Tag Archives: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics

Natalie Harkin, Archival-Poetics (Vagabond Press 2019)

This is an extraordinary book. To quote from the eloquent and accurate cover blurb:

Archival-Poetics is an embodied reckoning with the State’s colonial archive and those traumatic, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt … Family records at the heart of this work highlight policy measures targeting Aboriginal girls from removal into indentured domestic labour

I like that word ’embodied’. There have been many books that are based on archival research, and more than a few that describe the process of archival research, including research into the history of the stolen generations and stolen wages. This book – actually three very slim books in a slipcase – takes the reader into the experience. The titles of the three books – ‘Colonial Archive’, Haunting’ and ‘Blood Memory’ – indicate the process of increasing immersion into the poet’s family history: first there are narratives to be read and decoded, then as the imagination engages further it is as if those young women are returning like ghosts from the past, and finally, a realisation that there is a deeper richer connection, a sense of belonging.

Archival-Poetics is categorised as poetry, and has deservedly won or been shortlisted for a number of poetry prizes. But, like African-American Claudia Rankine’s Pulitzer-winning Citizen, it pushes well past the generally understood boundaries of that category. There’s a lot of straightforward prose. Natalie Harkin writes of ‘an unassuming warehouse holding the State’s Aboriginal Records archives’ – the State, in this case, being South Australia, in Kaurna country. She reflects on the nature of memory, official records and oral history. There are excerpts from government documents, Aboriginal people’s personal letters, newspapers and women’s magazines. There are brilliantly apposite quotes from other Aboriginal artists (Julie Gough, Judy Watson, Vernon Ah Kee). French theory is invoked – and for what it’s worth, this is the first time I’ve read a Jacques Derrida quote that makes me want to read its source. And there are images of artworks, including the three cover photographs of a basket woven from torn up photocopies of letters from the archives.

A lot of the poetry lies in the juxtaposition of these elements. For example, page 28 of the second book, gives two would-be amusing anecdotes from The Australian Woman’s Mirror in the 1920s: vile, condescending references to Aboriginal girl servants. At the top of page 29, there’s a brief quote from the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association from the same time beginning ‘… girls of tender age and years are torn away from their parents’, and beneath that, this poem, as if a song is wrung from the archive reader’s heart:

APRON SORROW
apron-folds and pockets --- keep secrets
--pinned--- tucked-- hidden
------they whisper into linen-shadows-- that flicker-float with the sun 
------------– hung -
--------- limp on the breeze they sway
------------------------------------- a rhythmic sorrow.

There are ‘odes’ – rhyming poems, but laid out without line breaks, so that the reader is invited to slow down and unearth the verse form, in a process analogous to the way a researcher has to unearth information from impersonal bureaucratic language. Three austerely modern sonnets in ‘Hauntings’ tell three girls’ stories.

A series of prose poems, ‘Memory Lessons’, form a kind of philosophical backbone, with almost Proustian reflections on the nature of memory. The third book ends with a letter that begins, ‘Dear Nana’.

I hope that gives you some idea of this book. It contains hard truths about Australia’s history, and the conveys pain of unearthing them in their particularity. The form isn’t always easy for people not at ease with contemporary poetics, but it’s not difficult for its own cryptic-crossword-like sake. And it’s physically gorgeous – hats off to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Books for a brilliant design.

Archival-Poetics is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu (©2014, Magabala Press 2018)

tl;dr: ‘We are at the beginning – not the end – of understanding pre-colonial history’ (Dark Emu, page 60)

I gather that this book has recently been attacked by one of those pretend journalists who like misrepresent people and arguments and then condemn them. I gather that there’s a mostly anonymous website devoted to pointing out the book’s errors (though there are also people with names who have checked all its references and found them accurate). I gather that Bruce Pascoe has been accused of pretending to be Aboriginal for monetary gain, an accusation that has been amplified by one of the very few members of the Australian Parliament who boycotted Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations (and that the Australian Federal Police have dismissed the accusation out of hand).

So I gathered the book itself from my To Be Read shelf, and having read it I can do no better to address the attackers than this recent tweet:

I’m grateful to Andrew Bolt and Co for spurring me to actually read the book. It had joined Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres (1981) and Bill Gammage’s The Greatest Estate on Earth (2012) on my Should-Read list because – all three being books whose contents you think you know by osmosis – it offered a radically revised story of the Australian land before and after 1788. Rolls is a poet farmer whose book was hard to find when I was looking for it 30 years ago (it was republished in 2011), and I’d been told by someone that Gammage’s book is essential reading but ‘the most boring book I’ve ever read’. I expected Dark Emu to be like that: a pleasureless duty read. But The Australian and Andrew Bolt made me think there was probably more to it than that.

And there is.

It’s lively and accessible, full of astonishing facts and a scattering of beautiful and/or intriguing illustrations. Pascoe’s central thesis is that the observations of early European explorers and settlers, and more recently the findings of archaeologists, palaeontologists and so on, give a very different picture of pre-settlement Australia from the one that still prevails in our mainstream culture. This is partly because the assumptions and agendas of the early observers led them to interpret what they saw in ways that now seem bizarre, even laugh-out-loud funny if not for the devastating consequences; and partly because so little attention is paid to those accounts by historians, and the mainstream pays so little attention to recent research findings.

