A paradox of empowerment: Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture

Kim Scott and the whale's eye

Kim Scott and the whale’s eye

Why was Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture booked out, but not Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture*. Both lectures, held at the National Library of Australia, are endowed by generous benefactors and are free. Don’t get me wrong. I love that Gaita was booked out, but so should double Miles-Franklin-winner Noongar-author Kim Scott have been. His novel, That deadman dance (my review), is a pivotal book in terms of our understanding of first contact and therefore important to reconciliation. I had to see him in person.

Scott’s lecture, titled “A paradox of empowerment”, was described on the National Library page as being about “how reclaiming Aboriginal language and story may offer a narrative of shared history and contribute to social transformation.” And this is exactly what he spoke about, based on his Noongar project.

The evening started with a Welcome to Country by local Ngunnawal elder Tyrone Bell, who explained the tradition behind this practice. It led beautifully into Kim Scott’s talk, which he said was fundamentally about reclaiming Aboriginal language and story.

Looking through a whale's eye

Looking through a whale’s eye

Scott started by explaining the picture on the screen beside him. It’s from a story about a Noongar man entering a whale. He chose it because it represents the idea of seeing things differently. (You could tell he’s a novelist by the way he framed his lecture around imagery to convey his ideas!) For example, is this a porthole? Or are we looking through an eye, or even with the eye, this latter suggesting that the Noongar man has become the whale, has been transformed. This possibility of transformation was the underlying theme of his lecture.

Before he continued though, Scott offered some provisos. He likes, he said, to be particular, to start with the local (which approach also appeals to me). However, he is often criticised, he confided, for being somewhat diffident, hesitant, by which I understood him to mean for not being out there on the political hustings. He’s hesitant, he said for a few reasons:

  • the project – a small community-based language revitalisation project – is insecure. Funding and resources are uncertain, people with the needed knowledge are passing away, and the project is not connected to any institutional infrastructure.
  • it is a regional, provincial activity that may not be relevant elsewhere, although he suspects it is, because the reality is that some of most substantial renaissance work has originated in regional projects.
  • the project produces books – which give status, provide focus, can be used by schools – but books can be accessed widely, which could result in non-Aboriginal people learning the language before its owners do. This would continue the disempowerment the project aims to overturn.

Outside the circle

And here, Scott the novelist turned to again to metaphor. He quoted Governor Phillip who, having been welcomed into Port Jackson by the local people, found their curiosity problematic. He wrote:

‘As their curiosity made them very troublesome when we were preparing our Dinner, I made a circle round us; there was little difficulty in making them understand that they were not to come within it, and they then sat down very quiet.’

Scott used this circle motif as a metaphor for the ongoing exclusion of indigenous people by the settlers. The circle marked a power relationship, an exclusion, that became a defining feature of Aboriginal people’s identity. And yet, he said, researchers like Bill Gammage (The biggest estate on earth) and Tony Swain (A place for strangers) are starting to identify what lay outside this circle – knowledge and skills, an active not passive relationship with the land – that the settlers could have learnt from. This knowledge is still outside the circle, he said.

Noongar language (Daisy Bates)

Noongar language (recorded by Daisy Bates)

He provided specific examples – many of which he used, in fact, in That deadman dance – of the Noongar’s documented sophisticated, positive response to the first settlers in Western Australia. But still, they were kept outside the circle. He shared, as an example of the Noongar’s open-minded, lively response, a Noongar story recorded by Daisy Bates, which incorporated the name of the new colony’s town, King George Town, into their language.

Changing this circle is, he said, vital to healing. He believes that through projects like his, together with the research of people like Gammage and Swain, things are beginning to change, that Aboriginal culture is starting to be recognised, appreciated, rather than denigrated.

Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project

And so he got to the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, a local language revitalisation project that is occurring outside the circle. His argument is that over time, since first contact, Governor Phillip’s original circle expanded, and the world outside it became increasingly impoverished. The Wirlomin language project believes that by recovering language, and the stories that go with it, the circle can be changed.

Proven benefits to social and personal wellbeing emanating from strong attachment to Indigenous cultural traditions. (Kral and Falk 2004, Anderson and Kowal 2012, and others).

