Risking ourselves for beauty: La Saladita and Troncones

Surf at The Ranch - twenty people out on a weekday. Busy but a beautiful, playful wave with some kick when it gets big.

Surf at The Ranch - twenty people out on a weekday. Busy but a beautiful, playful wave with some kick when it gets big.

I’m in the state of Guerrero on Mexico’s Pacific coast, surrounded by mountains smoked in wet season rain, at a writing table, under coconut palms, watching the sea. I could almost believe this to be paradise, a riskless place, beauty without a price tag.

Then I learn that the highway, just up the road, is a popular corpse-dumping ground for people who have fallen afoul of the cartel. I learn of surfers en route to a dawnie greeted with a vision of dead bodies dangling from a bridge. I learn that a gringa driving back here from yoga in Troncones at 9.30am had a car slam its brakes on in front of her. Four guys jumped out with guns. She hit the accelerator, swung a hard u-turn, and drove until the rear view mirror went blank.

—Peel back the tropical veneer and Mex can be a pretty scary place.

That's what a young Aussie bloke with a Mexican wife told me in the surf at La Saladita. He drove here from the north coast but was careful to skirt the night, drive the day, was careful to bypass or take back roads around whole towns.

Troncones surf … the beachies are fickle and super heavy when they get going.

Troncones surf … the beachies are fickle and super heavy when they get going.

Years ago, Tom and I were given a map of Maputo, in Mozambique, covered with cross-hatched no go zones: steer clear of that tumble of jungle trees and thieves and junkies and murderers; steer clear of the wilderness bordering the eerie feira.

Still, there’s been no darkness so far on this trip. My week in Troncones was completely serene. I stayed in a handcrafted wooden bungalow, open-air, full with the smell of the sea and the thick, close, melancholy smell of the rain. When storms boiled up in the night, the wind would send my bed swinging and fill the place with dry leaves. The thunder was loud enough to blow the roof off.

Living mostly in the desert, I’ve grown to love the rain.

The Troncones beach stretch was odd, mostly privately or foreign-owned villas in shades of terracotta with decorative cactus—some tall as trees! Armies of cooks, cleaners and groundsmen would arrive by the truckload very early in the morning.

A gated community, in a way.
The gate, wealth. Or lack thereof.
A tourist place.

I liked the discretion. Tourist places out-of-season are perfectly lonely. I spent the days reading Ocean Vuong’s beautiful novel, putting together paragraphs like Moroccan tiles, crafting villains, rinsing the head in the surf out the front and cooking the head at midday to surf Manzanillo Point on my own.

Empty lines at Manzanillo Point.

Empty lines at Manzanillo Point.

And I liked the town of Troncones—the gritty restaurants and bars. One morning I ordered a seafood soup, a bowl of prawns and fish with an accompaniment of chilli.

The tourist restaurants are stingy with their chilli and so I was delighted, dumped the whole lot in!

The other diners fell silent.

—You know that’s chilli, someone said.
 —I love chilli! I replied.
—She loves chilli, the other diners murmured.

Then I started crying. And as I continued to wrangle with my soup my shirt went translucent.

When I got up to leave, the old girl who ran the place eyed me with disgust.

I’d left a sweat puddle on the seat.

Fast-forward to La Saladita and, despite the writing table in the shade of a coconut palm, work on the book has slowed. I blame a manic week of surfing, missioning with a Bavarian girlfriend living in Zihuatenejo, gorging on the WSL’s comp at Teahupo'o, slamming crushed ice margaritas in full sun, itching sunscreen rashes through the night, running low on wax, dodging the bull ants that swarm my room when night falls and finally, the onset of a bacteria that turns my guts and brain inside out, leaves me feverish for days.

Click through for some video footage of some fun days at La Saladita.

Click through for some video footage of some fun days at La Saladita.

You always end up paying for hard playing.

But for fortnights like this—off the grid, brimming with ideas, creativity and adrenaline, contemplating a unique and foreign beauty—the risk is always worth it.

The broken man who battled the State—and won

First published in National Indigenous Times on July 23, 2019

Dr Antonio Buti is a member of the Western Australian Parliament, Honorary Fellow at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and Adjunct Professor at the Law School of Murdoch University.

