Monday musings on Australian literature: Magabala Books

2022 National NAIDOC logo

Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2022 First Nations Reading Week and this year’s NAIDOC Week officially ended yesterday. However, as I’ve done before, I’m bookending those events with Monday Musings posts – with this week’s topic being the pioneering publisher, Magabala Books.

Magabala Books have been operating for over 40 years – as they share on their website. (I do love it when organisations make space for telling their history on their websites, and am really frustrated when they don’t. Do you feel the same?)


I’ve linked to their About us page above, but in a nutshell, their origin can be found in 1984 when “more than 500 Aboriginal Elders and leaders met at a cultural festival in Ngumpan” in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, to discuss how they could keep culture strong and protect cultural and intellectual property”. The result was the establishment of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC), which laid the ground for Magabala Books. 

“Magabala’s beginnings”, they say, “were part of the wider movement of Aboriginal self-determination occurring in the 80s”, a time when Australia was “just beginning to reveal its interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture”.

Magabala’s first book, Mayi: Some Bush Fruits of the West Kimberley by Merrilee Lands, was published in 1987, and this was soon followed by Glenyse Ward’s highly-acclaimed autobiography, Wandering girl. In March 1990, Magabala Books became an independent registered Indigenous Corporation. It is governed by a Board comprising Kimberley Aboriginal educators, business professionals and creative practitioners.

Their Vision and Purpose is:

To inspire and empower Indigenous people to share their stories. To celebrate the talent and diversity of Australian Indigenous voices through the publication of quality literature. (website)

They achieve this not only by publishing books on and by First Nations Australians, but they also create and deliver a wide range of cultural projects geared at ensuring stories of value continue to be available into the future, and they offer a number of awards and scholarships which support their commitment to nurturing and celebrating First Nations talent.


On their website, they describe themselves as “Australia’s leading Indigenous publisher”, and they list some of their achievements. Here’s a selection, from that and my own search of Trove and the web:

  • 1993: Magabala Books publication Tjarany Roughtail won the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s inaugural Eve Pownall Award for Information Books (and other awards including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year) 
  • 2017 and 2019: shortlisted for Small Publisher of the Year (Australian Book Industry Awards)
  • 2019: the fastest growing independent small publisher in Australia
  • 2020: awarded the Small Publisher of the Year (Australian Book Industry Awards)
  • 2020 and 2021: listed as a candidate for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, a prestigious international children’s literary award

I’m not sure whether Tjarany Roughtail, by Gracie Greene, Joe Tramacchi and Lucille Gill, is their first award-winner, but it will have been one of the first. Since then many of their books have been shortlisted for or won significant Australian literary awards, proving that Magabala truly is a force in Australian publishing. If you’d like to check out some of the books that have been recognised by the literary awards circuit, click on their Award Winning and Notable page.

Their books

On their About Us page, they say that since beginning they have published “more than 250 titles by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, artists and illustrators from across Australia”, of which I’ve read several. Their authors include Bruce Pascoe, Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby-Eckermann and Alison Whittaker. Currently, they publish around “15 new titles annually across a range of genres: children’s picture books, memoir, fiction (junior, YA and adult), non-fiction, graphic novels, social history and poetry” and I’ve read several over the years. They are also committed to maintaining “a substantial backlist in print” which is great to see. (And, it’s clearly true because that 1993 award-winning book, Tjarany Roughtail is still listed on their inventory).

Anyhow, I thought I’d delve a little into Trove to see what I could find about early responses to them and their work – recognising of course that the post-1987 period is still in copyright so most newspapers have not yet been digitised.

I was interested to find their existence was noted early on. Moya Costello started her review in Sydney’s Tribune wrote in 1988 with:

Some books turn your head around. For me, two such books have been by Aborigines. Only two because I am just beginning to read Aboriginal writing, and because we’re just at the beginning of a great swell of Aboriginal writing being published in Australia.

And then, she writes, comes a third book, Glenyse Ward’s Wandering girl. She wishes “books like this had been around when I was at school. I have missed this history of my own country. (My own country?)” She is not the only reviewer to recognise the history we have missed. Anyhow, she then identifies the publisher:

You haven’t heard of Magabala Books? Let me introduce you. Based in Broome, WA, Magabala books publishes writings by Aboriginal people. It’s been funded by Bicentennial money — but if you’ve heard the publishers speak, and if you’ve read Magabala publications, would you quibble?

In 1989, Canberra-based author Marian Eldridge reviewed in The Canberra Times two First Nations books, one being Magabala’s Raparapa: Stories from the Fitzroy River drovers by Eric Lawford, Jock Shandley, Jimmy Bird, Ivan Watson, Peter Clancy, John Watson, Lochy Green, Harry Watson and Barney Barnes. They are important, she writes, because both are “told by Aborigines from an Aboriginal point of view” and “what they have to say is part of Australia’s history that has been far too long neglected”. Again, we we see in a mainstream newspaper, recognition of history we’ve missed. Interestingly, a new edition of Raparapa was published by Magabala in 2011.

Eldridge goes on to say about Raparapa that:

Until now, books about the cattle industry in northern Australia have been written by white people. Raparapa, instigated by John Watson, formerly Fitzroy River stockman and later chairman of the Kimberley Land Council, helps to right the balance.

Jess Walker also reviewed this book in 1989 in Tribune, and concurs, saying the book

is much more than just a collection of interesting anecdotes. It’s a very rich and stimulating book which fulfills the objectives John Watson set for it – to communicate to other Australians the full extent of Aboriginal involvement in one of Australia’s most important primary industries, and to help explain Aborigines’ relationship to land. Raparapa also preserves the stories of an older generation of men for the benefit of the younger Aboriginal people. 

