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Benang reflects on his ancestors

Harley, the protagonist of Kim Scott's second novel has discovered the documentation of his grandfather's (Ernest Solomon Scat=Ern) eugenistic project in which Harley is classified as "the first white man born". From this moment, he takes up a pen to trace back his Nyoongar(Indigenous) ancestors and thwart his grandfather's plan to bring to life A.O.Neville's theory of breeding Aboriginal people out of existence.


Even in my youth, after I had gained some idea of who I was and when I had my grandfather under my care I had moments of........hesitation. Moments when, perhaps, I almost admired him. After all, he took Kathleen as his wife, which was more than many would have done.

Ern arrived from nowhere, knew no one; and so he had pluck, you might say. Well, I could respect that, and even-to a degree- his opportunism. He moved us to this little isolated place on the coast, this property. He gave renovation instructions, prices, contact numbers for tradesmen. Said what to do with the garden.

This tree by my window, where the children climb, once again casts cool shade and lets the wind whisper in its leaves. It is a tall and pale gum. One of those whose bark peels and falls in strips. It towers over the house, and Grandad believed its roots threatened the foundations. He was right in that, they have cracked one wall.

Grandad wrote: Cut down the tree. Burn it, dig out its roots. He might also have written: Displace, disperse, dismiss.......My friends, you recognize the language. He gave me the instructions on the day of his stroke and long after that- but before my uncles came to save us- I trimmed the branches which grew close to the window. I was pleased to see Grandad's grateful smile when he peered through the window frame and saw no hint of tree.

I was even more pleased to see his reaction when I carried him outside, and he realized I had trimmed only those limbs which could be seen from the window, and left others intact. The tree still lived; it would grow again. I lifted him from the ground, nestled his neck and chin in the fork of two truncated limbs, and let him feel the burden of his own weight. It was still a tree you could hang from, or hang some other from.

Which - of course - I didn't do. I don't know, perhaps his vulnerability softened me. But it was only the strength I gained after Uncle Jack Chatalong and Uncle Will Coolman came to live with us that allowed me to feel anything like sympathy for poor silly old Ernest.

I used to look at how the heavy stones of the house fitted against one another, the small pebbles and dust which collected where they touched. The stones were roughly rectangular and between each one, where I had picked out the mortar, the darkness crept in. Cold air moved about me, and I sat within a stone grid, oozing light.

Not a fire. Not a family. I rubbed at the words I'd written so fastidiously. The pale, thin stuff left cold and damp beneath my grandfather's skin, my only kin, these pieces of paper. The walls were strong, despite my continued picking and probing. The timbers of the ceiling sat strong upon them. I had peeled back the roof above some of the rooms, and there the joists showed like ribs against the stars. Nyoongar language. Culture.... I thought of all the things I did not have. Unsettled, not belonging -the first white man born- I let myself drift. I gave up, and drifted......

Benang, Kim Scott, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999, pp.107-09
Reproduced with the kind permission of Fremantle Arts Centre Press


General comprehension

1/How many characters are present in the text? Give their names and say how they are related.

2/Whose point of view is adopted in the passage?

3/Where is the scene set?

Detailed comprehension

Part 1: (paragraphs 1 to 4)

1) Pick out as many elements as you can, describing the tree.

2) What is the impact of the tree on the house? (20-30 words)

3) What do we learn about the narrator's grandfather's personality?

Focus on paragraph 4 and answer the following questions

4) Who is the narrator addressing to? Why?

5) From the narrator's attitude, what can you conclude about his relationship with his grandfather?

6) "Cut down the tree. Burn it, dig out its roots. He might also have written: Displace, disperse, dismiss." Explain what this sentence means (30-40 words).

Part 2: (paragraphs 5 to 8)

Focus on paragraphs 5 and 6

1) Why does the narrator partly obey his grandfather?

2) Quote one sentence showing the narrator's change of attitude towards his grandfather.

Focus on paragraphs 7 and 8

3) Pick out words and phrases belonging to the lexical fields of construction and destruction?

4) What can you conclude as far as the narrator's identity is concerned?

5) Why does the narrator use the expression "the first white man born" to refer to himself? (30-40 words)

6) Translate from "Grandad wrote..........It would grow again."

Grammar - Past tenses

"When I carried him outside and he realized I had trimmed only those limbs"

a) What tenses are used in this sentence?

b) Explain how they are formed.

c) Circle the correct answer. In the second part of the sentence, the action is coming:

- Before the other actions
- After the other actions
- Simultaneously

d) Complete the following sentence: The....................... is used to talk about a ..................... whereas the .................................... is used to refer to a moment a ........................ .

Grammar - Used to

"I used to look at how the heavy stones of the house fitted against one another"

a) Say what this sentence expresses. Circle the right answer:

- Change between past and present
- Habit in the present
- Habit in the past

b) Write this sentence in the negative and interrogative forms. What auxiliary did you use?

c) How would you translate this sentence?

Further readings
-Mise en perspective historique et politique des relations Blancs/Aborigènes en Australie, lire l'article d'Isabelle Bénigno

-Benang, itinéraire d'une reconstruction identitaire : de la dislocation à la renaissance, lire l'article d'Isabelle Bénigno

-Consultez nos ressources en littérature du Commonwealth
Mise à jour le 7 juin 2012
Créé le 3 janvier 2012
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues