Like many novels about First Nations cultures, whether from an Indigenous or non-Indigenous perspective, ‘Calypso Summer’ treks inland from the coast, in search of authentic traditional knowledge. The coastal community, dominated by non-Indigenous Australians, is constructed here as the source of fake culture and exploitation.
The narrator, Kyle, has just left school and is searching without success for his dream job. He is introduced to us by his nickname, Calypso, which was given to him because from early childhood he has been mad about cricket, particularly as played by the West Indies team in their heyday. The title of the book itself refers to the famous 1960-61 test series between the West Indies, captained by Frank Worrell, and Australia, captained by Richie Benaud, including the Brisbane test, which resulted in a tie. Kyle pursues his love of the West Indies with dreadlocks that take more than three years to cultivate, a fondness for reggae, Bob Marley and Rastafarianism, and smoking ‘weed’.
At the time the novel opens, Calypso has given up smoking ganja and works in Henley Health Foods Store, in suburban Adelaide, South Australia. He dubs it ‘Mystic Dolphin Health Foods’, because it is a temple to middle class hippie culture, run by Gary, a man with a grey ponytail. Gary encourages Calypso’s adoption of a Jamaican accent and vocabulary, because it’s coolly exotic and good for business. But when Calypso reveals that he is in fact Aboriginal, Gary has an even better idea. He understands that on Country inland, for thousands of years people have been using native plants and procedures for healing. If Kyle can contact his people and collect some of those plants, the health food shop can market them and make a lot of money. He will offer the traditional owners $3000.
To Kyle, his unemployed cousin, Run, who lives with him rent-free, and to their extended family, this sounds like a fortune, but readers will recognise, somewhat earlier than Kyle does, that this is a pittance, compared with the profit Gary stands to make. Once again, Aboriginal Australians are going to be exploited - an experience that the novel argues has increased rather than diminished since the achievement of Land Rights.
On repeated trips inland, Kyle is introduced to members of his extended family, most of whom he has barely even heard about in his mother’s stories. (She is a Nukunu woman from the Flinders Ranges; his father was English and died when Kyle was only five.) From these introductions the narrative develops the theme of complex and unacknowledged kinship. Everyone at Port Germein seems to know about Kyle, although each meeting includes some further surprise connection. This becomes significant when he is attracted to the hairdresser Clare. Although Kyle guesses that she is Italian, Spanish, Greek, she is in fact the daughter of a Ngadjuri father and an English mother. Both she and Kyle learn that it is crucial for young people and their parents to inquire about their kinship before embarking on a relationship, in case they turn out to be blood relatives.
A second important theme in the novel is that of cultural authenticity and cross-cultural connection. Through music, sport and other fields of popular culture, strong international links have been formed between what have been termed (however controversially) ‘people of colour’, and in the context of white supremacy these links have strengthened political movements. Communities with apparently only skin colour in common have, since the publication of Calypso Summer, forged powerful relationships through social media. Older readers may like to study the influence of country and western tropes (the cowboy hat, shirt and boots) on Aboriginal Australian clothing and music, or the influence of hiphop, or the influence of American language. Here in ‘Calypso Summer’, as well as the West Indian connections already referred to, evidence of English-speaking cultural colonisation in the references to curry and to ganja, and references to the hippie culture of the 1960s could be explored for examples of cultural appropriation.
And finally, the novel’s major theme of Indigenous pharma, which is even more topical now than when it was first published in 2014. One of the aunties complicates Gary’s get-rich-quick scheme, which Kyle is effectively agenting for him, by saying that some knowledge of medicinal plants and healing is accessible, but cultural protocols will prevent him from accessing other information for many years - if ever. But how strong will these traditional protocols prove? The current international quest for patenting traditional bush foods and medicines is comparable to one chain’s ongoing attempt to patent the prefix ‘Mc’. Who has the right to claim ownership of native Australian plants and foods: the traditional custodians, or the multinational companies who fund research and turn them into ‘products’? It is a question at the heart of ‘Calypso Summer’, and the concept of cultural rights and of ‘property’ itself.
Dr Jared Thomas is a Nukunu person of the Southern Flinders Ranges in South Aus-tralia.