Tag Archives: Andrew Stojanovski

Namatjira, Perkins, Du Bois, Stojanovski

There’s been an extraordinary confluence in my cultural intake over the last week: Hettie Perkins’s Art + Soul on the ABC, Big hART’s Namatjira at Belvoir Street, Andrew Stojanowski’s Dog Ear Cafe, and W E B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which I’m just starting. If I was a public institution and the Coalition was in power I’d have my funding cut.

A major element of Namatjira is the story of the friendship between the man known to non-Arrernte people as Albert Namatjira and the white World War One veteran Rex Battarbee. If Dog Ear Cafe had a single take-home message, it would be about the importance of solid relationships. In an exchange between Stojanovski and Robin Japanangka Granites, a Warlpiri elder. Stojanovski (named Yakajirri in Warlpiri) says that he feels that blackfellas (Yapa) and whitefellas (Kadiya) are standing on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon ‘looking at each other and waving at each other, but our cultural worlds are so different that we are not connecting at all’. Robin answers:

No, Yakajirri, I think you are wrong. I see tightropes across that canyon, and I see people like you and me walking those tightropes, connecting both sides.

Probably the most attractive thing about Art + Soul is the way Hettie Perkins puts herself in the frame, letting us see the warmth, but also the awkwardness of her relationships, as an urban Aboriginal woman and curator, with artists from remote communities.

The first of the 14 essays in Du Bois’s 1903 book begins with a brief impression of white folk clumsily attempting relationship:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville [site of a Civil War battle]; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

I know the legacy of US slavery is very different from that of Australian genocide and dispossession, but they do share some features, and I couldn’t resist blogging about this  little volley of reminders of the importance of personal relationships in dealing with those histories.

Dog Ear Cafe

Andrew Stojanovski, Dog Ear Cafe: How the Mt Theo Program beat the curse of petrol sniffing (Hybrid Publishers 2010)

Despite the subtitle, this is not a how-to book, but nor is it straightforward memoir. The author lived for more than 10 years at Yuendemu, a Warlpiri settlement in Central Australia. He worked for a number of different employers during his time there, but from the first months he saw his job as being to fill the whitefella (Kardiya in Warlpiri) functions in the campaign against the petrol sniffing that was devastating the young people, and imperilling the future, of the community. A number of qualities equipped him well for the job: he was young, and evidently possessed huge amounts of energy; he had studied anthropology, and was open to cultural differences; he had a deep seated, quasi spiritual yearning to know Indigenous Australia intimately as a way of understanding his own Australian identity; he wanted passionately to make a difference in the world. The book is as much his personal story as the story of the program.

Stojanowski says somewhere in the book that he has written it to fill his obligations to the people he worked with, so other people can learn from the Mt Theo success. I imagine any whitefella planning to work in a remote Aboriginal community would find useful information here: how to make sense of cultural attitudes and practices that derive their rationality from hunter-gatherer ways, and to come to see their counterparts that might seem like they’re simply rational as rooted in millennia of agriculture; the importance of non-violence if a white worker is to keep the confidence and trust of a traditional Aboriginal community; a little on the workings of Warlpiri skin-name system; how indispensably useful it is that a whitefella has ‘diplomatic immunity’ from the intricate web of avoidance and can’t-say-no obligations that bind initiated Warlpiri adults; that what a distant, bureaucratic perspective might see as ’empowerment’ can look like abandonment when seen up close; and much more.

The book is very readable. Its potential usefulness is fleshed out in wonderful anecdotes – yarns in fact. There are dramatic confrontations with young people out of their minds on petrol fumes, privileged visits to significant cultural sites, one or two ceremonies lyrically described, revelatory conversations with old men and women, places where Warlpiri and whitefella senses of humour are a perfect match.  We get a richly textured picture of what it’s like to be a whitefella living and working closely and respectfully with Warlpiri people – elders and young people – in a Central Australian community. Stojanovski married soon after becoming moving to Yuendemu, and his two daughters were born during his time there. He gives an unsparing, though tactful, account of the strain that his heroic dedication to the work placed on his marriage. I would have loved a chapter in which his wife told her story. As it stands, it’s hard to tell how much she was an equally heroic member of team Stojanowski, and how much she was a sufferer of collateral damage – though it’s fairly clear there were elements of both. I would also have liked a chapter from Peggy Nampijimba Brown, the old woman who challenged cultural norms by undertaking to look after other people’s children at Mt Theo, without whom nothing could have happened – but the detail of whose story Stojanovski can’t tell us. Those, of course, are other books.

In the shadow of the Howard–Brough–Rudd–Gillard–Macklin Intervention, which gives the message that Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are so dysfunctional that only military force can bring order, and in the more specific shadow of recent headlines about payback violence and exile from Yuendemu itself, this book is a challenging source of genuine light and realistic hope. It’s also a ripping good read.

Dog Ear Cafe Launch

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.