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.