Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Too much lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Another Covid 19 meeting conducted through Zoom from our living rooms.

Too much lip won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Literature 2019 and was a Queensland Literary Awards Winner. It was also shortlisted in 2019 for the Stella Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.  


This novel by indigenous Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko is the story of Kerry Salter and her dysfunctional family set in the fictional town of Durrongo, a place in northeast New South Wales (near Lismore or Casino). Kerry has stolen a Harley Davidson bike and travels from Brisbane to see her family because her grandfather is dying. Kerry’s life is turbulent as her girlfriend has recently thrown her out of their accommodation too. When she arrives she discovers that part of ‘their’ country is going to be sold to a developer to build a prison. This is an area considered sacred to their Bundjalung culture. It is also an area they have spent a lot of time in during their childhood. Kerry is determined to stop this development proceeding. There are many other issues being dealt with by the family, such as poverty, child abuse and neglect. Her sister Donna has been missing for many years and they are still grieving for her. We later discover that Donna suffered terrible child abuse from her grandfather and set up a new life for herself in Sydney. Accidentally Kerry discovers that Donna is working in the town and encourages her to reconcile with the family. The book ends on a positive note.   

First impressions

  • Immensely readable, enjoyable, got into lingo although I don’t know about Indigenous languages; very colourful and passionate people.
  • Language interesting, and wonderful characters although I only got half way through it
  • Terrific book with 3D characters, not all doom and gloom; confronting issues, domestic violence, drinking, dispossession, humour but with a positive feel.
  • Felt like a Bundjalung version of the film Muriel’s wedding
  • Black humour despite the terrible backstories.
  • Excellent story which flowed, enjoyed the twists and turns, warm emphasis on kinship.
  • Very engaging and larger than life characters, humour carried you along, though having read other books by Lucashenko found this one a little predictable and a little jarring. Felt also that Steve who adores Kerry was a little bit of ‘Chick fantasy’. The whole book is underpinned by experience but the happy ending was a little contrived.
  • Well-written, gritty, compelling, very realistic, probably? Didn’t really ‘enjoy’ it and found it a tough read.
  • Raw and confronting, realism so amazing.
  • Really compelling black humour, but didn’t actually laugh. Window on a culture outside my frame of reference.
  • Lots of horrible episodes but Lucashenko ties up the loose ends. Heard it on audible with an Indigenous reader which made it authentic.
  • A plot-driven issues novel, which makes a contribution to truthtelling. Fiction can tell stories which white people can hear and understand more, perhaps, than by learning about Indigenous lives from political conversations or by reading historical works. Loved the roundness of the characters, most flawed but engaging.

Fiction can help explain why indigenous people behave like they do. Melissa lays bare some of their problems. She was worried about writing this revelation because she thought she might receive criticism from her mob and others but apparently this has not happened. ‘I loved that she was brave enough to show dysfunction within Indigenous communities while also showing the causes of the dysfuntion.’  

Ensuing discussion

Melissa Lucashenko appeared at the Canberra Writer’s Festival in 2019 and talked about carrying a heavy weight writing for her mob. She is trying to explain some fundamental differences in thought systems and culture to white Australians. This novelist is fundamentally a storyteller and is quite fierce and scary. (Her long years working on public policy and with women prisoners has made her very strong.)

All descriptions are from her real experiences or those of others she knows. The scenes are all very grounded.

Did we like the title?  Yes, we loved it and felt it was most appropriate not only for Kerry but also about other characters in the novel too, especially some of the children. One member also thought that it was cheeky. 

Kerry’s honesty is brilliantly stated:

'too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it…’ (page 206).

One member talked about her discomfort at the way her Indigenous friends ‘talked' to their children. She was shocked by their yelling and the way everybody stood up to each other in a loud way, so different from the way she behaved with her kids.

We discussed the issue of anger and how it is related to poverty and race. In the novel there is mention of living on a mission and having nothing, no job and not being allowed to retain Aboriginal culture. The poverty is very real in this book.

