The Australian book you should read next: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko | Alice Pung

A rare and powerful voice of a woman who has been poor and rich, with a lived understanding of the fickleness of each

When Melissa Lucashenko won the Miles Franklin award last year, some readers and critics considered her book Too Much Lip undeserving. She tells a good story, they proclaimed, but hers was not a “literary” voice. What is a literary voice? Tim Winton, that winner of multitudinous Miles Franklins, also uses slang and vernacular in his novels, which are hailed as having their finger on the true-blue pulse of Australian identity. Yet when Lucashenko does it, it’s “patois”.

As much as we’d like to deny it, Australian literature is still very selective about including the lower classes. It has always hailed working-class men’s stories, beginning with the bushman poets. Next come working-class immigrant voices rising above the “grit”. At the very bottom are Indigenous women’s “yarns”.

It is true that none of the characters in Too Much Lip ever pick up a book, but they are not without culture – yet it’s a culture we generally denigrate. Even the more positive reviewers focused too much on Too Much Lip’s gritty, dark undercurrents of dispossession and violence. I couldn’t understand how so many failed to acknowledge the crazy, lusty, pulsating-with-life joy that permeates every page. The Salter family are clever and enterprising and outrageously witty, the sort of characters that won Ruth Park accolades, except they are black. “This bloody bullshit about the forgotten white working class. If there’s any battlers in Australia it’s brown and black people,” Lucashenko told the Guardian.

Writer Melissa Lucashenko.
Too Much Lip author Melissa Lucashenko. Photograph: LaVonne Bobongie Wall

As for her inspirations, she cited Once Were Warriors and The Beverley Hillbillies, “a show that made a lot of sense to me when growing up.” This reminded me of the late Andrea Levy, the award-winning Jamaican-British author who said that she spent most of her childhood watching television in a council estate, and this formed her literary and cultural influences.

In Too Much Lip, a meat pie is a savoured luxury, and the height of generosity is when a policeman buys you two. Our protagonist wears a balaclava and raids the local council offices. The characters you’re rooting for steal, bash each other up, damage property and animals and “illegally” trespass. What they do is nothing compared to what has been done to them, of course.

Lucashenko’s is a rare and powerful voice; a woman who has been both poor and rich many times, with a lived understanding about the fickleness of each state: “I drew on a lifelong study of Buddhism and I said to myself, ‘You’re poor again, so what? Suck it up. It is what it is’.” Her Walkley-winning essay Sinking Below Sight: Down and Out in Brisbane and Logan tells the true story of a group of women who are resilient, generous and don’t see themselves as victims. They let her into their lives because she is not writing from a loftier place. Lucashenko is always street-level with her subjects and characters.

Lucashenko told the Sydney Morning Herald that “the power of the powerless is to laugh really and to tell the truth … if you didn’t you’d be a mass murderer.” Yet it is telling that she still needs to stress this in the afterword of Too Much Lip:

Lest any readers assume this portrayal of Aboriginal lives is exaggerated, I would add that virtually every incidence of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once.

The poet Tagore wrote that “truth in her dress finds facts too tight. In fiction she moves with ease.” You never get the sense that Lucashenko is making any of this up but using fiction to move with greater “ease” through the horrors of her own family history. Too Much Lip is a political book, but it’s a darned funny one that doesn’t smother you with earnest didactics:

They needed older blokes to help turn them into men, [Steve] argued when Kerry challenged him. Well, they ain’t gonna turn into fucking washing machines, are they, she’d retorted. There’s nothing ever said about young girls, what they’re missing out on, what they need.

Not all stories of oppression or disadvantage need to be told with low-voiced gravitas. For those unaccustomed to really knowing people who live the sort of life she describes, this book is confronting; another Black Lives Matter edification-book to add to the bookstand.

But for those of us whose family survived genocide, slavery and stolen children (as mine did), this book is a triumph, brimming with love and wit. There’s even a beloved patriarch, Grandpa Chinky Joe, whose very name would cause paroxysms of outrage to a reader whose sole experience of “loving” those different from themselves might come from the pages of literature or rhetoric, and not from deep family blood-ties and lived experience.

Perhaps we need to stop being wankers about art and the literalness of words, and see them in the right context, nestled in their breeding ground of class and culture. Too Much Lip is ultimately a book about family, and love, and redemption, told by a strong and clear voice throbbing with unassailable humanity.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko is published by UQP

• Alice Pung’s most recent book, Close to Home, is published by Black Inc.


Alice Pung

The GuardianTramp

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