Paris Savages was inspired by news of the discovery of the full-body plaster cast of a young Aboriginal man in a museum basement storage area in Lyon, France. The man was Bonangera (Boni/Bonny), who had journeyed to Europe in 1882–83 with a German engineer by the name of Louis Müller. Bonny travelled with two fellow Badtjala people: Dorondera/Borondera and Jurano/Jurono. There in Germany, France and Switzerland they were exhibited as ethnographic exhibits – they danced and sang, the men through boomerangs and climbed trees, only vaguely reminiscent of the giant satinays that grow on Fraser Island, K’gari, where the group were from.
In 2012 I travelled to Lyon and saw the cast of Bonny, which was a remarkable experience. In many ways, it was like travelling back in time, to the heights of colonisation and massacres in Queensland. What had brought this man to Europe? What was it like there for him? What did the human exhibitions, which some refer to as ‘human zoos’ say about the European people looking on, and the scientists who studied the visitors to Europe?
These questions lead to a Creative Writing PhD from which grew the novel, Paris Savages. Prior to starting, I contacted Dr Fiona Foley, a Badtjala artist and academic and discussed my proposed idea for the novel with her. I travelled to Hervey Bay and met Dr Foley to fact check some of the material in the book, and subsequently she agreed to read a draft. I am delighted that the published novel carries a quote from Dr Foley on the back cover, to contextualise the story from a Badtjala perspective. I also contacted Badtjala elder Glen Miller, who gave permission to quote from The Legends of Moonie Jarl, a book Dr Foley had recommended. It was important to me not to write from a Badtjala perspective in the novel, and to ensure that the Badtjala content was included respectfully. I also contacted the Korrawinga Aboriginal Corporation to check the Badtjala language used in the book, as I felt it was important to employ and recognise this language where appropriate.
I also travelled to Europe – to Germany and France – and followed in the footsteps of the Badtjala trio, visiting places such as Hagenbeck’s old Thierpark/Tierpark in Hamburg, the Berlin Panoptikum and waxworks site, and the Dresden Zoo. I saw other casts of Bonny and Dorondera in Dresden. I also visited the primary site of human exhibition in France, the Jardin d’Acclimatation, where it is likely the trio were shown, given Hagenbeck’s connections with the Jardin’s director, St Hilaire. It is not certain that members of the group went to Paris, but Bonny was certainly in Lyon, and I wanted the novel to touch on the key sites of ‘human zoos’ in Europe, for this was a form of mass entertainment in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, an exhibition in Paris in 2012 stated that 35,000 indigenous peoples from around the world were seen by a billion spectators in Europe and America from the nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century. ‘Human zoos’ had lasting impacts on views of race, and many of the enduring stereotypes still need contesting. Importantly, my PhD and Paris Savages aims to shine a light on the silences in history, the fact that only one side of the story of human exhibition has been told, and that was a European perspective.
For more on the story of Bonny, Dorondera and Jurano, see the ABC AWAYE documentary that inspired the book.
About the author:
Katherine Johnson is the author of three previous novels: Pescador’s Wake (Fourth Estate, 2009), The Better Son (Ventura Press, 2016) and Matryoshka (Ventura Press, 2018). Her manuscripts have won Varuna Awards and Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes. The Better Son was longlisted for both the Indie Book Awards and the Tasmania Book Prize. Katherine holds both arts and science degrees, has worked as a science journalist, and published feature articles for magazines including Good Weekend. Katherine lives in Tasmania with her husband and two children. She recently completed a PhD, which forms the basis of her latest novel, Paris Savages.