As promised, I’m continuing to feature guest posts by fellow Trillium nominees, who’ve been asked to write about books that have stayed with them from their childhoods. (And it’s also a good excuse for me to search out these beautiful old botanical drawings of trilliums!)
Today’s guest is poet Helen Guri, whose first book Match, published by Coach House Books, has been shortlisted for the Trillium Award for Poetry. You’ll see from her post about The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek that language was a fascination early on — especially if she didn’t quite understand it. But I read something more than that here: regarding Match, the jury was impressed by Guri’s exploration of “loneliness, self-doubt, and the possibilities of connection,” and it seems to me the Bunyip roams in similar territory.
When I was a kid, my favourite book, hands down, was a slender, floppy little illustrated paperback called The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek by Jenny Wagner.
It’s an Australian book. I am not sure how my parents came across it.
My friends did not have this book in their homes, so I valued it in part because of its apparent rarity. The book contained words that nobody in my family used or was able to explain very well: billabong, billy, and of course bunyip. These lent it a nonsensical, incantatory quality, even though the story was very straightforward.
At the beginning of the book, a mud-covered creature wakes up at the bottom of a creek. The creature, a bunyip, doesn’t know what it is and so wanders through the landscape asking the question “What am I?” of every other creature it meets. The other creatures are Australian animals, like emus and wallabies. Everyone, bunyip included, is studiously ugly in the illustrations.
The bunyip receives a variety of unhelpful and insulting responses, culminating in an edict, from a man (presumably a scientist; pale, bald, at work in an outrageous building decked out with funnels, smoke stacks, satellites, tubes, and a variety of other doodads), that bunyips simply do not exist. This was my favourite scene. The bunyip, in toothy, duck-billed, scaly, potbellied splendour, reclines in a dentist chair while the man (really the ugliest human imaginable) distractedly scribbles nonsense on a notepad.
Eventually the bunyip—whom we understand to be male, even though I don’t think gender is mentioned—meets another bunyip—whom we understand to be female—and the two tell each other they are fine, handsome, and beautiful, and take up residence together in some sort of mud cave.
I should mention that a bunyip is originally a creature from Aboriginal Australian mythology, but that the word has been appropriated to mean an impostor or a pretender. It seems to me that the bunyip in The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek is neither of these things, but its own sort of creature.
Helen Guri graduated from the University of Toronto’s Creative Writing program, and has taught writing at Humber College. Her work has appeared in many Canadian journals, including Arc, Descant, Event, Fiddlehead and Grain. Match is her first collection. She lives in Toronto.
Trillium Jury Comment: In Match, Helen Guri draws on social parody, the surreal, and psychological insight to elucidate central human concerns: loneliness, self-doubt, and the possibilities of connection. Daringly told from the perspective of an isolated young man who seeks true love with a sex doll, this is a highly accomplished, thoroughly modern, and absolutely singular debut.