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

A 'National Beverage': The 'Sugary' Tea-Ritual in Nancy Cato's Brown Sugar

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

A 'National Beverage': The 'Sugary' Tea-Ritual in Nancy Cato's Brown Sugar

Article excerpt

Nancy Cato was born in 1917 in South Australia and was an art critic, wrote historical novels, biographies and volumes of poetry. Before she became a full-time writer she worked from 1935 to 1941 as a cadet journalist for the Adelaide News were she recalled that, as a woman, she had to fight to get into the reporters' room. She was an advocate for the Jindyworobak Movement and edited the 1950 Jindyworobak Anthology with the aim of promoting indigenous Australian culture. As for the many themes developed in her works, which included environmental issues, Cato paid particular attention to the story of those groups excluded from the mythology of the nation. Among the many characters in her novels, many feature two legitimised as 'excluded subjects': women and coloured people. On the one hand, strong outback women such as Philadelphia Gordon in All the Rivers Run-a saga of life set on the Murray River and published as the trilogy of All the Rivers Run (1958), Time, Flow Softly (1959) and But Still the Stream (1962); Aboriginal women in Queen Trucanini (1976); two generations of outback and wartime nurses in The Heart Of The Continent (1989); and, a character who wanted to become a famous newspaper reporter in the 1930s in Marigold (1992). On the other hand, in a non-fiction work she deals with the story of Daniel Matthews and his Maloga Mission to Aboriginal people on the Murray River in Victoria, Mister Maloga: Daniel Matthews and his River Murray Mission to the Aborigines (1976); and novels other than those mentioned above, such as Brown Sugar, dealing with the exploitation of those Pacific Islanders called 'Kanakas' (1974).

The two themes that unfold in many of her literary works are developed in a novel that was acclaimed as successful and that Cato herself considered to be her 'best structured book' (de Berg 1975): Brown Sugar. The novel tells the three-generation history of two Scottish-Australian families named Duguid and Johnstone and traces several intertwined stories. At the head of the Duguids, Reverend Andrew Duguid is a poor missionary wanting to plant the word of God in the Pacific Islands and then in Queensland. Of his four children, three of whom die before the age of 4, the survivor, Emily, marries the Pacific Islander Efate, who works on Mr Johnstone's plantation. In order to live her life with him she defies her parents' will and unveils the contradictions embedded in their beliefs. Emily and Efate have four children: Tula, who marries an Aboriginal woman and returns to the Pacific Islands to spread God's word; David, who dies at the age of eight, poisoning himself by mistake while playing outside the house; Fiona, who marries a white guy and fights for her people's rights; and, May who marries Tombua. As for the other family, Mr Angus Johnstone is a member of the sugar aristocracy in Queensland that exploits indentured labourers 'blackbirded' from their Pacific Islands and obliged to work on the plantations for three years. He has three children: Dougal, as cynical as his father, who takes advantage of an Aboriginal woman (Estelle) who will bear him a child, Tombua; James, who does not agree with his father's exploitation of the coloured labourers; and Helga, who rebels against the patriarchal values of the family and abandons her husband to set offfor Europe where she succeeds as an opera singer.

First published in September 1974 by the London publishing house Heinemann and listed for the Miles Franklin Award of the same year, the novel came out in Australia five months later in February 1975 (de Berg) and was also published as a mass market paperback under the title of Chindera in 1976 and 1985, by Dell Publishing and Signet respectively. As for its writing, the year 1972 was paramount for the development of its themes and the researches behind it. Cato shared part of her time with two great women whose life, whether incidentally or not, contributed in encouraging the writer's historical research in support of her novel. …

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