He described the project – what it uses, what it produces, and how the knowledge is shared. I won’t detail that here, as you can learn much of it at the website. But I will share his teasing out decisions made, and their political implications. For example, when Kayang (Hazel) Brown took people to a special place in country, told its stories, and then re-covered the marks, her aim was not to practise the same attitude of exclusion, but to establish a protocol of respectful, negotiated relationships for sharing knowledge.

Another example concerned an event the group was organising to present books in language that they’d produced. He said that his view, “as the sophisticated man in the group” was to only invite Noongar, but Aunty Hazel (Kayang Brown) said they should invite some of the local non-Aboriginal people. Scott questioned why, given these people had controlled and spoiled their land, but Kayang responded, regarding one particular person, that “we grew up with him”. So he was invited, was given a copy of the stories, and responded positively, and emotionally. Scott learnt, through this experience, the paradox of empowerment through giving, and what can be achieved by moving into the circle.

All these, he concluded, open up possibilities of healing and transformation, with giving and sharing being the major denominations in the currency of identity and belonging.

This was a wonderful lecture, given by a man who emanated dignity, humility and grace. It was deceptively simple, but the thinking behind it was generous and sophisticated. You had to be there!

Ray Mathew Lecture
National Library of Australia
21 September 2017

* The Ray Mathew Lecture was established in 2009, through The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust, created by Eva Kollsman to support and promote Australian writing. The lecture is named for the Australian poet and playwright, Ray Mathew (1929–2002), who left Australia in the late 1960s, and never returned. He spent most of the remainder of his life living in the New York apartment of his patrons, Eva and Paul Kollsman.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Noongar/Nyungar, and the importance of place

Conceptions of home and understanding of place are the central issues in Noongar author Kim Scott‘s Miles Franklin award winning novel, That deadman dance, which I reviewed last year. From the opening pages of the novel Scott explores notions of home, as the white settlers confront the indigenous inhabitants of the land they are trying to colonise.

Here is the main indigenous character, Bobby:

And then Bobby found a sheet of granite, and a small rock hole covered with a thin stone slab and filled with water.  He crouched to it, touched the stone, and sensed home. Something in the wind, in plants and land he’d at least heard of, and increasing signs of home. There were paths, and he knew where there’d be food […] Bobby closed his eyes, felt the wind tugging at his hair and rushing in the whorls of his ears. Breathed this particular air. Ngayn Wabalanginy moort, nitjak ngan kaarlak … Home (pp. 235, 238)

And here is the main would-be pastoralist settler, Chaine:

With no boat Chaine felt his loneliness … It was land he’d hoped for – pastoral country, with good water and close to a sheltered anchorage. But he had tried and been disappointed. It deflated him. (p. 239)

These occur during a long trek which Chaine and Bobby make when Chaine’s boat hits a reef and founders. Chaine thinks Flinders’ journal will provide the guidance he needs while Bobby, in country unfamiliar to him, relies on his understanding of the land’s clues. “This way, we go this way, follow the creek away from this spring and this estuary”, says Bobby, while Chaine insists “they keep to the coast … so he could catch sight of the sea every now and then”.


Courtesy John D Croft, English Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All this is to introduce a fascinating seminar I attended today, at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. It was given by Associate Professor Len Collard, a Nyungar* scholar researching Nyungar place names, using an ARC research grant. The English title of his talk was “I am creating the knowledge of Country place names: from the past to now and into the future”.  His aim is to document Nyungar place names in Western Australia’s southwest on the basis that naming place confirms or establishes “ownership”. The project aims at

  • supporting reconciliation,
  • encouraging environmental understanding,
  • helping tourism ventures, and
  • “closing the gap of Australianness” by creating a common understanding of local indigenous geography.

You’ve probably noticed the alternative spellings I’ve been using to name the people of this area. Alternative spellings are a significant challenge for both indigenous and non-indigenous people studying indigenous culture.  Collard made an interesting point regarding variant spellings. He says that a common reason given is that  the Nyungar (like many indigenous people) encompass several language groups and that the different spellings could therefore have come from different pronunciations, putting, in a sense, the onus of problematic spelling at the feet of the indigenous people. However, he suggests there is another possibility. His project is based on post-colonial historical records produced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by settlers from a wider variety of countries – England, Ireland, Holland, France, and so on. The different spellings, he suggests, could be due to the way these recorders transcribed, using their own linguistic knowledge, the word/s they heard.