It’s also a shaming book. In my early 20s I read the journals of most of the explorers that Pascoe cites: Sturt, Mitchell, Giles, Grey. I certainly read the descriptions of clay-roofed buildings big enough for 40 people, of fish traps and park-like landscapes, of cheerful gatherings of large numbers of people in places where the explorers could find no food to sustain them. But if these descriptions contradicted my received version of Aboriginal people as nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in primitive humpies – and they did – I can’t say that I had any shock of recognition. When the explorers described these substantial dwellings as hovels, I didn’t recognise the dissonance. I wasn’t thick enough to miss the arrogance that drips from many of the explorers’ pages (Giles has a wonderfully poetic passage lamenting the way Aboriginal people will be replaced by a race more favoured by God – that is, his own race). But those aren’t generally the passages that Pascoe highlights: he’s much more generous than that, treating his sources with respect and sympathy, even as he challenges his readers to see past colonialist prejudices.

Pascoe gives example after example from the early observers to illustrate his argument that Aboriginal people all over this continent were more than ‘simple’ hunter-gatherers; that many of their practices on land and water amount to farming; that they had substantial dwellings, some of stone; that they had a sophisticated understanding of the natural world and skills and technology to make use of it, while ensuring its wellbeing. And he pulls off the small miracle of keeping it interesting. (I do confess that, having got my head around just some of the archaeological terms when I read Mike Smith’s The Archaeology of Australian Deserts – blog post here – I missed phrases like the Last Glacial Maximum.) And then there’s the reason that some people attack the book, mostly I suspect without reading it, and the reason that it’s more than just a fascinating piece of historical revisionism: it offers a broad swell of argument that it’s untenable to think of Australian history as having begun in 1788, or 1770, or 1606. This is how the book ends, and I’m happy to end this blog post this way too (note his use of ‘we’ in the first sentences):

It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry, we refuse to say thanks. Should we ever decide to say thanks, the next step on a moral nation’s agenda is to ensure that every Australian acknowledges the history and insists that, as we are all Australians, we should have the opportunity to share the education, health and employment of that country on equal terms. Many will say that equality is insufficient to account for the loss of the land, but in our current predicament it is not a bad place to start.

The start of that journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country

Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country (UWA Publishing 2018)

Lisa Bellear was a Melbourne activist, photographer, broadcaster and poet who died aged just 45 in 2006. She had one book of poetry published in her lifetime (Dreaming In Urban Areas (UQP, 1996)). Aboriginal Country, a second book which includes a number of poems from the first, has been edited posthumously by Melbourne poet (among other things) Jen Jewel Brown, with an ‘About the Author’ by Susan K. Martin of La Trobe University. That and other introductory material sketches Bellear’s life story – her adoption as a baby by a white family after being virtually stolen by a hospital, her rediscovery of her true Aboriginal family in her twenties, and then her years as participant in Melbourne’s cultural life and Indigenous activism. So the book is framed as a kind of memorial to an inspiring individual.

I’m coming at the book from a different angle. I’ve read it in NAIDOC Week, as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers, so I want to talk a little about this year’s NAIDOC theme, and about recent Aboriginal poetry.

The theme is ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ You probably already know that that’s shorthand for the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which for a fleeting moment this week the Morrison government seemed to be taking seriously. Just as a reminder, here are the relevant paragraphs from the Statement:

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
       Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
       We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

(You can read the full Statement here.)

As NAIDOC Week theme, ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ invites reflection and action at many levels besides those that involve government action. Among other things, they imply an invitation to non-Indigenous Australians to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, to be open to their truths.

And we’re living in a time when a rich variety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices can be heard by anyone who cares to listen – in the mainstream print and broadcast media, on social media (have a look at @IndigenousX), in brilliant films and novels – and in poetry. Here’s a brief (well, as brief as I could make it) rundown of some of the excellent poets that I’ve come across (and mostly blogged about: click on the links for my blog posts).

  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal (who like Lisa Bellair came from Minjerribah / Stradbroke Island) carried the burden of being first – the first Aboriginal person to have a book of poetry published in English, and she produced two – We Are Going (1964) and The Dawn Is at Hand (1966).
  • Kevin Gilbert, like Oodgeroo, was many things besides being a poet. His first book of poetry, End of Dream-time (1971), which also carries some of the burden of being ‘first’, the felt obligation to speak on behalf of all Aboriginal people, is a striking lesson in what can go wrong when well-meaning non-Indigenous people overstep. His second collection, People Are Legends, partly corrected the damage done by the first. He also wrote a charming book of poetry for children, Child’s Dreaming (1992).
  • Lionel Fogarty is described on the Australian Poetry Library (APL) website as ‘a poet who has opened up the new space of black Australian post-surrealist writing and done much to reformulate our understanding of poetic discourse and its roles in both black and white communities’. His concern is definitely not to put white readers at ease. ‘White man will never really fully interpret what a black man is thinking when he is writing.’ If you can live with that, I recommend his work.
  • Ali Colby Eckermann once said in an interview, ‘I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people.’ If you think that implies didacticism or talking down, I recommend her slim verse novel Ruby Moonlight, which is just wonderful.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson is another excellent poet from south-east Queensland. I didn’t blog about his prize-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers, but I remember feeling that I was meeting a new generation: his Aboriginality is no less significant, but a lot of the poetry is about life and relationships among those who had come of age in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Brisbane. (I don’t think SWW mentions Joh, but it’s a way of naming that cultural moment.)
  • Evelyn Araluen, as far as I know, doesn’t have a book out yet, but I’ve read poems by her and heard her read a couple of times. She does weird, vengeful mash-ups of May Gibbs. At a recent Sydney Poetry Lounge evening she read, among other things, a terrific piece lampooning awkward and/or perfunctory Acknowledgements of Country and a long, philosophical reflection on the effects of colonisation, which I look forward to seeing in print.