Dr Antonio Buti is a member of the Western Australian Parliament, Honorary Fellow at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and Adjunct Professor at the Law School of Murdoch University.

Please note, this story contains the name of a person who has passed away. 

During Christmas-time in 1957 an Aboriginal baby boy falls sick.

The anxious father—carrying the baby in his arms—searches for someone with a vehicle.

He finds neighbours who are willing to drive his son Bruce two hours to Adelaide Children’s Hospital.

A couple of weeks after admission, no longer sick, baby Bruce is fostered to a non-Indigenous couple. There’s no paperwork. No questions asked. No consent from Bruce’s parents. Staff tell the couple the baby has been abandoned, neglected.

Bruce will never see his father again.

So starts A Stolen Life, The Bruce Trevorrow Case, a distressing story about the only member of the Stolen Generations to sue an Australian government for compensation and win.

It was written by Antonio Buti, a lawyer who prepared Stolen Generations submissions for the national inquiry that resulted in the Bringing The Home report and the current WA Labor MP for Armadale.

Bruce’s story first caught Mr Buti’s attention when it made headlines in 2007.

“Initially I wrote an article for a legal journal. Then I realised that the story needed a wider audience,” Mr Buti said.

A move from legal academia to politics meant time was scarce, and all up, the book took Mr Buti nearly ten years.

“The story was always burning, and the desire was to complete it. Living in Western Australia, with the case occurring in South Australia, there were long periods of hiatus. But I had an obligation to the people I interviewed, including Bruce’s wife and siblings, and I wanted to honour his legacy and their fight for justice.”

Gently, and with great care, Mr Buti describes the violation of the fundamental rights of a 13-month-old baby, the devastation of public service malpractice, and government departments that move swiftly with zeal, but not compassion.

He articulates the profound effects the removal had on Bruce both as a child and an adult—the sickness, depression, anxiety, insecurity and alcohol dependence.

Bruce is a man who doesn’t belong to the white family who grew him up, or to the Aboriginal family from whom he was stolen.

He is a man who has endured many false dawns.

A Stolen Life moves from harrowing personal history to high drama in the courtroom.

In 1993, Bruce learns he may be able to sue the government for taking him away from his family. He contacts the native title unit of South Australia’s Aboriginal legal service where he meets Tim Wooley. Bruce speaks to Wooley in a voice so soft Wooley must lean forward to hear.

 ‘I think they should compensate me; they should give me money for what they have done to me. They took me from my family, and from my people, the Ngarrindjeri people.’
Wooley stares at the sad, broken man in front of him. He is silent, wondering how to answer.
Bruce staggers into the silence, shattering it. ‘What they did was wrong. Can you help me find out more about what they did to me? Can I sue them?’

Wooley refers Bruce to Joanna Richardson, manager of the civil unit at the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement on King Street in Adelaide. It’s to be an auspicious meeting. Five years later, Richardson will tell Bruce that there’s enough evidence to sue the State on his behalf. Her lead counsel will be the highly credentialed Julian Burnside QC.

By the time Bruce Trevorrow gets his day in court as part of a gruelling 38-day trial, he’s on heart tablets, Panadeine Forte, Valium and antidepressants.

Mr Buti said when Bruce stepped into the witness box, it was without falsity or artifice.

“The fact that he sat in the witness box was very compelling. He was a broken man. Even the judge said the same thing …”

In less capable hands, we might find ourselves stranded in a jungle of legalese. But Mr Buti has a gift for cutting down complex issues into straightforward terms. The trial never loses its quick and gripping tempo, or its hum of tension, despite the fact that we know the outcome.

In court, there’s a need for a narrative, for a well-told story, and Mr Buti delivers, right up to Justice Gray’s judgement.

The Justice found that Bruce was dealt with by the State without lawful authority in a manner that affected his personal wellbeing and freedom, that he was falsely imprisoned, and that he was the subject of breaches of the common law duty of care owed by the State. He ruled that the State must compensate Bruce for damages.

“Justice Gray’s judgement was beautifully written, very poetic, but logical. It was a very human reading of the law, a proper reading of the law, and Justice Gray read the law as it should be read,” Mr Buti said.

