A week or so ago, I wrote a post to commemorate this year’s Indigenous Literacy Day. In that post I noted that the book I saw we saw was going to be launched at the Sydney Opera House that day. It was written and illustrated by students from Nhulunbuy Primary School, up on the Gove Peninsula, and a number of them were going to read and perform from the original Yolŋu Matha language version, Nha Nhunu Nhanjal?, at the launch. I ordered my own copy of the book that day.
The books – the original Yolŋu Matha version, launched at this year’s Garma Festival, and the English version – were published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which describes itself as a “national book industry charity”. Their aim is to “reduce the disadvantage experienced by children in remote indigenous communities in Australia, by lifting literacy levels and instilling a lifelong love of reading”. These two books came out of their Community Literacy Project, and were produced through a series of workshops with illustrator Ann Haddon and teacher-librarian Ann James, with local Yolŋu elders helping develop the story.
So, the English-version book. It begins with a brief introduction telling us that the Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land represent one of the largest indigenous groups in Australia. Their main language is Yolŋu Matha, which, it explains, has twelve sub-languages, each with its own name. It also tells us that, for most Yolngu children, English is their second (or even third or fourth) language. I saw we saw, the English language version of their book, is, by definition, written in English, but it uses words from the Dhaŋa sublanguage to name the actual “things” seen. This is a lovely, effective way of introducing indigenous language to non-indigenous people (as recommended at the Identity session of the Canberra Writers Festival). However, this approach also creates a bit of a challenge for the reader – what is being seen, and how do you pronounce it?
Well, there is quite a bit of help for us in this. First, the text and illustrations provide a lot of clues. “I see a waṯu grab a stick from a man” is accompanied by quite a busy drawing with birds, fish, turtle, jellyfish, and a person fishing, but there is also a picture of a dog with a stick in its mouth. So, waṯu is dog! Sometimes, however, it’s not so easy to get it exactly right, either because of the busy-ness of the picture or the (delightful) naiveté of the children’s drawings. You can usually guess, but can be uncertain, nonetheless. In these cases, the illustration on the last page of the story, which shows most of the creatures with their English names, provides most of the answers. Finally, there is also the online Yolŋu dictionary which, in fact, I used to obtain the necessary diacritics since, funnily enough, they are not available on my Apple keyboard!
That’s the “what is being seen” problem solved, but what about the pronunciation issue? How would you pronounce ŋurula (seagull)? Or mirinyiŋu (whale)? This one is easily solved. At the front of the book is a QR code. You hold your tablet or smart phone camera over that to be taken to a website where you can hear the story read by child-speakers of the language. The whole story only takes 3 minutes or so. Of course, being able to then say the words yourself will take some practice.
The story itself is simple, traditional picture-book style. The pages alternate between “I saw …” and “We saw …”, with each “I saw – We saw” pair forming a rhyming couplet:
I saw a maranydjalk leaping high
We saw a ŋurula soaring in the sky
It’s a delightful book. The rhymes are comfortable, not forced; the illustrations are appealing, particularly to young people; and story introduces readers to the rich natural environment of Arnhem Land region. It also conveys the pride the young authors and illustrators have in their country. It would be a wonderful book to use in primary school classrooms. It’s certainly one I look forward to reading to Grandson Gums when he’s a little older (and I’ve practised my Yolŋu Matha).
You can purchase this book directly from the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, for $24.99.
Nhulunbuy Primary School students, with Ann James and Ann Haddon
I saw we saw
Broadway: Indigenous Literacy Foundation, 2019