Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Sovereign Bodies of Feeling-'Making Sense' of Country

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Sovereign Bodies of Feeling-'Making Sense' of Country

Article excerpt

What is the meaning of the claim made by many Aboriginal people that their relationship to country is a vital one: vital in the sense of a living relation, one that might be said to carry life itself? (Rose) It can be taken to be a claim of sovereignty, not only in relation to the land but, inextricably bound with this, a claim of a sovereign subject, or what Alexis Wright has called a sovereignty of the mind. To speak of sovereignty is always to speak of difference: different claims to land, but claims, too, about differences between the people making those claims. Into considerations of what these differences might be, I would like to install questions of embodiment and different capacities to feel, to sense, the country. This is not to speak of an essential difference, if by 'essential' we mean something immutable or fixed, but a difference made in cultural practices. For instance, being an embodied subject made in the context of practices associated with contemporary Anmatyerre culture might make for a differently sensate body than a settler subject made in cultural practices that are significantly different to Anmatyerre ones. In this regard, we could say that the Anmatyerre subject and the settler subject do not live in the same country as each other, even if they are living in the same coordinates of longitude and latitude.

This is to refer to theories of body and matter which suggest that bodies are made, they are substantialised, in cultural practices; there is no universal body, there is no universal body of feeling. There is, then, no universal way of feeling the country. These theories began to be 'given flesh,' as it were, in a most personal way when I first began travelling in the Central Desert in and around Utopia, in the extensive Aboriginal-owned lands north east of Alice Springs. (Was it my own body that lent itself to the theories, or the other way around? Is engaging with these theories itself a kind of cultural practice that re-makes a body's capacity to feel?) I'd like to recount some parts of two visits in particular in the hope of showing a couple of things. One is how my perceptions of the country morphed between these two visits; how in my eyes the country kept shifting between two or more worlds, worlds that I could not reconcile one to the other. In this movement is suggested the impossibility of correspondence, the impossibility of perfectly translating one world into the other. So rather than attempting to bring these differences into alignment, I want to pursue the generative possibilities of allowing a gap between one way of looking and another. And then there's something else too: not only did I keep seeing the country differently but I think that there were some things I could not see or feel in that country even when local women told me they were there, to be seen and felt-as real, as matter, as material force. What to make of that?

My stories are naïve, a white woman's traveller's stories, accounts given by a woman with little experience of the country she was travelling in, and who doesn't speak any of the languages either. These stories are merely fragments, tiny shards of a story so much wider than I will ever grasp. Yet, the experiences I've had were powerful and they disorient me still. My work now, before making the next visit, is to see what ways I can make sense of the experiences, and crucially, where my capacity to make sense stops. And I mean 'make sense' in the two meanings of that: to be able to make meaning of something, and to sense it, feel it.

I travelled to Utopia the first time with two friends: Shannon, a Nyoonga woman whom I've known for nearly thirty years, and her friend Paddy, an Anmatyerre woman born at Utopia and who was our host. (Real names have been changed.) We drove out of Alice late one morning, and after about an hour or so, Paddy suggested we make a detour and travel further to Harts Range to see her six-year-old daughter, Lena, whom I'd met on a previous visit to Alice. …

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