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.

6 responses to “Maralinga, the book

  1. In 1984 at the AATE annual conference in Adelaide I led a brief session on Australian literature reflective of the cultural diversity of our nation. Christobel Mattingley joined the 20 or so people who came my room. I hope that the things I was saying or trying to say found warm responsive hearts. What I remember above all else at that conference was the strong involvement of Indigenous people as presenters and story-tellers.

    Your reference to the work of Christobel Mattingley and her contribution to social justice issues is timely, as we sift through the fallout (even if distant) nonsense which comes from denialists – ranging from Bolt to Windshuttle. Watching the program on the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838 just the other night on ABC TV – and the brutally indifferent words (recorded in court transcripts) from the dispossessors of Indigenous people such as Henry Dangar – reminds us that there is such a negative undercurrent still within this land (if dog-whistle disguised) coming from those times nearly 180 years ago, though there is much nowadays to challenge it – from the voices of Indigenous survivors/witnesses as well as from others with non-Indigenous ancestry.


    • Yes, Jim, the Myall Creek show was a really sharp reminder of the underlying motivation behind a lot of white actions in relation to Aboriginal Australians – to take the land. Then it was to use it for pastoral purposes. In the 1950s for nuclear tests. Now … ?


  2. Now? Well – beneath which to bury nuclear waste/extract-fract minerals etc./on from to build ship-loading ore-exporting terminals…/or otherwise to serve bulky multi-billionaire-greed need?

    In 1986 I was privileged to visit some of the sacred sites of the Indigenous people of the Hunter to the west of Newcastle – places of ritual gatherings of spiritual significance – of Baiami – guided by Indigenous custodians. Then living in Port Stephens I was further fortunate to know local Worimi people – and to learn of their ancestral sites – and of a massacre which had taken place in that now idyllic place. I used to take my junior classes to look at the still remaining canoe trees of Little Beach – evidence of technology/making of canoes for fishing by the women in traditional times. It was awe-inspiring – and salutary to know that the descendants of those people were still with us – some of them my students. Some of them – as I was to discover during my years there – with whom I have kinship connections.

    And to-night John Doyle and Tim Flanagan in the first part of their “Two on the Great Divide” journey remind us that (near Coleraine in the western region of the state of Victoria) that land grab was built upon the (blatant) theft of the land and the massacre of its people!


  3. Jim: I think we non-Indigenous Australians tend to think of the dispossession and genocide as having happened long ago, in the couple of decades after 1788, and that we’re just looking at the aftermath. But as you rightly point out, it’s continuing now. Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy is a brilliant history that documents the ruthless seizing of land from Aboriginal people in New South Wales well into the 20th century.


  4. Most years I get to pass through the Riverina – friends/kinfolk to see. Last year at The Rock (south of Wagga Wagga) my wife’s cousin was explaining something to me of the hysteria whipped up by a local (who has since revealed how closely he was connected to the land by selling up and moving away – no spiritual attachment there) when the Parks and Wildlife authorities were holding public meetings to do with putting up signage to relate how this clearly significant landscape feature (after which the village is named) had figured in the traditional and ritual cycles of the Wiradjuri people of that part of NSW. As you say, the dispossession – even if only of the stories of the historical presence – continues! Which is why we need to have the stories in the public domain. Which is why we have to speak up on these things – at every level! Over a barbecue with mates, through the press, in books – via forums such as this. For which I thank you.


    • “even if only of the stories”
      It took me a while to understand it, but that’s what Kevin Gilbert was saying in his poem, ‘People Are Legends’: if you kill off the story, you’re killing the people


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