Cindy Solonec, Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez (#BookReview)

Cindy Solonec’s Debesa is one of those curious hybrid biography-memoirs that are appearing on the scene. Its subtitle describes it as The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez, implying biography, but in fact, Frank and Katie are Solonec’s parents and so the book also incorporates some of her own story as part of the family. I’ll return to this later, but will start with the main content, the biography.

Debesa spans four generations of the family, starting in the 1880s with Solonec’s maternal great-grandparents, but it centres, as the Media Release says, “on the unlikely partnership of Cindy’s parents: Frank Rodriguez, once a Benedictine novice monk from Spain, and Katie Fraser, who had been a novitiate in a very different sort of abbey – a convent for ‘black’ women at Beagle Bay Mission” north of Broome. The Release also explains that Debesa is a rewriting of Solonec’s 2016 PhD thesis which “explored a social history in the West Kimberley based on the way her parents and extended family lived during the mid-1900s”. What Solonec does in the book, then, is to turn her thesis into a readable history and a family memoir, a combination that is becoming an increasingly acceptable approach to historical writing.

There is some contention about this tree’s prison use, but not about its cultural significance.

I was keen to read Debesa for a few reasons, not least being that I’ve been to the Kimberleys (east and west) and am intrigued by this beautiful region and its complicated history. I grew up being aware of its pastoral history, particularly regarding the Durack family and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and I came to understand some of its colonial past when I saw such “sights” as the Boab Prison tree in Derby during my visits there. As Solonec’s family story is contemporaneous with the mid-twentieth century Duracks and the Ord River scheme, it was enlightening to see this world from a smaller and more marginalised perspective. I say “smaller” because Frank and Katie’s property, the titular Debesa, was a small pastoral holding, and “marginalised” because Katie’s “mixed descent” Indigenous (Nigena) background meant the family was always on the outer.

Solonec sets the scene in her Introduction by providing a brief history of the Kimberley’s colonial history, one founded on “the ideology that everyone must live like white people. Speak their language. Adapt to the ways. And marry lighter skinned people …”. It’s the same story that we’ve read before – people dispossessed, country spoiled, and children stolen. In her early chapters, Solonec documents the family’s story from the time of her maternal great-grandparents, Indian immigrant Jimmy Casim/Nygumi and his Nigena wife, Muninga. Their daughter, Solonec’s grandmother Jira, was born in 1900 and stolen with her cousin in 1909. Designated as orphans and renamed Phillipena and Francesca, they were taken to Beagle Bay Mission, leaving their mothers distraught.

Alongside the stealing of children was the stealing of the land:

On stations along Mardoowarra [lower Fitzroy River], land was fundamental to Nigena existence. They knew every part of that country intimately. Their neighbours and the broader Australian post people’s concept of ‘country’, their religious attachment, their awareness of food sources, was inherent to their way of life. They knew the call, cry, track of every living creature. Everything that breathed, every hill, every creek, crevice and outcrop and night sky with its myriad of galaxies, they knew by name. The seasons dictated their movements and their care for country within pliable boundaries. No-one ever got lost.

But, the Nigena had to watch, Solonec writes, as their land was taken for pastoralism and their sacred sites destroyed and/or renamed. Her extended family, “like refugees in their own country, lived in bush camps near the homesteads” and the women were preyed upon by “lecherous, irresponsible guide menfolk”. There is nothing new here, but Solonec puts flesh on the bone by telling it through the prism of her own family.

In chapter 3, we meet Solonec’s parents, Frank, who migrated from Galicia, Spain, in 1937, and Katie, whose parents were the stolen Phillipena and Fulgentious, a Nigena man with a white stockman father. Together they forge a life, drawing on their deep and shared commitment to Catholicism. They take work where and when they can, Frank as a trusted builder and Katie a respected cook and station-worker. They raise and educate their four children, acquire their own land, and slowly build a home and establish a small pastoral business, Debesa. Theirs was a partnership in every sense of the word. Solonec makes the interesting observation that Aboriginal cultures and European peasant cultures, from which Frank had come, have much in common, including a “strong sense of kin”. And, of course, Frank as a non-English migrant, had his own experience of bigotry and prejudice.

Biography? Memoir?

There’s excellent historical research here about life in the Kimberley, with illuminating “short histories” of subjects like mustering and wage disparity, and discussion of issues like the divisive and destructive “exemptions” from the Native Administration Act. (Tony Birch addresses similar exemptions in his novel, The white girl.)

To write this book, academic Solonec drew, rightly, on a large body of secondary sources and other life-writing about the region – all of which is documented in the thorough bibliography at the end – but she also had her father’s diaries, which provided the book’s “chronological framework”, and the stories of her mother and extended family passed on through oral tradition. She writes that, fortunately:

Aboriginal peoples still uphold past events through oral histories … I was excited to find that their stories were not that hard to cross reference with the literature. Their memory vaults with stories that have been handed down served them well, confirming the reliability of Indigenous intelligence.

(I suspect she means “intelligence” in both meanings here.)

As I opened this post, though, the book is a curious mix. The first half reads like a traditional biography while the second half slips more into memoir. This is heralded in the Introduction where Solonec describes her aim as

wanting to leave a documented account for posterity about the way marginalised peoples lived in the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) region during the middle of the twentieth century. A social history as experienced by my families. I wanted to leave an account of ordinary people’s everyday lives that would not otherwise be recorded. An account based on my parents’ joint biography.

This is perfectly valid, and she achieves what she set out to do. Her approach does, however, raise some questions, particularly towards the end, where there’s a risk of the subjective blurring the objective, making the truth potentially hard to discern. Solonec is justly proud of her parents’ achievements, and certainly they had much to contend with, but there’s a sense that all the problems they had were external, which seems unrealistic. I don’t believe, however, that this invalidates the critical historical truths contained here. In fact, the warmth of the story makes Debesa an approachable history which, given the significance of its subject, is a good thing.

Lisa also reviewed this book, engendering some good discussion.