Later, Bruce will contact the lead counsel on his case, Julien Burnside QC, and ask him to write to Justice Gray on his behalf.

[Bruce] wants him [the Justice] to know how much he appreciates the respect with which His Honour has treated him as a witness and as an Indigenous person. Throughout his damaged life, Bruce too often has presented as unlikeable and as emotionally detached from family and from those who would try to be his friend. Clearly though, at his core, those innate human values exist, and Justice Gray has reached them with this act of thoughtfulness in the midst of a trial that must operate according to procedure shaped by soulless bureaucracy.’

Was it worth it, for Bruce?

Mr Buti said it was.

“It was definitely worth it. He felt vindicated. He felt like finally someone had listened. It was a judicial acknowledgement of the abandonment and damage he felt,” Mr Buti said.

The case’s precedent value remains unclear, but it has been a catalyst for a reparations scheme in South Australia which allows claimants to seek compensation without enduring a long and expensive court process.

A Stolen Life should be read by students of law, or anyone interested in studying law; by every public servant working in areas of policy that affect First Nations people; by anyone with an interest in Australian history; by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike.

It is a devastating and important part of our truth-telling as a nation.

A Stolen Life was published by Fremantle Press this month and will be launched in Adelaide on August 12th.

Wiradjuri author’s second novel hypnotically lyrical

First published in National Indigenous Times on July 17, 2019

Tara June Winch for social media .jpg

Tara June Winch’s second novel The Yield unrolls on the plains of Wiradjuri country in NSW, where the ‘possibility of rain was a simple smell, a good taste’ and ‘the sun slapped the barren earth with an open palm’.

Ms Winch said that to a stranger’s eye, Wiradjuri country might at first seem nondescript.

But first impressions can be deceptive.

“It’s farming country, there are granite boulders, the Murray Darling and its tributaries … It’s beautiful country, that was really impacted by colonisation,” Ms Winch said.

Three narrators take us by the hand and guide us gently through the fall-out of this colonisation. They draw us into a story where guilt lies ‘thick and wet and as black and dirty as diesel’ and where there’s a constant, slow-burn of anguish.

The first narrator is Albert (Poppy) Goondiwindi. Modelled on Winch’s own father and grandfather, Poppy has just passed away, leaving a dictionary of words in the Wiradjuri language—words for bad spirits, the magic tree, wattle flowers, and a bird that always brings darkness, the yurung, or grey shrike thrush. Stories grow around these words, a history personal and political, full of wisdom for the younger generations, a testament to a lasting cultural connection to country.

Albert’s granddaughter August is another of the narrators. London-based, her days start with a tumbler of aspirin and a coffee, her nights involve scrubbing plates clean of gravy. The passing of her grandfather pulls her back home to the fictional town of Massacre Plains. August describes it at times as ‘the saddest place on earth’ and it’s through August’s eyes that we learn of another tragedy. Her family are about to be evacuated from their property to make way for a giant tin mine. The mine, which threatens to be a huge hole gouged out of country, mirrors a hole, an emptiness in the characters.

The third narrator, a complex and ambiguous villain, is the Reverend Ferdinand B Greenleaf, who ran the Prosperous Lutheran Mission for the local community from 1880. The Reverend documents a turbulent series of events at the mission and his actions prompt us to consider whether or not he was at heart a kind man, or whether he came from ‘a long pattern of bad’.

The Yield 
is sweeping in scope—while all action and history relates back to just 500 acres of land, Ms Winch deftly introduces the Freedom Ride, dog tags, massacres, mining, farming, sexual abuse, native title, the Stolen Generations, culture, and language. The Wiradjuri language, saved from extinction by people such as Stan Grant Snr and John Rudder, is at the very heart of The Yield.

Ms Winch hopes to see a revival of Indigenous languages across Australia.

“Instead of kids learning French, or Mandarin, imagine if you were teaching Indigenous languages starting at two, three, four years old? Through learning language, stories and songs, children’s perception of identity would be completely different.”

“Language gives an access point to empathy, understanding and respect. While it’s not the work of a novelist to push for this, there needs to be a good ground swell of people behind it. Language teaching also creates a viable economy—creates jobs for teachers and trainers as well.”

