Ruby Langford Ginibi, Haunted by the Past (Allen & Unwin 1999)
Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934–2011) was a Bundjalung woman who among many other things wrote five autobiographical books. The first, which lifted its title from a song made popular by Kenny Rogers, became a bestseller when it appeared in 1988. Tara June Winch has written about it:
What Langford Ginibi produced in penning Don’t Take Your Love to Town was a broad-scoping segment missing from the body of Aboriginal literature, published in 1988 amid the fanfare and patriotic celebrations of Australia’s bicentenary. Decades later it retains its relevance and importance, still sounding a clarion call to the future for understanding and a breaking of the cycle of social and racial disadvantage for Aboriginal Australians, at long last.Tara June Winch, ‘On “Don’t Take Your Love to Town” by Ruby Langford Ginibi‘, Griffith Review 80, May 2023.
Haunted by the Past, published a decade and three books after Don’t Take Your Love to Town, continues and amplifies that call to the future. In a writing style that feels unstudied and conversational, it tells the story of Nobby, one of Langford Ginibi’s nine children. This is a mother’s story of seeing her son sent to boys’ homes as a child and then incarcerated more than once as an adult for something he didn’t do; the terror that he would die in custody as so many Indigenous Australians have done; the joy, hers and his, of taking him to his traditional country on his release after eight years in prison; his development as a painter (his artwork is on the cover of this first edition); and in the final pages, his marriage with the prospect of a stable future. Even if you suspect that motherly bias influences the account of Nobby’s ‘crimes’ and punishment, the picture of legal system’s treatment of young Aboriginal men is damning.
It’s a deceptively simple book, just seeming to tell it as it was, one thing after another. There are straightforward quotes from court documents, including psychiatric assessments of Nobby’s suicidal state of mind at one point. Nobby gets to speak for himself in sections written for the book at his mother’s behest. There are detailed accounts of organising prison visits, and hiring cars, and visiting relatives. There are Mum jokes, as when the band strikes up ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ at a wedding, and her family start singing it to her:
I called out to them, ‘If I didn’t take my love to town, you mob wouldn’t be here!’(Page 178)
But the cumulative effect is far from simple. From the opening words – ‘Where does Nobby’s story begin? With his birth in 1955? Or further back …’ – Langford Ginibi is clear that she is telling her son’s story in the context of the long story of colonisation. Without using terms like intergenerational trauma, her story-telling challenges versions of Aboriginal experiences that ignore this country’s continuing history of racist and genocidal policies. She shows us the human, everyday faces of people who might other tend to be reduced to statistics in the mainstream media. Everything seems intensely ordinary, but long history is there at every moment. It’s a history of resilience and achievement as well as oppression.We are told a number of times about the Aboriginal cricketer who bowled Don Bradman for a duck. You get a strong sense of the warmth of family life – the extended family of people who haven’t seen each other for years as well as the immediate family. The opening pages that tell of her family’s background and, especially, her time in a bush camp with an uncle, are filled with rich experience of community, culture and the natural world.
The darker context becomes explicit in Chapter 6. Chapter 5 has given us pictures of Nobby’s despairing state when he was sentenced to jail again, including one suicide attempt. Chapter 6 begins:
While Nobby was doing this long stretch in jail, the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody was going on. Even before the official inquiry I was always worried about Nobby when he was in jail. I received a letter from him that stated: ‘Mum, if I ever go back to jail again, they’ll bring me out feet first because bein locked up like an animal and bein told by screws, do this do that, it’s nearly drivin me mad! I can’t take it anymore.’ The pressure was so bad. And Nobby was very depressed from time to time. It really got me down. I was always worried that he would have survived the police, the wardens and the other inmates, but then take his own life.(Page 75)
Characteristically, Langford Ginibi doesn’t linger over her fears. Nor does she milk the situation for suspense:
But he has survived.
And then, the perspective widens:
Not everyone has been so lucky.
The next 15 pages tell the stories of eight Aboriginal men who died in custody or, in one case, were killed by police during a raid on the man’s home. This book is the story of a survivor, but we can never forget the ones who didn’t survive. On the very last page, when Nobby’s story seems to have reached a happy landing, the ghosts of those men appear:
They were callin out to Nobby, sayin, ‘On ya brother. You survived the brutal jails. We didn’t make it. Long life and much happiness to you and your lady. Go in peace, and live for all of us!’(Page 179)
I picked this book down from my TBR shelf after reading Gregory Day’s Words Are Eagles. The opening essay of that book invokes an Indigenous perspective that written words are dangerous because they can be divorced from particular places and from direct interpersonal communication. It does this without quoting from Indigenous people. In the spirit of counterpoint as recommended by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism, I needed to read something by a First Nations writer, and this book was right there. It doesn’t address Day’s point directly, but it does achieve the thing he advocates. Reading it feels like sitting down for a long chat, a yarn, with a remarkably assured, relaxed matriarch. When you put it down, you see the world differently.
Ruby Langford Ginibi received the Special Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2005, where I had the good fortune to be sitting on the table with her at the awards ceremony. Her other books are:
- Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (Penguin Australia 1988)
- Real Deadly (Angus & Robertson 1992)
- My Bundjalung People (UQP 1994)
- All My Mob (UQP 2007)