Cindy Solonec
Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez
Broome: Magabala Books, 2021
264pp.
ISBN: 9781925936001

(Review copy courtesy Magabala Books)

Novel-in-stories, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air

This is my third post inspired by Reading like an Australian writer, and it involves two First Nations writers, Ellen van Neerven on Tara June Winch’s award-winning debut novel Swallow the air. I chose van Neerven’s essay for my next post, because, coincidentally, I’d just read Winch’s story “Cloud busting” in Flock, an anthology, edited by van Neerven. Are you keeping up? “Cloud busting” is one of the stories in Swallow the air.

Form? What form?

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air

In my review of Swallow the air, I wrote:

The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English.

The asterisk pointed to a note at the end of my post, which stated that one story from the novel, the aforementioned “Cloud busting”, had been published separately in Best Australian stories 2006. And, in her essay, van Neerven says that she had used “Cloud busting” with students. Sounds like it could become one of Australia’s popular anthologised stories. This would be a good thing because, also in her essay, van Neerven comments on having had no introduction to “Indigenous-authored books” when she was at school (which, for 31-year-old van Neerven, was not that long ago.) Short stories are an excellent form for introducing school students to great stories and writing, and it would be a good thing to see more diverse stories added to current anthology favourites.

“Cloud busting” is a beautiful story, by the way, because it makes a point about deep loss but also conveys the warmth, trust and generosity that can exist between people.

Anyhow, back to form. Just as I wrote in my post on Swallow the air, van Neerven also comments on the book’s form, noting that “writing relational novels-in-stories” is a “very First Nations practice”. She cites Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads (my review) and Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman and Fleabag, as other examples. Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing (my review) fits in here somewhere too, I’d say. I hadn’t really thought about this as being particularly First Nations, as we all know novels from various writers that generate arguments about whether they are novels or short story collections. However, in my experience – and I am generalising a bit – First Nations people can be great story-tellers so it wouldn’t surprise me to find the form of “novel-in-stories” being more common among First Nations writers.

Further discussing this book, in which protagonist May goes on a journey back to Country to find her Wiradjuri origins, van Neerven makes another interesting observation, which is that May’s journey “plays into the reader’s romanticised expectations that a return to Country will bring the story a happy resolution”. But, of course, it’s not that simple. Country has often been too damaged by “past policies and institutionalisations”, as van Neerven puts it, for this to happen, but, she says, May does come to understand something important, which is that Country “lives within her” and her family “allowing her to feel strong in her identity without the shame of not living or growing up on Country”. Of course, it’s not up to me to pronounce on the validity of this way of seeing, but it makes good sense to me.

Anyhow, I’ll leave it, on these two interesting-to-me points, as I don’t want to steal the life from Castle’s book. These essays are all so different, as you’d expect, but this just makes them more worthwhile. You just never know what approach a writer is going to take when talking about another writer, but you do know that it will probably be insightful.

Ellen van Neerven
“Kinship in fiction and the genre blur of Swallow the air as novel in stories”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 7-12
ISBN: 9781742236704

Tara June Winch
“Cloud busting”
in Ellen van Neerven (ed), Flock: First Nations stories then and now
St. Lucia: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702264603 (Kindle)

Alf Taylor, God, the devil and me (#BookReview)

It was a complete coincidence that, as I was writing last week’s Monday Musings post on diversity and memoir, I was also reading a First Nations memoir, but such is the reading life, eh? The memoir, Alf Taylor’s God, the devil and me, is, however, both very much a memoir but also its own thing, which I’ll explain as we continue.

For those who, like me, hadn’t heard of Alf Taylor, here is a brief bio. He grew up in the Benedictine-run New Norcia Mission, Western Australia, escaping when he was fifteen years old. He then worked around Perth and Geraldton as a seasonal farm worker, before joining the Australian Army. Eventually, he “found his voice as a writer and poet”, and has had three collections of poetry and short stories published, including one also published in Spanish. He has given readings at festivals and events in Australia, England, France, India and Spain. The memoir’s Foreword describes him as the leading “Elder Nyoongar writer in Western Australia, as Kim Scott [who has appeared on my blog] is the leading younger writer”.

God, the devil and me is typical memoir in that it focuses on a particular aspect of Taylor’s life, his time at New Norcia from around 7 years old to his escape as a 15-year-old. We are talking the 1950s and 60s, which is horrifying to this 50s-60s child! As he tells it, he asked his parents, on a visit to the mission, if he could stay because his brother was there. So the die was cast, but very soon he realised it had not been a good request. Although his father and brothers, and his father’s mother had all gone “through New Norcia Mission”, and had become “good Catholic[s]”, for him it was a terrible experience. His story is one of unremitting brutality – including regular use of straps and sticks to keep the children in line, a diet that consisted primarily of “sheep’s head broth”, and inappropriate clothing – and utter rejection of the children’s Indigenous language and culture.

But, God, the devil and me, is also quite different from your usual memoir. For a start, and most significantly, it’s not told chronologically. Instead, it constantly shifts around, telling various stories ranging over his time at New Norcia. On the surface, the book looks like a bunch of, often quite short, anecdotes but, these stories are connected, not so much chronologically, as thematically, with one occasion or story usually leading organically to another. The end result is an impressionistic – if Dickensian – picture of life at New Norcia, rather than a coherent life story.

Many themes run through the memoir, the brutality, the sadness and loneliness, and alcohol, to which he is introduced through helping the priests with the altar wine. He doesn’t shy from intimating his own later problems with alcohol and he makes clear that many of his Mission friends had died early due to it. Another major thread of course is religion, and his introduction to God and the Devil, who, he is told by the priests, will always be with him. Early in the memoir, alcohol and God are intrinsically linked in his mind:

‘Taylorrr, you’rrre neverrrr going to make it in life. When you get out of herrrre, you arrrre going to get a flagon, find a shady tree and drrrink yourrrrself to death. All of you.’

Being so young, I clasped my hands in prayer and whispered, ‘Yes, Brother, I am going to do all those things when I grow up.’ I agreed with Brother Augustine because I thought that God was passing those words to the brother, who in turn, spat them at me.

Here we see one iteration of the memoir’s underlying idea, the confusion in the young Alf’s mind about religion – what it meant, who God was, how Jesus fit in, not to mention the role of the Brothers in it all. Near the end of the memoir is a surreal scene in which the sleeping Alf leaves his body and ascends to Heaven where he meets (good) Judas and (drunk) Peter. In this scene, Alf finds/creates/discerns a more charitable Christianity than he has experienced at the Mission (which, he sees as being worse than Hell could ever be).

“turn sorrow into laughter”

Alf Taylor is clearly a storyteller. He convincingly embodies his young self when writing about his childhood. The memoir is fundamentally political, but you don’t hear words like “invasion” or “dispossession”. What you hear is a mish-mash of history as young Alf understood it. White Australians are generally referred to as Captain Cook’s Australians and the government, Captain Cook Government. He describes a visit to the Mission of the “Native Affairs men and women”. When asked who founded Australia,

of course, at the top of our lungs, we all shouted in unison ‘Captain James Cook’ with such pride that even old Jimmie Cook himself would’ve risen from the grave and saluted us little Native children.

Similar, usually self-deprecating, humour recurs throughout. Taylor is one of those writers who can use humour to inject a sting in the tail. Here is another moment. Injured by a rock, he is taken to hospital in Perth, where:

I was in for the shock of my life – there were little Captain Cooks lying everywhere; there seemed to be a million of them, and not one little blackfella around.

And, what’s more, he notices that “the gawking Watjella kids all looked the same”!

However, Taylor’s experience isn’t all bad. There are bright moments. Footy is one, but best is when they can get out into the bush. It is in these moments that young Alf is happiest:

running free through the bush, watching the birds fluttering through the leaves or sitting by a stream watching a babbling brook hiss its foam at you was magic … to me, the bush was Heaven. Only Watjellas went to Heaven; we Nyoongahs, when we died came back as a bird or an animal, even as a newly formed brook to quench the thirst of other weary Nyoongah kids … I mean, to me, the bush was everything, my mother, my father; to me, in the bush, I could do no wrong; the fire of Hell did not exist.

He recognises his Ancestors as being the source of his true spirituality – and yet, there is always the overlay of “God, the devil and me”. How DID that fit in with everything else?

Early in the memoir, Taylor shares that the “best thing” he got from New Norcia was learning to read and write. These, he said, were “my weapons” and he devoted much time to them. He also talks about the love of books, and “sneaking off to the library” when others were playing: “a book was like magnetism to me and the pencil was my friend”.

I will leave it here. With its strong content and seemingly disjointed structure, God, the devil and me is not an easy read, but it pays persistence with gold, because this voice, while different from other First Nations voices, complements them and adds depth to the truths we are hearing.

Contribution for Brona’s AusReadingMonth2021.

Alf Taylor
God, the devil and me
Broome: Magabala Book, 2021
289pp.
ISBN: 9781925936391

Review copy courtesy Magabala Books

Nardi Simpson, Song of the crocodile (#BookReview)

Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile is a tight multi-generational saga set in the fictional town of Darnmoor over the last decades of the twentieth century. It tells the story of the people of the Campgrounds, who are ostracised, exploited and abused by the white townspeople. Between the Campgrounds and the town proper, with its ironically named Grace and Hope Streets, is the tip, which was created by knocking down “strangely scratched gums” on the old bora grounds. The road to the tip, and on to the Campgrounds, is Old Black Road. The stage is set …

“trespassers on their own country”

The story is told in three parts which span three generations of the Billymil family – Celie, her daughter Mili, and Mili’s eldest son Paddy. Celie’s part starts, however, with her mother, Margaret. Margaret not only runs the town hospital’s laundry, but also undertakes the major load of nursing the hospital’s First Nations patients. They are housed on “the back verandah” and are mostly ignored by the hospital’s medical staff. In this way, very early in the novel, we get the picture loud and clear about how the town’s Indigenous people are treated. The racism, the omniscient narrator tells us, is “hidden yet glaring. It’s the Darnmoor way”.

But there is a parallel story going on here, too, that of the spirits and ancestors, the “knowledge keepers”, who reside among the stars. They “wait for their loved ones to arrive” but they also introduce an important idea underlying this story – the “connectedness” of “all living or once lived things”. This connection is symbolised in the novel by threads and ropes that join sky and earth through birds and trees to the roots underground. I loved that Simpson shared this, that she trusted her readers to respect a worldview that’s foreign to many of us.

Intrinsic to this connectedness, of course, is the land. Some of the book’s most lyrical writing comes from descriptions of the country – rivers, trees, birds – in which it is set. This country is the freshwater plains of northwest New South Wales, the traditional lands of Simpson’s Yuwaalaraay heritage. In her novel its main feature is the Mangamanga River, “known by some as the wide-bodied, liquid boss of the plains.” It is to this river that Mili and/or members of her family go to refresh their spirits, but the men of Darnmoor want to control it, and protect themselves, by building a levee between the town and the Campgrounds.

Essentially, then, Song of the crocodile is the story of people who are made to feel “trespassers in their own land”. But, it’s also the story of strong, resilient women who forge a community on the Campgrounds. With guts and confidence, Celie turns her mother’s laundry skills into a business called the Blue Shed, providing work for herself and the other women. These women are a joy to read about, but they and their families are barely tolerated by the town, which ensures they know their place. When Mili’s bright young friend Trilpa wins a mathematics prize she is disqualified on trumped-up grounds, and when Mili, herself, applies for permission – permission, would you believe – to continue school past the age of 15, she too is brought down, by Mayor Mick Murphy, in the worst way.

“threads of broken lore”

Needless to say, it’s a difficult story. Too many people, people we’ve come to love, “pass” too young. As the oppression of those left behind builds, creating “hopelessness and grief”, the beast – Garriya, our titular crocodile – starts to stir. Regular hints of his rumbling imbue the novel with a sense of foreboding.

The crocodile is apparently a creator being in Yuwaalaraay country, but his evocation in this novel, as Garriya, is unleashed by the evil that has been visited upon the Campground people, evil that has broken the country’s lore. We feel him coming, and Mili’s alienated son Paddy is the conduit. Desperate to counteract this, spirit songman Jakybird wants to reconnect the “threads of broken lore”. He prepares his spirit “choir” for one last, powerful song, Garriya’s cycle. The climax is shocking, but the ending is cheekily open.

All this sounds grim, but I didn’t find it hopeless. There is delightful warmth and humour in the interactions between the Campground women, and there is humour and hope in the spirit world. Through these, Simpson gives us a complex story of oppression and survival. For all the misery suffered by the Billymils and their community, there is hope in their resilience, in their ongoing connection to country, and in their determination to keep passing on culture. Early in the novel, laundry worker Joyce addresses the parcels for delivery, using drawings that convey “a belonging, a knowledge, a truth of the place on which they walked and worked”:

In most cases the recipients failed to notice the mark, tearing the paper off and crushing it into a ball. It didn’t matter that eventually it was taken to the tip and returned to the earth. What mattered were the boys on the bikes that delivered them, that read the symbols then read the land. The drawings and the washing restored old journeys, countrymen walking on places they knew.

Simpson also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, uses Yuwaalaraay language throughout. She doesn’t directly translate it and there is no glossary. This bothered some of my reading group, while others of us felt the meaning was always clear – or clear enough. Here, for example, is Margaret in Chapter 1:

“Yaama. Dhii ngaya gaagilanha. Who wants a cuppa?” Margaret pushed open the door to the hospital’s back verandah, its hingers squealing as she entered. “How are we all today?”

Song of the crocodile was my reading group’s July book, and it resulted in one of our liveliest discussions this year, as we defended our diverse responses to its ideas, style, characters and tone.

For me it was an absorbing read. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of the insidious racism that First Nations Australians confront and the devastating impact of that on the spirit, but it also shows resilience in the face of that, and it affirms that culture is strong. That has to be a positive thing?

For Lisa’s and other blog reviews, check her ILW Fiction Reading List.

Challenge logo

Nardi Simpson
Song of the crocodile
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2020
401pp.
ISBN: 9780733643743

Adam Thompson, Born into this (#BookReview)

When my brother gave me Tasmanian author Adam Thompson’s Born into this earlier this year, I told him I’d save it for Lisa’s ILW 2021, which I did – and which means I can now thank him properly for a yet another well-chosen gift, because this is a strong, absorbing and relevant read. If you haven’t heard of Thompson, as I hadn’t, he is, says publisher UQP, “an emerging Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania”. 

Born into this is a debut collection of sixteen short stories about the state’s Palawa/Pakana people, and based primarily in Launceston and islands in the Bass Straight. It reminds me a little of Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Too much lip (my review) because, like it, these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian – in setting and in dealing with issues and conditions specific to that place.

They may live in two worlds, but they are still mob (“The old tin mine”)

I like to think about the order in which stories in a collection are presented, although I can never be confident of the assumptions I make about the reasoning. How can I, I suppose, as I’m not in the heads of the authors and their editors. The first story here, “The old tin mine”, is an interesting choice: it introduces various issues and ideas which are picked up through the collection and it sets a sort of resigned tone. The issues include the relationship between black and white in Australia, the introduction of city Indigenous kids to country and culture, the clumsy conscientiousness of white people who want to do the right thing, the politics involved, and the world-weariness of older Indigenous people in dealing with all of this. The story is told first person through the eyes of “Uncle Ben”, the Indigenous leader on an “Aboriginal survival camp”. He is tired, and cynical, and not particularly interested in dealing with these

Aboriginal teens. City boys. Three from Launceston, three from Hobart. “Fair split, north and south”, according to the organisation that had won the black money.

But it’s a job, and these jobs are becoming less frequent, so he takes it on.

The second story, “Honey”, is told third person, and concerns the interactions between white man Sharkey, who has a honey business, and his Palawa employee, Nathan. Sharkey is arrogant, condescending and oblivious of how his behaviour might affect Nathan. He asks Nathan for the “Aboriginal word for honey” because he thinks using it to brand his honey would “be a good gimmick for selling honey … ‘specially with the tourists”. Not all stories work out this way, but in this one, Nathan has the last laugh.

“Honey” also introduces another idea that peppers the collection, which is land rights, and non-indigenous Australians’ fear of losing land. The collection, in fact, references many of the issues confronting contemporary Australia’s relationship with its First Nations peoples: land rights; Invasion Day (or “change the date”); dispossession, the loss of Indigenous culture and attempts to reclaim it; social issues like incarceration, alcoholism and suicide among Indigenous people; and the Stolen Generations, to name some of them.

Some stories, however, respond to a particular Tasmanian issue, that regarding the definition of indigenity. As I wrote in my post on Kathy Marks’ Channelling Mannalargenna, Tasmania’s history has resulted in a specific set of circumstances regarding loss of identity, which has caused, and is still causing, complications and conflict over Indigenous identification in the state. One of the stories on this subject is “Descendant” about a bright, politicised but ostracised young schoolgirl who runs her school’s ASPA (Aboriginal Students and Parents) committee. Dorothy is assiduous about who is and is not “P-A-L-A-W-A”, and has family-tree records to prove it. Aboriginality, she says, is about “being”, not “choosing”. The story provides an excellent example of Thompson’s use of imagery to underpin his themes: Dorothy’s prized mug is accidentally broken, and Cooper, the supportive (of course!) librarian, tries to repair it, but

Bold, white cracks now intersected the Aboriginal colours like a tattered spider web.

Thompson’s writing in this collection is accessible but evocative. His dialogue varies appropriately from speaker to speaker, and the imagery, particularly that regarding colour – red, blue and white, representing white Australia, versus the red, black and orange of First Nations Australia’s flag – is pointed but not overdone. Thompson clearly knows his country. His descriptions of the islands, and the plants and birdlife endemic to them, take you there (or, at the very least, teach you about them.)

