A paradox of empowerment: Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture

Kim Scott and the whale's eye

Kim Scott and the whale’s eye

Why was Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture booked out, but not Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture*. Both lectures, held at the National Library of Australia, are endowed by generous benefactors and are free. Don’t get me wrong. I love that Gaita was booked out, but so should double Miles-Franklin-winner Noongar-author Kim Scott have been. His novel, That deadman dance (my review), is a pivotal book in terms of our understanding of first contact and therefore important to reconciliation. I had to see him in person.

Scott’s lecture, titled “A paradox of empowerment”, was described on the National Library page as being about “how reclaiming Aboriginal language and story may offer a narrative of shared history and contribute to social transformation.” And this is exactly what he spoke about, based on his Noongar project.

The evening started with a Welcome to Country by local Ngunnawal elder Tyrone Bell, who explained the tradition behind this practice. It led beautifully into Kim Scott’s talk, which he said was fundamentally about reclaiming Aboriginal language and story.

Looking through a whale's eye

Looking through a whale’s eye

Scott started by explaining the picture on the screen beside him. It’s from a story about a Noongar man entering a whale. He chose it because it represents the idea of seeing things differently. (You could tell he’s a novelist by the way he framed his lecture around imagery to convey his ideas!) For example, is this a porthole? Or are we looking through an eye, or even with the eye, this latter suggesting that the Noongar man has become the whale, has been transformed. This possibility of transformation was the underlying theme of his lecture.

Before he continued though, Scott offered some provisos. He likes, he said, to be particular, to start with the local (which approach also appeals to me). However, he is often criticised, he confided, for being somewhat diffident, hesitant, by which I understood him to mean for not being out there on the political hustings. He’s hesitant, he said for a few reasons:

  • the project – a small community-based language revitalisation project – is insecure. Funding and resources are uncertain, people with the needed knowledge are passing away, and the project is not connected to any institutional infrastructure.
  • it is a regional, provincial activity that may not be relevant elsewhere, although he suspects it is, because the reality is that some of most substantial renaissance work has originated in regional projects.
  • the project produces books – which give status, provide focus, can be used by schools – but books can be accessed widely, which could result in non-Aboriginal people learning the language before its owners do. This would continue the disempowerment the project aims to overturn.

Outside the circle

And here, Scott the novelist turned to again to metaphor. He quoted Governor Phillip who, having been welcomed into Port Jackson by the local people, found their curiosity problematic. He wrote:

‘As their curiosity made them very troublesome when we were preparing our Dinner, I made a circle round us; there was little difficulty in making them understand that they were not to come within it, and they then sat down very quiet.’

Scott used this circle motif as a metaphor for the ongoing exclusion of indigenous people by the settlers. The circle marked a power relationship, an exclusion, that became a defining feature of Aboriginal people’s identity. And yet, he said, researchers like Bill Gammage (The biggest estate on earth) and Tony Swain (A place for strangers) are starting to identify what lay outside this circle – knowledge and skills, an active not passive relationship with the land – that the settlers could have learnt from. This knowledge is still outside the circle, he said.

Noongar language (Daisy Bates)

Noongar language (recorded by Daisy Bates)

He provided specific examples – many of which he used, in fact, in That deadman dance – of the Noongar’s documented sophisticated, positive response to the first settlers in Western Australia. But still, they were kept outside the circle. He shared, as an example of the Noongar’s open-minded, lively response, a Noongar story recorded by Daisy Bates, which incorporated the name of the new colony’s town, King George Town, into their language.

Changing this circle is, he said, vital to healing. He believes that through projects like his, together with the research of people like Gammage and Swain, things are beginning to change, that Aboriginal culture is starting to be recognised, appreciated, rather than denigrated.

Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project

And so he got to the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, a local language revitalisation project that is occurring outside the circle. His argument is that over time, since first contact, Governor Phillip’s original circle expanded, and the world outside it became increasingly impoverished. The Wirlomin language project believes that by recovering language, and the stories that go with it, the circle can be changed.

Proven benefits to social and personal wellbeing emanating from strong attachment to Indigenous cultural traditions. (Kral and Falk 2004, Anderson and Kowal 2012, and others).

He described the project – what it uses, what it produces, and how the knowledge is shared. I won’t detail that here, as you can learn much of it at the website. But I will share his teasing out decisions made, and their political implications. For example, when Kayang (Hazel) Brown took people to a special place in country, told its stories, and then re-covered the marks, her aim was not to practise the same attitude of exclusion, but to establish a protocol of respectful, negotiated relationships for sharing knowledge.

Another example concerned an event the group was organising to present books in language that they’d produced. He said that his view, “as the sophisticated man in the group” was to only invite Noongar, but Aunty Hazel (Kayang Brown) said they should invite some of the local non-Aboriginal people. Scott questioned why, given these people had controlled and spoiled their land, but Kayang responded, regarding one particular person, that “we grew up with him”. So he was invited, was given a copy of the stories, and responded positively, and emotionally. Scott learnt, through this experience, the paradox of empowerment through giving, and what can be achieved by moving into the circle.

