Anzac Day: difficult to forget, when that’s the date you were blown up

First published in National Indigenous Times on April 22, 2019.

Pattie Lees joined the WRANS and served for two years. Photo by Pattie Lees.

Pattie Lees joined the WRANS and served for two years. Photo by Pattie Lees.

Frank Mallard talks of being a ‘tunnel rat’—one of the ‘mad Australians who chased Viet Cong down these tunnels’. Gaye Doolan jokes that she joined the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service because she liked the uniform. And Roy ‘Zeke’ Mundine asks, ‘… how can I forget Anzac Day?’ He says in 1969 on Anzac Day he got blown up. He stepped on a mine, or the side of a mine, and it blew his leg off.

These powerful stories and many more are included in Our mob served: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia. The book documents the contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the Australian defence services from the Anglo-Boer War onwards.

The perspectives of these men and women are truly kaleidoscopic.

We learn of the friendships—the true meaning of the word ‘mateship’—which in recent times has become politicised and hollow. Many of the men and women acknowledge in their stories that mateship means even more than placing the team above the individual, more than duty: it’s about the unspoken emotional territory of shared life experiences, survival and loss.

Take Bill ‘Kookaburra’ Coolburra from Palm Island, in QLD, who became especially close with a bloke called ‘Snowy’ George Wilson—nicknamed for his fair skin and hair. They were famously known as the ‘twins’ and referred to each other as ‘twin brother’. Former Prime Minister Harold Holt took it literally. On a visit to Vietnam he asked to meet Snowy’s twin brother and was shocked to find out that he was an Aboriginal person! Together, the twin brothers fled the Military Police after a bar brawl in Vietnam. Together, they faced life and death situations in the field. And eventually, they were joined together in a physical sense. When Bill needed a new kidney, Snowy gave him his.

We learn of the reasons people joined up. In many cases, it was to escape the Protection Acts, access education and training, and to receive better pay. For Mick Pittman, from Casino NSW, it was ‘to get out of town.’ Mick joined the RAAF in 1968 and said, ‘…after 17 years with Mum, the military was a walk in the park … Piece of cake!’ For Pattie Lees, a career in the navy gave financial security and direction. ‘I felt I was being useful. I had some purpose in my life.’

Our mob served gives enormous depth to contemporary reductionist views on the service of Australian men and women, firstly, by recognising the service of Aboriginal people and secondly, by gathering such a multifaceted range of stories and experiences.

It’s the result of many ‘Yarn-ups’ and informal interviews with ex-service people or their relatives at over 40 locations around Australia. The interviews took place between 2014-2017 as part of the ‘Serving Our Country: A History of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in Defence of Australia’ project, led by Mick Dodson.

The stories are funny, tragic, thoughtful and profound, and they serve to fill an enormous gap in modern Australian history.

This book should be considered an urgent addition to school curriculums and libraries. It would be of interest to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people curious about Australian history or conflict; or tired with the over-simplification or popular nationalism associated with Anzac Day.

Our mob served: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia has been published by Aboriginal Studies Press.

Ringside with Wally Carr

First published in National Indigenous Times on April 8, 2019.

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My Longest Round is the kind of book you skip telly for, put the kids to bed early for, put yourself to bed early for—just so you can have a quiet hour in Wally Carr’s company.

Wally’s first fight? He lost, but he loved it. The shearing sheds in Walgett? He loved working the sheds and it was big money. Going to the gym? He loved the gym!

Wally’s love of work, training, boxing and his family is the good-natured refrain that runs throughout this galloping biography, accompanying Wally’s rise to become an Australian and Commonwealth champion boxer.

Not that there aren’t moments of darkness. The book’s opening paragraph is profoundly distressing.

“I’ve been fighting since the day I was born. No, I’ve been fighting from the time I was curled up inside my mother’s belly. The day my father shot himself in the head; that’s when my fight started. That day was the thirteenth of June 1954. I was born two months later on the eleventh of August.”

From this point on, the pace never lets up. Wally beguiles us with storytelling that’s frank, funny and never self-pitying.

