Unconventional Means: The Dream Down Under by Anne Richardson Williams

Unconventional Means by Anne Richardson Williams is a compilation of diary entries, starting with April 1, 1963. Richardson Williams turned sixteen and her father took her to get her driver’s license. He wore a suit, and even in the few brief sentences of this entry, it’s clear the author loves him. The second entry is June 24, 1963. It reads:

My father is dead; he killed himself. The rest of us aren’t doing so good either.

The third entry picks up in July. Richardson Williams has obviously had a traumatic summer, but she begins reading On the Beach by Australian author Nevil Shute, a book that is on a summer reading list. She explains the plot:

In the book, atomic fallout has killed everybody in the world except a few people in Australia who are just waiting for their turn.

When school beings in the fall, Richardson Williams is drawn to another Shute novel for reasons she can’t explain. A Town Called Like Alice is set in Australia, though the protagonist is an Englishwoman. After being taken prisoner by the Japanese, the woman meets another prison from Alice Springs, Australia. These novels with characters who experience trauma speak to Richardson Williams, and she decides that when she grows up, she will visit Australia.

The diary cuts ahead to 1989, when Richardson Williams finds her old diary from 1963, reminding her of her determination to visit Australia, which she has not yet done. Enough time has passed that Richardson Williams is thinking, “What have I done with my life??” As she regains interest in visiting Australia, she picks up a book called Ancient Voices, Current Affairs: The Legend of the Rainbow Warriors. One Aboriginal elder from the Bundjalung clan introduced in the book is Lorraine Mafi-Williams, who explains in her entry the story of Wollumbin. (Click the link to see a photo a brief story Lorraine tells).

It isn’t until 1993 that Richardson Williams finlly makes plans to visit Australia, just as she’s approaching fifty. Her reignited spiritual connection to Lorraine Mafi-Williams serves as the catalyst:

Today, in meditation, I was holding a large crystal, a five-sided crystal, and asked to be connected to the heart of the Earth. With my inner sight I saw the energy of the crystal streak downwards, bounce like a satellite beam off something at the center of the earth and POW — I “ran” into Lorraine Mafi Williams, the Aboriginal elder I had read about.

From here, Richardson Williams gets to Australia, where it seems like it will never stop raining and flooding, preventing the author from traveling. She tries to track down Lorraine Mafi-Williams, and in the process feels a bit like a Nancy Drew-type, but also a stalker. During her search, Richardson Willimans can’t help but notice that Australia feels divided, that white towns and Aboriginal spaces, like Mparntwe and Alice Springs, abut but don’t connect.

After the author finds the Lorraine Mafi-Williams, she is told stories that Lorraine wants her to share in Unconventional Means: “Lorraine had said that she liked what I had written — in her words, a truthful book, a woman’s book about women.” Lorraine’s stories are separate from Richardson Williams’s writing, told verbatim from tape recordings that have a different rhythm and vocabulary than the rest of the book. Lorraine’s stories are about Aboriginal slavery (Lorraine was twelve when she was stolen), not knowing how to use use electrical appliances, songlines, sacred places, The Dreamtime, Goanna, and the Rainbow Serpent.

Because both Anne Richardson Williams and Lorraine Mafi-Williams have their own voices in Unconventional Means, it never felt like the white American author was speaking for the Aboriginal elder. Both had equal space and added to my understanding of Australia from two perspectives: 1) the tourist who is open to dreams as messages, meditation, crystals, Native American culture, and looking for signs. 2) the elder who lived through slavery, teaches at conferences and gatherings, and is the “custodian for Wollumbin.” Getting two perspectives allowed me to enter the book as an American and feel like I was reading a genuine oral telling from an Australian.

Although the diary format gives a good sense of how Richardson Williams was thinking at the time, there were places where I wanted more. It’s unclear to what extent the diary pages were edited after initially written, but there were moments when I needed explanation. The Dreamtime, for example, was unclear to me. As Lorraine talked about it, I kept getting science fiction vibes. However, at the back of the book is a glossary that explains the Rainbow Serpent, Dreamtime, and double-terminated crystals, for example. What if that information had been woven into the main part of the book? I can see the problem: to include an explanation would be to interrupt Lorraine’s story, which would upset the rhythm of her storytelling.

Unconventional Means: The Dream Down Under is an engaging look into a one woman who is a seeker and a dreamer, and one woman’s stories about the land and her cultural connection to it, giving the book a vibe like Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work with Cudjo Lewis in Barracoon.