I would love to write about more of the collection’s stories, but I should leave you some surprises. I will say, though, that Thompson’s wide cast of characters – from young, disaffected palawa to smart activists, from genuine white people, who want to understand, to the smug and/or rich ones (as in the incisive “The black fellas from here“) – ensures that this collection hits home. No reader, really, can hide from the truths here because they touch us all.

White makes you wary (“Aboriginal Alcatraz”)

Born into this, then, is clearly political, but it is not all bleak. Some stories end with a bang or a twist, which skewer their points home, while others are more gentle. The title story, “Born into this“, is one of the more poignant ones. It tells of Kara, who works as a receptionist at an Aboriginal housing co-op. She’s jaded. Her boss is “a tick-a-box Aboriginal” who “could never prove his identity”, and she is tired of the struggle to survive. So, deep in the forest, where she had learnt about country from her uncle, she spends her spare time working away on her own quiet, little subversive project, a project that involves

Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive. She took in the surrounding devastation and thought again about her own life.

“Born into this”.

She knows she won’t make a difference, but “fulfilling some cultural obligations in her own small, secret way” keeps her sane.

It would be great to think that books like Born into this could make a difference – and I think they could, if we all not only listened to Indigenous writers like Thompson, but also took on board, really took on board, what they tell us about ourselves.

For more reviews of this novel, please click Lisa’s ILW 2021 link in this post’s opening paragraph.

Adam Thompson
Born into this
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
210pp.
ISBN: 9780702263118

Monday musings on Australian literature: Recovering Australia’s Indigenous languages (2)

2021 National NAIDOC logo.

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2021 Indigenous Literature Week which coincides of course with NAIDOC Week, and, again, I’ve decided to contribute this week’s Monday Musings to the cause. The topic I’ve chosen, the reclamation of First Nations languages, was partly inspired by last week’s Monday Musings on Eliza Hamilton Duncan, but also follows up a post I wrote early last year on the topic.

According to academic Elizabeth Webby, Dunlop was the “first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and [w]as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture”. Dunlop also created vocabularies of the local language. Consequently, her work, like that of other colonials, is helping language reclamation projects around Australia. Of course, if settlers hadn’t stolen land and destroyed culture, and hadn’t actively suppressed language, in the first place, this arduous work would not be needed.

Each year NAIDOC week has a theme, and 2021’s is “Heal country, heal our nation” which, the website says, “calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.” Given the significant role played by language in maintaining culture, a post on language reclamation is, I think, relevant to this theme.

‘The living voices of our past giving strength to our future’

This heading is the goal of a 2013-established organisation, First Languages Australia. They are working, they say, to “a future where Aboriginal language communities and Torres Strait Islander language communities have full command of their languages and can use them as much as they wish to.” This is just one organisation working on the goal.

Another is Living Languages, founded in 2004 under another name. They describe their purpose as “to support the sustainability of Indigenous languages and Indigenous peoples’ ownership of their language documentation and revitalisation.”

It is difficult to assess the magnitude of the challenge because so much is lost, but Living Languages says that some 250-400 languages were spoken across Australia, or up to 700 and 800 if you include language varieties and dialects. However, they say, Australia has been “identified as one of five language endangerment hotspots worldwide, with only around 13 languages being passed on to children today”.

As I wrote in my previous post, First Nations communities vary in their attitude to sharing language outside their communities. This statement by the Kaurna people on the University of Adelaide’s language courses webpage clearly states their position:

Kaurna language and culture is the property of the Kaurna community. Users of this site are urged to use the language with respect. This means making every effort to get the pronunciation, spelling and grammar right.

Kaurna people reserve the right to monitor the use of the language in public. Users of this site should consult with Kaurna people about use of the language in the public domain.

Random projects and activities

There’s no way I could document all the projects – big and small – that are happening around Australia, so I’m going to share three (adding to those I mentioned in last year’s post) which exemplify the sorts of things that are happening.

Eidsvold State School Wakka Wakka program

Located in Queensland’s North Burnett Region, this school has developed, says the Teach Queensland website, a “unique language program” that engages the whole school with the local community and in learning the local Aboriginal language, Wakka Wakka. The local First Nations people support this program:

After several years of planning and consultation with Traditional Owner groups, the Wakka Wakka Corporation and the community, Eidsvold State School encourages all students and staff to speak to each other in Wakka Wakka using short phrases.

Mawng Ngaralk language website

Mawng is spoken in the western part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The site tells us that Warruwi School runs a Mawng language program and supports the 2014-established Warruwi Language Centre which runs other Mawng language activities. Do check out this website, because it contains a dictionary and many, many videos in which local speakers share their knowledge in ways that both document vocabulary and pronunciation, and show how the language is used in song and dance.

Paper and Talk workshop

This was a two-week workshop held in 2019, led by Monash University, in collaboration with Living Languages and AIATSIS. Its aim was “to help revive languages from five Aboriginal communities”: Anaiwan (NSW), Wakka Wakka (QLD), Yorta Yorta (VIC), Ngunnawal (ACT) and Wergaia (VIC). The workshop gave language researchers from these communities “the opportunity and skills to access archives and transform them into usable language resources”. They were, for example, introduced to resources, like an 1800s surveyors’ notebook, in which language were documented by early settlers (like Dunlop).

What about irretrievably lost languages?

Maïa Ponsonnet, who researches Aboriginal languages, though is not Indigenous herself, makes the point that “while there are very good reasons to deplore the loss of small languages, assuming this loss condemns cultural identity may be unhelpful and reductive to those who have already shifted away from their heritage language”. In her article in The Conversation she argues that reclaiming languages is important, but that over-focus on it can be hurtful and, in some circumstances, politically damaging for those whose languages are lost. Language, her research is showing, is “plastic”. Post-colonial languages like Kriol can be “shaped by culture”, she writes. “Even when language is replaced, culture can continue”.

Thoughts, anyone?

