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Nhulunbuy Primary School, I saw we saw (#BookReview)

September 15, 2019

Book coverA 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?

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

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
40pp.
ISBN: 9780648155492

 

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2019 6:44 pm

    I know I’ve said it before, but your honest enthusiasm is delightful !
    Aren’t you going away ?
    Isn’t it wonderful, the comparison of now with, say, oh – 15 years ago, of our interest and pride in our indigenous peoples ?!

    • September 15, 2019 7:02 pm

      Haha, yes, M-R, I am – VERY soon.

      And, yes, it really is. A long time coming but at least it’s happening, eh?

  2. September 15, 2019 7:19 pm

    I am struck by the diversity and richness of human culture. I had heard of the Yolŋu people before but knew almost nothing about them. This book sounds so fulfilling. Though written for young people I think that something like this is valuable for everyone. I love the concept of going online and actually hearing the story read.

    • September 15, 2019 7:45 pm

      Yes, good point Brian – it is valuable for everyone. I should have said that.

  3. September 15, 2019 8:04 pm

    This sounds wonderful, I’d be buying it for my school if I were still in the trade!

    • September 15, 2019 9:41 pm

      I reckon you would have Lisa, and you would get the pronunciation down pat in no time.

      • September 15, 2019 11:01 pm

        Ha, you wouldn’t say that if you heard me mispronouncing the bilingual ones Kim Scott wrote with the Noongar community!

  4. September 16, 2019 12:34 pm

    You may have already seen/bought it but the Rolf de Heer movie Ten Canoes is in Yolngu Matha. Re grandchildren, it occurred to me that mine should get Noongar (Perth, WA) books and maybe yours will be exposed to a local language too. I think the northern Australian languages are a different family altogether (see AITSIS map – if I have those initials in the right order). But of course a great book for a vibrant living language and hopefully the racists in government will allow again teaching in local language.

    • September 16, 2019 1:29 pm

      Oh yes, thanks Bill. I’ve seen that, a couple of times, the second being on a bus when we were touring through the region. We visited one of the major locations where it was filmed, and met someone who appeared in it. We met several Yolngu speakers during that trip. One spoke almost totally in language and was translated by a white worker. It was a good experience. But I don’t know a lot about indigenous language families though I understand there are some.

      The letters are AIATSIS (Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies). It’s an organisation with which my old workplace had much to do so the acronym is imprinted on my brain.

  5. September 20, 2019 6:45 am

    This sounds like a wonderful book for kids and grown ups! I was wondering how you could figure out pronunciation so I am glad they made it possible. Brilliant really to have children reading the story when you follow the QR code.

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