I’ve also read terrific poems by Peter Minter, Steven Oliver, Lorna Munro, Ellen van Neerven, Maya Hodge, Anita Heiss and probably others. If you know of any that I’ve missed, please add them in the comments.

Aboriginal Country is part of that extraordinarily rich conversation. My main response in reading it is to wish I could have seen her read them live, each one in its moment – as for instance ‘Dear Mr Prime Minister (of Australia)’, written in June 1993, wishing Paul Keating luck with ‘Mabo’, and signing off:

If you need support, like to talk.
Yours sincerely,
A. Citizen
(Noonuccal)

Or the ten starkly confronting poems that were performed by Lisa Bellear as part of a multimedia event as part of Melbourne’s Centenary of Federation celebrations. Here’s the opening of ‘Federation Statement’:

In 1901 the new Federation of Australia deliberately excluded
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – why?

Always was, always will be Aboriginal country.

That’s necessary speech, words that needed to be said then, need to be repeated, and still need to be heard. A lot of the poetry here is of that sort – what Jen Jewel Brown’s Editor’s Note calls ‘straight-talking, sparse yet dramatically alive words’: poems dealing with domestic violence, colonising history, war in the former Yugoslavia, everyday racism, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, almost always in a way that feels public, even if not for actual performance. There are moments of humour, as in the brief ‘Home’ which celebrates, if that’s the word, the greyness of Melbourne; and of domesticity, as in ‘Writer’s Block’.

The poems that stand out for me are dramatic monologues in the mouths of historical figures, some based on photographs. As my regular readers know, I generally choose one poem to quote and discuss in some detail. So here’s ‘Construct Me’ (click to enlarge):

This makes me think of Vernon Ah Kee’s drawings of his ancestors. Beginning from photos taken with and for a coloniser’s gaze, he creates lovingly detailed, large-scale drawings of formidable people, no longer objects but challenging subjects. Here, the speaker in the first section is an Aboriginal woman being posed for a studio photograph. As Lisa Bellear was a photographer, I think it’s safe to assume these lines are underpinned by deep consideration of the relationship between photographer and subject. The woman addresses the photographer (who I’ll assume is male):

This is your language your culture
This is your naming your ideals
of who I am supposed to
be, represent.

She is aware that she is being objectified, cast in the photographer’s narrative without regard for who she actually is. But she doesn’t submit:

Am I allowed to
mourn.
I am still able to feel the
kangaroo and possum skin
Inside I will always run free.

The next ten lines deal directly with the details of the shoot. She expresses a completely rational failure to understand the studio. And then the photographer speaks, giving her instructions, warning her of the flash, and then reprimanding her for not following his instructions.

And in the last seven lines the woman speaks again, this time transcending the detail of her situation. Now she addresses not just the photographer but us, in the future. She now takes on a representative role, not as a specimen, but now as a spokesperson – a Voice. We may never come to know her individual name, but her ”lations’, who are ‘a big mob’ have made themselves more clearly known to the colonisers.

For our future and our
survival, we must be
remembered.

This lays out, so plainly and simply, the ambivalence in those photos: whatever the motive for taking them – as novelty, as anthropological record, perhaps as Victorian erotica – they can now function as a record of the people who were here at the time, they can be a means to ensuring that the people are remembered.

For this poem to have its full impact, it needs to be read aloud, in two voices, paying attention to the line breaks – over and again, there is a break just before a key word (‘to / be’, ‘to / mourn’, ‘the / kangaroo’, ‘the / trees’, all the way down to ‘we must be / remembered’.

Like many of the poems in this book, this one doesn’t invite the reader to enjoy it for clever rhymes or striking images. It’s in very plain language, ‘straight-talking’, as Jen Jewel Brown puts it. It challenges us to join the poet in doing the work of changing the way we look at those photos, and by extension the way we imagine the history of this country.

Aboriginal Country is the twenty-seventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve read it this week as part of Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZLitLovers.

Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip (UQP 2018)

Among many splendid things at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter this year was the Mission Songs Project concert featuring Jessie Lloyd, Emma Donovan and Deline Briscoe. Jessie Lloyd has been researching and reviving Aboriginal songs from the mission era (roughly 1901 to 1967) from all over Australia. At the end of a terrific concert Ms Lloyd urged us – mainly non-Indigenous – audience members, to connect, learn and engage with the songs. She wants these songs dealing with the hardships, sorrows and sometimes joys of mission life – to become part of the Australian songbook alongside ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Botany Bay’. She invited us to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures as integral parts of mainstream Australian history and culture. (A choir songbook is available for sale at the Mission Songs Project website.)

Too Much Lip holds out a similar invitation, though with less sweet music.

It’s the story of the Salters, an Aboriginal family in northern New South Wales, a story that includes violence, petty crime, child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, neglect, dark secrets, seething resentments, alienation and general chaos. It’s what many would call a dysfunctional family, but that’s not a term that seems quite to fit. The central character, Kerry, thinks of it as a ‘grassroots family’ – as if their huge ordeals and conflicts don’t mark them out as special so much as make them representative.

