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Delicious descriptions: Madelaine Dickie on Indigenous language and Uranium

February 22, 2020

Book coverMy recent post on Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami was getting too long – and I just couldn’t cover in detail all that I wanted to, so I’ve decided to do one of my rare Delicious Descriptions posts to expand some ideas from the book.

Concluding my post, I commented that the novel is an effective consciousness-raiser as well as a great read. One of the many points Dickie makes concerns the intrinsic significance of language to cultural identity. (This issue, in fact, was discussed much during last year’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.) Here is Dickie in Red can origami (and do note the second person style – “you’re invited to sit …”):

You’re invited to sit in on a Burrika language session at Gubinge District High. It’s the first week of term one and the session’s being funded through the community benefits package. The language teacher is fishing-club-Keith’s wife Kylie, an intimidating, bearded old girl, with a deep wrinkle line between her eye. She stands in front of a class of teenagers. She explains that in Burrika, there are six words to describe anger, four words to describe jealousing and that there’s even a word for someone who’s a serial liar. Here, she looks pointedly at a young woman wearing heavy eyeliner. Then she says some people think the Burrika language is only used to describe things like berries and barramundi. Here, she looks pointedly at you.

Language comes from country, she tells the kids. Language comes from the rocks, the desert waterholes, from the creeks that twist through the mangroves. Language comes from the sky. When you don’t know your language, you can’t tell country you are coming, and you can’t look after your country. (p. 195)

With Indigenous language revival programs popping up around the country, some of which I’ve mentioned in my blog, Dickie was spot on to make this point in her book.

The issue of uranium mining and its potential for problems, if not disaster, underpins the novel’s plot. It also provides a good example of how Dickie teases out different attitudes from the various stakeholders – the Indigenous people, protesters, the people of Gubinge, the mining company employees, and Ava herself as she navigates spin versus facts and reality. And as Ava ponders the issue, the second person voice brings us on her journey with her. Whenever we hear “you”, there’s that little initial reaction, “who, me?” Anyhow, Burrika leader Noah patiently tells a radio presenter,

No-one wants to see a uranium mine on their country. Not the mob at Jabiluka, not the mob in South Australia, and not the people in Gubinge. But when you’re under duress, when you are given a choice between something and nothing, you choose something.

These are the sorts of real-world challenges that are posed by the novel.

At the book’s launch, Dickie referred to Japan’s involvement in uranium mining in Australia, and mentioned the Fukushima disaster. She quoted from the letter written in 2011 by Yvonne Margarula of Kakadu’s Mirarr people to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon concerning the Fukushima disaster:

Given the long history between Japanese nuclear companies and Australian uranium miners, it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad.

The sense of extended community responsibility expressed in this letter is surely something we could all learn from – and this, I’m sure, is what Dickie hopes her book will encourage its readers to consider.

Madelaine Dickie, Red can origami, Fremantle Press, 2019.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2020 11:27 pm

    This is so good, WG: I was at a literary event this afternoon in Sydney – Acknowledging Country – when it was my time to speak – referencing Roland Robinson who had much time living within First Nations communities – reworking aspects of those “literary” stories with their deeper symbolic meanings – and who was a mentor to the poet/writer/friend we were celebrating – Peter Skrzynecki – a collection of essays Of Human Experience (Five Senses Press) referencing his teacher life and his poetry specifically – of rural life, of the immigrant life – of art and music – of Australia and other parts. (There – all one sentence!) But it reminded me of a day long seminar I attended some years ago at Sydney University – a connection between Australian and Japanese literary representations – and when I write here Australian that was very importantly First Nations Australia – plays of John Romeril translated – a Japanese play about Maralinga referenced – a visit by a Tamworth childhood neighbour of mine (Grace Munro) with her Armidale aunt to the Kokoda Track of WWII fighting where they performed ceremony for his unrecovered body – a documentary was made. We saw it in a final edit context. And present were Alison Broinowski (who had invited me) and son Mark – their sister-in-law/aunt is Dr Helen Caldicott – a long-term anti-nuclear campaigner. As is Alison and her husband Richard Broinowski who wrote a book following that dreadful Tsunami and TEPCO nuclear Power Plant disaster – making the point that Australia in selling uranium to Japan made us complicit in the ongoing disaster – but the point made by Yvonne Margarula from Kakadu is indescribably poignant! And why does/did Japan have a nuclear power industry (given Hiroshima and Nagasaki)? Because the US forced it on them – by the mid-1960s – as I began studies at UoSydney – and the first near Hiroshima. How ugly is that! That worse than sad – that’s criminal.

    • February 23, 2020 8:38 am

      Wow, thanks Jim. I don’t know where to start. Of course I’ve heard of Helen Caldicott, and others you mention here. Sound like an excellent event. Let me know what you think of the book, when you read it.

  2. February 22, 2020 11:29 pm

    That’s worse than sad – that’s criminal.

    • February 23, 2020 8:39 am

      Yes … but there’s such power isn’t there in the simplicity of what she says.

  3. February 23, 2020 7:02 am

    Oh Sue – I’m wanting to read these by Dickie so bad – Her #1 is here now (I’ve got the sample) but #2 comes on March 1. . Language is soooo much – comes from – omg – and the politics – wow. Thank you or opening my self-obsessed US mind to other worlds and words.

    • February 23, 2020 8:44 am

      This response does my heart good, Bekah … to know that I’ve inspired you to want to read this. I wouldn’t call you a self-obsessed American, but I know it can be hard there to hear about other literatures. I’m so glad this book will soon be available there.

  4. February 23, 2020 8:11 am

    This sounds like one really clever book – and I mean clever.

    • February 23, 2020 8:45 am

      It is clever M-R. You can sense the work and thought put into it, and yet it flows so well.

  5. Sara Dowse permalink
    February 24, 2020 7:44 am

    Thanks, Madame Gums. You’ve put the book high on my TBR list.

    • February 24, 2020 8:08 am

      That’s wonderful Sara. I’d love to know what you think when you do get to it.

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