Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land is Jordan Mary Ellen’s personal reflections about her experiences back in Arnhem Land, a region in northern Australia that is inhabited by Aborigines. As such, the book assumes a more personal tone and the author confesses that any lack of objectivity is deliberate.
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Within this book the author selectively chooses what to write about her past, what it was to live among the Balandas in Maningrida, her transformation and lesson learnt. Since this book is about the author past, the author has to rely heavily on her memory. She has to recall what happened and put it in the context of her story. As such, Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land is a splendid exhibition of the power of writing memory.
In this story, the author uses the power of memory to reveal to the reader not only her past experiences, but also make the reader to live through those experiences. Memory works in different ways bringing in different results in Jordan’s work. Not only does the author use memory to imaginatively recreate and reconstruct her past, but also as a device through which the past is brought to bear on the present.
Furthermore, Jordan’s memory acts as a reservoir, a rich source of historical facts from where the reader learns a lot about the history of the Aborigine as well as the relationship between Aborigines and the Balandas. Jordan tries her best to put pieces of facts together to compose the whole story.
Despite the fact that the story is based on factual information, it has a fictional ring to it. The fact that this story is told from first person point of view means that it is subjective and as such not far from fiction. As such memory bears strongly on Jordan’s work.
Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land is a very useful personal account that presents memory as a tool that imaginatively reconstructs Jordan’s past experiences. The story reconstructs Jordan’s amazing and unanticipated discovery of long running intercultural differences between the Balandas and the Aboriginals.
Even though this story is a recreation, Jordan tries her best to make her recreation as truthful and factual as possible. Jordan remarks that this story is about her and the time she spent living and working in Maningrida and that the story is a personal account of her experiences in Arnhem Land (2005, p. vii). This means that the story is not about facts that have been gathered and proven empirically.
Even though she might have taken notes (about actual occurrences) and involved the Balandas and the Aboriginals in as much dialogue as possible, all these are stored in her memory and only retrieved during the time of writing the book. Furthermore, Jordan states that she chooses what to write about based on how she could interpret those facts, how interesting the events were to her and how the events shaped and fitted into her story (Jordan 2005, p. vii).
From this confession, the reader concludes that Jordan’s works are based on two things; what she could remember and how it fit into the story she wanted to tell. As such the reader concludes that Jordan’s historical representation is based on memory and that this is intended at fulfilling Jordan’s present need to retell her story.
Why say that Jordan’s works are an imaginative reconstruction of memorable facts? There are a number of aspects in this book that are purely fictional. Jordan has deliberately made them so, for a number of reasons. In the story, all the characters are based on real people from Arnhem Land. However, Jordan out of her need to protect the real identities of the real characters she uses “changes their names, and also blended them with her story, stripped them back and changed them completely” (2005, p. vii).
She claims that she is doing so, to successfully attain her goal of creating characters that are as similar as possible to the real people she encounters in Arnhem Land. This implies that Jordan’s characters in this story are just an imitation of the real people that.
Her story characters are therefore fictional and created from her recollection, through memory, of the real ones she encountered. In this case, thus, her idea of memory in relations to writing is to help her to recollect and recreate what she can remember so as to suit her present intensions.
Another of the aspect of fictionalization of her works is seen in the very first line of her book. At the beginning of Chapter One, Jordan claims that “just after the small town along dirt road that is otherwise seen as the highway, the Aboriginal world begins” (2005, p.1).
This is fictional since she implies that the beginning of the aboriginal world is limited to small geographical location. In the real sense the Aborigines have a rich history which cannot be limited to a singular location, especially one that has a physical dimension. This limitation is work of the limited understanding of human memory. Yet through her memory she imaginatively recreates a fictional Aboriginal past.
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Despite the fact that Jordan’s idea of memory in writing can be termed as an imaginative work that helps to reconstruct the past, it heavily relies on historical facts. As such Jordan memory draws a lot of inspiration from real life facts that happened in Arnhem Land. Therefore, Jordan’s writing memory is a reservoir of historical facts (Larson 2007, p. 35). It is a rich field within which lie innumerable artifacts, all of which have been stored there through memorization.
As such her memory acts as a treasure house, rich in valuable historical artifacts. Such treasures can only be retrieved through a process of remembering. Jordan uses her memory to retrieve to the reader valuable factual information about the intricate Aboriginal-Balanda relationship, the aboriginal culture as well as the way of life and the various meanings of various symbols that do exist within the Aboriginal world.