Click here here to see all my previous ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Forgotten writers 2, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop

When I started my Monday Musings sub-series on forgotten Australian writers a couple of months ago, I had a few writers in mind, including the first one I did, Helen Simpson. However, a couple of weeks ago, The Conversation published the latest in their Hidden Women of History series, and the subject was an Irish-Australian poet, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. I figured that, being a poet, she also qualifies for my Forgotten Writers series. I hadn’t heard of her, but she has become well-known in academic circles, because of … well I’ll let The Conversation explain.

Anna Johnston, co-editor with Elizabeth Webbey, of the recently published collection of essays Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the colonial frontier, launches her The Conversation article with

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

Dunlop, Johnston continues, had arrived in Sydney in February and was “horrified by the violence” she read about in the papers. Her poem was inspired by the evidence given in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre. In it, she condemns “settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime”.

The poem made Dunlop “locally notorious”, but “she didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press”. She hoped

the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.

So, who was this outspoken, confident woman?

She was born in Ireland in 1796. Her father was a lawyer, but her mother died soon after her birth. Soon after, her father moved to India, to be a Supreme Court judge, so she was raised by her paternal grandmother. Johnston writes that she grew up in a “privileged Protestant family with an excellent library”, and “grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft”. She started writing at a young age, and had poems published in local magazines in her teens.

These poems reflected her interest in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics. After travelling to India in 1820, she wrote poems about the impact of British colonialism. Then, in 1823 she married book binder and seller David Dunlop, in Scotland. His family history inspired poems about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion.

According to ADB, she had previously married an Irish astronomer in Ireland and had two children, one born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1816. They don’t mention what happened to this husband, but they concur with Johnston about her marrying Dunlop in 1823. Johnston says that Eliza and David had five children in Coleraine, and that they were engaged there “in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords”. Clearly, Dunlop was politically engaged from an early age.

The family left Ireland in 1837, arriving in Australia, as mentioned above, in February 1938. Husband David worked first as a magistrate in Penrith, before, in 1839, becoming police magistrate and protector of Aborigines at Wollombi and Macdonald River, where he remained until 1847. ADB’s Gunson says that “as a minor poet Mrs Dunlop contributed to the literary life of the Hunter River circle” and that “her acquaintance with the European literary world gave her a place of prestige, and though neither as talented nor radical as, for example, Charles Harpur, her contribution was original”.

Songs of an exile

She may not have been, as “talented” or “radical” as others, but Sydney University Press deems her a worthy subject. Their promo for the above-mentioned book says that, after the publication of “The Aboriginal mother”,

She published more poetry in colonial newspapers during her lifetime, but for the century following her death her work was largely neglected. In recent years, however, critical interest in Dunlop has increased, in Australia and internationally and in a range of fields, including literary studies; settler, postcolonial and imperial studies; and Indigenous studies.

One of those interested is Katie Hansord, who has an essay in the book and who has written about her on the Tinteán online magazine website. Hansord’s article is titled – surprise, surprise – “a forgotten colonial woman poet”. Hansord says that in addition to being a poet she was “a playwright, a writer of short stories, and a passionate advocate of human rights with a keen interest in politics”. She writes that

Dunlop’s poetry reflects her concerns with both gender and nationalism. It should be remembered that in its original publication, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ was the fourth poem in the series ‘Songs of an Exile’ which Dunlop published in The Australian from October 1838.

The poem is easily found on the web, and has been included in many anthologies, but it is also in Hansord’s article, linked above. The poem was, as were many of Dunlop’s poems, set to music by Isaac Nathan, and performed in concerts at the time.

However, the point I wish to end on concerns the reception of “The Aboriginal mother” because it was, of course, controversial. Leading the negative charge was, apparently, The Sydney Morning Herald, which essentially believed that Dunlop had “given an entirely false idea of the native character”(29 November 1941), that, in effect, the Indigenous people were not capable of such deep feelings.

Hansord says more about this in her article:

Elizabeth Webby has also pointed out that the Sydney Morning Herald ‘which had strongly opposed the execution of the men involved in Myall Creek was for many years very hostile to her [Dunlop] and her work’ (Blush 45). This hostility seems also to have reflected a growing white masculinist nationalist agenda.

Hansord briefly discusses the construction of “Australianness” during the nineteenth century, a construction that privileged white Australian-born men. For immigrant Irishwoman Dunlop – who was also actively engaged in capturing Indigenous language and translating Indigenous songs – this was clearly not good enough, and she engaged. (You can find an example of an Indigenous poem captured in the original language and translated by Dunlop, in The Band of Hope Journal and Australian Home Companion (5 June 1958)).

Dunlop died in Wollombi in 1880, and is buried in the local Church of England cemetery. There is clearly much more to this woman, but let this be a little introduction to another interesting, independent colonial Australian woman!

The Griffyns are back – with Songs from a Stolen Senate

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the performing arts industry, as we all know, and that, of course, included our beloved Griffyn Ensemble. However, they clearly didn’t spend the time twiddling their thumbs, because this weekend they returned to live performance at the new Belco Arts Theatre. What a thrill it was to see and hear these special musicians again – and with an inspired and inspiring program*. Titled Songs from a Stolen Senate, it featured music commissioned from some of Australia’s leading First Nation musicians. Their brief was to use Parliamentary text – hence the performance’s title – to create “song and storytelling from the perspective of their own life stories”. This is the first in an ongoing series that the Griffyns say will explore how Australian identity has been forged since European settlement.

It was a brave program, because it involved the Griffyns working collaboratively with a number of Indigenous Australian musicians and laying themselves bare to the discomfort – to leaving one’s comfort zone – that such collaboration inevitably entails if it’s conducted honestly. However, it also showed what such collaboration undertaken with open hearts and good will can achieve, which is why I started this post with the words “inspired and inspiring”. Of course, it goes without saying that Indigenous Australians have experienced discomfort – and much, much worse – for a long time, so it’s time that the rest of us opened ourselves up to that too, as Jimblah said in his video statement during the show.

