Hayley Scrivenor reviews “Benevolence” by Julie Janson


by Julie Janson

ISBN: 9781925936636

Magabala Books


‘I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigated pain. It is important to share how I know survival is survival and not just a walk through the rain.’ (Audre Lorde, 89)

What do we expect stories to do? I have always felt that, deep down, we expect them to tell the truth. I come to fiction for the gut-truth – what did it sound like, smell like, feel like? 

The gut-truths presented in Benevolence are tied to a larger reckoning needed in Australian society – one that involves a centring of First Nation voices, a willingness to address not just a violent history, but a hostile and violent present – and it’s worth reading Julie Janson’s book for this alone. But the reason I will keep returning to this work is the beauty of its language and the connection I felt with its protagonist, Burruberongal woman, Muraging.

This is a story of survival, revolving around love, family and country. We first meet Muraging (or Mary, as she is called by her white ‘guardians’) in her home Darug country (Parramatta) in 1816 and as the story unfolds, we learn of her struggles to flee. We see how she is stalked by hunger and loneliness, deriving comfort and hope from the violin she learns to play at the Native Institution in Parramatta. We watch as she is forced, time and again, to return to her ‘guardians’. In the afterword, we learn that Muraging is based on author, Julie Janson’s great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas. Janson is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug nation, novelist, playwright and award-winning poet. 

As a work of historical fiction, Benevolence offers a satisfying mix of the specificity of fiction (the gut-truth) with true events, and rare insights into what it might have been like to experience the devastation of British colonisation firsthand. I am not a historian, but this book gave me a way into important history – this is the story of a woman’s life shaped by violent and pervasive forces she cannot control, rendered in exquisite and compelling detail.  

Benevolence opens with the following description:

‘The grey-green eucalypts clatter with the sound of cicadas. Magpies and currawongs warble across the early morning sky as the sun’s heat streams down. It is eaglehawk time, the season of burumurring when the land is dry, and these birds fly after small game. Muraging’s clan, the Burruberongal of the Darug people, gather their dillybags and coolamons and prepare for the long walk to Burramatta, the land of eels, and Parramatta town. The old women stamp out the fire, and one gathers the baby boy in her arms and ties him onto her possum-skin cloak.’ (p.1)  

Readers familiar with Julia Janson’s poem ‘Duria burumurrung: eaglehawk time’ (which was co-awarded the 2016 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Poetry Prize) will recognise the below lines in the opening prose of the novel, and the poem echoes throughout the book:

Magpies, currawongs call across morning sky.
Sun’s heat streams down.
Clan gather belongings, dilly bags, coolamons
Walking, walking to a new town.
Old women stamp out fire, gathering babies in arms.

I am always telling my writing students they should look up words they don’t understand, instead of passing them by, assuming they are picking up the meaning from context. You’re missing out on an important part of the story when you do that, I say. The unfamiliar (to me) words in the opening paragraph – ‘dillybag’ (a woven bag), ‘coolamon’ (a carrying vessel) – forced me to slow down a little. 

Reading words in the Darug language is valuable for its own sake, but slowing down, lingering over new words, was for me one of the greatest pleasures of this book. Janson often folds definitions in seamlessly, telling us Muraging hears ‘rattling carts full of waibala, whitefella, and the sound of pots against iron wheels’ (1). Janson is always, generously, teaching the reader how to read the text. Sometimes the Darug words are given context in the sentence itself: ‘Pale dingoes, mirri, walk around a destroyed world and are lost in an empty landscape’ (26), sometimes you will have to remember a word you have been given already, or wait until a word is used several times. It’s always worth slowing down and looking up words that don’t immediately reveal themselves. There is a poet’s care for language throughout Benevolence; In places, a lack of punctuation adds poetic rhythm: ‘She longs for food chews wattle gum to ease her thirst’ (2), and words are placed side by side to hint at a way of knowing: ‘She panics and grips his hand. Alarm rises and her aunt mothers look away’ (2). 

Muraging is the character we follow through this story, but we are not confined to her impressions:

‘She looks at her dark hand in his pink one and can see that his nails are clean and trimmed while hers are dark and filled with ash. He smells of camphor, Russian leather bibles and cedar trees. She smells of eucalypt and smoke. He can see her beauty, again it disarms him.’ (123)

Time and time again we are confronted with the horror of the project of colonisation: at worst the white characters are openly violent and spiteful and at best, mealy-mouthed and ineffectual in their ‘compassion’. The title of the book – Benevolence – is a nod to the absurd and violent distance between the things the white characters say, and the things they do. Their speech is often stilted and strange. At one point, a phrenologist doctor measures Mary’s head. He wishes ‘to take it with him as a fine specimen but it is, inconveniently, still connected to [Mary’s] body’ (103). The following exchange shows the insurmountable disconnect between two ways of being in the world:

‘Why do you want our heads?’ she asks.

‘Young lady, I am scientist. And my craniological specimen studies indicate that the intellectual abilities of natives are by no means despicable,’ he says. 

‘That might be; the people who take our heads are wrong. And if you take them, you might be despicable,’ Mary replies. (103)

In her review of Julie Janson’s first novel Crocodile Hotel (2015), academic Alison Broinowski wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘The problems are too familiar, painful and perennial, and I am squeamishly frustrated because I know too little about them and have no solutions’. Broinowski is talking about contemporary health and education outcomes for Indigenous Australians – but her words speak to the greasy feeling of my own initial reluctance, as a white woman, to engage with the settler colonial history of Australia. After all, reading this book is a vivid and uncomfortable reminder that I live on stolen land, that I am not just a bystander but an active participant in the ongoing trauma of colonisation. As academic and writer Evelyn Araluen points out, ‘Today Indigenous Australians still face significantly reduced life expectancies and significantly higher rates of incarceration, child removal and suicide. The colonisers have not left, but instead police our borders and imprison those who seek asylum from conflicts in which we are implicated.’ 

Of course, white squeamishness is not just irritating or exhausting, but dangerous and insulting for the First Nations activists, academics, community leaders and writers doing the actual work of truth-telling; white squeamishness is fatal. 

It’s one thing to know colonisation changed the landscape. It’s another thing to see the following through Muraging’s eyes:

‘Log-splitting men follow the axe men and the sound is deafening, night and day. Fiery pits burn all night with wasted bark. Her peoples’ footpaths have become bullock tracks with deep greasy mud churned by huge wagons full of logs. The tiny fruits and flowers are being crushed. Nothing is left of the forest’s ceremonial sites. Their stories cannot be told if the places and sites of the ancestors are gone. The waterholes are ruined by cattle and the goona-filled water cannot be drunk.’ (91) 

Water rendered literally undrinkable by colonisers has stayed with me. Gundungurra and Darug women teach Muraging to use coals from the fire to filter the goona (shit) from the water and make it potable (96). This is just one of the thousands of ways Muraging finds to live. 

This shitty water, which Muraging makes drinkable again, matters; to borrow again from Audre Lorde: it’s how we know survival is survival. Benevolence is a book which needs to be read so we begin to know how survival feels, how it smells, what it tastes like. 

1. Lorde, Audre (2004). Conversations with Audre Lorde. United States: University Press of Mississippi
2. Broinowski, Alison.
3. Araluen, Evelyn.

is a writer, sessional academic and former director of Wollongong Writers Festival who lives and works on Dharawal Country. She was awarded the 2019 Ray Koppe/ASA Fellowship for her novel-in-progress The Push Back, about a young girl who goes missing from a small country town. In March 2020, this manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize.