The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey, by Alex Miller. Allen & Unwin, November 2015
By Niki Tulk.
According to the Acknowledgments at the close of this recent publication by Alex Miller, the collection is curated by Alex Miller’s wife Stephanie, and as such this is a compelling reflection on what parts of Miller’s writing have particularly resonated with others over the many years he has been publishing his work. I wonder, however, what alternative inclusions or exclusions may have occurred had the task been taken on, for example, by Col McLennan or Dr Anita Heiss—or others whose own lives and stories have fueled and inspired Miller’s writing. Indeed, questions of representation are foundational in Miller’s books, and he wrestles with the moral and artistic concerns at the heart of whose stories are told, and who is privileged to tell them. It is Miller’s humility in the face of this tension, and his willingness to acknowledge and investigate it, that makes his writing both generous and provocative—and always compelling. The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is a good introduction for those new to Miller’s writing, and also a reminder of both the breadth of his work and its recurring motifs of the friction—and connections—between art-making and colonization.
Perhaps as well known for his novels as for his ruminations regarding the act of novel writing itself, Alex Miller is an author who seems in constant praxis with the making, the reflection, and his placing of these reflections and writings in a broader historical-sociological context. He does this last, not so much to position his work in some sort of theoretical setting, but more to question its relevance to the world in which he lives; and to parse out the ways that a novelist, the zeitgeist and the landscape in which he/she is located speak with and to one another. Miller explores the possibilities and the limits given to a white, European-born writer attempting to traverse a place in which there exists a powerful, deeply embedded dichotomous culture—a country pushing its way awkwardly towards some sort of reconciliation, through the mire of (post)colonialism. In Miller’s own words:
“…no simple line can be drawn between Indigenous and non-Indigenous interests in this conflict, [which] is emblematic of where Australian culture has shifted in its struggle to move beyond a colonial mindset of exploitation and ownership. In this conflict it is not a question simply of reconciliation, important as that is, but is the far more difficult question of the acknowledgment of difference: difference between cultures, between two dreamings, the European dreaming discarding the past and struggling to possess the future, the Indigenous dreaming the struggle of remaining morally true to the ongoing ancestral project that is inseparable from the sacred moral duty to care for the land.” (289-290)
Sometimes Miller’s discussion is a sort of didactic, meta-meditation, as above, while at other times this path he carves out “between two dreamings” is nested inside his discussion of writing itself, and here the political (if you like) merges with the deeply personal; his writing has led him into the beating heart of real story, which is not the oxymoron that it sounds, but a holding together of two realities that each express their own kind of truth. His exploration of the wanderings of white Australians trying to map their sense of this ancient place on both real and psychic levels bleeds into Miller’s own wanderings through his writerly craft and imagination, as in the following excerpt:
“The human species is also a migrant species. We have always travelled. In our wanderings we are forever coming across our old tracks and speculating on the perplexing nature of the creature who must have made them. In the strange place we are stilled by the presentiment of familiarity and we know that we have been there before. Home, indeed, may be for many of us no more than this fleeing intuition. A singular truth … is that there is no place left that has not been visited by us and that there is nothing to be done that has not already been done by us. Round and round the mulberry bush, that’s where the novelist is going. Chasing his tail … as ever.” (166)
Miller’s conclusions—if conclusions they may be called, perhaps they could be better termed evocative signposts—lead him repeatedly to the questions raised by the First Nations people of Australia, whose ancient, dynamic and ongoing relationship with land and storytelling Miller foregrounds again and again in his work, allowing it to challenge both himself as a writer and his readership:
“And I began to understand that the European had never truly dispossessed this Jangga of his land, and that culturally, historically and spiritually he was still richly in possession of it. A thousand years, after all, is a long time in the wandering steps of European history, but is little more than a flicker in the vast hinterland of the Australian Indigenous reality.” (273)
In some ways Miller connects his vocation as a writer implicitly with Indigenous time, when he writes that “It is here that art deals with us. With us, here now. Art doesn’t predict. Art isn’t going anywhere. There is nowhere for it to go … Now is timeless.” (168) Miller seems compelled by this timelessness, and appears to view it not a place of absence or lack of time, but a rich space not bound by linear structures that erase the past, look to the future, and use the present as merely a place to pass through. His work challenges us to step outside white European time, with its paradigm of set outlines and defining-in-order-to-control, and to allow ourselves to step into a space and place where we are not in control, and where we allow the story to guide and influence us.
Throughout this collection that spans fiction, memoir, commentary and lectures, Miller asks: how does a novel help us ask the questions of ourselves that might enable curiosity, an end to fearing or attempting to master the “other”, and perhaps engender the possibilities of healing? And how are all our stories deeply, inexplicably connected? But for all his searching, he expresses the need to pull back from allowing the drive to know (which he equates with European colonial/imperialist expansion): “I believe there are profound moral and spiritual consequences for us in pursuing knowledge at all costs. One enormous impoverishment that European culture has suffered because of the unbridled passion to know is a loss of the idea of the sacred.” (288-289) In doing this, a motif in Miller’s writing in this collection is the acknowledgement that even the act of questioning holds its own risk: “The poets tell us we are a language species, but in the dignity of his silence Arner defies that perception. English has not colonised him.” (276) Miller suggests that the act of writing a story is potentially an act of colonization, a need to confine the unnameable into a set of signs and possibly reductive linguistic symbols. Writing, he warns, should remain at the service of the story, and in doing this be held back from driving forward the need to know, to control:
“In writing my novels I have learned that the writer is not the master of the story but that the story is the master of the writer. I have learned that it is the writer who serves the story, not the other way around … Story obeys mysterious laws embedded in the human unconscious and is made available to us only through the prompts of our imagination.” (195)
The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is perhaps a frame for each of these parts of Alex Miller— the artist and thinker—to meet and wander beside one another in contemplative conversation. And it is a conversation, in the view of this reader, that is well worth taking the time to savor.