Larrakin behaviour combined with poverty and dislocation and drunkenness are all issues for this family.

Love, Steve and whitefellas in the book

The question of a love interest and Steve, a good white fellow was one we debated at some length. Some members thought the ‘love affair’ was a little overblown as Kerry was so rude to him and so dismissive of his opinions. One member wondered if the publisher had suggested this romance angle as a selling point. Steve, Kerry’s friend, is also required for the steamy sex scenes. He is the one good whitefella who is accepted into the family and even invited to go with the other men for a ‘Men’s camp’ and men’s business. Steve learns to stand up for himself against Kerry when their relationship is strong and starts to treat her a bit more like her family does by criticising her for being so rude. 

There is a sense in which we should be able to hear what life is like for people like Kerry. It is better to listen, and that is what Steve does to large extent. 

There are very few other white men in the novel apart from him and the main ‘baddie’, Mayor Buckley. Mayor Buckley is the man everyone hates and who suffers at the conclusion of the novel. 


Humour is dispensed throughout the novel, and a welcome antidote to the ‘heavy’ issues tackled. We appreciated the way Lucashenko makes fun of Indigenous culture. For instance, about totems as shown in the scene when Brandon is playing on his computer and his uncle encourages him to go and play outside and climb a tree.

Brandon looked at Black Superman like he had two heads.
'What for ? I’m an eel. Eels don’t climb trees’. …
'Eels don’t use iPads, either’. (page 76) 

Indigenous people, just like any people, use their culture in any way they can. This is shown on television in the last few years with all the new Indigenous comedy shows especially. 

There are many scenes of great comedy – the exorcism, the scene when Ken is terrifying everyone with the rifle and Kerry thinks that Steve might have called the cops.

‘No other excuse needed : bang bang, bang.
Oh my God, they killed Kenny’. (p274) 

This is a reference to the TV show South Park

Style and culture, and characterisation

We also discussed the ‘magical realism’ present or not in the novel. One member noted that Indigenous people don’t necessarily see it that way. Alexis Wright was quoted as saying that that description refers to white attitudes, whereas for indigenous people it is all real. What is concrete after all?

We also commented on the amazing names for characters, for example Dr No, Shark, Black Superman. We also liked Pretty Mary (Kerry’s Mum) and Tall Mary. The people at the mission where these older folk grew up were to blame for the lack of imagination with names.  

One reader mentioned that birds for First Nations people are very important too – they bring messages and play a big role in their culture. This member has seen indigenous guides in the Northern Territory talking to birds. The birds can be totems or ancestral beings. 

In the first chapter, Kerry converses with some birds. It is very funny but also is indicative of her relationship with the natural world and totems of the local people. 

Three waark flapped down on the road beside her, drawn to the flattened remains of a king brown which looked to have lost a fight with Scruffy McCarthy’s cattle truck. 
The birds stared at Kerry, cawing obnoxiously before they turned to their snake… the eaters and the eaten of Durrongo, having it out at the crossroads. You don’t see old mate Freddy McCubbin painting that, do ya? .. 
I’m not the only one in Durrongo plagued by arseholes then, Kerry noted. (pp. 7,8)

The scene where Kerry is trying to encourage Brandon to be an enthusiast of the outdoors is hilarious. 

'You ever set a chook shed off?' ... Kerry crowed again.
‘You try!’ she urged. Sulky at first Brandon gradually got into it. … (p77)

Language is a big part of this novel. We all felt the way Lucashenko wrote it was very well done. It seemed forbidding at first to some of us but her use of indigenous words made it authentic. We all understood what she was saying despite no translations. 

Another aspect of the novel is the resolution of the problem of Donna. Uncle Richard is the main mediator between the family and Donna. He is also the first to believe her story of the abuse she suffered from her grandfather and how she protected Kerry. The novel is excellent in explaining that the family doesn’t do forgiveness as that is not the issue for Indigenous people. That is a white person’s concept. It is more a concept of truth-telling. We all thought of the Truth and Justice courts held in various countries in order to cope with past injustices. Ken is required to apologise and there might be punishment. 