Early in his talk he talked of the “history of constructing the negative” in which indigenous people have been reduced to the role of sidekick in post-colonial Australia. The reason for variant spellings could be read as an example of this. Another is the attitude to indigenous trackers. Their knowledge, Collard said, was critical to the survival of the colony and yet, as Scott shows in his novel, this knowledge was either used ungraciously or, at worst, ignored.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, not only for its specific content but also for the way his scholarship intersects with contemporary indigenous literature. Home, land, place … they are important to all of us … recognising and respecting that is a good place to start. I’ll conclude with Bobby near the end of the novel:

On time we share kangaroo wallaby tammar quokka yongar wetj woylie boodi wetj koording kamak kaip … Too many. But now not like that, and sheep and bullock everywhere and too many strangers wanna take things for themselves and leave nothing […] And now we strangers in our special places.

Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, 2012

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

Kim Scott's That Deadman Dance (Image courtesy Picador Australia)

The Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature are biennial awards, coinciding, funnily enough, with the holding of the biennial Adelaide Festival. I understand, however, that from 2012 the festival will be an annual event. Presumably this means the literary awards will also be awarded annually from now on. If that’s the plan, South Australia will finally have an annual literary award, like most other Australian states.

Anyhow, this year’s winners, which were announced earlier this month, are:

  • Premier’s and Fiction award ($15,000) award: Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance (My review)
  • Nonfiction award: Mark McKenna’s An eye for eternity: The life of Manning Clark
  • John Bray Poetry Award: Les Murray’s Taller when prone
  • Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship: Nicki Bloom for The sun and other stars
  • Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award: Margret Merrilees’ The First Week

There are a few other prizes including for Children’s and Young Adult books, but these are the ones of main interest to me and so they’re the ones I’m giving you!

It’s great to see Kim Scott garnering another two awards for That deadman dance. It has now won:

It was shortlisted for several other Australian literary awards in 2011 and has also been longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I do hope it is starting to make inroads into overseas markets.

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Kim Scott on indigenous connection with the land

A short Delicious Description today from Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance, but an important one because it attempts to convey to we non-indigenous people just how closely indigenous people relate to their environment. It comes from the same expedition as my previous Delicious Descriptions post:

Sometimes Wooral addressed the bush as if he were walking through a crowd of diverse personalities, his tone variously playful, scolding, reverential, affectionate.

It was most confusing. Did he see something else?

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Kim Scott on confronting the new


Candlestick-shaped flowers aka Banksia

Here is the first of two or more (depending on how the spirit moves me) Delicious Descriptions from Kim Scott‘s book That deadman dance.

My first one presents two excerpts which describe people confronting the new. First, the British settlers during their expedition to find land:

They found a path, rocky and scattered with fine pebbles that at one point wound through dense, low vegetation but mostly led them through what, Chaine said, seemed a gnarled and spiky forest. Leaves were like needles, or small saws. Candlestick-shaped flowers blossomed, or were dry and wooden. Tiny flowers clung to trees by thin tendrils, and wound their way through the shrubbery, along clefts in rock. Bark hung in long strips. Flowering spears thrust upward from the centre of shimmering fountains of green which, on closer inspection, bristled with spikes.

Modern-day Aussies would recognise most if not all of these plants, but I can imagine how strange they would have been to people who came from the soft landscapes of England and Ireland.

By contrast, here is Wunyeran describing his experience on a ship to an elder:

It was hard to describe the food, he said. Some of them had tasted it before on ships, but other tastes too and … all very strange. There were many things … He tried to explain the tube you looked through that brought you close; the scratched markings one of the men made on something like leaves. Book, Journal, they said.

They gave him a good koitj, he said, and showed his people the smooth axe…

Throughout the book we to and fro between the British and indigenous ways of doing, being and seeing … but I particularly loved these two concrete descriptions of people reacting to new sights and experiences.

Kim Scott, That deadman dance

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

Kim Scott's That Deadman Dance (Image courtesy Picador Australia)

About a third of the way into Kim Scott‘s novel That deadman dance is this:

We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours.

And, it just about says it all. In fact, I could almost finish the post here … but I won’t.

That deadman dance is the first indigenous Australian novel I’ve read about the first contact between indigenous people and the British settlers. I’ve read non-indigenous Australian authors on early contact, such as Kate Grenville‘s The secret river, and I’ve read indigenous authors on other aspects of indigenous experience such as Alexis Wright‘s Carpentaria and Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing. Kim Scott adds another perspective … and does it oh so cleverly.