All these, he concluded, open up possibilities of healing and transformation, with giving and sharing being the major denominations in the currency of identity and belonging.

This was a wonderful lecture, given by a man who emanated dignity, humility and grace. It was deceptively simple, but the thinking behind it was generous and sophisticated. You had to be there!

Ray Mathew Lecture
National Library of Australia
21 September 2017

* The Ray Mathew Lecture was established in 2009, through The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust, created by Eva Kollsman to support and promote Australian writing. The lecture is named for the Australian poet and playwright, Ray Mathew (1929–2002), who left Australia in the late 1960s, and never returned. He spent most of the remainder of his life living in the New York apartment of his patrons, Eva and Paul Kollsman.

20 thoughts on “A paradox of empowerment: Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture

  1. Looking through your wide open accepting eyes to those of Kim Scott – here in Morocco wide open myself to the historical positives of this amazing land. Tell me more of Ray Nathew please – with Mena Kashmiri Abdullah – VIP!

    • Haha, Jim, glad your eyes are wide open too. How exciting to be in Morocco.

      Ray Matthew is a bit of a mysterious character. I first heard of him through a little tribute book (one of a series that the NLA produced a few years ago). I had no idea who he was at that time, but have bumped into him a few times since then. Apparently Max Harris said he could write “like nobody’s business” and he apparently wrote a lot, including a play that is still often performed (A spring song, I think it’s called). He wrote poetry, short stories, plays, a novel, essays, but lived most of his life in the the USA. There’s an interview with him in Kate Jennings’ Evolution of a radical.

  2. This is powerful stuff WG. So glad you made it to the lecture to give us your ‘birds-eye view’. I love the circle metaphor that Scott used. And I was particularly struck by the notion that the easy access of the books could result in further disempowerment. I guess this is the forward thinking that comes with a deep understanding of what it means to be outside the circle.

  3. I don’t think there’s ever been a development quite as exciting to me in this country than the resurrection (if that’s the word) and dissemination of Indigenous languages. It is opening a world settler Australians have been previously blind and deaf to. Not only that, I hope it will become the reversal of our resolutely monolingual culture, in which languages other than English are no longer requisite on higher school syllabuses.

    • Yes, that’s a lovely way of putting it. This is irrelevant to to the point about the value of recital using language, but Aboriginal languages, generalising that is from the few I’ve heard, sound beautiful. None of the ones I’ve heard sound harsh. I wonder how much or if the sound and rhythm of a language reflects its culture.

  4. Daisy Bates spent a number of years here in WA, employed by the government to record Aboriginal languages. Given that she lived with Noongar people (at Maamba Aboriginal Reserve) for 2 or 3 years there should be substantial records, either among her papers (in Canberra I think) or with Radcliffe-Brown’s. Anyway, glad you got to see Kim Scott – I really must start reading Taboo.

    • So must I, Bill, particularly now I have a beautifully signed copy!

      Scott explained how their project uses archival materials – and he mentioned Bates of course – in addition to local knowledge in their project. Presumably they have access to her papers wherever they are?

      BTW One of my lit-blogger mentees has been reading your blog recently, and is enjoying it a lot!

  5. It’s sad, really, that even the question of learning an Indigenous language is a vexed issue. I’ve heard some Indigenous people express their anger that Indigenous languages aren’t taught and that people don’t bother to learn them. I’ve also read academics say the same thing for different reasons: some linguists think it’s important that endangered languages be strengthened by non-Indigenous people learning them too. To my eye that looks like irrefutable logic…
    After I met Kim Scott at an awards night and he told me about his community’s bilingual books for children, I bought them and read them to my classes, and to my eye, I was introducing young Australian children to the idea that as well as the multiplicity of languages spoken at our school, there were also ancient languages that predated European settlement. It never occurred to me then that I was usurping the right of Indigenous people to learn/relearn their languages first.
    But since then I’ve applied to learn the Indigenous language of my own area, because there are so many Indigenous languages and I’d rather learn that one. From my eye, it seems respectful to be able, at least, to be able to learn the protocols for greeting people and do so in their language. I can do that in seven languages but not in any Indigenous one. But that’s when I discovered that I’m not allowed to learn the Bunerong language yet, though I have my name down as an expression of interest.
    So Kim’s point about the eye we look through is an important one…

    • Thanks for all this Lisa. It sounds like the Bunerong are being cautious in the way Kim Scott was mentioning.

      Clearly Scott’s group have decided to publish the books feeling the benefits are worth it, but are conscious of the implications. I guess the more indigenous people speak honestly to us about things like this, the more we will understand how complex reconciliation really is. It is so easy for us to jump in boots and all with the best will in the world and get it very wrong.

  6. Fantastic write up and I’m very disappointed I missed it. I really enjoyed your retelling, particularly the imagery of the circle both in relation to looking through the whale’s (i.e. another’s) eye and in relation to a zone of exclusion

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