Ali Cobby Eckermann, Too afraid to cry (#BookReview)

ANZ Lit Lovers Indigenous Literature Week bannerHaving reviewed Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poetry collection, Inside my mother (my review) for Lisa’s ANZlitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 2017, I decided to also read her 2012 memoir, Too afraid to cry. It filled in a lot of gaps, which is not necessary to appreciate or comprehend the poetry but which does deepen the understanding.

The memoir’s dedication starts with the lines:

this is a poetic memoir
a story of healing
not burdened by blame

And that is pretty well what it is. It’s not an angry book, so much as a sorrowful one. Sorrow about the abuses and losses that affected her childhood and early adulthood, in particular. The sorrow starts early, when she’s young, and abused. She writes of her uncle rubbing her leg inappropriately, and progressing to assault, though she doesn’t say that because she’s only 7 years old. However, while she may not have the language to analyse what was happening to her, she does have the language to describe the feelings:

I felt the icy wind inside my head begin to blow. I could not move. The icy wind is very dangerous.

This “icy wind” becomes a metaphor throughout the book for the abuse, for her memory of it, and for its impact on her psyche until she can no longer cry – “the ice block had turned to stone, and now there was no moisture left inside me”. Hence the title of the memoir.

So, to summarise the book before I delve any further, Too afraid to cry is the story of a young indigenous baby adopted by a non-indigenous family. It’s a good loving family, with parents who, unable to have children, adopted four – two from the mission – and fostered another. But this family, as loving as it is, is a deeply religious one which does not understand the pain experienced by children from a different culture to its own. The result is that Eckermann is left to contend with racism and abuse that she, too, does not initially understand. Here, for example, is a schoolyard experience:

[I] didn’t notice that they had begun to form a circle around me, but I did notice that the icy wind was blowing inside my head and was starting to freeze my guts. Someone held me while other hands pulled my underpants down. There was a strange noise in my ears, like a faraway scream, but I could still hear the sounds of those doing the laughing and teasing. They said they wanted to know if I was the same as other girls. Someone laughed, saying they didn’t know if ‘boongs’ were different. I was frozen with the icy wind roaring through my body. I didn’t want to know what a ‘boong’ was.

Note the “icy wind” again. As childhood turns to adolescence, Eckermann, who had been an excellent student, begins to withdraw from her family and turns instead to alcohol and drugs to cope with the pain and sense of disconnect. It’s not a surprising story, but it’s a useful one for those who don’t understand what disconnection from one’s own culture can do, particularly in a society where difference is not tolerated. Eckermann learns much later, apparently, of the ridicule her adoptive mother had faced for having aboriginal children.

Anyhow, gradually, after many experiences, painful ones, risky ones and some more positive, Eckermann finds her way to her own culture, and healing begins:

Slowly the stone inside me turned to ice and then the ice began to melt. I felt real tears on my face for the first time in my adult life.

What’s remarkable about the memoir – something you may have guessed from what I’ve written – is her ability to get into her head at the time, to write from the point of view of the age and person she was when the things she describes happened, rather writing them as memory that she is now reflecting and commenting on. Of course the telling of the experience, the choosing of which experiences to tell, is a form of commentary, but I’m sure you get my point.

The memoir is remarkable for other reasons too. It’s told in 92 short anecdotal chapters, which are divided into four parts. The style is spare, with short, simple sentences. This is a book which shows rather than tells. Much of the commentary is conveyed through poems inserted between some of the chapters, such as “Heroin” between Chapters 45 and 46. It’s a short poem, like most of hers, and uses repetition and powerful wordplay on the word “arms”, to invoke prostitution, loving and heroin. The last stanza reads:

in their arms
they survive
a modern world.

Some of the poems appear again – the same or sometimes changed* – in Inside my mother.

Another aspect of the memoir, which adds to its sense of almost mythic universality, though is probably also done to protect individuals, is her minimal use of actual names. Her siblings, for example, include Big brother, Foster brother, and some relations are Aunty and Uncle. She does though name her mothers.

Too afraid to cry is an innovative and evocative memoir, which manages to convey hurt and pain, truthfully, but with a generosity that is humbling.

aww2017 badgeAli Cobby Eckermann
Too afraid to cry
Elsternwick: Ilura Press, 2012
ISSN: 978-1-921325-29-8 (eBook)

* Changed, I think. I’m writing this in California, and my copy of Inside my mother is back in Australia.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother (#BookReview)

ANZ Lit Lovers Indigenous Literature Week bannerAli Cobby Eckermann, a Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman, has featured a few times on this blog, including in my review of her verse novel, Ruby Moonlight, and my Monday Musings post on her winning the valuable Windham-Campbell Prize this year. She is now appearing again as I review her poetry collection, Inside my mother, for Lisa’s ANZlitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 2017.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my motherInside my mother is a challenging read, particularly if you are an occasional reader of poetry like I am, but it’s well worth the effort – for the insights it offers, and for the pure pleasure of reading a skilled wordsmith. As the title suggests, the collection’s focus is mothers – and there’s a reason for this, one all too familiar to indigenous Australians. Cobby Eckermann’s family has a history of children being taken from their mothers – her mother was taken from her mother, Cobby Eckermann was taken from hers, and then Cobby Eckermann had to give up her son for adoption. You can hear and feel the pain of these losses in the collection, but you can hear more too, because while these losses frame the collection, Eckermann doesn’t confine herself to them.

