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"Why raise them to die so young?": the aesthetics of fatalism in The Tall Man
Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (2014)
  • Dr Jane Stenning, The University of Notre Dame Australia
In the mode of book-length literary journalism, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man (2008) covers the circumstances surrounding the death in custody of Palm Island man Moordinyi, a death which eventually led to the criminal trial of the police officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. As a rich, contextual exploration of a protracted case, the book received wide acclaim and was awarded or shortlisted for fifteen literary and other prizes, which included various Premiers’ literary awards, true crime writing and writing on public policy and politics. Hooper’s treatment of events has been praised for its sustained engagement with the Aboriginal perspective in which she immersed herself when writing the book, for giving important context to the violent events surrounding the death of Moordinyi, and for breaking free of more typical patterns of reporting such as Aboriginal-as-social-deviant, or threat-to-social-order frames (Little 48). It has also been praised for its elegant style, its ‘literary’ quality. This is all undoubtedly sound recognition for a book which attempted to draw the attention of a broader reading public to the injustices surrounding an horrific death. One of the objectives of literary journalism is to engage ‘Other subjectivities’ ordinarily alienated by the typical news cycle (Hartsock 7) and given the media dominance achieved by the police union in Queensland at the time, extended consideration of the Aboriginal experience brings a needed dimension to the public discourse. The question that arises however, and which guides this analysis, is how is that Aboriginal experience discursively constructed? How is the engagement of those subjectivities achieved? Given the work’s celebrated status (and what might be regarded as the credentialising apparatus of literary awards), it is important to determine how these ‘Other subjectivities’ are constituted, for the text is a culturally endorsed representation. News-framing studies of representations of Aboriginal Australians have long provided a list of identifiable frames used in Indigenous affairs reporting, and what emerges when applied here is evidence of a rhetorical mode which in fact has more in common with typical patterns of reporting than has previously been suggested. Specifically, The Tall Man narrativises events through the discourse of fatalism, a strongly recurring frame used in Indigenous affairs reporting that emphasises futility, hopelessness and Aboriginal as ill-destined. Further, those frames, when reproduced in The Tall Man, are given aesthetic qualities within a literary register, and through the literary, a cultural authority. As advocacy journalism, the book clearly identifies the ongoing legacy of our violent colonial history. Certainly the insistence of an ‘ill-fated victim’ frame can be a powerful form of protest and challenge, and there are evocative instances of this in the text, but the ethics of the representation are worth considering, especially when the frame tends to reproduce or mirror the unequal social relations Hooper sets out to challenge.
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Citation Information
Stenning, J. (2014). "Why raise them to die so young?": the aesthetics of fatalism in The Tall Man. Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 14(3)