Through her memory the reader can be able to see the Aboriginal lifestyle as depicted through certain features such as their utilitarian houses. The reader is also able to see that the dilapidated nature of their life depicted by the waste and dirt spread all over in some places such as the school and the art centre (Jordan 2005, p, 8, 13 and 14).
Jordan’s narration recollects her experiences of her life with the Aborigine in a span of just one year. As such she only recollects her memories about life in Arnhem Land from one strategic point; her own experiences are limited to a very short period of time. Larson (2007, p. 67) explains that when writers recollect small and minute bits of their past from one strategic location, they act like archeologists.
This means for Jordan to tell her story she has to go, through memory, into her past and excavate as much detail as she can regarding her own experiences. Like an archeologist, Jordan exposes to the reader small bits of her recollection, one at a time, and tries to piece all them into a final and complete story. Jordan does this without laboring too much, yet maintaining her involvement in the whole process.
She keeps the reader active by narrating in first person point of view, a style that asserts more claim to the assertion that she behaves like an archeologist.
Within the book Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land, the reader is able to identify two aspect of time: the present and the past (Larson 2007, p. 31). Within the book, the present exists now and the readers can be able to experience it. The present is depicted in the context in which Jordan narrates her story.
The past is depicted in the artifacts that Jordan exhumes and narrates: she narrates them in past tense. There is a missing link between these two aspects of time. There is no connection between the present and the past. However, the author tries to bring the past to bear on the present through memory. Thus, as Cixous (1997, p. 33) argues, memory makes the things past to become meaningful on the present time.
Cixous (1997, p. 33) asserts that memory is the “present of the things past” as such the writer who relies on memory tries to make the past have meaning in the present circumstances. Since the writer cannot re-live the past in any other way, then memory becomes the only vehicle through which the writer goes back in time and recollects what happened there. Jordan makes her past experiences bear on the present by reciting to the reader her own past experiences of her life in Arnhem Land.
The author remembers some useful facts about her experiences such as the aboriginal form of English, their form of lifestyle, the strained but tolerable relationship between the Balandas and the Aborigines and in her own words makes them relevant to the present time (2005). Jordan thus sees memory as a bridge between the past and the present, a bridge that not only makes the past known but adds meaning to it and makes it relevant to the present.
Jordan goes to Arnhem Land willing to serve the aboriginal but at the end of it all, she discovered that their culture runs deep and is un-transformable. Instead of transforming the Aborigines, in her words, she explains that instead her cultures are transformed (2005, p. 3). Jordan narrates her cultural transformation experience through a recollection of memorable events.
Through out the story the reader sees Jordan slowly change her attitude towards the aboriginal way of life. The changes are evident in so many memorable events such as when she visits the art centre. The place is strewn with dirt (the word dirt is initially used in the novel to depict her un-approving attitudes about Aborigines, but is eventually dropped from her choice of words as the story progresses).
Initially she used to notice the litter strewn all over but with time she becomes oblivious of it. This is a signification of the fact that she has involuntarily imbibed new attitudes, attitudes that made her ignore things she could not. So much is her transformation that at the end of the novel when she recollects feelings of the time she is about to leave for Melbourne, she claims that it had been a pleasurable experience living alongside another culture.
She also recollects that as she was preparing to leave this land she had “packed her Maningrida life away” meaning that she had already adopted Maningrida’s way of life (Jordan 2005, p. 212). Larson (2007, p. 164, 165) explains that in this manner, memory is a depiction of a world that a person inherits. Through these memorable narrations, Jordan is able to narrate to us a world in which she had inherited: the art, the culture the language and the attitudes of the aboriginals.
Jordan work is an exhibition of memory at work. This assertion is further enhanced by the fact that she confesses that she selectively chooses what to write. As such her story relies heavily on recall of her past experiences. Jordan uses memory effectively in combination with imagination to recreate her past experience in the land of Arnhem. Through this creative memory the reader is able to see her life as it was in Arnhem Land.
That Jordan relies on memory does not mean that her work has lost any artistic appeal to the reader. On the contrary, it is within the use of this combination that her book gains the artistic appeal. So powerful, is the power of memory that she is able to recreate even the minute detail about her experiences. Even though the events of this story are a re-creation of the author, the power of memory is so powerful that through it the reader can identify the subtle nuances on the meaning of life to the Aboriginal and the Balandas.
Cixous, H. 1997. Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing. New York: Routledge, 33.
Jordan, M. 2005. Balanda: My Year In Arnhem Land. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, vii – 212.
Larson, T. 2007. The memoir and the memoirist: Reading and writing personal narrative. Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 35 – 167.