Anita Heiss, Manhattan Dreaming, Bantam Books, 2010.

In pursuit of books by women writers to read and review for the Australian Women Writers Book Review series for 2012 I picked this at random from the shelves of a second-hand bookshop: ‘Soldier and Scholar’ in Castlemaine, Victoria. The cover is inscribed: ‘From Manuka to Manhattan Lauren’s going all the way’.  Manuka is a familiar place to me. Now a trendy shopping  and café centre, Manuka  is close to the parliamentary triangle and hub of the nation’s capital, Canberra. I remember it as the place where the family did the weekly supermarket shopping when it was one of the two main centres on the south side of Lake Burley Griffin in the 1960s. The book’s cover also tells me that the main character, Lauren, is a Koori woman, a professional art curator who lands her dream job: a fellowship at the  Smithsonian Institute in New York. Manhattan Dreaming, I later learn, won a Deadly Award for the author, Anita Heiss, a woman of the Wiradjuri nation in Central New South Wales . The Deadlys, by the way, are awards given annually to Koori people who have achieved in the arts.

The storyline is straightforward enough. Lauren, in her late twenties, with a Masters Degree under her belt, and a job as Senior Curator at the National Aboriginal Gallery in Canberra, is offered the chance of a lifetime to live and work in New York in her field. Supported by her friends keen that she leave behind her no-good, self obsessed boyfriend, a football player for the ‘Canberra Cockatoos’, no less,  and centre of a sex scandal that has featured in these circles over the last few years, Lauren leaves her place, and her country, to venture into the new world  – New York. Not only does she find that things are different over there, but she also has the opportunity, despite herself, to reconsider her relationship with the football player, and to understand what is valuable in a relationship. In New York, she learns, she can be herself and not, as she states, ‘someone’s exotic’. Gradually the sheaths fall from her eyes and she finds true love.

This is ‘chick lit’ stuff – but with another, serious, agenda. Woven throughout the text are matters of  place, family and identity – an education for some readers about the place contemporary Koori culture within the broader Australian setting. Lauren is ‘a Lucas from Goulburn’, (a regional city near Canberra) she tells her new Koori acquaintances in New York. It places her. Her family has been there for generations. Lauren’s family are her stability, her parents’ home, the centre of her world. It is not idyllic;  the Lucas family clearly has its struggles. Lauren’s older brother is in gaol for some unspecified crime – a common event for many Koori families.  Her younger brother does not seem to be doing very much. Leaving Goulburn and her work in Canberra for adventures overseas means leaving her country. But she will always return home.  It is never forever.

In a poignant scene early in the book Heiss  highlights the intimacy of Lauren’s relationship with ‘place’ as her father struggles with the idea of her moving so far away.

English: Taken by me ona recent trip to Canber...

Image via Wikipedia


Image via Wikipedia

‘There’s the Big Mushroom in Canberra, and there’s a Big Cow somewhere and a Giant Kangaroo, but ah, no, you women want to go to some Big Fancy Apple in America’. Dad stood up and took his cup to the sink, running water into it as he spoke. ‘I’m sorry love, but the Big Merino has been good enough for our mob for the longest time – no big piece of fruit is going to make me let a daughter of mind go to New York’.  And there is the lovely joke between Lauren and her brother about ‘shagging’ in the eye cavity of the Big Merino! Heiss knows her places.

‘Place’ in Canberra is not so well handled by Heiss. Here her perception of the city and its workings  seems rather two dimensional. 2010 Manuka might be a centre where young professionals gather, along with scattered eateries and nightclubs. I am not sure how the characters ended up in a suburb in Belconnen so far away from the centre where Lauren spends most of her time.  Canberra has a thriving cultural and social life  hidden beneath the façade of institutions and large public buildings. This is a small quibble in the overall texture of the novel. Moving to New York one may find similar issues regarding place. But there is another intercultural event going on as Lauren works out  a new vernacular and variations in dating and relationship rituals from those she is accustomed to at home.  Of course, she is finding new opportunities and common concerns between indigenous people in Australia and the United States.

Overall though this is a tale well told. With deftness of touch Heiss reveals another side to the bad news about Koori culture frequently featured in the Australian press. So often focus is upon the tragedies in the Northern Territory Communities that have become the centre of what the Government refers to as ‘The Intervention’ means that one misses the vibrant and creative work being undertaken by the Laurens of this world.  Historically, even as missionaries and government officials have talked about the dire straights for Koori people living on the fringes of settler communities, there have also been Koori families who have found their way into that community and have been recognised for their contribution. Heiss’s task, to build bridges between settler and indigenous cultures, is well placed. She more than succeeds here.