I don’t want to say too much about this book. It’s very funny in places. Kerry arrives back home after a long absence – she’s been part of the Lesbian community in Brisbane and has just been dumped by her girlfriend after a failed armed robbery. Her pitiless sarcasm about white people (dugai) and men, not just white men, sets the tone for the opening sequence, and while she doesn’t exactly soften, there’s some delicious counterpoint when she falls for a … white man. This is just one of the brilliant, comic but believable transformations in the book. Sweet Mary, Kerry’s mother, is a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken is a pontificating drunken layabout who bullies his teenaged son; her younger brother, known only as Black SUperman, is a Gay man who lives in Sydney; Steve, the object of Kerry’s lust, is trying to set up a gym in town; Martina, a real estate agent from Sydney, has been seconded to the local office to help the mayor push through a deal that will result in a prison being built on a piece of land that has deep significance for the Salters. And there are a number of children, including the splendidly named Dr No (guess how old he is). In the course of the novel, each of these characters, including the children, reveals something completely unexpected abut themselves, or undergoes a radical transformation. To say that another way: we are invited to make judgements about every one of the characters, and by the end of the book we have revised our judgements radically.

I confess I started reading Too Much Lip with a sense of duty: as a dugai, I really ought to read writing by Aboriginal authors. Well, that’s what got me to page 1, and kept me going through Kerry’s reference to white people as normalwhitesavages, till about page 20, but after that I was there for the joys, sorrows and terrors of the ride.

There are talking birds and a talking shark, a ghost, terrible stories of white-on-black violence and of black-on-black violence (with an afterword asserting that all the incidents have occurred in the author’s extended family or, in a few cases, are drawn from the historical record or Aboriginal oral history). There’s a brilliant extended sequence where the family has a barbecue, and all the threads of the narrative twist together and apart dramatically – I’d say it was chaotic, but the reader is never confused about what is happening and what it means in the lives of each character.

It’s a brilliant book. The last pages sent me back to reread the beginning. Some of the jokes still make me laugh a week after reading them. It puts heart and body into abstract terms like intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, white supremacy. It doesn’t need my recommendation, but I recommend it anyhow.

Too Much Lip was a birthday present. It’s the eighteenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group, Goodall and Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience

Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal People and Sydney’s Georges River (New South Books 2009)

Before the Meeting: I was the Designated Book Chooser this month, and seized the opportunity to read and discuss this book – Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy (1996) does a brilliant job of un-erasing the long and continuing history of Aboriginal dispossession and struggle for land in New South Wales, and a friend recommended this more localised history. I came to it with high expectations.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Nine of the book’s eleven chapters are filled with stories of Aboriginal people living, working, fighting, building families, organising – being resilient – on or in connection to the Georges River. These stories draw on early settler accounts (in the case of the Bediagal warrior Pemulwuy and the less famous, but charismatic Dharawal man Kogi), petitions to government (beginning with Kogi’s grandson Jonathon Goggey in 1857, and appearing regularly from then on), reports of governmental inquiries (beginning with the colony’s ‘Select Committee on the condition of the Aborigines’ in 1845, where a man named Mahroot told how a number of Aboriginal men and women made livings from fishing on the river, in what the authors call ‘effective cultural negotiation’), the diaries and newspaper articles of white people (including those guided, and fed, on fishing and hunting expeditions by Dharawal-speaking Biddy Giles in the 1860s; and, as transport improved, tourists), the records of the Aborigines Protection Board and other government agencies, and, as the twentieth century progresses, newsreel footage, records of the Housing Commission, Land Rights claims and interviews with Aboriginal people with living connections to the river.

It’s necessarily a piecemeal story, and I can’t tell whether anyone from outside Sydney, let alone outside Australia, would find it interesting. But as a non-Indigenous Sydneysider who has crossed the Georges River many times and walked along the upper reaches of Salt Pan Creek, a tributary that features significantly, my internal map of the world was being radically redrawn as I read.

The opening chapter places the stories in the context of some major ideas about ‘land, indigeneity and change, about environment and about cities’. To give you some idea of this fifteen-page section:

  • The authors reject the idea that ‘Aboriginal “traditional” cultures were unchanging and static, consisting of a closed and fully formed parcel of knowledge and stories which could be handed down intact across generations for thousands of years – and which therefore could not cope with changes’. Even on the Georges River, which flows through heavily industrialised parts of Sydney, they argue, Aboriginal cultural process have been maintained.

  • They argue that the cultural practices that establish strong links to a place need not be effective only for people with a traditional affiliation to that place.

  • Since 1788 and even earlier, mobility has been ‘as much a defining characteristic of Aboriginal cultures as affiliations with meaningful bounded places’. The river has served as an ‘important corridor of mobility’.

  • Discussions of conservation emphasise native local species, treasuring them as national emblems, and paradoxically often ignoring ‘the role of Aboriginal people in the cultural and material work of actively managing, cultivating and changing the native species on the river and its banks’. The declaration of the Georges River National Park, contested among non-Aboriginal people, is even more complex for Aboriginal people.

