'Tracker' by Alexis Wright - reflection by David Burton

This is our final post in our reflections on the full Stella Prize Shortlist for 2018. Check out our other posts on 'An Uncertain Grace', 'The Fish Girl', 'Terra Nullius', 'The Life to Come' and 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree'.  I’ll begin with an embarrassing admission: I didn’t finish Tracker by Alexis Wright. Please don’t take this as a sign that the work isn’t worth your time, quite the opposite is true. I simply didn’t have time to complete all six hundred pages before the winner of the Stella Prize is announced, and it would be such a shame to not spend some time talking about this remarkable book on the For Pity Sake blog.

Tracker is the only piece of non-fiction to make the shortlist. It’s a biography (but this label is debatable, I’ll return to that in a tick), of Aboriginal leader, intellectual and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth. Tracker led an extraordinary life, passing away in Darwin in 2015 at the age of 62. He was taken from his family as a child and brought up in a mission on Croker Island. From these traumatic beginnings, Tracker became a political activist and key Indigenous strategist. His legacy will shape the lives of Australians for generations to come, particularly around land use and economic development.

xtracker.jpg.pagespeed.ic.Qa95jKWF5HThe book is extraordinary for many reasons. Most importantly, it records the life of Tracker Tilmouth, who’s influence on domestic affairs is unmistakable. Tracker belongs to the first generation of Indigenous Australians who fought against internationally unique prejudice. His life eclipsed both the worst of the Stolen Generation and National Sorry Day. In this, he saw Australia at its worst and - as you sense from the book - versions of what it could become.

Highly acclaimed writer Alexis Wright doesn’t attempt to contain Tracker’s life in a ‘Western-style biography’. Rather, she calls upon an Aboriginal tradition of storytelling that she describes as a “a practice for crossing landscapes and boundaries, giving many voices a part in the story”. And so Tracker becomes a ‘collective memoir’. We hear from many people, Tracker included, in the first-person. These transcriptions of oral interviews give the book an intimacy that is non-replicable through any other biographic form. The transcriptions themselves don’t attempt to contain the speaker in a written formality. Sentences are long, trains of thought sometimes meander - so the reader, in a way, becomes the biographer. We inhabit the body of Alexis Wright, listening to these stories, sitting in the presence of Tracker and those who knew him.

It’s an ambitious work that could crumble in the hands of a lesser writer. But Alexis Wright succeeds in both style and structure, creating a tight and compelling book. I mused briefly over scanning the rest of the book to finish it before writing this blog - but I didn’t want to. I plan to return to Tracker and finish it, when I have the time, and enjoy it as it demands. I encourage you to do the same. It’s an accessible, unique, beautiful collective memoir about one of Australia’s most important thinkers.