We meet a formidable cast of characters, many minor and some, like Growler, truly memorable. Thelma May Stewart, nicknamed Growler, was Wally’s rabbit-cooking, button accordion playing grandmother. She was strict, the keeper of discipline around the home. His grandfather old Coalie—a snowy-haired man who loved his drink and betting on the horses—would spoil the kids when Growler wasn’t looking. He’d say, “Don’t worry about old Growler, come over here and sit with me. You’ll be all right.’ He’d give us little treats and whisper, ‘Don’t tell Growler.’”

Wally’s childhood is conjured with careful details: he recalls scrubbing himself with cakes of yellow Sunlight soap, wetting the bed and eating bags of broken biscuits to try and suppress the constant, aching feeling of hunger.

It’s also spiked with wild tales.

In Wellington, on Sundays, a group of older people from the mission would gather to play two-up, including Mrs Stanley, who played all the time. Carr tells us when they’d see the coppers,

“… well poor old Mrs Stanley she’d run down the riverbank, take one dress off and come back in another dress.
The police would say, ‘Now where’s that woman with the pink dress on?’
She’d taken the dress off and thrown it in the river. She always had two or three dresses on.”

There are tales of daring, like the time Wally and his friends stole fruit from a rogue German who blasted his shotgun at them; and tales that border on mythical, like the time a plague of mice swept Warren—there were so many, that when you drove at night they completely covered the road.

As a young man, Wally visited Sydney for the first time, excited by stories of blackfella bands and dancing, footy and mad fights.

“Fair dinkum, look at this!” he said stepping off the train at Central Station.

Always a knockabout, he worked at a foundry, a leather factory, a chocolate factory; he bagged coffee and wheat and packed matches.

In May, 1971, he decided he wanted to learn to fight—fighting paid better.

Wally shares with us the tough road to the top, from fighting at workers clubs and tennis clubs in Sydney, to fighting in Zambia and Papua New Guinea.

He’s often humble, gracious. In a major fight in Perth in December 1984, he was challenged for the Australian light-heavyweight title by Alan Black. Black was no contest for Wally and went down in the fourth round after suffering broken ribs. Wally felt terrible that Black’s kids—who were waiting for him in the dressing room—had to see him like that. He went in after the fight and shook Black’s hand.

My Longest Round is absorbing from top to tail; it hits the page with perfect pace.

Wally worked closely with author Gaele Sobott to commit this story to paper, and Gaele stays true to Wally’s voice and true to the story.

If you’re looking for a gripping biography to read this Easter, My Longest Round should be it. It’s available through Broome’s Magabala Books.

The Valley: a Kimberley tale written well and with a good heart

First published in National Indigenous Times on March 7, 2019.

Danggu Geikie Gorge on Bunaba country in the Kimberley. Photo by Charlotte Dickie @charbllavita.

Danggu Geikie Gorge on Bunaba country in the Kimberley. Photo by Charlotte Dickie @charbllavita.

A storyworm, like an earworm, can be a dangerous thing. It’s something you can’t get out of your head. It sticks there. Fattens there. And sometimes—if you’re lucky—it grows into a book.

Steve Hawke’s storyworm gnawed up years of his brain-space, eventually becoming the full-length novel The Valley.

Set in the Kimberley, this riveting, multi-generational tale evokes people and country with clarity.

We can taste the bacon and egg burgers at Willare Roadhouse on the way to Fitzroy Crossing, can feel the saltwater country receding and the river country rising, can see the murky green of those late-season waterholes along the river.

It’s a remarkable achievement, in that there’s only one main whitefella in the book, Billy Noakes. The rest of the cast are countrymen and women.

Was Hawke, as a whitefella himself, concerned about writing in an area specifically related to Aboriginal lives and experience?

In short, after spending over 40-years living and working in Derby and Fitzroy Crossing, the answer is ‘no’.

He said the important thing is understanding which mode you’re working in.

“You need to understand whether you’re in your own creative world, or if you’re working with a story that belongs to the mob.”

“I wasn’t writing The Valley for the mob, though it is important to me that the Indigenous people who read the book enjoy it. But this is my work of fiction, my own creation, and my responsibility,” Hawke said.

“One of the things I like about the book, is that it takes the remote Indigenous world on its own terms. The book sits inside that world. It’s not about reconciliation. It’s not about white and black. It’s not something political, something bigger than it is. It’s just about these people’s lives.”

The Valley’s been written with a good heart and it evokes that world in a positive way. It’s important, writing with good intent, and whether you do it well or not.”

