I urge myself to write
after days in a daze
due to a head cold
the aftermath to
sitting in a tent for hours
at the Majors Creek Festival
(a tiny historic gold mining town,
301 km south of Sydney and 16 km south of Braidwood in New South Wales, Australia), listening to Emily Rose and the Wild Things (high energy) followed by Great Aunt, a folk duo on guitar and bass (quiet competency).
I have lost the plot. What did I want to say about Kei Miller’s two novels?
See my blog https://bettehutchisonsilver.wordpress.com/2019/11/01/you-never-know/ about meeting Kei Miller, the poet.
Inspired, after meeting Kei Miller at the Poetry on the Move festival in Canberra, I found two of his novels at the local public library:
The Last Warner Woman
The title of The Last Warner Woman confused me. When I see the word “Warner”, I immediately think of two brand names: Warners bras and Warner Brothers, a film production company.These are brands I grew up with in the USA. I have never consciously thought of either one - perhaps in my entire life (although I have seen the WB logo of Warner Brothers in movie credits). I have never bought a Warners bra.
So I wondered why a writer from Jamaica would write about Warners bras or Warner Brothers? The cover of the book did not relate to the Warner brands. Think about it. Shocking that a word “warner” became embedded in my mind with two brands. The power of advertising that changes the lens through which we understand words.
Warner… means a person who warns… that is, a seer or prophetess.
A warner is someone who can “see” what is going to happen and then warn people.
This book is as beautiful as the cover. The writing is so evocative that I had to read it carefully - word by word - the way I usually read poetry.
I often speed read novels. Satisfied with understanding the main story line, following the principal characters and immersing myself in the story without carefully reading each word. Not possible to speed read The Last Warner Woman.
And then Augustown
Augustown started slower for me. Something ominous surrounded the people in the novel. Something was going to happen. I read the novel with anxiety. At one point I put it aside. I didn’t want to know what was going to happen next.
Both books are based on Jamaican history and folk lore.
After reading Augustown, I looked up “Bedward“ and found the following:
“Between 1891 and 1921, Alexander Bedward, an African-Jamaican healer, led the Jamaica Baptist Free Church in August Town, Jamaica, on the Hope River. . .
In the 1930s, Bedwardites and Garveyites transformed Bedward's millenarianism into the more antiestablishment and durable Rastafarian movement…”
QandA is a weekly current affairs program on ABC TV in Australia The 29 October 2019 broadcast focused on responses to the current ongoing, multi-year, devastating drought
Sitting at one end a middle-aged water woman, assertive in a quiet, fact-based approach explaining the mismanagement of scarce water resources
Next to her a government minister, nothing to be proud of, prattling on, talking much, saying little
The government minister sandwiched between the water woman and an eloquent, emotional young farmer, her face bent to listen to other panelists, her responses always from her heart, faithful to the land
In the middle of the panel
The moderator, looking rather young, a half smile on his face, eyes open wide, trying to hold things together without losing his composure
Next to him
A blonde, curly-headed woman wearing an all green shirt (but she’s not a member of the Greens), the head of the Farmers Federation, talking, even interrupting the water woman, but with nothing much to say except pity the farmers, defending the status quo, offering no analysis, no vision, no future
And last but somewhat least the shadow minister for labor, talking about the poor farmers doing it tough, saying Australia needs a national drought plan without offering one
QandA Studio Audience
The QandA panel floating on a sea of climate change and drought, with the audience and farmers (in the studio and on video links) critical of the dismal performance of current governments
The audience and farmers acknowledging human-made climate change and the mismanagement of very scarce water resources
The audience applauding the eloquence, the heartfelt sentiments of two indigenous leaders – one on video, one in the audience – denouncing corporate greed and capitalism that has taken their water
In the audience – connections to the land, to reality, to caring in stark contrast to the empty words of three members of the panel
Talking with the delivery guy
He smells of cigarettes
I want to tell him
to stop smoking
But I don’t
I listen and find out
His was a farming family
Father told him
Don’t be a farmer
So he’s a delivery person
Thinking about land
of Mother Earth
Thousands of hectares
deforested in Australia
Trees cut down
As one youth activist
quipped on a poster
The wrong Amazon is burning
I don’t even know
what a hectare is
I have never lived
on a farm
I have lived
in cities and towns
on six continents
Hiking in the bush
just outside town
I see parched earth
like the deep cut
on my arm
But the cut was
Leaving only a slightly
pink and purple scar
How to heal the earth?
