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

'A Place with Its Own Shying': Countering the Aboriginal Uncanny in Vivienne Cleven's Her Sister's Eye

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

'A Place with Its Own Shying': Countering the Aboriginal Uncanny in Vivienne Cleven's Her Sister's Eye

Article excerpt

In their introduction to the book Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence, Colleen E. Boyd and Coll Thrush recall the recurring nature of the 'Indian burial ground' (vii) cliché in popular culture. As Boyd and Thrush see it, the Aboriginal burial ground as the rationale for a piece of land being uncanny or haunted has become 'a tried-and-true element of the cultural industry' (vii). Boyd and Thrush argue that possessed, sacred Aboriginal territory or the 'Indian uncanny' (ix) remains one of the most common explanations for the supernatural attributes of a house or other physical site in texts produced in 'settler colonies' (Ashcroft 133) such as Australia, Canada, and the United States, '[w]hether . . . the haunted house down the dirt lane, the spectral woods behind the subdivision or the seemingly cursed stretch of highway up the canyon' (Boyd vii).

However, the primary texts Boyd and Thrush refer to in their introduction are all produced by non-Aboriginal artists. Furthermore, these texts also assume that only non-Aboriginal people can find their homes supernaturally unheimlich or uncanny (or more literally 'unhomey') in the Freudian sense. 1 This article shifts the focus from what Boyd and Thrush label the 'Indian uncanny' in order to focus on one Aboriginal writer's subversion of the 'Indian uncanny' formula for her own ends. Using an Australian-influenced, Gothic building as its 'major locus' (Botting 2), Vivienne Cleven's novel Her Sister's Eye features a haunted-or more precisely an animate-Queenslander house which symbolically insists that Aboriginal history and concerns are contemporary and crucial, rather than issues relegated to a spectral past. I will use as a springboard Kathrin Althan's and Gerry Turcotte's arguments that an Aboriginal writer such as Cleven rejects the cliché of supernatural, uncanny 'darkness' and replaces it with a model which proposes that non-Aboriginal, white Australians are a more likely source of uncanny fear, supernatural and otherwise. The eerie, 'shying' house in Her Sister's Eye demonstrates that the 'Indian uncanny,' haunted house trope used to further symbolically marginalise and demonise Indigenous people and cultures in literature and film can be claimed and deployed by Indigenous writers. Cleven establishes the 'shying' house as a tool to interrogate and undermine residual colonial influence in countries such as Australia which are 'haunted' by Indigenous dispossession of land. Furthermore, comparing Her Sister's Eye side-by-side with two other 'uncanny' house novels-Tim Winton's Cloudstreet and Andrew McGahan's The White Earth-Cleven also adds to an evolving continuum of fictional houses that stand as metaphors for Indigenous dispossession in Australian fiction.

In their introduction, Boyd and Thrush refer specifically to American horror fiction such as Jay Anson's 'non-fiction' The Amityville Horror, but the 'tried-and-true' nature of the 'Indian uncanny' genre (or what I will from now on refer to as 'Aboriginal uncanny' in order to incorporate Australian examples of this genre) is apparent in examples of haunted house fiction by non-Aboriginal writers set in Australia as well. As such, before I examine Her Sister's Eye, I will discuss Winton's Cloudstreet in order to show some ways in which Aboriginal people and culture have been characterised as the frightening Other in contemporary Australian fiction. As I will go on to show, texts such as Cloudstreet follow a gothic horror tradition that Cleven writes against. Ken Gelder, Paul Salzman and others have thoroughly examined the absence of Indigenous issues and characters in Cloudstreet, but it is worth revisiting Winton's treatment of Indigenous characters and land possession in Cloudstreet in order to establish the contrast to eleven's deployment of the gothic genre in Her Sister's Eye.

Cloudstreet features a house that is regarded as a 'queer joint' (ch. 9) 2 because it was once a mission house for Aboriginal girls: its current non-Aboriginal inhabitants-the Lamb and Pickle families-are disturbed by the house's animate qualities (it breathes, for example), and the ghosts of an Aboriginal girl who committed suicide, and the grasping white woman who ran the mission. …

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