Hawke’s also worked on stories that do belong unequivocally to the mob, such as the 2013 Magabala Books’ publication A Town is Born: The Fitzroy Crossing Story and on Jandamarra, a play based on the famous Bunaba hero of the same name.

Jandamarra—it’s not my story, I don’t own that story. But there’s been a strong collaboration over the years,” Hawke said.

And they’ve been significant years: Hawke wrote the very first newsletter for the Kimberley Land Council, was on the frontline at the famous Noonkanbah dispute, has worked for many years with Bunaba Cultural Enterprises, and can read in the Bunaba language.

Now based in the Perth Hills, he misses the Fitzroy River and misses hanging out with the mob.

“It’s a really unusual place, Fitzroy Crossing, because it’s unquestionably an Aboriginal town … I knew I’d keep going back. It’s where I live in my head.”

The Valley couldn’t have been written without this reverence for country. The story’s built upon those colossal cornerstones of humanity: love, longing, betrayal and grief—but it’s shaded a uniquely Kimberley hue. We read of run-down pastoral properties with rubbish herds, the pressures of flying to Perth for dialysis, the dredging of dark ancient secrets, and of delicious, blachan killer stews.

In her diaries, Miles Franklin offers a scathing critique of one of her contemporary’s use of dialogue. Referring to Christina Stead, she writes, ‘Her characters do not talk in the Australian idiom or rhythm. They are windbags of the stuff one gets in this kind of novel abroad—in translations from the Russian & German. A new and powerful writer but not necessarily Australian.’

No-one could level this critique at Hawke, with his ear for phrases like ‘more better’, or ‘Twelbinch been killim’. Hawke’s dialogue is dexterously constructed, true to the rhythms of the Kimberley and distinctly Australian.

“Representation of language on the page was important. We had to consider the use of apostrophes or no apostrophes. Getting the grammar right was about accuracy, about capturing rhythm.”

His characters are also quintessential Kimberley—particularly the old cowboy Two Bob.

“Two Bob is an amalgamation of all those old boys I knew—the ones with vast knowledge of cattle and country. I just love the Two Bobs of this world, they’re the greatest people going. It’s a world that very few Australian know anything about and it’s a pretty important part of our history in many ways. The Valley is about paying homage to that world.”

Hawke acknowledged the role of the novelist, and indeed of the reader, in welcoming the unknown.

“If people didn’t step outside their own worlds, we’d be a lot poorer for it. The world of the arts is about crossing boundaries,” Hawke said.

It’s a good thing Hawke let this storyworm fatten up, for we’d also be a lot poorer for not feasting on it.

The Valley is a Fremantle Press publication and you can read more about it here. 

A big mob of bad desert monsters, a clever crow and two cheeky mice: summer reading for kids

First published in National Indigenous Times on January 24, 2019.

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It’s after sunset. A group of technicolour monsters are on the move. They steal food from the shop. They stuff their faces with cake. They squash the community phone box. And this is just the start …

Welcome to The Children from Rawa: Monster Party, a joyous and vividly imagined picture book romp, that follows the monsters as they let loose on community.

Monster Party isn’t your average children’s book. It was created at Punmu, a community on Martu country in the Pilbara’s Great Sandy Desert. Two celebrated children’s book authors, Alison Lester and Jane Godwin, travelled to the community as part of a project to help improve literacy.

The monsters emerged from the imaginations of the Middle Primary children at Punmu’s Rawa Community School and they act out stories, both real and imagined. This book is a treat.

In contrast, the exquisitely illustrated Wäk Liya-Djambatjor Clever Crow, presented in English and Djambarrpuyŋu, tells an old story that belongs to the Dhuwa moiety in North East Arnhem Land. It’s about the journey of a turtle egg: to the hungry beak of a crow, to the pouch of a passing roo, to a man in a gliding canoe. The egg travels full circle—this crow’s too clever!

The illustrations in Wäk Liya-Djambatj are particular, stylised and very beautiful. We get a sense of the green riverbanks as they roll past, and the swift bubbling glide of river-water in blues. Illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft, a clan member of the Bundjalung Nation, has a mastery over her craft. She’s refined it in over 40 children’s books and has scooped up a number of well-deserved accolades for her work, including being nominated as a finalist for the Hans Christian Andersen Award (Illustrator 2016).

