Anita Heiss. Manhattan Dreaming. Random House 2011. ISBN: 9781864715804.
I read somewhere, but can no longer find it (bad scholarship, I know), that Anita Heiss is committed in her fictional writing to depicting Aboriginal people as ordinary individuals living their lives. This is an approach I wholeheartedly support, so I was quite excited about reading Manhattan Dreaming.
Heiss’ non-fiction writing, particularly Am I Black Enough For You?, has gained a lot of praise and attention, as well as some fairly spectacular vitriol. If Andrew Bolt hates you, you are a superstar in my book. I just wish Manhattan Dreaming was better written.
This book’s target market is clearly 20-something women, which I am not. Reading it during the recent public debate on how modern societies treat women, I wanted to shake the beautiful, accomplished, neurotic Lauren of Manhattan Dreaming and tell her she is not measured by the degree to which men admire her, either for her mind or her body. The references to men noticing and apparently desiring women are relentless.
However. None of this has much to do with Canberra, so let’s move on.
What interests me most is Heiss’ imagined role for Old Parliament House:
Emma had been at the forefront of the fight to get the site of Old Parliament House as the National Aboriginal Gallery back in 2006. She said she knew the government would never hand it over for an Aboriginal embassy but they could be persuaded to hand it over for a national gallery because of the success of our visual arts movement internationally…. As soon as we moved in she invited the Tent Embassy mob to take up residence in the old Country Party Rooms…
Colonising the colonisers. I mentioned this parallel universe to a colleague who works at OPH. She talked of the wide range of emotions and responses that Indigenous people who visit the House reveal. The Museum of Australian Democracy, the current interpreters of OPH, asked Indigenous community members to perform a smoking ceremony to try to heal some of the conflicted history of the building (smoke detectors off, of course). While some who now visit feel at peace, others still detect the spirit of dispossession. It is certainly contested ground. A site that each of us can look at and each see something different.
Apart from this wonderful alternative vision of a national monument, for much of Manhattan Dreaming Canberra exists to be different from New York. Can you believe, Grand Central Station is nothing like Kingston Station in Canberra? Century 21 is so much better than DFO and the Canberra Centre (emphasis added). Although Macy’s is a little bit like David Jones.
I’m being unkind, though. All the comparisons are made with affection, rarely judging better or worse, just different. Canberra and Goulburn are home for Lauren, and these bigger-smaller-busier-quieter-stranger contrasts are just a way of sizing up the unfamiliar against the known quantity of home. New York may have a funky bar on every corner, and Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread, but Canberra has breakfast at Caphs, and Goulburn has special family dinners at the Paragon Café. And all three are freezing in winter.
Winner 2010: Deadly Award for Outstanding Contribution to Literature