Kevin Price’s long awaited novel, Kumakana: A Gronups Tale, was launched by Crotchet Quaver at Northside Books on March 7, 2017 by local musician Paul Reynolds. The following is an extract from his launch presentation.
There are other writers in the history of fiction who have taken just as long to complete a work as Kevin has with Kumakana—Tolkien with Lord of the Rings springs to mind. If a book takes that long, some, such as Tom Kenneally, might suggest that the horse has died beneath the writer … and if it stinks, it’s time to bury it.
Of course there is another possibility—the one that suggests a book as multi-layered as this one needs the oak-barrel ageing usually reserved for a 1926 Macallan—time enough to create new chemistry and allow its nuances to surface, and after a first taste, demands greater and deeper inspection.
Kumakana is a fairy tale. Dark, mysterious and abundant in its use of the fantastic. Two common tropes of fairy tales are the creation of a bond between communities in the face of inexplicable forces of nature, and the suggestion of hope in a world seemingly on the brink of catastrophe.
The impending catastrophe in Kumakana is the approaching demise of the indigenous animals of the forest at the claws of the feral cats—Snowqueen and her gang of cutthroats—and, worse, the teeth that ‘glint like steel in a butchery’ belonging to a cunning and voracious clan of foxes—Don Canida’s mob. Caught on the horns of this impending disaster are the Gronups, the spiritual custodians of the animals and the keepers of the Natural Order. If they cannot find a ‘turning point’, as they describe it, to bring them back from the precipice, then the Natural order will be lost forever.
As luck would have it, they pin their hopes on the untested spirit of Lavender Jensen, a headstrong, determined, 13 year old girl, and a suspected ancient spirit carried by Jerramunga, a buoyant, laconic, Aboriginal youth. Because of their unusual arrival in the forest, tensions between the two clans of predators and the enigmatic Gronups are ignited, and they become the inevitable key to the future survival of the mysterious world within the forest and, perhaps, the world outside.
The reader quickly discovers that the Kumakana forest is a community orchestrated by the intersection of multidimensional planes, one of which is the forest itself. Others comprise Lavender Jensen’s reality, Jerramunga’s alternative reality, the world of the forest animals, and that of the Gronups. This intersection of communities sponsors the unfolding of dialogue that invites the reader to consider ‘the real’ from an alternative, ‘less real’, perspective.
Fairy tales engage the fantastic so as to leave traces of the human struggle for immortality that we can feel safe with. Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, The Ugly Duckling … all offer us metaphors of human frailty, show us that there are unsavoury aspects of human nature that need to be taken seriously and guarded against. The many barriers Lavender Jensen encounters, from the inaccessibility of a direct return to her world of the everyday, to the trickery of the old snake Cedric, are transforming moments of the narrative, enabling an exchange that lifts understanding across the different worlds the forest offers up, including a version of its own, into the world of the reader outside.
Community becomes the central organising principle of the Kumakana narrative. The forest, for example, is a community of vegetation, ranging from the trees that rise like columns ‘in the rampart of a great fort, forming part of a landscape that sits idly, waiting as the crackle of their leafy crowns tosses whispered incantations to the winds, passing myths and legends of dark days and forgotten languages’ … to the ‘wall of springy ferns—the kind that snap back to their upright positions and slap you in the face after being pushed aside to pass through.’
Kumakana’s cosmic design not only uses the forest to present multiple obstacles, but to introduce passage-ways into that which remains mysterious. In particular is the tingle tree. The tingle tree is a massive tree, unique to the south west corner of Australia, without question one of the world’s mightiest trees—in competition with the Californian redwood and the mountain ash for sheer size and presence. But largely unknown away from its natural habitat.
In Kumakana, the tingle features as barrier, signpost and passage-way—it is an iconic symbol of solidity and great age, and stands in representation of the awesome power of nature. But it is also central to the history and community of the novel, as a centre of power that is both under and outside of the Gronups’ agency in the survival of the natural order.
It’s common for fairy tales to have talking animals, and Kumakana has them in droves. Kevin’s skillful use of language weaves a musical theme into their dialogue, grouping them in clans through clever names and drawing on highly localised 19th century collections of Indigenous words for their identities. The layers in this work are such that to suspend disbelief in that fact that it is animals in conversation occurs without notice. The use of metaphor and allegory illustrates a rich canvas on which topical issues of refugees and asylum, habitat degradation, greed, and waning spirituality are readily exposed.
Kevin’s offering of this book to ‘those who believe there is always a better way’ points to these serious issues affecting our world, both the natural and the man-made, and how perhaps it is necessary to let go your beliefs in order to see how things can be different. At one point Lavender is trying to convince a group of vixens that Gronups are real, she asks Wonaiea (a Gronup) to let the foxes see him, to which he replies: ‘I can’t … To see a Gronup you have to let go your beliefs’.
Belief is threaded right through the book. Lavender Jensen believes in magic. Jerramunga, of similar age but from a different culture, does not mock her belief in magic, but mocks the magic in which she believes. A clan of foxes believe in the law of the jungle. Their leader believes the sweet meat of the young girl will bestow everlasting powers. The forest animals believe in the Natural Order, they trust Gronups to guide them. In turn, Gronups believe Lavender’s spirit may yield a turning point from the path of destruction that has seen a contraction of habitat and extinction of animals. They believe the spirit Jerramunga carries is ancient, and they have met it before. Lavender’s father believes her imagination is problematic; Gronups believe it may be the answer.
Kumakana is about belief, yes. But it challenges ownership of belief too. Kevin demonstrates in Kumakana the impossibility of writing of one belief without attempting to explore others.
In the past he has faced the challenges of cultural appropriation—the argument that, if we are of a particular cultural heritage, we cannot write of beliefs held in another. We are told that by making use of cultural artefacts that can be clearly shown to belong to a culture other that the one we belong to, it is a form of appropriation. This book illustrates how it can be done.
Kumakana shows us that human nature moves forward by sharing cultures. We share our nourishment, our knowledge, our beliefs, our art and dance and music because it helps others understand who we are. It helps us understand who others are. When we are touched by the cultures of others, and we find a spiritual concert playing out in ourselves, we cannot help but be changed. When we actively deny others access to such change, we deny humanity the right to grow.
Like Salmon Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Kevin Price has written a story that allows him to diagnose the sickness of our country spurred by unreconciled effects of colonisation that have left scars so deep they may never heal … He urges readers to embrace imagination, become inventive, daring, and cunning.
In this work, Kevin Price has written a book that will leave a mark in society, providing hope for solutions without supplying the definitive answers. Those he leaves up to others.