Recently, on a bit of a whim, I bought two books from the Indigenous Australian publishing company, Magabala Books. They were the younger readers-young adult novel, Black Cockatoo (my review), which had been shortlisted for a few awards, and this picture book, Cooee mittigar, which had just won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction. It is described on the Awards website as “introducing children and adults-alike to Darug ‘Nura’ (Country) and language”. So, a book for children and adults. I’m in …
The book tells the story of the seasons*, as understood or experienced by Sydney’s Darug people, through the eyes of the black swan, Mulgo. It is a perfect example of the generosity of Indigenous Australians. Despite being dispossessed of their country, despite being repeatedly discounted as having anything important to contribute, despite being overlooked or specifically excepted by policy-makers, they come back again and again, willing to share their knowledge – and, particularly, their language – when there’s a real risk that it too might be taken from them. They seem to understand, when so many don’t, that it’s only by sharing and communicating with each other our values and belief systems that we can mature as a nation.
And so, we have this beautiful hardback, written and illustrated by two Darug women, Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson. Like many recent books I’ve read by Indigenous Australian writers, it incorporates Indigenous – Darug here, of course – language into the story. The technique they use is, in two-page spreads, to tell the story using English and Darug words, immmediately followed (on the same spread) by a glossary for the Darug words used. So, for example, we have:
In the time of yuruka and burara
Elders tell us not to hunt the buru.
yuruku – hot
burara – dry
buru – kangaroo
The glossary words are presented in slightly smaller but still clear text. The illustrations for the page, as you’d expect in a picture book, help convey the meaning. This spread, for example, is dominated by hot-dry looking yellows and tans, with two kangaroos lazing in the grass.
But now, let’s go back to the beginning. The book starts with a welcome: “Warami mittigar. Welcome friend. … Cooee mittigar. Come here friend.” We are then introduced to our guide, the afore-mentioned black swan, Mulgo, who tells us that she will teach us “about Darug life” – and off we go, starting, logically, with an introduction to Biami (dreaming ancestor spirit) and the idea of Darug dreaming and the songlines which tell the story of “Nura” or country. From here, we move through the seasons, starting when the “the darrabura [day] grows long and the weather warms up”. Each step of the way, we are told what to look for, what might be happening, what we can do, with respect to country and the natural environment, such as:
During dagara, gulgadya will bloom –
ready to be turned into spears.
dagara – frost
gulgadya – grasstree
The story ends with the gentle request to “tread softly on our lands”.
The language flows simply – though, as a non-indigenous reader, I’m sure it would take me a few readings to feel comfortable enough with the words to make it sound good aloud. Leanne Mulgo Watson’s illustrations draw mostly from greens, blues and yellows, but with touches of other hues. They are gorgeously evocative of the text, making them a delight for all readers, but they also provide good opportunities for actively engaging younger readers (and listeners).
At the end of the book is a complete glossary of the Darug words used throughout, with a simple pronunciation guide, which is a feature I’ve missed in other books. So, for example, there’s “warami – wara me – hello”. There is also a one-page description of Darug Country, and another page providing brief bios of Seymour and Watson.
Cooee mittigar concludes with a statement of its creators’ intentions, which are “to share Darug language and culture and show that the Darug people are still strong on Country”. They also “hope that Cooee mittigar will contribute to the continuation of stories and culture”. I’d be surprised if they haven’t achieved this, but I hope that in publishing this post I will have made my contribution to supporting their goals.
Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson (illus.)
Cooee mittigar: A story on Darug songlines
Broome: Magabala Books, 2019
* As many Australians know, Indigenous Australians do not see the year through “our” four-season calendar, but through different seasons depending on the country.