Review: “Lemons in the Chickenwire” by Alison Whittaker

WORDS | Raelee Lancaster
COVER PHOTO | Magabala Books

“Lemons in the Chickenwire” is Whittaker’s debut poetry collection and the winner of the 2015 black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship. As an Aboriginal woman and an amateur poet, I was drawn to this book. I had written a few poems about my Aboriginality, but I wanted to explore Indigenous poetry more thoroughly by reading and studying the work of other Indigenous writers.

When I first began reading “Lemons in the Chickenwire”, I thought I would see myself reflected in the pages. While Aboriginal culture is so diverse, I sometimes find myself becoming tangled up in the façade that we are all one culture. Perhaps it is my experience growing up in the suburbs between Sydney and Newcastle with no strong connection to culture, or perhaps society and the mainstream media’s narrow view of Aboriginality has affected me more than I realised.

Very different to my own experiences, Whittaker grew up in rural New South Wales and it shows throughout her poetry. The tone of her poetry is bucolic and poems like Growing Soon highlight the rustic beginnings of Whittaker’s life. Throughout the book, she references wildlife and plants, and you can tell she has a strong connection to the land. I did not feel this connection growing up – I was a concrete Koori who did not grow up on country and who spent most of her formative years sitting inside the house with a book. That being said, there were parts of “Lemons in the Chickenwire” that were very familiar to me.

With Bangers // Mash, I could see, taste, smell every word. I was back standing in the kitchen as my nan cooked dinner, only this time, I was bubbling on the stovetop with the rest of the meal. With an ensemble of words so delicately strung, Whittaker took me back in time and allowed me to see my own past differently. I felt the urge to call my nan and cry and tell her. As I read Whatcha, I distinctly heard my mother’s voice in every syllable. Whittaker writes: ‘That you cut yourself shavin’ your moot? / What’s your father gonna think if he thinks you shavin’ it? / That youse some skank around town?’ I had heard almost these exact same words when I first hit puberty. I sent my mum a photo of that stanza and she called me laughing.

Moreover, “Lemons in the Chickenwire” was such a powerful read for me. It’s not just a collection of poems about being Aboriginal. Of course, Whittaker’s Aboriginality is important (any Aboriginal person can tell you that) and her Aboriginality is always present, either explicitly or implicitly, in the voice of her poems and in the words or phrases she uses. But more than that, she looks at what it means to be Aboriginal and queer and a woman and a person existing within a colonial society…there is always that and tucked away somewhere within the poem that doesn’t hit you right away but is always there, lingering in the background.

In reading this book of poetry, I realised just how often I get caught up in validating my Aboriginality to outsiders that I can sometimes let it consume my identity. What this book had taught me is that I often forget that being Aboriginal is not all I am: I need to remind myself that am Aboriginal and. “Lemons in the Chickenwire” not only showcases the magnificence of Aboriginal writing and what Aboriginal writers can contribute to the world, it also made me stand back and look at myself differently.

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