On the surface, Melissa Lucashenko’s 2019 novel Too Much Lip (hardcover, Kindle) sounds like it’s a feminist fantasy. And it is. But as she explains in the following email interview — which I did in honor of this book being released in the U.S. — it goes much deeper than that.
I always like to begin with a plot overview. So, what is Too Much Lip about, and where does it take place?
Too Much Lip is set in the lush landscape of northern NSW, Bundjalung rainforest country with rolling cattle farms stretching to the west, and the mighty Pacific Ocean, or as we say the burragurra, to the East. The book is a fast-paced feminist yarn about overcoming lingering family curses, fraught race relations between Aboriginal and other folks in a small country town, and it’s also a love story. The main character Kerry Salter is a criminal-minded queer Blak woman (we in Oz say Blak for Aboriginal people to signify that we are culturally black but often have paler skin) who roars back over the border into her hometown on a stolen Harley Davidson. Chaos ensues, of course.
Where did the original idea for Too Much Lip, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
I wanted to pen a high-energy antidote to the sexist, racist heteronormative values of mainstream Australia. Those values and the ideas attached to them are killing us. Killing us in jails, killing us on the streets, and killing us in our own homes too. Too Much Lip owes a creative debt to many Aboriginal and other artists, and to Alice Walker, who I interviewed in Sydney in 2015. In particular to her first novel, The Third Life Of Grange Copeland. It also sprang from my own experience as the sister of Blak men who’ve done many years in Australian prisons, and as a founding member of Sisters Inside prisoner advocacy group.
I didn’t see anyone in Australian literature who looked like my sistas who are the bravest, staunchest and blackest mob going. So I wrote this book.
While it sounds like Too Much Lip is a serious story, the press material says it has elements of dark humor. Why did you feel it was important for this story to have some humor?
Oh, yeah, it’s a funny book. Had to be. Ain’t nobody got time for miseryguts when we got a revolution to be planning and holding, brother. Also, the content around family violence and other racist violence, etc., is pretty unflinching, and I knew readers were going to need the laughs to be able to absorb what I needed to talk about. Blak lives here are fucking hardcore in many ways, but they are funny as all hell too. We’ve never forgotten how to laugh. They took a lot of us but they never managed to take that.
So, are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think had a big influence on this novel but not on any of your previous novels?
As above, the first Alice Walker. My friends Ellen van Neerven and Tony Birch and Rashida Murphy all had some influence I think, and Louise Erdrich, but maybe musicians as much as authors. The Last Kinection, The Medics, Ancestress, Shellie Morris (all those are deadly Aboriginal artists — deadly meaning awesome), and from your part of the world Buffy St Marie, John Gorka, Justin Townes Earle (R.I.P.). But I’m very eclectic. I read poetry (Jeanine Leane is a fabulous Wiradjuri poet), biography, non-fiction, novels, plays, trashy magazines, you name it. I grew up on Readers Digest, for God’s sake. “Nothing human is foreign to me..”
I do have to mention a huge debt to the Yugambeh and Bundjalung Elders who have done so much to keep the languages alive so writers like myself can still employ it, both in my everyday life and in my novels and poetry.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Too Much Lip was influenced by any movies or TV shows?
Well, I loved a lot about Beasts Of The Southern Wild, and some of that raw energy found its way into Too Much Lip. Moonlight was important. Also the brilliant I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach, the socialist U.K. film director — that one really spoke to me in a very profound way. Poverty and class are intrinsic to my work and to Aboriginal life. In The Winter Dark, yeah, there’s heaps hey? I purposely didn’t watch Orange Is The New Black until the novel was done, because I wanted to be sure I was writing true to my own Australian Aboriginal experience. When I watched Orange, I loved it, of course. I think TV shows like the Australian Aboriginal series Mystery Road, which was released almost simultaneously with Too Much Lip, is covering pretty similar ground but my book is coastal, subtropical and lush, with rivers and sharks, not so much dust and cattle trucks. And Aboriginal film of course — The Sapphires, and The Tracker.
Too Much Lip originally came out in Australia in 2019, and is only now being released in the U.S. Is there any difference between this new version and the original?
The book was tweaked slightly for a U.S. audience. Mainly the stronger colloquialisms, definitely not the characters or plot. There weren’t many changes, and I agreed to them since I am a literary novelist who isn’t trying to be obscure. My mother never finished what you call grade school — she had 3-4 years of education and then had to leave because the family were so poor. She didn’t have any clothes except much too big hand-me down adult dresses, and so of course she got bullied mercilessly about that, and so she left at around age eleven to do laundry in the small town she lived in. That was what so-called “half-caste” people did back then. My mother was a genius, but her genius was never recognized nor awarded. Her life was fenced in and made small by the assimilation policies of the 20th century, living always in fear of us kids being taken away by government. So I always want to write for people like my mum — very very smart, whip smart and interested in ideas, and in literature, but not overly-educated in a formal sense. Why would I spend years in a room alone, typing, only to have my book incomprehensible to many Aboriginal and other marginal people? It’s just madness. So I write for communication as well as for beauty.
I asked a moment ago if Too Much Lip was influenced by any movies or TV shows. But it also seems like this story could work well as a movie or show. Has there been any interest in that?
Yes, Cenozoic Pictures, an independent Melbourne company optioned it in 2019 about two months before it won Australia’s premier writing prize, the Miles Franklin. So Cenozoic are pretty pleased with themselves [laughs]. We are working on a TV adaptation.
Cool. If it happens, who would you want them to cast as Kerry and the other main characters?
Oh, me, definitely. [laughs].
Not really, I’m mouthy but I’m too fair-skinned, Kerry is dark. And skinny. There is a great deal of Aboriginal talent in Australia and I could name so many ideal actors. Mark Cole Smith for Black Superman, definitely, and Deb Mailman for Pretty Mary…
Finally, if someone enjoys Too Much Lip, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
My previous novel Mullumbimby is a love story set in the context of a native title war between Aboriginal families in dispute over whose tribal land is whose. It looks at how we relate to country and what it is to be Aboriginal in the 21st century, and is a particular insight into Aboriginal family life in New South Wales.