It would do an injustice to the book to reduce it to a single argument, but there’s a thread of argument running through it: the established way of thinking about sacred sites and Aboriginal people’s connection to land is inadequate. People from many language groups and many parts of Australia have been part of the Aboriginal communities along the Georges River. They have been allocated land, have bought land as individuals and as collectives, and been moved off it repeatedly, sometimes with promises of the right of return, promises that were invariably broken. Because for a long time the land along the river was inaccessible or useless to the colonisers, they were able to make homes and livings there. Whether or not it passes the official criteria for a Native Title claim, it’s indisputably Aboriginal land. The book ends with a quote from the Tharawal Land Council:

Each Aboriginal site has its place; every Aboriginal place has its story in the life of an Aboriginal family. Country is alive with stories.

After the meeting: We had audiovisual aids. Alec Morgan and Rose Hesp’s Australia in Colour is currently screening on SBS, and the second episode includes a colourised version of a 1933 newsreel clip that opens the book, featuring Joe Anderson (‘King Burraga’) standing in the bush near Salt Pan Creek and declaiming in a strangely plummy accent:

Before the white man set foot in Australia, my ancestors had kings in their own right, and I, Aboriginal King Burraga, am a direct descendant of the royal line … There is plenty fish in the river for us all, and land to grow all we want … The black man owned Australia, and now he demands more than charity. He wants the right to live!

(You can see the whole episode here. Joe appears at 17:35.)

We opened the evening with that clip. And a group member who is a heritage conservationist who had gone walking in the Georges River National Park on the weekend shared some beautiful photos, including one of a plaque marking the site of Joe Anderson’s family’s home.

We had an animated conversation, though there was less laughter than usual. It’s a heavy subject, and the mildest-mannered of the group said he was quivering with rage at some parts. There was some discussion of what it meant that two white women had written the book: some felt that the authors were very careful not to overstep because of their outsider status – not something I was aware of.

Most of us had got hold of a copy from a library, but one chap get a print-on-demand copy from the publisher – with just a two-week wait.

Rivers and resilience is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Alexis Wright’s Tracker

Alexis Wright, Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth (Giramondo 2017)

This is a book of yarns. I’ll start this blog post with one of them.

In the mid 1990s at the Gulf of Carpentaria, Murrandoo Yanner was involved in negotiations with Ian Williams, the general manager of a major mining company. Recently introduced Native Title legislation required that the mining company negotiate with traditional owners about plans for a zinc mine. One of the issues under discussion was the proposed mine’s proximity to sacred sites in the Lawn Hills–Boodjamulla National Park. The Queensland Premier, Wayne Goss, had given assurances about the National Park, but word was that he had reneged. Just before Yanner’s scheduled meeting with Williams, Tracker Tilmouth suggested a strategy for using the meeting, where there would be no government representative, to influence the government. Here’s Yanner’s account of what happened:

So we go through hours of negotiations and I hear [Tracker] suddenly cough, bloody when I least expected it – it was in something interesting that I wanted to listen to, so I go, Ian, by the way, what happened with Lawn Hills National Park? Do you know if Goss has gazetted it yet? There was a big silence, and things were going so well and Williams did not want to tell me, and then he said, Actually he made a decision not to. And Tracker, I was still trying to get him to play bad cop but he had me play it, and when Williams tells me that I jump up and I bang the table. Tracker made me do all this, and bang the table. He had said: Make it bloody genuine or they won’t believe you. They have seen a lot of blokes put acts on. So I bang the table and say, Fucking ridiculous, you can’t trust you bastards. I told you, Tracker, you can’t trust these bastards. I go outside and Tracker told me the next part later. I jump in my car and do big figure eights and spinning gravel, and off I go swearing. Ian Williams shits himself and the mob too because everything was going so great, and he says, Oh! Well! Shit what are we going to do? Tracker says, This is what you do. State parliament was sitting that day and he says, Ring Gossy now, get him out of parliament for a second. Boom, boom, boom.

And bugger me, there is a historical fact. If you go to the transcript or Hansard or whatever of the state parliament, you’ll see it was gazetted that afternoon, late afternoon, that day. That very day Goss got pulled out of parliament, got spoken to on the phone from Burketown by Ian Williams, and went straight back into parliament and gazetted it after publicly saying he wouldn’t. And I was blown away, not just the fact that it was done, but the fact that they really do run the state government at times, and that his mad trick worked.

(Pages 207–208)

If that doesn’t grab your attention, then you’d probably be impervious to the charms of this book.

Tracker Tilmouth was a member of the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children. The picture that emerges from this book is of a big thinker, a man of entrepreneurial spirit, committed to the project of establishing economic independence to the Aboriginal peoples of central and northern. He was a significant figure in the history of the Central Land Council, and enormously influential beyond there. He came close to standing for the Australian Senate as a member of the ALP, and had friendly and mutually respectful relationships with Bob Katter. His sense of humour was legendary, and not always diplomatic (when he met Jenny Macklin for the first time shortly after she had failed to end the Intervention in the Northern Territory, he called her ‘Genocide Jenny’), but he was a frequent presence in Parliament House in Canberra, and regularly visited the United Nations in New York. He could rub people up the wrong way, and the book doesn’t completely dispel the charges of misogyny, but the overwhelming impression created here is that he was a great Australian.

The book includes a photo of the front page of Murdoch’s NT News for 13 March 2015: a photo of the man himself with the huge headline ‘TERRITORY FAREWELLS ‘TRACKER” and nothing else except a line across the bottom about football.