Donna behaved in the way many real victims do. They want to control their lives after the violation. She felt alienated from her family. 

Ken, her brother, is the other side of the equation. He had stayed and kept all the anger and hurt inside himself. Everybody deals with trauma differently. Kerry was different again as she had run away (or been pushed by her mother) and often through the book she wants to run back to Brisbane. But there is nothing for her there now. She is also bound to her family and to her country. 

Some of us thought it was a weird plot element that Kerry didn’t try harder to retrieve the stolen money from Mayor Buckley. But would that have made the ending less convincing? Due comeuppance for the white crook?    

We all liked the character of Uncle Richard. He is the strong wise man of the mob. He gives us insight into the hierarchies of the culture. He was a law man and had great authority. But he was also gentle and they respected him. He wasn’t ‘shouty’. His saying that it was all about ‘love’ resonated with everybody. 

Pretty Mary was another wonderful character. She was an alcoholic but also a very 3-D personality. We liked the scenes of her telling fortunes in her tepee. She also loved Pop and wanted to explain to Donna that he was a victim too.

‘Pop told me when he was dying, cos it was eating away at him, worse’n the cancer was', he said. 'Three coppers grabbed him in Brisbane as a kid. Fourteen-year-old. Locked him in the cells and took turns at him all night for winning the Silver Gloves when he was supposed to lose. … But now, if Donna don’t mind, we’ve said we’re sorry, and I’d like to put me old friend in the ground.’ …” (p 295)  

There is a lot of intergenerational trauma in this novel – and it reminded many of us of the memoir we read last month, Rick Morton's One hundred years of dirt, about his white family and their trauma to do with poverty and dislocation. Epigenetics applies in both instances but in different ways of course. Brutal behaviour on an older generation can greatly effect subsequent generations. This is highlighted at the beginning of this novel by the recounting of the boxing match and consequences meted to Kerry’s grandfather when as a young Indigenous man he wins a boxing match in Brisbane. It is then mentioned again at the end of the novel in relation to Donna as quoted above.

We all agreed that the novel’s real strength is her diversity of characters. The complex weaving of men and women, and the leadership by many of the women. This is so true in Indigenous communities today in Australia. One member heard an interview with Melissa Lucashenko about her daughter’s struggle with mental illness and the difficulty of dealing with it. The novelist has had a tough life herself so can write from first hand experiences.

The ending with Donny almost stranded on the island was a funny scene. It was a real island but also possibly a ghost of an island?

‘Nobody to keep him company all night but the ghost of Elvis, and the ancestors he’d never met; an idea that gave him horrors.’ (p. 314) 

Possibly there is a parallel to the scene with Pop in the morgue. 

Kerry later thinks  : ‘it was good to see some spirit returning to the boy. That whale on his arm must be doing him a power of good.’ (p. 315) 

 The scene of the burial of Elvis, the dog was an act of reconciliation – sorry business. One member wondered if it there was something else going on. 

Robbery and criminal behaviour is another strong theme throughout the novel. Bike stealing, Kerry pinching the items from the Town Hall, and the drugs shows an engagement with people on the wrong side of the law and the police. But the sense in which people steal to keep the family going is so insignificant to the larger question of white people’s theft of the whole of Australia. (This is still an issue 250 years to the day that Cook first arrived. Very pertinent.) This is eye opening and confronting to people like us. 

We all felt that the dialogue is well written. It's quite clipped and certainly not flowery. 

This is a great story told with energy and humour. It covers really tough themes in a complex and nuanced way. The characters and stories felt very real. A really worthwhile read. We briefly talked about how different books by Indigenous people are now, from 30 years ago. This novel has been praised by literary judges and awarded many prizes in Australia. You are rewarded too by reading it twice as one mmber managed to do. It contrasts strongly with novels of the past such as Sally Morgan’s My place. The group thinks we have moved a long way in our understanding of our First Nations people but there is still a long way to go. 

Members present : 12