Ms Winch said she looks forward to more bilingual publications in Indigenous languages and that she’s excited by the potential in the next crop of First Nations authors. She has urged young up-and-coming writers to have confidence in their own voices and stories.

“Don’t be scared, because we need your stories, we need your perspectives. Enter heaps of competitions and keep pushing through rejections. Read our old stories and look at our history and the path that’s been paved before us.”

“Our stories are so important. We are the original storytellers. And people are starting to recognise this.”

While the The Yield is a story swollen with grief—so sad, in fact, that not even Ms Winch can re-read it without weeping—the novel’s bookended with notes of hope in the words wanga-dyung and giyal-dhuray.

Wanga-dyung means lost, but not lost always.

Giyal-dhuray means ashamed, to have shame. In the closing chapter of the book, Poppy writes: I’m done with this word. I’d leave it out completely but I can’t. It’s become part of the dictionary we think we should carry. We mustn’t anymore. See, pain travels through our family tree like a songline. We’ve been singing our pain into a solid thing. The old ones, the young ones too, are ready to heal. We don’t have to be giyal-dhuray anymore, we don’t have to pass that down anymore. 

Upon publication of the novel, Ms Winch ensured elders were given copies of the book and that a percentage of the book’s royalties would be reinvested in community.

“We carry our whole community on our backs. We look after each other. This book is about saying, look how strong we are. Look how incredible and talented we are.”

The Yield is the work of a major talent. It hypnotises with its lyricism, with the juxtaposition of horror and hope, and the candid look at family, country and history. It’s a work to be savoured, to be enjoyed in the sun on a winter’s day, and then to be shared—as widely as possible!

The Yield is Ms Winch’s second novel, preceded by Swallow the Air (2006) and a book of short stories After the Carnage (2016).

Swallow the Air won the David Unaipon Award and a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It has been on the education and HSC syllabus for Standard and Advanced English in Australia since 2009. Ms Winch is also the recipient of an International Rolex Mentor and Protégé Award enabling her to work under the guidance of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.

You can buy a copy of The Yield here and can follow Tara on Instagram at @tara_june_winch.

Kirli Saunders bares us to bright moments in debut poetry collection

First published in National Indigenous Times on May 27, 2019

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai woman with ties to the Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi people in NSW.

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai woman with ties to the Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi people in NSW.

‘Poems made him conscious of his breathing. A poem bared the moment to things he was not normally prepared to notice.’
– Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

Kirli Saunders’ debut collection Kindred offers a sequence of poems that shift seamlessly between the concrete and country, the tangible and the spiritual—and, like the best poems, they bare us to moments we’re often too busy, too distracted to notice.

The Wollongong-based poet anchors us with bright details: Mentos wrappers under couch cushions, a yellow bike kneading Glebe pathways, a walk home that smells of childhood piano lessons dipped in jasmine.

But Ms Saunders is not afraid to step beyond the known, to grasp for and allude to a deep and old knowledge that’s just beyond reach.

In ‘Disconnection’, a poem addressed to an unnamed little one, the proud Gunai woman muses on what it’s like to grow up when your roots have been wrenched from the earth. Ms Saunders writes,

I watch your
trembling limbs
ache to shake
in dance
and hear your lungs
as they gasp with songs unknown.

The poem falls into the first part of the book titled ‘Mother,’ which Ms Saunders said is about connection with culture.

“This first section of the book is about my mother being removed from country, and me trying to learn language, to learn about culture, and to learn how I fit in that landscape,” Ms Saunders said.

Not all the landscapes in Kindred are benevolent. The poem ‘Dharawal Country’ sends shivers through the skin, and Ms Saunders writes with power about the way country remembers.

She observes ants ‘like homicide crime scene cleaners’, bloody sap leaking secrets and ‘pine in place of eucalypt’.

“It’s important for poetry to tell the truth. I was struck by this beautiful landscape. But a massacre had occurred so close to where I was writing. So, I used the innate beauty of poetry to tell the truth about what was there.”

Ms Saunders is the founder of the Poetry in First Languages project and she’s passionate about weaving language into her work.