Author Nina Lawrence, a descendent of the Yidinji people of Far North Queensland, has kinship connections with the Yolŋu people and a passion for the preservation and promotion of Indigenous Australian languages. With its marvellous balance of English and Djambarrpuyŋu, regardless of who your mob is, this book is a must-read in 2019—the UN Year of Indigenous Languages.

Lucky and Spike, soon to be Magabala’s most recent release, will hit the shelves in February. In 2013, Norma McDonald brought us Lucky, the cheeky spinifex hopping mouse. Now Lucky is back—and he and his brother Spike are in terrible danger. A feral cat is on the loose. Predatory and cruel-eyed, it’s hungry for mouse. Or barking owl. Or anything native.

The story warns of the dangers of feral animals and Norma writes of living in the Pilbara and her sadness at witnessing the cats hunting the small spinifex hopping mice. This sadness, and the terror of Lucky and Spike, is captured in delicate watercolour washes with pencil detail—the illustrations give the adventures and frights of the evening the quality of dream.

All three children’s books are worthy editions to any library or shelf. You can read more about them on Magabala’s website here.

In your name crimes beyond imagining would have been committed

First published in National Indigenous Times on October 31, 2018.

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False Claims of Colonial Thieves starts with mining. Charmaine Papertalk Green reflects on her grandmother, glad that the only mining she knew was the mining of ochre for body and hair during ceremony. She reflects on the mountains that disappear and turn into cars; on the contemporary mechanical mine dream time animals.

This is Western Australia, depicted with great heart by the Yamaji poet and artist, who writes alongside celebrated WA poet John Kinsella. Kinsella and Green call to each other across cultures, seeking ‘a third space’ where black and white Australians can truth tell and share stories about our country and our history.

There’s light and shade: in one breath, Green shows us her ancestral lands singing with wildflowers, in another, we learn of the rainbow serpent, choking on salt and sliding elsewhere to seek freshwater. She takes us to Geraldton, where three Yamaji women perform an ‘unwelcome’ to country for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, and to the airspace above Wadjemup, where a ‘masterclass in amnesia’ means many tourists mistake it for a prettied-up holiday place, unaware of the spirits of the dead, unaware that they sleep on unmarked graves.

With these poems, Charmaine Green extends her hand to whitefellas, says: walk with me, let me show you another side to WA, let me share with you our colonial history, let me share with you the bearing of those past thieves on the present—the churches on ancient campsites, the racism, the wicked witches of the drug world ruining our beautiful, strong young people.

Kinsella takes the offered hand.

He tells us his grandmother ‘watched the blackfellas’ through hessian curtins, watched as they went beyond the town limits.

… out there was a truth she knew
was so close to home, if only
she understood how to see.

There’s a yearning in this—a yearning to understand. We find it again when Kinsella sketches the house of some whitefellas: there’s a carved emu egg, a boab and a Namitjira hanging alongside the footy pennants. Under the murk of the whitefella’s talk, something’s happening, something’s changing, an axis has shifted, attitudes are shifting.

They need to: Kinsella is unsparing and despairing in his depictions of racism. Some of the people in his poems are actively, viciously racist. We meet a group of vigilantes ready to shoot up a tin shack at the edge of town late at night. When Kinsella tries to stop them, they hunt him—he hides in the bush until daylight. We meet police in Geraldton that turn up the night of a fight. Kinsella’s wearing chips of blue metal in his scalp, his face is mush, he’s been beaten up by another whitefella. But the cops don’t want to hear that. They want to know which blackfella did it. The only blackfella at the scene, a Yamaji man, tried to break up the fight. Years later, the Yamaji man saw Kinsella said,

You’re a legend, bro – we –

we – know you didn’t tell the cops anything. I know you kept me out of it. 

If you hadn’t, my whole family
would have paid and would still
be paying. In your name crimes
beyond imagining would

have been committed.

False Claims of Colonial Thieves offers a masterclass in remembering and a shout above the roar of the mining trucks. It turns a bright spotty on racism and holds the colonial thieves accountable. It’s a must read for Western Australians and for anyone who doubts the necessity of a truth telling commission. A fabulous collaboration by two important Western Australian poets, False Claims of Colonial Thieves was published by Magabala Books earlier this year and can be purchased at www.magabala.com or at any good bookshop.