Say it out loud – extraordinary voice in fiction and memoir

It’s hard to explain what is meant by a distinctive voice in fiction – after all, every voice is distinctive in its own way. But when you come across a book with a strong voice, you recognise it immediately. My two latest reads are both ones I could ‘hear.’ The first, The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton, I can quite literally hear because it’s an audiobook. Winton’s ear for WA slang and Kate Mulvany’s Irish accent are things of beauty.

The second is Black and Blue by Veronica Gorrie. She has such a compelling yet gentle way of writing that I felt like she was sitting down beside me and telling me the story herself. Both are intense, urgent, often funny but at times heart-rending. Gorrie tends towards understatement and dry humour in her writing, Winton towards poetry with a keen ear for WA vernacular – a face like a rat-eaten pavlova is a line that won’t leave me in a hurry.

Veronica Gorrie is a Gurnai/Kurnai woman who lives in Victoria, and in Black and Blue she shares many stories from her life, including her time as a police officer, and her eventual decision to leave the force after a decade of service. I would not normally pick up a police memoir but Black and Blue is much more than that.

She tells the story of her childhood, growing up with extended family, her relationship with her wayward mother, and time spent moving between states due to her father’s job. Like too many young women, she is forced to grow up fast, but she is also supported by those around her, particularly her dad, in some of the book’s most moving scenes. When she finds herself a single mother of three kids, she decides to join the police force to give her family some security and a steady income, and the book then moves into Blue – the story of her police training and working life.

This is also a book about motherhood. On the one hand, raising children gives Gorrie many skills that make her a good cop – an ability to read the room, to defuse heightened emotion, to negotiate calmly with irrational people. When she comes across a woman who has drenched herself in petrol and is holding a lighter, she pulls out a cigarette and asks for a light.

In a scene recognisable to many working parents, she puts a photo of her children on her desk when starting at a new station: “This photo has taken pride of place at every desk that I have ever sat at. Not only do my kids look beautiful in this photo, in their matching light-blue school uniforms, but it constantly reminded me of why I was a police officer, and also that it was only a job. My real work was at home with them.”

Yet balancing two such demanding roles is at times impossible – to be good at her job, to make enough money to support her family, she needs to work longer hours, but she also needs to be there for her kids. And the things that make her a good police officer – her empathy, her ability to take charge and be the adult in the room – are also, in a way, the things that contribute to her moral and physical injuries.

Sometimes her colleagues understand this conflict and accommodate her caring responsibilities. At other times, she is subject to racism and exclusion that make her working day unbearable.

There is no way someone still working within the police force could write with this degree of honesty. Gorrie doesn’t hold back, and some of the things she discloses point to a dangerous, misogynistic culture within policing that is frankly terrifying – in particular the stalking of each other and former partners by some police officers.

Today, as I write this, a submission from anonymous police officers describing misogynistic behaviour in the Queensland force has appeared in the Guardian. Do leaks to the press and books like this one create change? I hope so. And surely they make it that little bit easier for others to speak up.

Black and Blue increased my respect for police officers such as Gorrie. Reading this, you are left with an insight into what the police face at work, the dangers and the responsibility and the heartbreak, and how that can lead to burnout and a certain jaded attitude towards the general public. For anyone thinking of joining the force, this book is essential reading.

People shouldn’t be broken by their jobs, but many are, and Gorrie articulates the reasons for this, too. The police force is a white colonial institution, after all, and as she writes, ‘the system is not designed for Aboriginal people… in order to succeed in the police force, you have to change your mentality, your views on your own people. To turn a blind eye, to not speak up about the injustices caused to your own mob, you have to effectively assimilate, to become white, to act white, and to think white. I just couldn’t do that.’

This book won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing and it’s richly deserved. It’s also a page-turner that moves along quickly, that made me think, and that inspired me. Novelist Melissa Lucashenko compared it to AB Facey’s classic biography, A Fortunate Life, and I could see that, too. Like Albert Facey, Gorrie has an ability to forgive that is extraordinary and a capacity for joy that is inspiring. I was left quietly in awe of her resilience and her storytelling and I hope that writing this book has helped her put some of what she’s been through to rest.

As I went back to my copy to write this review, I read the introduction by writer Dr Chelsea Watego, author of Another Day in the Colony. Watego articulates much of what I’d noticed on a subconscious level about Black and Blue, but hadn’t put into words. Namely, that Gorrie models humanity in her writing, and never sets herself apart from anyone she comes into contact with, or seems to judge them. She lets the reader make those connections for themselves.

As Watego puts it, ‘In speaking of trauma, Gorrie, as the Black Witness, speaks of her own – she does not extract others’ stories to centre herself as the lead character or heroine. She affords a generosity to those she speaks of, even those who brutalise her, and unlike the White Witness, she refuses to pathologise them.’

This is the gift of this book. Although much of what Gorrie writes about is ugly and sad, there is something compassionate about this way she tells it. As Watego continues: ‘She tells us what we need to know. And in doing so, we are taken into her world through the frequency and consistency of events. It is a kind of storytelling I am most familiar with as a Blackfulla: one of events that the listener, the reader, must make sense of on their own. Gorrie doesn’t pause to hold the hand of the reader, except through some humorous asides in those moments – she has a story to tell, after all.’

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