Alexis Wright has done a brilliant job of capturing dozens of voices (all chosen by Tracker himself) and organising them: Tracker’s own voice, the voices of his brothers, of Aboriginal people who worked with him or benefited from his wisdom, of whitefellas who fell under his sway, of politicians, pastoralists, mine managers. There are some glaring absences – people whose names occur often, but whose stories would probably take a very different hue. I’ll mention only Tony Abbott, but not all these absences are whitefellas.

Having learned to be suspicious of hagiographies, I asked a friend who had lived in the Northern Territory for decades what he thought of the book. He hadn’t read it, but he said, ‘I know some whitefellas who worked with him, and they worshipped him.’

The result is not a biography: the first chapter gives wonderful accounts of his childhood on Croker Island Mission, where his ‘house mother’ Lois Bartram read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country to the children, but, though his wife Kathy is mentioned often, she remains hardly more than a name – there is no account of how they met or of their wedding. What we do get is a compelling mosaic portrait.

Alexis Wright’s own voice is heard only in her Introduction, that is if you leave aside the couple of instances where one of her questions makes it onto the page. Some people have found the introduction hard going; at least one person I know gave up on the book part way through it. I think the reason is that Wright struggles to justify her decision not to write a conventional biography, and to somehow summarise something that the book itself demonstrates cannot be easily summarised.

The book’s longest section (more than 150 pages), ‘The Vision Splendid’, is dominated by the voice of Tracker himself spelling out his analysis of the situation of Aboriginal peoples, arguing about priorities, lamenting the lack of unity among Aboriginal leadership (while being harsh about other Aboriginal leaders), mapping out future directions. I imagine it would repay careful rereading, but it assumes so much prior knowledge (and my ignorance was only partly countered by Alexis Wright’s occasional footnotes) and spins off in so many directions – like the rest of the book, it captures the feel of the spoken word, of a mind that is thinking, revising, repeating, contradicting itself as it goes – that it is hard to follow.

But that’s not even a complaint. I became increasingly aware of my own whiteness as I read this extraordinarily generous, multifaceted book – at times hilarious, at times tragic, at times profound. As a whitefella, my response is overwhelmingly to be grateful.

Added later: I recommend Kathy Gollan’s review at Newtown Review of Books, which gives a much fuller sense of the book than my blog post, and uses quotation brilliantly.

Tracker is the first book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am very grateful to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

Kim Scott’s Taboo at the Book Group

Kim Scott, Taboo (Macmillan Australia 2017)

taboo.jpegBefore the meeting: Regretfully, I’m short of time to write about Taboo. It’s a very different book from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. That earlier novel engages with the early history of Western Australian colonisation with almost superhuman breadth of sympathy and already has classic status. This one is set in the twenty-first century, and follows a group of Noongar people who are returning to the site of a massacre with the hope of making things right – reestablishing contact with the old people, and with culture and language, and making some kid of reconciliation with the descendants of the perpetrators.

Taboo is based squarely in Kim Scott’s experience as an activist in language reclamation in Western Australia. I’ve just watched a video of a talk he gave on the subject at Melbourne University in 2012, in which he speaks about ‘the responsibility and obligations of being a descendant of the people who first created human society in this part of the world and keep that sense of society alive’. He speaks with modesty, charm, humour, and great power. It is a revelatory 50 minutes. I doubt if he had even started writing Taboo at the time of the talk, but he tells a number of stories that are clearly the inspiration for key episodes in the novel.

The novel doesn’t romanticise its Noongar characters: they have been scarred and in some cases corrupted by their history. They struggle with drug and alcohol issues. But awkwardly, shambolically, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, they find hope in what they can piece together of their heritage. The central character, fifteen year old Tilly, has reconnected with her Noongar father only as a teenager, and in the course of the novel is welcomed into her extended family, who see her as important to their project of returning to the massacre site (she was fostered by the farming family of the place when she was a baby). Her claustrophobic response to their embrace is vividly realised.

Maybe it’s just me (I’ll find out at the meeting), but while the novel has vastly expanded my sense of the world, it’s no masterpiece. There are elements of something like magical realism that are weirdly unsatisfactory, many narrative threads that are started up and never resolved, and an ending that feels like a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to make it all come together.

After the meeting, just a hasty note before I go to bed, because time is a bit short just now: This book sustained conversation like few others, and everyone who had read it had something interesting to say about it.

One man said that it wasn’t like a feature film, but more like the beginning of a television series: we were left wondering what would happen next for just about every character. Another said it was about the importance of stories, that it told many stories that didn’t necessarily connect. As readers we are left in an unsettled state of never really knowing the full story. I don’t think he used the word ‘unsettled’, but we did notice that we are all white men of a certain age, and the way the book made us feel had a lot to do with that. Without really leaving the book, we talked about the prospect of a treaty, about the relative value of symbolic acts, about the different meaning of a sense of place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons.

Another said that he thought the book was about loss, scarring, grief, dislocation, that there was hope, but built on a fragile and fragmented base. Someone disagreed that it was about loss – that it was more about the power of community in the face of loss.

No one else seemed to find the magic realism elements unsatisfactory, and I was in a minority in disliking the ending. One man said he thought it was the best novel written in Australia so far – precisely because its lack of resolution was a true representation of how things stand in the relationship between Aboriginal people and mainstream Australia.

It was our first meeting for the year. Our host prepared a meal that set the bar high. The book led us to focus our minds on things that matter. We enjoyed each other, laughed a lot, and I think I can say we all came out into the night very glad for the gift that Kim Scott has given us in this book.