The collection is divided into four parts, which build up in intensity until we reach the last part in which the focus is squarely on grandmothers, mothers and children – and the attendant losses.

The poems, though, are not all grim in tone, they vary in form, and they are held together by recurring motifs or ideas, specifically, mothers (of course), sky, earth and birds, all of which make perfect sense given the author, her culture and themes. The first poem is one of a small number of shape poems. Shaped like a bird’s wing, and titled “Bird song”, it references the power of indigenous spirituality, and ironically comments on how it was so often co-opted by the church. It gets the collection off to a good start. Part 3 starts with another poem about birds, “Tjulpu”. It comprises two-line stanzas, with a separate final last line, and attests to the power of birds for the speaker. “Life is extinct/without bird song”, it starts.

The first indigenous poet I ever read, probably like most Australians around my age, was Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker, as my still loved edition had her). When I started reading Inside my mother, I wasn’t immediately reminded of Noonuccal, but when I got to the devastating poem written in the voice of a woman who drinks too much, “I tell you true”, I immediately thought of Noonuccal’s poems and their effective blend of the personal and the political. The poem is a plea for people to not rush to judge when they see someone “drunk and loud and cursing/Don’t judge too hard ‘cos you don’t know/What sorrows we are nursing”.

This poem looks simple. It uses those traditional rhetorical tools of rhyme and repetition to produce a singsong rhythm which satirically mocks the seriousness of the story it is telling. The effect is mesmerising. The second verse starts:

I can’t stop drinking I tell you true
Since I found my sister dead
She hung herself to stop the rapes
I found her in the shed

Other poems deal with traditional culture (“Vengeance”), political issues (“Hindmarsh Island”, “Kulila”, “Oombulgarri“), love (“Love 22/06/10”), stolen generations (“Severance”, “First born”, “The letter”), to name just a few. The meaning of some of these, particularly those I’ve listed under political issues, depend on knowledge of the politics they reflect. I needed, for example, to look up Oombulgarri.

Some poems are more personal (or, personally political!), such as “Eyes”, to give just one example. “Which eyes will she need today”, the speaker asks? Those of terror, or submission, or of “wonder or contempt”. I won’t tell you which ones she chooses, but they’re appropriate for the overall tone of this collection, reflecting its sorrow and its grit.

And then some, as usually happens with poetry collections, I found a little obscure, although, as I reread many for this review, more of them fell into place. You can’t rush poetry.

While it’s not my favourite poem in the collection, the last poem in Part 1 is appropriate to end on because it addresses the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week. It’s called “Lament”, and is another poem featuring two-line stanzas, and repetition. Of the six stanzas, three are the same: “I can not stop/must sing my song”. And why can’t he stop? Because he’s the “last speaker/of my mother tongue.” Language. So important.

aww2017 badgeAli Cobby Eckermann
Inside my mother
Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015
ISBN: 9781922146885


Monday musings on Australian literature: Ali Cobby Eckermann’s big prize

Last week’s news that Ali Cobby Eckermann had won a very special prize scuttled my plans for today’s Monday Musings post, which is fine because it can wait, whereas this one can’t. Last year, I wrote about Helen Garner winning the lucrative 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction. It was a new prize to me, and is American-based, so imagine my surprise when it popped up again this year through the announcement that indigenous Australian poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, had won the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry. How wonderful for her, and, by association, for Australian literature, for Australian indigenous writers, and, with Garner and now Eckermann winning, for Australian women writers too.

Eight Wyndham-Campbell Prizes were awarded this year, two each for Fiction, Non-Fiction, Drama and Poetry. This is the first year the awards have included poetry. These prizes, which are open to English-language writers around the world, were “established in 2013 with a gift from the late Donald Windham in memory of his partner of forty years, Sandy M. Campbell”. They’re impressive for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the nominations are made confidentially and judged anonymously, so the recipients have no idea they are in the running until they receive a call from the prize manager. Secondly, the prize is worth USD165,000. That is, each winner receives that amount of money. Now that’s a prize!