I found quite a bit more, but I will close with a report by Robert Hefner in The Canberra Times in 1990. He quotes Pat Torres, a First Nations writer and artist (among other things), who was on Magabala’s management committee. She described their basic aim as being

to foster the oral history and stories of the Kimberley and put it into a form which is accessible to a lot of people. We encourage the training of Aboriginal people in the area of publishing, and we encourage local artists to contribute their drawings to illustrate the stories. But basically our aim is to foster and maintain Aboriginal culture and history . 

As Magabala Books say on their current website, they want “to ensure Indigenous people control their own stories [my emph], and that the benefits flow back to the right people”. It seems that they are not only achieving that, but are also getting those stories out to the wider Australian public. Finally, we are learning the history so many of us missed.

For Lisa’s 2022 First Nations Reading Week

Click here here for previous ILW/FNRW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Australian poets

2022 National NAIDOC logo

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2022 First Nations Reading Week which coincides of course with NAIDOC Week. As has become my practice, I’m devoting this week’s Monday Musings to the cause.

NAIDOC Week’s theme this year is Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! Its focus is encouraging First Nations people to continue “getting up, standing up, and showing up” to achieve “systemic change” and to “narrow the gap between aspiration and reality, good intent and outcome”. They also say,

The relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non‑Indigenous Australians needs to be based on justice, equity, and the proper recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights.

I would like to think that our blogs help in some way by sharing our engagement with First Nations Australian writing, and hopefully inspiring others to engage too. There is a lot of truth-telling in First Nations writing and I greatly appreciate what I am learning. Although it can be confronting at times, it is exciting to feel my understanding expanding and deepening.

Book cover

And this brings me to this post, because my introduction to First Nations Australians’ experience and thinking came through poetry. It was in my teens in the late 1960s. I had become interested in racial inequality, and discovered the work of Kath Walker, as she was known then.

Kath Walker was, of course, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993). According to the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, Walker “readopted her tribal name” in 1988 “as a protest against Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations and a symbol of her Aboriginal pride”. Heiss and Minter say that her 1964-published collection, We are going, “was the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal writer and the first book by an Aboriginal woman”.

Book cover

For Poetry Month last year, you may remember that I asked people to share their favourite poem (or poems). One of mine was Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s “We are going”, and I see that it is one of the eight that Heiss and Minter selected for their anthology. As they say in their introduction to her, “Oodgeroo was politically active from the late 1940s and became one of the most prominent Aboriginal voices”. Her poetry reflected her politics, as is common among poets from marginalised, disempowered people. Poetry, after all, is a powerful tool. It can make points succinctly, and do so in ways that you want to repeat. Listen to the end of “We are going” – the repetition, the rhythm and tone it creates, and the final line. Wham!

We are nature and the past, all the old ways 
Gone now and scattered. 
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter. 
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place. 
The bora ring is gone. 
The corroboree is gone. 
And we are going.

Oodgeroo varied her style, and often used rhyme, but here she uses free verse to such rhetorical effect.

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t read much First Nations poetry again for a few decades, until I read contemporary poets like Ellen Van Neerven, Ali Cobby Eckermann and, right now, Evelyn Araluen. However, First Nations people were writing poetry right through, and Heiss and Minter include many in their anthology. These writers include Jack Davis (1917-2000), who wrote a poem titled “Walker (For Kath)”. It starts, “Fight on, Sister, fight on/Stir them with your ice”.

Then, there’s Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) and his daughter Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1956-2019), and Lionel Fogarty (b. 1958), who also wrote a poem for Oodgeroo titled “Kath Walker”. It starts, allusively, with “We are coming, even going”. There’s Tony Birch (b. 1957), some of whose prose I’ve reviewed, and Sam Wagan Watson (b. 1972), son of novelist Sam Watson (1952-2019).

There are writers I don’t know so well, like Lisa Bellear (1961-2006), who, say Heiss and Minter, was a “notably political poet”. (But, then, how many weren’t and aren’t.) Her poem, “Women’s liberation”, speaks to that issue of the movement being largely for and by white middle-class women. It’s witty and pointed. You can read it at Poetry International.

“got something for you to swallow”

(from “Gather”, by Evelyn Araluen)

I have, though, written on First Nations poetry in this blog. My post on the digital publication, Writing black, that was edited by Ellen Van Neerven, includes references to several of the poets I’ve named above, including Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Lionel Fogarty. I enjoyed Writing black especially because it introduced me to some of these voices I’d heard of but had not yet read.

Book cover

Ellen van Neerven is a well-recognised First Nations poet. Indeed, she was caught up in a controversy when her poem, “Mango”, unbeknownst to her I believe, was included in an HSC exam a few years ago. You know you have arrived on the Australian literary scene when you’ve been embroiled in a controversy. Anyhow, her second poetry collection, Throat, was shortlisted for several literary awards. Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly) has reviewed it, describing it as “a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice”.

Another collection I haven’t read is Alison Whittaker’s BlakWork, which won the 2019 Judith Wright Calanthe Award. Bill (The Australian Legend) and Brona (Brona’s Books) have both reviewed it. Brona, in particular, connected with it.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother

However, I have read some contemporary First Nations poetry, including Ali Cobby Eckermann’s historical fiction verse novel Ruby Moonlight (my review) and her collection Inside my mother (my review). I’m currently reading Evelyn Araluen’s 2022 Stella Prize winning Drop Bear, which Brona has reviewed. Like much First Nations poetry it’s political and powerful, but is also witty.

This has been a brief and selective survey. There are many First Nations poets I haven’t mentioned, but if you are interested to hear what First Nations people are thinking, you won’t go wrong if you check out some of their poetry. I hope this post offers those interested some ways in.

Do you have any favourite First Nations poets – or, even, poems?

Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

Click here here for my previous ILW/FNRW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.