The Crocodile Hotel January 31 2015
REVIEW: Julie Janson's debut novel The Crocodile Hotel.
Going Down The River
As a child, Sydney playwright and novelist, Julie Janson always knew she was Aboriginal. She quickly learnt not to talk about it.
Phoebe Moloney spoke to Janson about her life and work.
My aunty and her best friend Julie were wild in the old days. They went to rallies and smoked cigarettes. On the weekends they hitchhiked through country towns and accepted lifts from white boys in white utes.
One day, on the edge of the Belangalo State Forest, two brothers drove by with two shotguns, so the story goes. They gave Julie and Chrissy a lift, and an eyeballing. The brothers said they were on their way to hunt rabbits in the forest. Julie gave them a smacking of her animal activist agenda––my aunt, so the story goes, just said, “Shut up and run!”
Julie and Chrissy met the Milats and lived to tell the tale.
I start with this story because Julie Janson hasn’t written it down herself (though my aunt recites it every Christmas). Janson’s is a story-filled life; a Sydney-based artist, teacher and writer, she has penned ten plays (Black Mary, Eyes of Marege). This year she published her first novel, The Crocodile Hotel.
Janson is a Dharug woman, whose relatives were some of the first to encounter the violence of colonisation. For Julie, the knowledge of her ancestry has been many stories and lifetimes in the making. The Janson family left their Aboriginal identity unuttered. Growing up on the ‘wrong side’ of Hunters Hill in the ’60s, Julie found herself surrounded by Anglo-Australian and new immigrant families. “Ordinary white English-Australian people I just kind of didn’t get”, Julie says. “I was attracted to the girls who were a bit culturally different.” The rebellious daughter of two Italian immigrants, my Aunty Chrissy fit the bill exactly.
Chrissy remembers teenage Julie as a complete cracker and an artist of near virtuosity. She recalls the one time they ever saw their disillusioned art teacher smile. During class, Julie plunked a sculptured bust of their teacher’s exact likeness on his desk. She might have been the next Rodin.
At 17, Julie’s life took a grievous turn. On the way home from dropping the girls off at a party, Julie’s dad, Neville Janson, was killed in a car accident.
Julie recalls her father as “a very gentle, loving man who was always cracking some joke”. She credits him as the source of her need to narrate the everyday, “he was a great storyteller”.
Julie remembers going down to Lane Cove River with her father. At low tide they would collect oysters off the mud flats and look for crabs. “We kind of lived off the river, which sounds quite ridiculous. It’s a wonder we didn’t die, I’m sure it was polluted even then,” Julie laughs.
She grew up there. Neville was a returned serviceman, the Jansons lived in a soldiers’ housing commission block backing onto what is now Lane Cove National Park. Openly identifying as an Aboriginal would have cost Neville his job as a fireman. He only ever hinted at the history of the Janson family. His mates at work called him ‘Jedda’ and “gifted” him cardboard boomerangs and didgeridoos. In front of his kids he blew the names off.
Julie never told her friends about the family secret, which, even among the Jansons, was rarely articulated. “I knew, but I was taught not to talk about it,” Julie says. “The stigma for being Aboriginal was so great you were despised. Really despised. You were worse than an animal … If you were dark looking you would tell everyone you’re Spanish or a Maori, anything other than that you’re Aboriginal.”
Julie’s father found Hunters Hill strange. She remembers him saying he felt like, ‘a square peg in a round hole’. “He would say, ‘why aren’t people like me? Why don’t they go fishing with me and the kids? Why don’t they go prawning?’”
After Neville died, her brother developed a serious mental illness. Julie escaped her domestic situation by throwing herself into theatre studies at UNSW. She had a baby at 21. Her mother pushed her towards teaching so she would have money to survive. As a young single parent, she struggled.
“At 21,” Julie says, “I already knew I was an extremely strong person.”
Desperate, Julie accepted a job working as head teacher on a cattle station in the Northern Territory, one year out of university. It was a remote Aboriginal school, four hundred kilometres from Katherine. Julie arrived with her son and a husband: a new boyfriend she signed the marriage register with so he could join her.
“I had 52 students between the ages of four and eighteen, none of them could read or write. There was no telephone, no radio and no television. I had a cassette player with about five cassettes,” Julie says.
So begins the story that is recalled in The Crocodile Hotel. Julie’s novel is fictional, but the horror at the heart of the tale is painfully true. It captures the fear inherent to the segregated wire fences of cattle stations, the vicious dogs, white men and new utes. Aboriginal communities lived on single acres of their traditional lands. Station managers lived off the welfare cheques of their Aboriginal ‘wards’, whose lands they were also being paid to ‘manage’.
The community elders would not speak to her. “They looked at me and saw a white teacher, a white person. The people who had killed their grandparents.”
Julie was living on the site of an unavowed massacre. “In 1929 the clan’s men were shot and the women chased down on horseback. White men came on horseback from the East African Storage Company. They would bash the heads of women in with sticks and the butt of their guns, and beat the babies on stones, so they would not waste their bullets.” She pauses. “Australia is one huge slaughter, a real slaughter.”