31 comments

  1. This does sound interesting and it’s great that the author found a way to give both voices equal weight and importance in that way. I’m not sure about all the crystally stuff, though – is there a lot of that?

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  2. Australians hear a lot about ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Rainbow Serpents’ but, like crystals, they’re not part of my belief system and I don’t pay them any attention (and would prefer not to see them explained). I was going to write that I would prefer not to see an Aboriginal voice enclosed within a White space but one of my favourite books of the past few years, Two Sisters, is exactly that so I will have to reconsider what I think. This is certainly one way to present Indigenous Australian culture to Americans, though I do think equal billing might have been better.
    Anyway good on you for finding and reviewing it. We have a whole batch of exciting, young Aboriginal women authors for you to read next.
    (Neville Shute was a popular author who migrated to Australia from England after WWII. On The Beach became a 1959 American movie. Its star, Ava Gardner was unimpressed by Australia and famously said Melbourne was an excellent place to make a movie about the end of the world)

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    • Lorraine Mafi-Williams’s name does appear on the cover of the book, though I think Anne Richardson Williams gets top billing, so to speak, because the journey was from her perspective, and Lorraine liked that Richardson Williams captured her story with a voice recorder. Although I don’t believe in crystals as anything more than fancy rocks, I will say this book gave me some context for what I’m reading in Too Much Lip. The main character mentions several of the stories Lorraine described.

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  3. I really like this idea of weaving two women and their stories together. How wonderful to have both perspectives, because they are both different, but equally important, and they gain so much more significance when read together, one after the other. I’d love to see more books like this, especially in Canada where we have such a breadth of talented Indigenous writing. Do you think it encourages a healthy dialogue, or am I just being naive?

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  4. I confess that I had not heard of Lorraine, but I found her Obituary from 2001, that I thought you might be interested in too:
    Lorraine Mafi Williams, an Aboriginal activist often at the centre of local controversy, died last Tuesday aged 60. Ms Mafi Williams was the daughter of Bandjalang man Rev. Bob Turnbull, an activist in the 30s and 40s, and her family was from the Woodenbong area. She was born at the Purfleet Mission at Kempsey. Like many of her generation, Lorraine Mafi Williams was taken from her parents at a young age.
    During the 70s and 80s she became part of a powerful activist group in Sydney. With her cousin Mum Shirl and her niece Isabel Coe she was instrumental in helping care for over 4,000 troubled children of many ethnic backgrounds. She helped found the Black Theatre in Newtown that started many people such as Eddie Mabo and Brian Brown in acting and political careers.
    Ms Mafi Williams was a film maker and her short film Eelemarni won the Erwin Rado Award For Best Australian Film, Melbourne Film Festival, 1988. She was also a writer and story-teller, and edited Spirit Song, the first anthology of Aboriginal poetry, published by Omnibus Books in 1993. Ms Mafi Williams undertook a great deal of Aboriginal women’s business. Leavers Lake, a small tea-tree lake near Suffolk Park, was of particular importance to her. Her occupation of land at Suffolk Park, where she wanted to establish a cultural sanctuary, was strongly opposed by the Arakwal people.
    Her friend Bob Cummins said, “She was a brilliant person, but Byron Bay turned on her and she was reduced to the status of a charlatan by people ignorant of her knowledge. These pressures contributed to her death.” Ms Mafi Williams had been seriously ill over the past three years, suffering two heart attacks and being diagnosed with diabetes. She had spent many months in and out of hospital, and died peacefully in her sleep.

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    • I’m surprised how much of what she did in life as listed in her obituary was also mentioned in Unconventional Means. I didn’t know about her work with over 4,000 children, though, or her theater! I would have enjoyed learning more about that.

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  5. I don’t know if I would want to read this. Wouldn’t it be far better to have books written by Indigenous people about their own culture, rather than having their culture filtered through a white lens with all of its added biases. These kinds of books written about Indigenous cultures by non-indigenous people could never be comprehensive or accurate for this reason.

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    • I don’t know that I can attest to what is far better for other people to do. Lorraine Mafi-Williams also created movies and poetry, so she also told her own story through different media in addition to this diary/memoir. I can see what you’re saying and appreciate the comment, though it seems inaccurate to call Lorraine’s story filtered, given what I’ve shared about Richardson Williams recording and transcribing what Mafi-Williams said.

