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Austin North is an English teacher, determined to make poetry relevant to his pupils. He is under no illusions that he could have been a poet himself – he knows he could have had the same experiences as the great WWI poets and written nothing more profound than a postcard home. But he still loves his subject and wants to share that love with the kids.

Blackberries is a strange story about cultural values and expectations. Austin is well used to resisting improper relationships; he is happy at home and seems to be competent at work. Yet there’s something missing. Maybe it’s not composing poetry or the bombs or the pathos – but Austin still seems to want something more, some kind of adventure. To an extent, he seems to have found this in his friendship with David Malwai, a South Sudanese migrant. He also finds himself captivated by a new student, a teenage South Sudanese girl who seems to have a gift for distance running. After years of following the straight and narrow, Austin seems to open his eyes to new possibilities.

There is an underlying theme of cultural differences. Austin represents old Australia and the South Sudanese represent new Australia. How far should the new go to assimilate with the old? At the same time, Austin raises the issue of the young Aboriginal people, many of whom have issues with crime and substance abuse. Of course, the European migrants to Australia did not look to assimilate with the Aborigines. Now there is a debate about whether Aboriginal people should be expected to assimilate with the European migrants. Why should they, they ask, given that they were there first and so are not the problem.

It’s a complex little story that doesn’t present easy answers or glib truisms. Instead, it leaves us considering their own attitudes and, in all probability, recognising some of the contradictions in our own minds.
 
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I don't think the blackberries were about rot. The South Sudanese girl was talking about the experience of moving from place to place; one place she had liked they had picked the blackberry bushes bare. I took this to be a sign of pleasure and indulgence but in a very time-limited and unrepeatable sense. Once the bushes have been picked bare, there's no more picking until next year.

 

Of course, there are also undertones of forbidden fruit and the black is an obvious metaphor for South Sudanese skin, but in a way which will also make the reader think of Aboriginal people - the "blackfellas" as they were/are sometimes known.  

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