Boori Monty Prior & Jan Ormerod Shake a Leg

Boori Monty Pryor & Jan Ormerod, Shake a Leg (Allen & Unwin 2010)

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 Two of the greats of Australian children’s literature join forces in this book. Boori Monty Pryor’s chapter books written with Meme McDonald, My Girragundji and The Binna Binna Man, are wonders of cross-cultural communication. It must be a rare Australian born into a reading family who hasn’t been delighted by Jan Ormerod’s images of small children.

Shake a Leg starts out with three hungry boys hunting for pizza in a Far North Queensland town. They find an excellent pizza maker who gives them a little lesson in Italian (for those who don’t know, there has been a strong Italian presence in some parts of Far North Queensland for well over a hundred years) before mentioning that he is Aboriginal.

'You're ... an Aboriginal?'
'How come you're ...'
'Not standing on one leg, leaning on a spear, looking for emu?
I still do that on holidays but ...
a man's got to make a living
and you boys are hungry.'

As he makes their pizza he tells them traditional stories, and when they’ve eaten he teaches them to dance the stories.

It’s a witty, joyous, generous assertion of the vibrant persistence of Aboriginal culture. Boori Monty Prior has a long history of performing in schools. I would love to be in an audience when he reads / performs this book to a group of children, especially if it evolves into a general dance:

This was once
 our bora ground
 our gathering place
 for warrima.
 Now it's a busy street
 in this town.

Our pizza feeds the soul,
 keeps you dancing strong,
 lifting the dust with your feet,
 listening with eyes, ears and heart
 so our old people can join us
 and together we warrima.
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This book came to me by way of the little Street Library we set up a month or so ago. Our aim was to cull our bookshelves, hoping the books we discarded would find good homes. What we didn’t expect was the steady reverse flow of other people’s unwanted treasures. Shake a Leg is one of them.

Vincent and Neale’s Unstable Relations

Eve Vincent and Timothy Neale (editors), Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia (UWAP Scholarly 2016)

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‘Be led!’

Murrawah Johnson, a Wirdi woman, was speaking last November to a mainly non-Indigenous audience in Sydney about the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council’s campaign against the proposed Adani coal mine. ‘You have to learn how to be led by Indigenous people,’ she said, not hiding her frustration at the colonialist attitudes of some (many? most?) conservationists.

In some ways this rich, accessible and multi-layered collection of essays is a response to such expressions of frustration, including widely broadcast ones such as Noel Pearson’s criticism of conservationists during the Wild Rivers Act controversy in Queensland between 2005 and 2014, or Marcia Langton’s 2012 Boyer Lectures, in which she accused the white conservation movement of having for 40 years made deals with state governments ‘to deny Aboriginal people their rights as landowners and citizens of Australia’. The writers, being academics, don’t stoop to reminding us that Langton’s research for those lectures was funded largely by mining companies: they meet evidence with evidence, argument with argument. I find it hard to convey the intense pleasure of reading this kind of sustained, thoughtful, evidence-based writing in the Twitter–Trump Abbott-slogan era.

Not so long ago, the general assumption among white Australians was that there was, in the words of Neale and Vincent’s introductory chapter, ‘an essential affinity between Indigenous interests in and relations to land and water, on the one hand, and environmental objectives on the other’. That has changed. The underlying assumption in this book, however, is not that there is an essential antagonism but that relations between environmentalists and Indigenous people in Australia have ‘long been “unstable”‘, and take on ever more diverse forms. The book seeks ‘to learn more about the current status of environmental–Indigenous relations through the use of specific, empirically grounded case studies’.

Contributors include activists, historians, geographers, anthropologists and one or two people who aren’t easily classified. Though there are plenty of notes and bibliographies, the book is very readable, the kind of academic writing that addresses a readership outside the academy. Though as far as I can tell all but one of the writers are non-Indigenous, or ‘settler-Australian’, many Aboriginal voices are quoted, and most of the writers are explicit in their commitment to the ‘green–black alliance’.

The book embraces complexity. It kicks off with a look behind the headlines of Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act controversy of 2005–2014 by Timothy Neale, and then a fascinating exploration by Jon Altman of the complexities of Kuninjku people’s responses to the huge and environmentally damaging growth in buffalo populations in their part of Arnhem Land.

Richard J Martin and David Trigger travel to the Pungalina on the Gulf of Carpentaria, and describe the kinds of intercultural negotiations that are needed there between Garawa people, cattle station owners, the tourism industry, government agencies and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (an organisation that has established a wildlife ‘sanctuary’ there).

Jessica Weir tells the story of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations’ (MLDRIN) success in bringing an Indigenous perspective to struggles around water in the Murray–Darling system.

Robert Leviticus discusses ‘wilderness’, a problematic term that is too often understood as erasing Indigenous people. He goes on to discuss the views of David Lindner, ‘a practical conservationist who has never been a member of any organisation, but who has worked on the wetlands of the South Alligator River in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory since 1972, and lived near or next to them since 1979, shortly after they were included in the newly declared first stage of Kakadu’, a kind of Crocodile Dundee but with less bullshit, and a better articulated respect for Yolngu relationship to the land.

Eve Vincent turns her ethnographic eye on the ‘greenies’ who follow the lead of a Kokatha woman whom she calls Aunty Joan, and manages to be both very funny (often enough at her own expense, as one of the group she is describing) and enlightening about crosscultural issues.

