Daily Archives: 21 April 2012

Maralinga, the book

Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga, the Anangu Story (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Christobel Mattingley is well known in Australian children’s literature circles. Along with picture book creator Bob Graham she was nominated for the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award (aka the Little Nobel). The award went elsewhere, but these two national treasures were honoured by the NSW Branch of IBBY Australia (International Board on Books for Young People) at a Sydney event on International Children’s Book Day, 31 March. Both spoke wonderfully about their work. I learned that a whole generation of French people grew up thinking Bob Graham was French, and whatever his nationality he’s a modest miracle. But for me, Christobel Mattingley was the revelation.

Now in her early 80s, Christobel Mattingley has written an extraordinary body of work for young people and adults that deals with, for want of a better word, social justice issues. Two books in particular stand out: for something like eight years she laid her own writing aside in order to coordinate the landmark Survival in our Own Land—‘Aboriginal’ Experiences in ‘South Australia’ since 1836 (Australian Scholarly Publishing 1988, reprinted at least twice since), which incorporates oral history and archival material to tell the Nunga story of events that have otherwise been told almost universally from a settler perspective; and Maralinga, a smaller project, that looks at first blush like a children’s picture book and would certainly be accessible to most teenagers, but turns out to be a powerful, original and significant work of history. Both books leapt onto my To Be Read list. Marrickville Library had a copy of Maralinga.

As every schoolchild knows (or can look up on Wikipedia):

British nuclear tests at Maralinga occurred between 1955 and 1963 … A total of seven nuclear tests were performed, with approximate yields ranging from 1 to 27 kilotons of TNT equivalent …

The site was contaminated with radioactive materials and an initial cleanup was attempted in 1967. The McClelland Royal Commission, an examination of the effects of the tests, delivered its report in 1985, and found that significant radiation hazards still existed at many of the Maralinga test areas. It recommended another cleanup, which was completed in 2000 at a cost of $108 million. Debate continued over the safety of the site and the long-term health effects on the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land and former personnel. In 1994, the Australian Government paid compensation amounting to $13.5 million to the local Maralinga Tjarutja people.

Maralinga tells this story in some detail. As the subtitle – The Anangu Story – indicates, the point of view is not that of the scientists, the politicians, the bureaucrats or the journalists, but that of the affected Aboriginal people (for whose name I wouldn’t trust Wikipedia). It begins well before their country was deemed to be a good place to test nuclear devices (putting the lie to a rerun of terra nullius, you might say) and brings us up to the slow rebuilding of communities in the present. It begins:

Long time ago, before whitefellas came, Anangu lived on their lands for thousands and thousands of years.

There are old people at Oak Valley who can remember living a traditional life in the desert. But the book is not limited to oral history. It tells of the coming of whitefellas to Ooldea Soak: explorers including Eyre and Giles, then well-sinkers and surveyors, in 1912 the Transcontinental Railway, then Kabbarli (Daisy Bates), and the truly invasive United Aborigines’ Mission, whose abrupt departure in 1952 left the now-dependent local people distraught and at the mercy of the dreaded Aborigines Protection Board, to be forcibly removed to alien country at Yalata, on the coast.

While the dispossessed, disoriented desert people were grieving, spiritually lost in foreign country, rebuilding a few basic community structures from salvaged material twice recycled, a township for whitefellas was being constructed in their country … In 1953 the site … was named Maralinga by the whitefellas. This time they took the word from an Aboriginal language of northern Australia.

The power of the book’s text lies in the multiplicity of its voices. It’s one thing to describe the desert people as grieving and dispossessed. It’s quite another to read the words of Jack Baker and others to the 1985 Royal Commission:

We felt lonely about Ooldea, we were worrying for it. We tried to get back up there. Yes, we were worrying and … we were sad for all of the places that we were related to, and we were worried because these places had been spoiled … We were told we could not go back there.

And how telling it is to read first hand accounts like this from Kukika, who worked on Wallatinna Station homestead:

Smoke came from south, brought up by light wind. The sun became bad. People got sore eyes. We were weak in arms and legs, couldn’t get up and dig for rabbits. Blood came from people’s noses and mouths. My two grandmothers died, and my father and mother. Before the smoke we were all okay. We were without sickness. Tommy Cullinan [station manager] didn’t have a name for the sickness. Didn’t know what it was. I was burying people. Shifted camp again and again.

When this book was shortlisted for a number of awards in 2010, I don’t imagine I was alone in thinking of it as worthy, an excellent addition to a school library, but not exactly something to rush out and buy. But you know, it’s also a book that changes the way you see the world, and leaves you in awe of human beings, both the resilient ones who have come through a hundred years of brutal disregard, and the one who has sat down and listened deeply enough to bring their stories to us.

I saw Harry Bardwell’s Backs to the Blast: An Australian Nuclear Story when it came out in the early 80s, and it did include an interview with an unnamed Aboriginal woman. Here, the Aboriginal people are named, we have a sense of their personal and collective histories, and the vibrant illustrations throughout make it clear that they are not just informants, but they share the authorship of the book.