Some farmers know how
The earth can be renewed
But forcing the land
to yield immediate results
Rounding a corner
from a gallery exhibition
Walking up a ramp
with no destination
Black tiled floor
Grey cement walls
Polished silver handrails
Blinking white floor lights
looking down on fern palms
in a secret garden below
No paintings or people visible
in the crowded museum
only my own footsteps
and the distant click clack
of someone’s high heels
I had found my way to Vinita, Oklahoma, to search for more information about my father W. Lon Hutchison who had been committed in 1934 to the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital by his aunt. In search of family reconciliation, long after his death, I am writing a novel Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time, about events in my father’s life.
I had gone to the public library in Vinita to find out more information and searched through a file of clippings about the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital.
Next to the library was the Eastern Trails Museum. The Museum is made up of memorabilia, organized into sections, including kitchen, general store, post office, media, Civil War, ranching, Native Americans.
I have no idea why a museum in Oklahoma would be called “Eastern Trails”. Perhaps because it is located in Eastern Oklahoma?
Samples of exhibits at the Eastern Trails Museum:
Cowboy and ranching gear, including collection of barbed wire
Exhibit of Native American crafts
There was no display of the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital, although it had been the largest employer in the county from the opening in 1913 until its closure in the late 1990’s. Perhaps not surprising. What community would want to publicize a state mental hospital? Volunteers who run the Eastern Trails Museum said that they would like to help but could come up with nothing but a sketch of the buildings at the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital.
Drawing of the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital complex
The people in Vinita were friendly, but it was mostly a cold trail. Onward.
Next stop? Tulsa Oklahoma, the second largest city in Oklahoma. I had contacted the Tulsa Public Library by email to ask for help from the research librarians.
In 2016, inspired by the ending of the film Big Fish to tell my father’s story so he could be immortal, I decided to research the life of my father, W. Lon Hutchison. I started writing a novel Tracking the Human; nobody’s a long time, based on events in his life. To carry out the research, I had to return to the Mid West USA, from Canberra, Australia, where I was living.
With my mother’s death in 2011 our family “home base” in Kansas City had been sold and reimagined by the new owners, going from being bright pumpkin orange trimmed in turquoise to being repainted all white with a picket fence.
Without my mom’s house, whose screened-in front porch had been a meeting place for the neighborhood, I had to find somewhere to stay. I wanted to be with people I knew and felt comfortable with. I was fearful that this would be a challenging project, quite different from past research that I had done for university assignments and educational programs. I anticipated needing emotional backup.
My friends, Linda and David, who live outside Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas, welcomed me.
As it was a weekend and the National Archives in Kansas City were not yet open, I went to the public library in Lawrence, pleased that I found my way to the library on the back country road that didn’t show on maps.
Lawrence Kansas has a beautiful public library. I went upstairs, sat down in a comfortable chair in a quiet glassed-in corner, overlooking a park, and started searching for documents using the free wifi.
I can’t remember what search engine or terms I used, but what came up was so shocking that I could barely read it through my tears.
In 1934, my great aunt Jessie Hutchison went to court in Tulsa, Oklahoma to have my father, W. Lon Hutchison committed to the Eastern Oklahoma State Mental Hospital in Vinita. Once committed, many people never left. The state mental hospitals were where the unwanted people were dumped.
What made me return to writing Tracking the Human: nobody’s a long time, a novel about my father? I suspended the search for information about my father almost as soon as I started in 2011 after my mother’s death in Kansas City, Missouri. I did send out freedom of Information requests, some emails and phone calls. When nothing came up, I gave up. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to find out more.
In 2014, I left Nairobi, Kenya where I had been living off and on since 1998. My partner and I moved back to Canberra, Australia, where he had grown up. I took some writing courses and workshops at the University of Canberra. I published a book of poems and sketches, Silence Spoken (available on www.lulu.com). I was not yet committed to researching and writing about my father’s life. Continue reading “A Really Big Fish”