The plot is pretty straightforward. There are the Noongar, the original inhabitants of southwest Western Australia, and into their home/land/country arrive the British. First, the sensitive and respectful Dr Cross, and then a motley group including the entrepreneurial Chaine and his family, the ex-Sergeant Killam, the soon-to-be-free convict Skelly, the escaped sailor Jak Tar, and Governor Spender and his family. The novel tracks the first years of this little colony, from 1826 to 1844.

That sounds straightforward doesn’t it? And it is, but it’s the telling that is clever. The point of view shifts fluidly from person to person, though there is one main voice, and that is the young Noongar boy (later man), Bobby Wabalanginy. The chronology also shifts somewhat. The novel starts with a prologue (in Bobby’s voice) and then progresses through four parts: Part 1, 1833-1836; Part 2, 1826-1830; Part 3, 1836-1838; and Part 4, 1841-44. And within this not quite straight chronology are some foreshadowings which mix up the chronology just that little bit more. The foreshadowings remind us that this is an historical novel: the ending is not going to be fairytale and the indigenous people will end up the losers. But they don’t spoil the story because the characters are strong and, while you know (essentially) what will happen, you want to know how the story pans out and why it pans out that way.

What I found really clever – and beautiful – about the book is the language and how Scott plays with words and images to tell a story about land, place and home, and what it means for the various characters. His language clues us immediately into the cross-cultural theme underpinning the book. Take, for example, the words “roze a wail” on the first page:

“Boby Wablngn” wrote “roze a wail”.
But there was no whale. Bobby was remembering …
“Rite wail”.
Bobby already knew what it was to  be up close beside a right whale …

Whoa, I thought, there’s a lot going on here and I think I’m going to enjoy it. Although Bobby’s is not the only perspective we hear in the book, he is our guide. He is lively and intelligent, and crosses the two cultures with relative ease: just right for readers venturing into unfamiliar territory. He’s a great mimic, and creates dances and songs. The Dead Man Dance is the prime example. It’s inspired by the first white people (the “horizon people”) and evokes their regimented drills with rifles and their stiff-legged marching. There’s an irony to this dance of course: its name foretells while the dance itself conveys the willingness of the Noongar to incorporate (and enjoy) new ideas into their culture.

In fact there’s a lot of irony in the novel. Here is ex-Sergeant Killam:

Mr Killam was learning what it was to have someone move in on what you thought was your very own home. He thought that was the last straw. The very last.

And who was taking his land? Not the Noongar of course, but the Governor … and so power, as usual, wins.

The novel reiterates throughout the willingness – a willingness supported, I understand, by historical texts – of the Noongar to cooperate and adapt to new things in their land:

Bobby’s family knew one story of this place, and as deep as it is, it can accept such variations.

But, in the time-old story of colonisation, it was not to be. Even the respectful Dr Cross had his blinkers – “I’ve taken this land, Cross said. My land”. And so as the colony grew, women were taken, men were shot, kangaroos killed, waters fouled, whales whaled out, and so on. You know the story. When the Noongar took something in return such as flour, sheep, sugar, they were chased away, imprisoned, and worse.

I’d love to share some of the gorgeous descriptions in the book but I’ve probably written enough for now. You will, though, see some Delicious Descriptions in coming weeks from this book. I’ll finish with one final example of how Scott shows – without telling – cultural difference. It comes from a scene during an expedition led by Chaine to find land. They come across evidence of a campsite:

You could see where people camped – there was an old fire, diggings, even a faint path. Bobby was glad they’d left; he didn’t want to come across them without signalling their own presence first, but Chaine said, No, if we meet them we’ll deal with them, but no need to attract attention yet.

Need I say more*?

The book has garnered several awards and some excellent reviews, including those from my favourite Aussie bloggers: Lisa (ANZLitLovers), the Resident Judge, the Literary Dilettante, and Matt (A Novel Approach). Our reviews differ in approach – we are students, teachers, historians, and librarian/archivists – but we all agree that this is a book that’s a must to read.

Kim Scott
That deadman dance
Sydney: Picador, 2010
ISBN:  9780330404235

* I should add, in case I have misled, that for all the truths this novel conveys about colonisation, it is not without vision and hope. It’s all in the way you read it.