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      • When white people write the histories of indigenous cultures it’s just an extension of colonialism, or an outsider looking in on a culture. It’s never going to be as accurate a depiction of the culture as if it was written by an indigenous person of that culture. If the writer couldn’t articulate what the Dreamtime was, then she didn’t do a good enough job. There is an othering and exoticising that goes on when someone from a different culture writes about any foreign culture, So I would pay attention first to books written by Indigenous Australians about their culture. I am not trying to be unkind here. However so much trash has been written about Indigenous Australians, it is a legacy of colonialism. It’s the same with Māori narratives in New Zealand. Can give some good books by Māori authors about the history of New Zealand if that would be of interest to you. It’s a similar thing here in New Zealand.

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        • The author shares her diary entries. She also writes Lorraine’s stories verbatim from a tape recorder. Lorraine not only wants her to do this, she’s happy it’s done. This individual woman, who is Aboriginal, wanted something done and it was done. Thus, I don’t feel it’s my place to declare that Lorraine Mafi-Williams wishes were incorrect because in the larger scheme of things we should read more books by Indigenous people.

          I also did NOT say the author couldn’t articulate the Dreamtime, I said it was explained in the glossary to avoid interrupting the flow of Lorraine’s stories. Basically, you’re saying Lorraine couldn’t explain the Dreamtime, and that’s not accurate. She simply didn’t.

          First you said this book isn’t for you. Now, you’re essentially telling me this book was not a wise choice on my part because an Aboriginal woman wanted the author to write and print it, and that Lorraine didn’t tell her own stories correctly.

          Please be sure to go back and read my review more carefully before you continue this conversation. Thank you.

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          • It’s not that…it’s just there’s a clear difference between books written by white people about indigenous cultures and books written by indigenous people about their own cultures. I know it gets you all defensive to admit this, but really there’s no reason to be raging about it. It’s not personal. Any book written by someone of a different culture is going to have biases inherent in it. End of story. If I…as a New Zealand Maori chose to write a book about Americans it would also be biased. It’s just the nature of writing non-fiction. If you haven’t bothered to understand Indigenous Australia from an Indigenous perspective then you know nothing at all about it.

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            • I’m not defensive — you don’t know anything about me. I’m saying you didn’t read my review. I agree with what you’re saying about it being important to read books by people from under-represented groups, but don’t agree that it applies to this book. You’re being obtuse; Lorraine Mafi-Williams gets credit on the cover as an author.

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  6. This sounds like an interesting book, particularly with what sounds like the weaving together of memoir and storytelling between two separate people from two different cultures.

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  7. Great review! This sounds like a great balance of perspectives. I really like the thought of both women having their own unique voices come through in the text, thanks to the verbatim storytelling/transcribing and even the original diary entries. What a fun mix of mediums! It’s really encouraging that Lorraine’s name and involvement is clear on the cover of the book as well.

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    • Having lived in a city with a reservation for many years, and growing up with Ojibwe (i.e Chippewa) people, I know that their culture values oral storytelling, so I can see why it’s important for such stories to be recorded orally first. Lorraine didn’t write any books that I know of, but she lectured frequently and told stories verbally. Having them captured is great because, to my knowledge, there are no YouTube videos of her speaking.

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  8. It’s so easy to generalize about Native and Non-Native collaborations but when one gets down to specifics, one specific Native woman and one specific Non-Native woman, I think we have to take into account that despite (or perhaps because of) the colonialization which casts a shadow over it, Lorraine chooses to work with Anne and Anne chooses to credit her work. It seems like a true collaboration even if it’s not exactly a conversation.

    This reminds me of a book I’ve recently finished reading, Dina Gilio -Whitaker’s As Long As Grass Grows, which also considers Native and Non-Native collaboration (in the context of Standing Rock resistance, among other situations) and she doesn’t gloss over how complicated it is, but she does clearly support collaboration when it’s rooted in equality.

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    • Yes, I agree that generalizations are not so helpful. I do agree that when I can, I read books by people who lived the experience or are part of the culture that is written about in the book. Some cultures are so oriented in oral traditions that they may not even be interested in writing a book, so I appreciate reading their story, even if it was typed up by someone else (Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropology work as an example — she even captured the stories of illiterate people with amazing oral tales).

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      • Years ago I read a book that Margaret Atwood had recommended years before that (she was also one of the first to draw attention to the work of Thomas King, now recognized as a central indigenous storyteller): A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst about the Haida Mythtellers. Bringhurst is not part of the Pacific coastal aboriginal communities but recorded these tales (and variations) as an ethnographer and reading about his studies and engagement with the community as well as reading the myths themselves was a cornerstone of that reading year for me. If the oral storytelling aspect appeals to you, this is one you might enjoy as well!

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