Before I get to our winner, just one more thing on the prize. It is awarded at a ceremony during the Windham-Campbell Festival, which happens this year from September 13-15, 2017 at Yale University. The awards ceremony apparently traditionally begins with an invited speaker who gives a talk on “Why I Write.” This year’s speaker will be Karl Ove Knausgård. All the events are apparently free and open to the public. Really, this is philanthropy isn’t it! Now, to …

Ali Cobby Eckermann

The prize announcement page describes her as “Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Australian”, and the page on her explains her work in these terms:

Through song and story, Ali Cobby Eckermann confronts the violent history of Australia’s Stolen Generations and gives language to unspoken lineages of trauma and loss.

It also says that she founded Australia’s first Aboriginal writers retreat. I didn’t know that.

Southerly 71-2 CoverEckermann has published poetry collections, two verse novels, and a prose memoir. She also edited a special issue of Southerly devoted to indigenous writing. Southerly, congratulating her on win, describes it as their best-selling issue.

On being told of her prize, Eckermann (born 1963) is reported as saying that it will change her life completely. She is currently living in a caravan and looking after her elderly adoptive mother. This money will help her bring her family – including her son and grandsons – together. She is, as you’ll have gathered, a product (I don’t want to say “victim”) of the Stolen Generations. Linda Morris, reporting the win in the Sydney Morning Herald, writes:

In her memoir Too Afraid to Cry, published in 2013, Eckermann related how she had been tricked away from her mother as a baby, repeating the trauma her mother had suffered when she was taken from her grandmother many years before. Eckermann, in turn, had to give her own child up for adoption.

It’s a tough story, and one that reflects, we now know, the lives of many indigenous people. It’s this story, and the wider dispossession of indigenous people, that Eckermann explores in her work. She told Morris that

”I like to think the prize recognises an honest truth around Stolen Generations, for writing around an emotional truth, not academic. I’ve learnt to embrace my emotional baggage and turn it into poetry.”

She sees herself as representing a ”generational voice, not a singular voice”.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby MoonlightIt might be useful here to list her work:

  • Little bit long time (2009, poetry collection)
  • Kami (2010, poetry collection)
  • His father’s eyes (2011, verse novel)
  • Love dreaming and other poems (2012, poetry collection)
  • Ruby Moonlight (2012, verse novel, my review, winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year and Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry)
  • Too afraid to cry (2013, memoir, and winner of the Tangkanungku Pintyanthi Fellowship)
  • Inside my mother (2015, poetry collection, Lisa’s combined reviews post, shortlisted for the NSW and Premier’s Literary Awards, and described by Eckermann as an “emotional timeline” of the Stolen Generations.)

In addition to these she has appeared in many anthologies, including a few editions of Best Australian poems.

The judges praised her ”substantial and formally innovative body of work”. I’ve only read a little of her work – Ruby Moonlight, which I’ve reviewed as you’ll have seen above, some of Inside my mother which I’ve just bought, and an individual poem or two. While I have to admit that my knowledge of poetry is not particularly deep, I can see from even this small sample what they mean by her work being “formally innovative”. As for “substantial”, I’m assuming they don’t just mean quantity but the quality and depth of her work and ideas.

Anyhow, while I didn’t use those words in my review of Ruby Moonlight, I tried to convey a sense of its formal and intellectual cleverness alongside the emotional engagement it generates. I can see these qualities in Inside my mother too. It opens with a gorgeous shape poem, “Birdsong”, and has at least one other, “Severance”. It has longer narrative poems alongside more abstract poems, of various forms, that convey feelings and ideas. There’s a discordant poem, “I tell you true”, that has an almost cheery singsong rhythm while telling a bitter story about alcohol abuse, violence, suicide, loss. And so on …

Interestingly, in his introduction to The best Australian poems 2009, poet Robert Adamson writes:

I attended the APC Regional Poetry Festival at Castlemaine in April 2008. Ali Cobby Eckermann, a poet from Alice Springs was on the program and she read a poem I have included here, “Intervention Pay Back”. Ali recited this poem and the audience was clearly moved. I was certainly moved by both the subject matter and the language of the poem. Somewhere between a ballad and written spoken word, it makes a new shift into what a poem might say and be.

“A new shift into what a poem might say and be” is clearly what the Wyndham-Campbell judges also saw nine years later.

So, big congratulations to Ali Cobby Eckermann on a much-deserved award … and kudos to the person or persons who nominated her.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby Moonlight (Review)

ANZLitLovers ILW 2016Ali Cobby Eckermann has been on my radar for a while, so when Lisa announced her 2016 Indigenous Literature Week, I decided Eckermann’s verse novel Ruby Moonlight would be my first choice. This novel won the poetry prize and the book of the year in the 2013 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards.

I enjoy verse novels but don’t read them often enough to build up a comprehensive understanding of the form. Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight is the shortest and sparest of those I’ve reviewed on this blog, but its narrative is just as strong. It is set in colonial South Australia – the not-very-poetic subtitle being “a novel of the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880” –  and tells the story of Aboriginal teenage girl, Ruby Moonlight, whose family is massacred by white settlers. The novel reads like a classic three-act drama. It opens with the massacre and Ruby’s lonely wanderings, and then moves into a somewhat idyllic phase when Ruby meets the also lonely “colourless man”, Miner Jack. They become friends and lovers, giving each other the company and warmth they both so desire:

good friendships
(from “Friends”)


in the moonlight
solace is shared
in this forbidden friendship
( “Solace”)

But it can’t last, of course, not in that place and time, because neither the colonisers nor the Aboriginal lawmen will accept it: “it is the oasis of isolation/that tolerates this union”. Nothing else.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby MoonlightThe poetry, as you can see from my excerpts, is spare. There’s no punctuation, not even apostrophes, and no capitalisation except for proper names. Lines are generally short, and description is generally minimal. There’s a lovely but restrained used of repetition, and the rhythm is matter-of-fact, that is, it moves the story along with few flourishes (if that makes sense). The story is told through separately titled poems, each of which occupies its own page, though some only part of it. The titles are simple and to the point – “Ambush”, “Friends”, “Oasis”, “Hate”, “Cursed”, “Sunset”. You could almost track the trajectory of the story through its titles. This spareness, I think, enhances the emotional power. The poems say what they need to say without embellishment.

The excerpts above are from more narrative-focused poems, but there are also poems which provide context, describing the seasons as time passes, commenting on the landscape within which our characters operate, providing a sense of the country’s spirits watching, tending, ready to act. The novel opens on the poem “Nature” which sets the scene perfectly by conveying the opposing faces of nature – “sometimes/turning to/butterfly” or sometimes just to “dust” – which also subtly heralds the coming massacre. And, a few poems in, soon after the massacre, comes one describing nature’s nurturing of Ruby:

chirping red-browed finches lead to water
ringneck parrots place berries in her path
trust nature

The words “trust nature” are repeated at the end of each couplet in this poem, providing a soothing mantra for Ruby.

Most of the poems are presented in couplets or triplets, but occasionally one uses a different structure, usually to mark a dramatic change. Early in the novel is the devastating, shaped-poem, “Ambush”, in which all lines but one comprise single words (“hack/hack/hack” it starts); and half-way through is another shaped-poem, “Tempo”, which marks both the passing of time and acts as a transition from a short time of idyll for Ruby and Jack to the appearance of others:

Jack knows the remainder of the conversation
before it was spoke ya see any blacks roaming
best ya kill ’em disease spreading pests
(“Visitor”, immediately after “Tempo”)

The irony of it! Who brought disease?

So, Ruby and Jack. One of the delights of the book is the sympathetic representation of these two characters. Bereft after the loss of her family, Ruby stumbles across Jack, a loner who scrapes a living out of fur-trapping. Both are outcasts in colonial Australia, Jack an Irishman, a hated “Mick” (“a music-less man stands aloof at the bar/scowling his hatred for the Micks”, from “Loose”) and of course Ruby, a lubra or black woman. These two cautiously find a “small trust … growing” (“Solace”) between them, but it is a “forbidden friendship”, forbidden from both cultures, so their times together are snatched carefully. Ruby is watched by members of another mob, people who are “slowed by fatigue” and “weary with worry” (“Signs”), and who know the dangers:

camp smoke whispers
tell story of the killings

Jack and Ruby become the target of the aforementioned “music-less man” – a man who’d lost his “music heart” after an act of barbarity – and his hired help, two brothers “with rotten teeth smirks” (“Scheme”). Hatred and greed fuel these men. And so the scene is set, but it doesn’t quite play out the way you expect, because Eckermann wants to focus more on our universal need for warmth, love and companionship, and also on survival.

The novel is imbued with indigenous presence, from the opening where Ruby’s family live in “Harmony” in their environment, through her meeting with the other mob, the Cloud people, “on their winter trek”, to the appearance of “Kuman”, her guardian spirit who guides her to safety.

Ruby Moonlight is a special read that adds another perspective and voice to colonial contact narratives, a voice that pays respect to indigenous law and traditions, addresses the politics of contact, but also recognises our personal and universal need for love and companionship. It’s a warm and generous book, but it doesn’t pull punches either. A good read.

awwchallenge2016Ali Cobby Eckermann
Ruby Moonlight
Broome: Magabala Books, 2012 (2015 reprint)
ISBN: 9781921248511