Too deadly is an anthology of writings by the Canberra-based writing group Us Mob Writing. Comprising Australian First Nations writers, this group was formed in the late 1990s and is, apparently, one of our capital’s longest running writers’ groups. I saw advertising for the book’s launch back in late 2017, but was unable to attend. I was consequently thrilled to be offered a copy to review some months later. Finally, it worked its way to the top of the pile and I have read it. Things happen slowly here at the Gums!
The book comprises works by 11 women writers. It is introduced by Jeanine Leane whose novel Purple threads I reviewed a few years ago. She describes the content as including “prose and narrative poetry; flash fiction, fiction and creative non-fiction; and life writing.
It was interesting to read this just after reading Anita Heiss’s anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review). Heiss’s book, obviously, is all life-writing, while this anthology is more varied in form and subject matter, but, as in Heiss’s book, many of the works are overtly political, not surprisingly, but all writers speak of connection to culture, in some way.
Now, how to do this? I don’t usually discuss every writer in an anthology because doing so, without writing a tome, risks being superficial, but I’m going to try here and see if I can find a fair balance. You be the judge.
Wulli Wulli writer Lisa Fuller: eight pieces, mostly poetry. They deal with her writing practice, her sources of inspiration, and her sense of self. My heart went out to her struggles to accept that she is “good enough” in poems like “Who me?” and “Never enough” (“I will kill myself through/ should-i-n-g and my 20/20 judging”), but I also loved her sense of humour and word plays. “Waking” made me laugh, with the “only clock in the place/ disguised as a phone” as did her wry references to her “Master pieces” in “Electronic inclusions”, which describes her preference for “paper and pen” over keyboard. She also writes of nature and the inspiration it provides, including:
the mist envelops
its cool embrace
making the everyday
Juru-Kija poet Michelle Bedford: six poems, most of which directly address culture – her connection with it, and/or loss of it. In “Kindred Spirit-so many stories untold”, the refrain at the end of each verse is “so many stories untold”, while “Straight up and back with a certain native pride” tells of a hunting party and how engaging in cultural practice brings contentment and pride. Coming from the beautiful Kimberleys, she has some poems evoking her love of that landscape: “Colour me fine” is a love-letter to the Kimberley that I could relate to. Other poems are more overtly political. “Standing alone with others” and “I promise you … she is worthy” reminded me somewhat of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s work.
Wiradjuri poet Yullara Reed: one poem, “Catch me if you can”. Told in the voice of a bird, her allegorical poem confronts its reader with the realities of indigenous life, particularly regarding the stolen generations, as the bird watches out for catchers. There’s a cheeky freshness to this poem which makes its message so much starker.
Erubian writer Chella Goodwin, from the Torres Strait: two poems and one prose piece. “Morning dreaming” is a gorgeous poem about yearning for a simpler life. Her irregular use of rhyme here is particularly effective. Many of us can relate to these lines, “microsoft word/ part of the city herd”, and to
divorcing the city
with its traffic and hustle
for straight roads to the horizon
where the kookaburras hustle
Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie: six pieces, mostly poems. They mourn a loss of culture, but also express defiance (particularly “White lie”) and sorrow (“Dirt child”). Her prose piece, “Coming home”, is a short story about a stolen generation daughter meeting her mother for the first time. The insensitivity of the church official, where the meeting is effected, is breathtaking. He wants a photo for, he says:
“… the church newsletter, the story, our story; it is such a great story. The congregation will love it.”
Yuin writer Brenda Gifford: one memoir piece about her life on the road, for ten years, with the mixed indigenous and non-indegnous band, Mixed Relations. Much of the story would be familiar to any band, I guess, except that this one has the added issue of race to deal with. She talks of confronting racism in Moree, and of the opposite in Brewarrina, where the local mob showed them the fish traps (now made famous by Bruce Pascoe in Dark emu.) She also writes of touring North America, and sharing experiences with First Nations Americans (not to mention trying their wonderful fried cornbread!)
Wiradjuri author Kerry Reed-Gilbert (grandmother of Yullara above) has ten pieces, and is the best-known, most published of the group. Reed-Gilbert also appears in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, with a strong small town story. Some of her poems talk of dark history, such as blood loss and massacres in “The place in the paddock”, while others ask for Australians to work together, as in “Reflections” and “I know you”. Many of her pieces, as do those of others, talk of the wisdom of older people (uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers) and, further back, of the Old or Ancient Ones from whom the laws come.
Ngemba/Barkindji writer Barrina South: four pieces. Her poem “Ghost Gum” describes the ageing and regeneration of a tree, but surely also works as a metaphor for indigenous history – the losses (“pooled blood appears on the surface caused by previous contusions”) and the hope for the future (“She reaches up and gently sways/ Dancing in time with the stars…”) “Baaka” is more overtly political, but also uses nature, the river in this case, to oppose long connection with culture (and the “old people”) against loss (and “they [who] fence rivers”).
Wiradjuri poet Marissa McDowell: three pieces. “By the campfire” is a lovely hymn to indigenous creation spirit Biamie, “the maker of all things”, while “Me” is a plea to be respected “before all is lost/at what human cost”.
Kamilaroi writer Joyce Graham: eight pieces, starting with three haiku which lead into more powerful, pull-no-punches poems. “Proud Uncle” references, I believe, the story of the two indigenous men Jimmy Clements and John Noble who walked miles to attend the opening of Canberra’s provisional parliament house in 1927. It confronts us with our lack of interest (“ignored by white/ present not caring/ not curious/ Dismissive/ ignorant of your importance”). It’s a story most Canberrans didn’t know until recently. Certainly I didn’t – “ignorant”! “Life’s landscape” uses strong language, too, to make its point, describing “the white dust storm” and its aftermath.
Torres Strait Islander writer Samantha Faulkner: twelve pieces, including five prose pieces. Faulkner’s pieces, like many others, explore the history of indigenous experience in Australia. “The Old Man” also reflects on the Jimmy Clements and John Noble story, describing the two men as “compelled to be there”. “Tribute to Mabo” is another straightforward narrative poem about an indigenous hero. “One Day at Walpa (Walpa Gorge, Kata Tjuta/the Olgas” made me laugh at its depiction of tourists visiting this beautiful peaceful, place. And “It’s a small town world” succinctly conveys opposing images of small towns – narrow on one hand, and big-hearted on the other. Faulkner’s is, generally, a lighter touch than some in the book, but no less effective for that.
There are, then, recurring themes in the anthology, as you’d expect – to do with loss and disconnection caused by colonisation and white laws – but while some are angry (and understandably so), many are generous and hopeful, looking to a better future. Motifs recur too. There’s the wisdom of older people and of the Old Ones, and, of course, nature, particularly trees and birds, appears in many pieces.
Too deadly is a challenging book to read with its varied styles and tones, but it is well worth the effort because this very variety provides a breadth of insight that is not easily come by. I’ll close with some lines from McDowell’s “Me”, because, in many ways, it conveys the heart of the book (but apologies for not getting the lines’ layout right):
Images are plastered all over our screens
Scaring the weaker
And empowering the meaner
Open your door and open your mind
move a bit closer
I could be your friend
not an enemy
Who’s portrayed as the end.
(Review copy courtesy Sarah St Vincent Welch and Us Mob Writing)