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Reading Race in “The White Girl”: A review of Tony Birch’s novel

Book cover of The White Girl. An old bathtub is sitting outside in a orange dry Australian landscape with dried trees and bushes around.

I didn’t always enjoy audiobooks, but in recent years I have been loving them. I tend to stick to nonfiction books, but I do occasionally go for some fiction when I listen. I had seen Tony Birch’s latest novel in a few book shops and every time I would go in, I would pick it up read the blurb then put it down, telling myself, Hope you don’t need any more books. Eventually, I decided to use one of my Audible credits to listen to the book. Since the long lockdown began, I have struggled a bit with ‘reading’ reading and sometimes audiobooks can feel like a friend is talking with you.

This book easily became one of my favourite books of 2020 and arguably one of my favourite Australian books to date. I finished the audiobook and went out to buy the book to read, and then I sent the book to my Mum to read too. I am referring it to everyone I know. It deals with a complicated aspect of Australian history including the legacy and impact of the stolen generation, the recognition of indigenous Australians as citizens, and white passing.

The forced displacement and removal of indigenous Australians means that for many, they don’t know where they are from. Stories are lost as are the connections to ancestral lands. This doesn’t diminish someone’s right to identify as an indigenous Australian, but it makes it difficult to talk about country and connection when those ties have been forcefully severed. This story touches on that loss of knowledge, but also on the unbreakable ties that first nation peoples have to the land. That there is a resistance in remembering, in existing, and in celebrating blak lives whatever that might look like. I keep thinking back to the scene where Odette makes the cards for the white woman in town and the woman asks her what her tribe is, and Odette looks at the name on a tin and gives the woman that as her answer. I can’t help but wonder if she does that because she does not wish to share that knowledge with the woman, or because Odette herself, does not know the full history of family and past.

Odette Brown, the grandmother of Sissy (Cecily Anne), is a strong blak woman who took over the care of Sissy when Lila (Sissy’s mother) ran off and left her home in Deane. Sissy is a lighter skinned indigenous girl and with that comes great danger. The threat of removal and re-homing into a white family is very real for Sissy and Odette does all she can to protect her granddaughter from such a fate. You can also sense in the novel that Odette struggles with making sure that Sissy is safe from being taken away and also proud and connected to her heritage. The privilege of light skin can result in the reduction of racism, but it can also lead to feeling like an outsider or not feeling ‘black’ enough, as Anita Heiss would say. As recent as the 1970s and 1980s light skin could also mean removal from your family and re-homed in order to be raised as white. This legacy of the stolen generation has broken up so many families and caused so much harm. I doubt there is a single indigenous family unaffected by that legacy.

The story is set on the cusp of the legal battles that would inevitably give first nation Australians citizenship. The notion of citizenship is indeed a Western construct and is based on capitalist beliefs of owning land and serving a nation. It also meant that anyone who was not deemed a citizen could not participate in law-making, have the same rights as others, vote, and move freely. Even though indigenous Australians have never needed citizenship to know their love, connection, and appreciation of land, the fact that Western British notions of land and fealty have become the supreme rule in Australia today, has forced indigenous Australians to fight within that system.

Birch’s novel confronts White Australia’s willful amnesia of its horrific racist past (and present). It is set in a fictional town, but in reality, Deane feels like every Australian town. Birch also does a great job at delving in the ways that inter-generational trauma can manifest.

This is an award-winning novel and it is really easy to see why. It resonates with me in so many ways. Will you be reading “The White Girl” too? As always, share the reading love.

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