the book through the non-linear narrative, befriending the new arrivals, helping them on whaling missions, and showing them how to work with the land. Bobby also moves with the reader across the major disjunction in the book. This disjunction is one of a movement from a period of toleration of Aboriginal inhabitants–and in fact, reliance upon Aboriginal knowledge and practices–to a period of distrust and growing intolerance. Focusing on this point in time allows Scott to show, materially, the complexity and subtleties of the relations of respect and subjugation inherent in the everyday practices of colonialism.
Two main criticisms have been leveled against this book: that its characters are superficial and that the wandering writing leads to a longer-than-necessary book. However, the unwillingness to pin down characters does a lot of work to problematize exclusive dualities – colonizer/colonized, black/white. I also see the characters in this book as expressing the idea that any person, any culture, remains always slightly unknowable. Scott refuses the temptation to round out the people in his stories by giving exhaustive character portraits, instead materializing within the characters this inability to definitively know. Further, on the part of the Aboriginal peoples, what some have termed ‘naïve’ in book reviews, is, rather, an exemplification of the difficulties inherent in a reorientation of vision and understanding. And for the white colonizers, the book demonstrates the difficulty in understanding Aboriginal ways of seeing. The winding prose, too, just like the characters, epitomizes the uncertainty of the relations, the uncertainty of the future, and the enduring possibility for things to be other than the way they are. Rendering seemingly climactic events minor, Scott does not rely on momentous occasions or familiar emotional responses to drive the book. While the style challenges forms of writing that Western audiences might be more familiar with, it also embodies one of the central tenets of the book: the continuing inequity of knowledge and understanding; ways of listening and seeing. Scott says, in a well quoted verse in the book, ‘We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours’ (p.95).
This is an incredibly generous book. It does not shy away from shameful realities, but it remains playful and hopeful. The hope Scott offers is not an empty hope that if we continue to do the same things and live in the same way, that somehow, things will change, but rather a hope that comes from the fact that at some point in time, things were different; another way was possible. It shows things can be different again. In writing a moment in the past where another way was possible, Kim Scott offers a vision for a potential future.