Promo published on YouTube in October 2020

So, who did they collaborate with? With indigenous artists from around Australia: Warren Williams (Aranda country musician), Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse (Noongar singer-songwriters), Norah Bagiri (singer-songwriter from Mua Island in the Torres Straits), Christopher Sainsbury (Canberra-based Dharug/Eora composer), Brenda Gifford (Canberra-based Yuin composer), and with Canberra poet, Melinda Smith, who undertook parliamentary research and helped with the lyrics. If I understood correctly, to these original five collaborations were added Gina Williams’ beautiful Wanjoo welcome song, chosen by Griffyn soprano Susan Ellis; a piece composed by the Griffyns in collaboration with local Ngunnawal visual artist, Richie Allen; and the song “Not in my name” inspired by hip-hop artist from Larrakia nation Jimblah’s call for us to “activate”.

And what, exactly, did they collaborate about? Well, these won’t be a surprise as the musicians explored the sorts of topics you would expect, including the Stolen Generations, climate politics, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, assimilation policies. The original brief was, as I’ve said, to use Parliamentary text, but some of the musicians needed to go wider. For example, Norah Bagiri wanted to write about climate change and rising sea levels in the Torres Strait, but that has not been covered in Parliament, so it was to the UN that she and Melinda Smith went! Similarly, Gina Williams was interested in AO Neville, the notorious Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, so they used words from the Western Australian government.

Anyhow, the end result was a musical program performed by the Ensemble, supported by beautifully curated verbal contributions from the creators, presented on a large screen, interspersed with the live music.

Program (jotted down in the dark so perhaps not quite right)

  • Wanjoo welcome song (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Instrumental work (Warren Williams)
  • The view from the shore (Norah Bagiri)
  • Music from Ngunnawal Country (inspired by local Ngunnawal Kamilaroi visual artist, Richie Allen)
  • Breathe (Brenda Gifford)
  • What are we to do (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Not in my name (Jimblah)
  • Red kangaroo standing (Christopher Sainsbury)

Some of the issues that came out through the program included exploration of our national anthem’s notion of “young and free” (Gifford) and the fact that Noongar language didn’t have words for “stolen” and “freedom” (Williams and Ghouse):

They have no word for stolen
They have no word for freedom
What kind of civilisation is this?

All the pieces were strong, engaging and musically interesting, but I found “What are we to do” and “Not in my name” particularly haunting.

The program ended on something a little more hopeful, Christopher Sainsbury’s “Red kangaroo standing”, which was inspired by Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives, to serve as a government minister, and to be appointed to cabinet. Sainsbury, I believe, wanted to leave us with a positive sense of where Indigenous Australians are now and of non-Indigenous Australia’s increasing openness to Aboriginal culture. However, I couldn’t help hearing a touch of irony in the the last words of the piece – and of the program – “thank you”!

The Griffyns’ current line-up has been together for several years now, and the simpatico – musical, intellectual and yes, I’d say, emotional – that is clearly between them makes these concerts not only of high quality, performance-wise, but a real joy to be part of. It goes without saying that I look forward to their next concert. (Meanwhile, if you live near Castlemaine, Victoria, you can see this program there on 28th March.)

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director, mandolin), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (voice), Kiri Sollis (flutes), and Chris Stone (violin)

* This program was intended to launch the new theatre at Belco Arts last May, but COVID-19 stopped that. It was then presented, virtually, last September in the Where You Are Festival, for which I booked, and then missed!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary responses to Coonardoo

Book cover

Ask and you shall receive, they say, and so when Lisa (ANZLitLovers) expressed interest in what Prichard’s contemporaries thought of her novel Coonardoo, I thought I’d love to know too. However, I’m sure Nathan Hobby will cover this in some detail in his upcoming biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. I don’t want spoil that, so will keep this to a brief survey of some of the reactions I found in Trove.

First though I was horrified by the frequency with which Prichard’s name was spelt incorrectly. This must have driven Hobby mad in his research. She is frequently written as KathErine, not KathArine, and occasionally Catherine, and even Kathleen. Really? Then, there’s her last name, which was often reported as PriTchard not Prichard. It must have driven HER mad too, at the time. Sometimes, too, her married name, Mrs Hugo Throssell, is used.

Because I was looking for contemporary responses, I narrowed my search to 1928 to 1930, covering the time when Coonardoo won the Bulletin Prize (shared with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built). Most of the pieces I read came from literary and book pages (or B.P.s), with a couple of more extended articles or reviews, and one or two letters to the editor to round out the response!

Humourless and sordid

I’ll start with the comments relating to ideas about what literature should be, or, should not be: it should not be, many argued, grim, humourless or sordid. Heaven forbid, it seems, that writers address society’s serious issues. Much better to entertain with romance and humour. Of course, those can leaven serious books, I know, but we shouldn’t eschew grim pieces – Barbara Baynton is a good example – which can make important points.

A.T.C., writing in Perth’s Sunday Times (27 January 1929), calls Coonardoo “sordid and utterly destitute of romance”. Socialist and journalist S.A. Rosa writing in The Labor Daily (10 August 1929) was also critical:

Both Coonardoo and Hugh wasted their lives. Why? Is it really necessary, too, that there should be a persistent atmosphere of gloom in a novel dealing with Australian life in the interior? Is there no humor in such a life?

In Perth’s The Daily News (3 August 1929, the Books and Authors writer compares Coonardoo unfavourably with its Bulletin prize-winning mate:

‘A House Is Built’ is the more enjoyable, and the more robustly Australian than the sun-dried desolation of Katharine Prichard’s unhappy story of the North-West.

There are more, including “Austral” in Adelaide’s The Advertiser (4 September 1929):

I, at any rate, have never read a book which combines so much dreariness, sordidness, and monotony with such an utter lack of humor.

 Not all were so negative, however. The West Australian‘s (27 July 1929) Book Reviews page writer accepts that “there is a good deal that is undeniably squalid” in Prichard’s image of station life in the North-West, but argues that there is also great descriptive beauty and profound knowledge of “the Australian aboriginal in his native state”. (See below for more on this issue.)

Representative?