“First Nations languages are very lyrical, melodic. They change as the landscape changes. There’s a synergy between language learning and poetry. Hopefully we can see more writers starting to write in language.”

No woman is an island entire of itself, and the journey to the publication of Kindred hasn’t occurred in isolation. Ms Saunders credits her family and the beautiful people around her for helping grow the wisdom which is finally distilled in this book.

Alison Whittaker, a Gomeroi woman and poet, advises prospective readers to not ‘… mistake [Kindred’s] tenderness for gentleness. Kirli is fierce in her protection of kin and love.’

For Ms Saunders, the creative process involves being fully present and aware of one’s surroundings.

“When I’m not listening, I miss things … To write poetry, you have to show up in order for it to pass through you. I have to show up with a pen and paper.”

Ms Saunders said she hopes her readers connect with the poems in Kindred.

“I want people to find themselves in these pages. To see parts of themselves and hopefully move in new directions.”

Kindred was released by Magabala Books, Australia’s oldest Indigenous publishing house, in May this year. It’s her second major publication—the first, was a children’s picture book titled The Incredible Freedom Machines, illustrated by Matt Ottley.

More information can be found at: https://www.magabala.com/kindred.html

The songs that went viral through the desert

First published in National Indigenous Times on May 14, 2019

Songs from the Stations has been published by Sydney University Press.

Songs from the Stations has been published by Sydney University Press.

Please note, this story contains the names of people who have passed away.

In modern terms, it would have been a chart topper, a pop smash-hit, a viral YouTube clip.

The ‘Laka’ song set, performed by the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory, travelled an extraordinary distance. There are records of performances in Marble Bar, Norseman, Roebourne, the Eucla and Port Augusta.

Ronnie Wavehill attributes Laka to a song man named Yawalyurru, who worked on Sturt Creek and Gordon Downs stations as a milker.

Pintupi man Patrick Olodoodi Tjungarrayi recalls his parents singing Laka on their traditional lands between Kiwirrkura and the Canning Stock Route.

And Patrick Smith and Marie Gordon learned Laka in the stock camps of the Kimberley. On a visit to Alice Springs from Balgo in the 1990s, Patrick Smith recalled hearing an old white stockman—who’d worked on Sturt Creek Station—singing the song. Patrick jokingly said that the stockmen had stolen a blackfella’s song. Marie retorted that Patrick had stolen the Stockman’s Slim Dusty!

The Laka song set is one of five analysed in the Sydney University Press publication Songs from the Stations. Drawing on detailed knowledge from the main performers Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpngayarri Jangala, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjalngali Nangari and Dandy Danbayarri Jukurtayi, the book maps the origins of these songs, as well as describes tempo, breath takes, language and the tremolo effect of clapsticks or boomerangs—all in a bid to help people learn the wajarra today.

The term ‘wajarra’ is a Gurindji word which loosely means to ‘play about and have fun’. In musical terms, it’s a genre of music. Wajarra (like its equivalent ‘junba’ in the Kimberley) is freed from the restrictions of sacred songs and can be performed anywhere and by anyone.

The five song sets detailed in this book were most frequently performed between 1913 and 1967 in the Victoria River District—on stations straddling the WA and NT border.

While considered the ‘pop songs’ of the era, these days the songs can be tricky to learn. With communities saturated with television, radio, and Netflix, the frequency of wajarra performances has declined. There’s also the issue of language. While many singers can recite a song perfectly, they don’t always know the meaning of the lyrics.

The knowledge in Songs from the Stations has been carefully compiled—with Ronnie Wavehill’s account of learning wajarra told both in language and English.

It’s not a book for the generalist.

The research is rigorous, specific and would be of interest to Gurindji people eager to learn about wajarra, linguists, teachers and historians. It would also be of particular relevance for Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians studying the renaissance of Aboriginal classical music. The analysis of the rhythmic texts of the five song sets—Mintiwarra, Kamul, Freedom Day, Laka and Juntara—is sophisticated, requiring a detailed understanding of music.

Songs from the Stations is an important work—an invaluable work. It’s the first time that these public songs, as performed by the Gurindji, have been documented in detail.

Recordings of the song sets can be listened to online here, while Songs from the Stations can be purchased here.