This knowledge made her feel something she hadn’t felt before, something that she couldn’t get away from. She calls it, “waking up and realising you’re complicit.” As she travelled between remote communities around Katherine and Arnhem Land, Julie became increasingly aware that a history of hatred had prevailed.
One night, Julie’s truck broke down while she was with her class. They walked for hours without food or water across the station to the nearest house. A woman answered the door; she refused to let them in.“You can go drink at the cattle tank,” she said. She gave Julie one tin mug. Julie and her class sat in the mud of the cattle enclosure and passed the mug between themselves. The children were driven home in the back of a cattle truck.
Around this time Julie became friends with a young historian from Canberra who was travelling through the NT recording the oral histories of tribal elders. Professor Peter Read, now a world-renowned historian, describes the atmosphere of the Northern Territory in the ’70s as ‘hostile’.
“Because Land Rights were in the air, pastoralists were not at all keen at having people like Julie and myself around. To them we were young radical-looking white people spreading ideas about Land Rights and encouraging people to put in applications for land,” he says.
After three years of moving between schools and cattle stations, Julie fell pregnant and gave birth to a sickly daughter.“There was no flying doctor for those remote communities. Babies just die. Half of them die,” she says.Julie returned to Sydney so her daughter could be hospitalised. She was half the weight of an average baby her age. The doctors said that if she returned to the station in NT, the baby would die.
“I just told my husband, I am not going back.”
Back in Sydney her relationship broke down. A single parent again, Julie began working at the Koori Centre at Sydney University. She trained Aboriginal women from all over New South Wales as part of the Aboriginal Teaching Assistants program.
Julie used improvisation and plays to build up the women’s reading and writing. “Some younger women I taught were applying to go to NIDA,” she says. “But they would say, ‘Julie, there are no speeches for Aboriginal women.’ And I said, ‘that’s ok, let’s write some’.”
In 1996, Julie’s epic Black Mary opened at Carriageworks on a three hundred thousand dollar budget. The play retold the legend of Wanaruah bushranger, Mary Ann Bugg. “We had horses, we had rain, we had a whole choir. It was a huge production,” Julie says. But on the run’s tenth night, the seating fell down. The season was cancelled.
She kept writing and her plays continued to be staged. Most recently Eyes of Marege opened at the Sydney Opera House in 2007. The Crocodile Hotel, the play her new novel is adapted from, was shortlisted for the Patrick White Playwright Award in 2002.
Julie is now 64. She only started openly identifying as an Aboriginal writer a few years ago. “I felt like I hadn’t suffered,” Julie says. She also didn’t know who her family group was, or where their ancestral lands might lie.
By chance, Julie began researching the history of Sydney’s northwestern suburbs for Read’s History of Aboriginal Sydney Project.
While talking to elders on Dharug country near Windsdor, she made a major breakthrough. The nearby Blacktown Road, which historians assumed was named after the suburb (Blacktown was a so-called “Black’s camp” in the 1800s), was actually a second congregating area for Aboriginal people indigenous to the Hawkesbury region. Julie’s great grandmother had been born there.
“My family were Hawkeskbury River oyster people. They were repeating the lifestyle of the generation before and the generation before that. Just on a different river, on the Lane Cove River, not the Hawkesbury,” she says.
Throughout the project Julie learnt three of her great grandmother’s siblings were members of the Stolen Generation. They were never reunited with the Janson family. “I realised my father’s reluctance to talk about his Aboriginality was because his family had been punished for being Aboriginal,” Julie says. “When you understand your own history, you know your own psychology. Not only did they lose all their lands, but they had children taken away.”
Read says due to the early colonisation of Sydney, information is so much more scarce than in other regions of Australia, such as the NT. That people had to hide their Aboriginal identity has only eroded local knowledge further. “The most common question we have on the [History of Aboriginal Sydney] website is, ‘Who am I?’,” Read says. “There are many Aboriginal people in Sydney who would like to know more about their family, but can’t.”
Since Julie started identifying as a Dharug woman, she has felt embraced. Julie spends most of her weekends working with Aboriginal visual arts and activist communities. “I just wished that Dad had lived,” Julie says. “I think if he lived to see the pride that people now have, rather than shame, it would have been really good for him. People saying, ‘Not only am I Aboriginal, but I am descended from the Dharug people of the Hawkesbury River and we were the second people in Australia to be invaded.’ And guess what? We are here today. We survived.”
When the tide of history rushes out, memories buried beneath are allowed to resurface. Julie’s family outings to the Hawkesbury have new meaning. “Dad would point up to the caves on the river. And he would say, ‘The Aboriginal people hid out in those caves for 20 or 30 years after the white man came. They were brave and they fought him off ’. He wasn’t saying this is me, or these are my people. He was proud, it was a story of pride.”