Closely related to the above criticisms, and often contained in the same article, were accusations that the book is not representative of the bush. Some of these express concern that books like Coonardoo gave a bad impression of Australia for overseas readers, particularly the English. They are defensive about Australia, wanting to maintain the notion of “the wonderful personality of the outback man, his unbounded generosity, his unconventional hospitality, his self-sacrificing bravery and unostentatious generosity” (Capricornian, 10 October 1929).

A.T.C. (mentioned above) comments in the same piece on the Coonardoo‘s being published:

There should be a foreword in the book pointing out that it is but a phase of life in the North-west of Western Australia, and does not picture the real white social existence in that part of WA. It deals with the natives and their contact with rather dissolute whites … The pity of it is that a book of this nature will be accepted in England as typical of the country …

Similarly, the writer in Rockhampton’s The Capricornian (25 July 1929), quotes a friend in England, “a journalist of no mean order and a clever writer of book reviews”: 

‘If that is the class of story that is going to win the big Australian prizes I think it’s a darn bad advertisement for Australia, and Australians generally, and I’ll be frank, give me the failures rather than another “Coonardoo.” I would hesitate to think all Aussies were like the hero, or treated the natives so, and from comments heard from moving about amongst people, it does not appeal. It opens strongly but its end is woeful, almost disgusting.”

The aforementioned “Austral” picks up this theme too:

Australian life is not the dreary, hopeless affair outsiders are given to understand it to be, nor are our outback people the cheerless, despondent creatures such as some of our writers seem to delight in depicting. It is a pity that this type of literature should be given to the world as typical of the life and people of our glorious country, and I for one, being Australian born, of Australian parents, feel exceedingly resentful of the slurs which are cast upon both our country and our people.

“Austral” goes on to criticise Australian writers who ignore “the beauty and wonders of our great continent, the courage, cheerful optimism, and achievement of its outback people” to focus on “the gloomy, the sordid, and the depressing”.

It appears that there was some excited discussion among the B.P.s about Prichard’s depiction of “half-castes”, with various columnists weighing in with (unsupported) “facts”. One in The Capricornian (19 September 1929) argued that

One man of this class is often responsible for the existence of perhaps, a dozen or more half-castes, so why write a book that may lead strangers to believe the practice is common? Further, the book is devoid of humour and a book to be really entertaining must have, at least, a little humour. Mrs. Gunn’s “We of the Never Never” is absolutely true to life. It also has a vein of humour and there is not even the most delicate hint of such a being as the half-caste. 

Who said a book has to be “entertaining” (however we define that overused word)?

Again, not everyone agreed. The Ladies Realm writer (Adelaide’s Chronicle, 1 August 1929) claims that “the story is a truthful reflection of the lot of the pastoralist when seasons are against him”. Similarly, HH Ryall, in Sydney’s Evening News (12 October 1929), says

Brutal, lecherous individuals exist in every country where white men live among black, brown, or yellow. But then, so do others, who understand them, and play fair. […]

Australians should be proud of Mrs. Prichard’s effort to interpret for the outside world this outback phase of their country’s development. “We of the Never Never” left a fragrant memory. “Coonardoo” is not a pleasant sequel, but it is a story that demanded to be written.

On the “natives”

This brings me to commentary on Prichard’s treatment of Indigenous Australians in her book, but first it’s worth mentioning that Prichard’s research primarily comprised observation of station life, and information from white men. She is quoted:

‘About two years ago, […] I spent some time on an isolated cattle station in the NorthWest, and took the opportunity of gaining material for my book by studying the natives at close quarters. I wished to be as accurate as possible, and obtained very valuable help from Mr. Ernest Mitchell, inspector of aborigines for the whole of this State. Mr. Mitchell has been closely associated with the blacks for 30 years or more and is a recognised authority on the subject.’

She also says in this article that she “benefited by the long experience of Mr. James Withnell, a well known squatter, who had helped her with particulars of native songs and folk-lore. Through his aid she had been able to obtain the actual words of aboriginal songs, always a difficult task, and had incorporated such songs in her story.”

An “inspector of aborigines” and a “squatter”. This would not, of course, be acceptable now.

Some of the commentary is shocking, such as:

  • the previously cited SA Rosa who suggested that “it may be that it is easier to plumb the depth of the character of a member of a primitive race than of a race more complex”.
  • the previously cited Ladies Realm article which comments that “the lot of Coonardoo is sad reading at the last, but her young days reflect the childishly happy mind of the contented aboriginal”.
  • “Bush-Woman” who wrote in a letter to the editor in Adelaide’s Register (27 December 1928) that “at present there is far too much rash, sentimental sympathy for the blacks. Taken en masse, they are talking animals with a fair sprinkling of the types depicted in Coonardoo, which it takes a couple of generations of careful handling and working to produce. 

Not everyone thought like this, however. The West Australian (10 May 1930) quotes from a review in The New York Times, including this:

Nevertheless, ‘Coonardoo’ stands as a forceful piece of social documentation and bids fair to do for Australia what ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ did for America, and Mrs. Millin is doing for South Africa— to make the white race face the facts of its treatment and study of the black descendants of the aborigines, through an authentic piece of national literature which raises a parochial problem to the level of the universal.

Finally, there’s our own Nettie Palmer who, in an extended essay on the state of Australian literature, included a paragraph on Coonardoo, commenting that in all the books she discussed, there was “hardly … a glance at the aboriginal life of Australia. It remained,” she writes, “for Katharine Prichard, in her Coonardoo, to experiment with this theme”.

This is a superficial response to Lisa, but that’s ok, because Nathan Hobby is coming! We just have to be patient a little longer. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed this little taste of what the popular media, at least, was saying.

A belated contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week.

Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson, Cooee mittigar: A story on Darug songlines (#BookReview)

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.

Challenge logo

Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson (illus.)
Cooee mittigar: A story on Darug songlines
Broome: Magabala Books, 2019
48pp.
ISBN: 9781925936865

* As many Australians know, Indigenous Australians do not see the year through “our” four-season calendar, but through different seasons depending on the country.