Tuesday 21 July 2020

Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson BLOG TOUR @KJohnsonauthor #ParisSavages @AllisonandBusby #GuestPost

Fraser Island, Australia 1882. The population of the Badtjala people is in sharp decline following a run of brutal massacres. When German scientist Louis Müller offers to sail three Badtjala people – Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera – to Europe to perform to huge crowds, the proud and headstrong Bonny agrees, hoping to bring his people’s plight to the Queen of England.
Accompanied by Müller’s bright daughter, Hilda, the group begins their journey to belle-époque Europe to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and eventually London. While crowds in Europe are enthusiastic to see the unique dances, singing, fights and pole climbing from the oldest culture in the world, the attention is relentless, and the fascination of scientists intrusive. When disaster strikes, Bonny must find a way to return home.

Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson is published on 23 July 2020 by Allison and Busby. I am delighted to welcome the author to Random Things today with a fabulous guest post, as part of the Blog Tour.

The delicate art of attempting to walk in another’s shoes
Katherine Johnson, author of Paris Savages
Many authors elect not to read Goodreads reviews, but curiosity always gets the better of me. I like to know what is working for readers and what isn’t. Some of the comments I have read have really resonated. An earlier novel of mine, Matryoshka, was read by a Goodreads reviewer who had Russian heritage and was a migrant, like the main character in my novel. She related strongly to the book and saw in it her own experiences and those of her mother and grandmother. That review carried so much weight for me. I was grateful to hear that the novel struck a chord with someone with lived experience of the circumstances I was describing.
I have been similarly moved by comments about my most recent novel, Paris Savages, which is being released in the UK in July 2020. A Goodreads reviewer wrote recently: ‘This is an important book that has been meticulously researched and tries to remain respectful while amplifying voices that are often ignored.’ This review ‘hit the nail on the head’ in terms of what I had hoped to achieve during the six years of researching and drafting. I was very aware during the writing, as I am now with the Black Lives Matter movement, how important it is that little-known stories of history are revealed in a way that is respectful, neither ignoring the past nor appropriating it.
The novel concerns the transport to Europe in 1882–83 of three Aboriginal people from Fraser Island, Australia. The group of three performed for audiences in ethnographic exhibitions, which some have called ‘human zoos’, throwing boomerangs, spears and dancing and singing. They were also studied by scientists intent on developing theories of ‘race’. The story is told through the viewpoint of Hilda, the fictional daughter of the German man who took the group to Europe. She is a witness to what unfolds. There is also an imaginative attempt to shine a light on the experiences of the Aboriginal group, Badtjala people, through the eyes of a ghostly narrator. The ghost is aware that they cannot know what each of the three Badtjala people is feeling or thinking, yet also knows that it is important to consider that there is a side of this story that hasn’t been told. Unpacking the way damaging stereotypes came about in the nineteenth century is vital to understanding how we have arrived at the point in history that we have, regarding race and racism.
Following in historic footsteps
The three Badtjala performers were Bonny (Bonangera), Dorondera and Jurano. (NB the names are spelled variously in the archives). They were not alone in Europe. Far from it. This was a time in history where people were brought to mostly Europe and America to perform to what would become mass audiences. It is estimated that 35,000 performers were shown in this way to audiences of 1 billion people. Given the massive scale of ‘human zoos’, their goal of being commercially profitable, and the largely one-sided (Eurocentric) nature of the reporting of them, it is easy to see how stereotypical representations formed and infiltrated the public consciousness. The idea of the ‘savage’ was a constructed one, but we must wonder who, in this scenario, were the real savages?
I travelled to Europe to research the Badtjala trio’s journey, joining the dots of accounts in old newspaper clippings, anthropological journals and museum archives. I started in Hamburg, where the group likely arrived by boat, and imagined what it must have been like to dock at that bustling port alongside the river Elbe, with the Hamburg Hafen clocktower and Michaelis Church looking down on them. I visited the church and climbed its 83-metre-high tower to a platform, where there is a panoramic view over the city and the route the Badtjala group would have taken to get to Hagenbeck’s Thierpark. In a newspaper report from the time, Hagenbeck is recorded as the showmen responsible for the group’s tour, although there is no record of the Badtjala trio in the Hagenbeck archives. I visited the site of the old thierpark, now a primary school, and was shown photographs of men and women, from all corners of the globe, who were shown there, often with their animals. Then, there were polar bears and tigers kept in cages in this small allotment in the middle of Hamburg. I tried to imagine the scene and what the Badjtala group might have made of their experience. Of course, it is impossible to know. Hagenbeck routinely signed contracts with performers and some performers, such as the Sami from Norway, certainly had some agency over how they were shown and demanded good pay and conditions, but not all of Hagenbeck’s performers fared so well.
I saw plaster casts of two of the group, Bonny and Dorondera, in storage in a Dresden museum and it was clear that Dorondera was not happy with her circumstances. I also saw a full body plaster cast of Bonny, only recently discovered in storage in a Lyon museum. He is tall and naked and holds a boomerang proudly over his head. If only that cast could talk, but these are largely lost stories, and it is important to acknowledge these silences. To shine a light into the darknesses in history and to realise that, in many ways, history is a story half told. I consulted with Badtjala representatives while researching and writing the novel, sought permissions and incorporated feedback on drafts.
Love, betrayal, resilience and courage
The book, while steeped in history, is, however, firmly a novel, and there are love stories and betrayals, examples of great courage and resilience as well as cruelty. And that is, I think, the role of fiction – to imagine our way into the possible lives of people whose stories we can often never know, but who we must be made to wonder and think and feel about, for it is from those endeavours that empathy grows. As Barrack Obama said in his speech of 2006, two years before winning the presidency:
There's a lot of talk in this country about the Federal deficit, but if we hope to meet the moral test of our times, if we hope to eradicate child poverty or AIDS or joblessness or homelessness or any of the other issues that were chronicled before I came on stage, then I think that we are going to have to talk more about the empathy deficit, the ability to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes, to see the world through somebody else's eyes.

Katherine Johnson - July 2020

KATHERINE JOHNSON lives in Tasmania with her husband and two children. 
She is the author of three previous novels and her manuscripts have won Varuna Awards and the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes. 
She recently completed a PhD, which forms the basis of her latest novel, Paris Savages. 

Twitter @KJohnsonauthor       

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