The Most Disturbing Book I’ve Ever Read? Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis

Usually “disturbing” is a term reserved to describe horror (in which case it is a compliment) or texts about horrific events (in which case it is either a compliment or an accusation, depending on who you ask). The word kept popping up when I was thinking about the best way to describe the book that’s been on my mind for the past few days. Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis is not a work of horror fiction, and while it certainly covers horrific events, they are not the main reason why this book rocked my world.

But first things first. I picked up this book in the library for the most superficial reason imaginable: I liked the cover. Cover design is an underestimated art form, in my opinion, and a nice example always grab my attention. Riding’s cover is red with graphic black shapes. It told me very little about its content.

Next, I read the blurb. Blurb writing is another underestimated art form. In this case, a few understated sentences told me that this was a work of creative non-fiction, written by a white Australian author whose parents used to keep an Aboriginal skull on their mantelpiece.

This still sounds like a good start of a horror novel. But Danalis’s parents were no cannibals or serial killers. As Danalis explains, his father discovered the skull while working as a vet on a remote farm. Thinking nothing of it, like many of his peers, he took it home. Over the years the skull became known as Mary, even though the Danalis family knew next to nothing about its former owner and his – for Mary turned out to be a man – origins.

When Danalis returns to university as a mature student and reluctantly takes a module on indigenous writing, having grown up with an Aboriginal skull in his living room suddenly seems far from problematic. He decides to do the obvious thing: return Mary’s skull to his people. Easier said than done, it turns out. While the aboriginals he meets are very keen to bring Mary home, the fact that Danalis’s family owned him in the first place opens a can of worms like no other.

As preparations for the ceremonial handover proceed, Danalis becomes increasingly fascinated with the people he shares a country with but knows very little about. Sharing is actually the wrong term, he realizes, when reading up on the downright bloody history of Western settlement in what he used to think of as his country. One would end up feeling depressed for lesser reasons. Hence why the book is disturbing. The life of a happy man who never thought much about his nation’s past generally unravels, up to the point where he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder by a particularly unsympathetic psychiatrist.

But the book is no tearjerker. Danalis honestly explores his own white privilege, his ignorance, and his place in society as a whole. He documents the casual but rampant racism that characterizes much of Australia’s culture and its devastating effects on indigenous communities. That said, the aboriginals he meets are often wary of this “whitefella” becoming involved in their affairs. And why wouldn’t they be? But rather than developing these tensions into insurmountable barriers, Danalis turns them into occasionally painful, but often surprisingly hilarious encounters.

Because even though Danalis admits he gets things wrong all the time, knows very little, and is carrying a history of white suppression on his shoulders, he is genuinely willing to learn. The fact that the book comes with introductions and an afterword by aboriginal people suggests that he has managed to forge at least some kind of bond. No mean feat in a country that appears to be so sharply divided.

This book is not disturbing because it is evil, scary, or unpleasant. It is disturbing because it forces its readers – i.e. me – to think very carefully about their own worldviews and the role race plays in it. Although it offers a message of hope and healing, it also ends with the suggestion that much needs to be done to even make a tentative start with the undoing of the horrible errors of the past. Will this process succeed? With enough effort put in by people like Danalis, perhaps. But there’s much, much more to be done.

Image: Stokpic via Pexels

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