Stephen Muecke discusses Indigenous-Green knowledge collaborations at the James Price Point Dispute 2008–2012. The earlier settler  colonialism, he argues, has been superseded by extraction colonialism, which is even more disengaged  from the region. He quotes Nyikina leader Anne Poelina as saying that ‘we are all being colonised: it is not a black or white question any longer’.

Michaela Spencer looks at two cases of Indigenous people and environmentalists trying to work collaboratively within a neoliberal framework.

In the next three essays, activists speak.

Monica Morgan, Yorta Yorta activist, talks about the campaign to have national parks declared in the Barmah and Millewa river red gum forests  on the Victoria–New South Wales border, in which she was a key leader. She articulates a key challenge in alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on conservation issues:

One of the things we learnt was that it doesn’t matter how much – and I don’t want to be confronting to you – but however much non-Indigenous people say they are committed, in the long run they are committed to their society. I think it’s ingrained within the education: it’s ingrained with their thought patterns that they concede and they’ll work within a status quo. And I think our rights are seen in that way as well. […]

Always our people were forever saying, ‘ Well we don’t recognise your system but we acknowledge it’s there.’ we tried to push the boundaries and lay down, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think, based on our traditional knowledge.’

Whether in the end you are going to agree with it or not, it’s entirely up to you. And of course they never did.

Dave Sweeney, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner, and Anthony Esposito, who has worked on many environmental organisations and traditional owner organisations, both describe decades of struggle to rise to that challenge in their activism. Sweeney finds ‘profound and convincing sense’ in something  Bruce Pascoe wrote in his book Convincing Ground:

The blacks didn’t die, and the whites aren’t going away.

Tony Birch, novelist, has the final word in the book, arguing that ‘new conversations, framed through humility, are required to shake Western discourses from a sense of arrogance and apathy’. I’ll give the final word in this blog post to Dave Sweeney:

We’re the beneficiaries of crime. SO that brings with it the responsibility to actively address that. It also brings with it the requirement to suck up stuff even when it’s unfair, because there’s a bigger picture. At the same time, I don’t reckon it does an individual or a nation or a movement any good to just say ‘sorry’ all the time. Those environmental activists, those who are locking on at Jabiluka, those who are doing stuff to try and actively make a difference, did not poison waterholes. hey are the inheritors, they are the beneficiaries, but they didn’t do that stuff. And they are actively, in their life, trying to undo that stuff.

Environmental activists shouldn’t make the mistake of getting burnt, saying sorry, or, the opposite, saying ‘get lost, that’s unfair’ and withdrawing. And on the other side, Aboriginal people are generally are amazingly generous of spirit and continue to slap us around a little bit, continue to jerk the chain, remind us of the power imbalance. But don’t have it set in concrete that you cannot ever be other than a colonial thief. Otherwise we’re in a frozen, no-good zone.

 

Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater

Cathy McLennan, Saltwater (UQP 2016)

saltwater.jpegDon’t be misled by the sales pitch on the front cover of Saltwater: ‘An epic fight for justice in the tropics.’ It’s not exactly false, but in so far as it suggests a grand fictional narrative, it’s certainly misleading. This is Cathy McLennan’s account of the first months of her employment as a brand new barrister. A non-disclaimer after the title page begins, ‘This book is a personal account based upon real events, real crimes, real people and real court cases.’

I was predisposed to like it because it mentions my niece Paula Shaw’s Seven Seasons in Aurukun in its acknowledgements. It turns out that it has a lot in common with Paula’s book. Paula went as a teacher to Aurukun, where she was confronted daily with the failure of the education system to meet the needs of the Aboriginal community; Cathy McLennan worked for the Townsville and Districts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation for Legal Aid Services, and was confronted by the even greater, more tragic failure of the legal system.

The central narrative involves four young Aboriginal men who are accused of murdering an older white man, a case that landed on McLennan’s desk in her first days on the job. She is inexperienced, but the service is underfunded and understaffed, so she is given responsibility for the case. At first she is convinced of the innocence of the four, and it looks as if a standard TV episode narrative of vindication of the clients will unfold. This story, being real, is both more interesting and complex than that, and also much grimmer.

In this, and the other stories, particularly that of an appallingly abused eleven-year-old girl who meets with half-hearted good intentions from Children’s Services and peremptory punitiveness from the court system, the book forces its readers to look directly at the level of damage being done to children in places like Palm Island. She doesn’t spend time analysing the causes. She doesn’t need to. At every turn, Aboriginal people are struggling to do right by the young ones, but their efforts are thwarted by the result of the damage they have suffered and by indifferent, even hostile government bodies. Nor does she propose solutions: this is an account from the front line of a non-Aboriginal person trying to be of use, and coming hard up against the horrors (not too strong a word) of some Aboriginal lives, not a political tract.

My sense is that this is a book that should be widely read, especially by non-Indigenous Australians, but that it should be read along with any number of other books, because read alone, even though there are many strong, smart Aboriginal people in its pages, it could easily be read as preaching despair. But read alongside, say, books by Aboorignal people like Lesley and Tammy Williams’ Not Just Black and White, or Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country, or by other non-Aboriginal people who work with remote Aboriginal communities, like Andrew Stojanowski’s Dog Ear Cafe or (added later, thanks to Jim Kable in the comments) Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful, it’s a powerful addition to the knowledge pool.

aww2017.jpgSaltwater is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.