Last night we went to another brilliant launch at Gleebooks: Rachel Perkins doing her first book launch, of Andrew Stojanovski’s first and he says only book, Dog Ear Cafe. It was a surprisingly intimate affair. Many members of the author’s family were there, including a couple of charming twin nieces who were just tall enough to reach the snack foods, and relaxed enough about the surroundings to keep up a sweet background noise during proceedings.
Stojanovski lived at Yuendemu in Central Australia for 11 years, and was part of the Warlpiri community’s successful campaign to wipe out petrol sniffing there. As he said, all through his time in the Centre Aboriginal elders would say, ‘Don’t write a book about this.’ They were sick of whitefellas blowing in, spending a bit of time there, and then going away and making a quid or getting jobs by writing anthropological or other treatises about them. But then, toward the end of this time there, one friend said to him, ‘You should write a book about this.’ The idea was that he should write a history or a manual to show other whitefellas how they could be useful. When he told a young friend – a former sniffer and active participant in the regeneration of the community – about the idea, the young friend said no one would read a history/manual, he should write it like an adventure with all the funny and dramatic incidents left in.
Rachel Perkins did a lovely job as launcher. She was there as an Aboriginal Big Name who could give the book her blessing, of course, but she let us know from the start that she had a friendship with the author dating back decades – she communicated her pleasure (and relief) in the excellence of the book, he affection for Andrew, and her own deep appreciation of the creativity, resourcefulness and above all compassion of the people of Yuendemu. Given that it’s been in the news recently as a place of violence and lawlessness, this was a refreshing perspective from one who has strong connections there.
So much of this launch was heartening. Andrew Stojanovsky told poignant stories (he cradled a glass of red wine under his nose, to illustrate the habitual posture of a petrol sniffer). He explained the benefits for Aboriginal communities in having white people there to perform functions that would be rendered extremely difficult if not impossible by the complex demands of avoidance and can’t-say-no kinship obligations. He relayed many conversations with friends young and old at Yuendemu. In one of these he was talking to a Warlpiri man about the challenge of making friendships between whitefellas and Warlpiri. He said that sometimes it felt as if there was a Grand Canyon between the two. The old man said, ‘Yes, but I see tightropes across the canyon.’
Inevitably, I thought of Seven Seasons in Aurukun, my niece Paula Shaw’s account of a much shorter time in a remote Aboriginal community. Rachel Perkins spoke of the importance of books by whites that move beyond the anthropological or ethnographic perspectives to portraying individual people – Paula’s book does that. And Andrew Stojanovsky described the conditions endured by school teachers when the community was still home to petrol sniffers – as Aurukun was during Paula’s time there – and commented that it was no surprise that few teachers managed to stay more than two years.
Dog Ear Cafe has already been reviewed by Will Owen in North Carolina. He would have enjoyed the launch. We bought a copy.