Wiradjuri author’s second novel hypnotically lyrical

First published in National Indigenous Times on July 17, 2019

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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.

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.

By Madelaine Dickie

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.


Hope he gets piles on his piles!

First published in National Indigenous Times on October 10, 2018.

Sue McPherson (2017).jpg

Tarpin’. It’s where you sneak up onto the back of someone’s ute, lie quietly under the tarp, and go for a ride to who-knows-where. It’s a test of courage. It’s about becoming a man. It can go horribly wrong.

Sue McPherson’s Brontide is a bold story that charts the conversations between a fictional ‘Sue’, who’s been asked to help with a storytelling workshop at a QLD high school, and four boys between the ages of 12 and 17.

It’s set out like a play and one could imagine a rich stage adaptation, as the boys spin tales of their fears, their prejudices and their hopes. Brontide goes to unexpected places, it asks hard questions.

Take Benny, a young Aboriginal boy who loves fishing for flatheads and who lives with his nan. Benny’s nan’s white; she’s fostered him. She tells deadly jokes, doesn’t like wearing shoes and has a beer every afternoon at four-thirty.

He loves her.

But he wonders if this is right. ‘People said it’s wrong … They said I should live with a black foster nan.’

When he mentions this to Sue—who in actual life is an adoptee and a proud Wiradjuri, Torres Strait Island and Irish woman—she observes, ‘Love is … more brilliant … And more powerful than the colour of our skin.’

Jack’s questioning his identity too. He’s a white kid who’s been adopted by an Aboriginal family. ‘All those do-gooders who think blackfullas aren’t good enough to look after their own kids, well, there’s their curve ball. My blackfulla family had to look after us white kids too.’

Jack’s also burning with a cynical hurt, stemming from the inability to protect the ones he loves. Take this reflection, on his gran’s relationship with his grandad:

She’s the best gran ever. She doesn’t even get the shits with grandad. That old bastard pissed off and left us, you see. Too busy chasin’ some uppity old bitch with a pacemaker, perky titties and a bank account full of holidays and botox. And good riddance to the knobby-kneed bastard. Hope he gets piles on his piles …

All four boys are unsparing in their judgements. They’re righteous, demanding and they’re tackling some giant issues on their paths to becoming full-grown men. This is a fantastic book—providing a springboard into so many conversations relevant to young adults—conversations about family, belonging, racism and risk-taking.

Author Sue McPherson won the inaugural black@write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship from the State Library of Queensland (2011) for her manuscript Grace Beside Me, which was published by Magabala Books in 2012. Brontide is a Magabala Books’ release and is available for purchase online at www.magabala.com or at any good bookshop.


Pilbara Palyku mob share opulent illustrations, tense questions

First published in National Indigenous Times on September 26, 2018.

We All Sleep by Sally Morgan and Ezekiel Kwaymullina. Image supplied by Fremantle Press.

We All Sleep by Sally Morgan and Ezekiel Kwaymullina. Image supplied by Fremantle Press.

Crocs, kookaburras and a dingo howling in the golden light of the moon—these are some of the creatures that populate mother-and-son team Sally Morgan and Ezekiel Kwaymullina’s gorgeous book for infants We All Sleep.

The book spans a day and takes youngsters on a journey from mangrove-trimmed lagoons, to red rock ridges alive with snakes. The illustrations vibrate on the page, opulent colours that bring to life country and its creatures.

It’s one of two new editions recently released by Fremantle Press—the other, I Love Me, by Sally Morgan and Ambelin Kwaymullina, is full of joy, elation, and encourages infants and children to celebrate and trust in the uniqueness of the self.

‘I love my eyes, I love my nose, I love the way my curly hair grows!’ Sally Morgan writes.

Both stories are in the form of board books, with thick card pages perfect to resist bumped-over liquids or smeared food, and great for weekends camping or on country.

Sally, Ezekiel and Ambelin are all Palyku people, from Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

In addition to these two children’s books, Ezekiel and Ambelin have also been involved—as a poet, and illustrator/editor respectively—in another recent publication by Fremantle Press, a collection of short stories, memoir, and poetry titled Meet Me at the Intersection, released at the start of this month.

The anthology opens with the voices of First Nations’ people and then widens to incorporate other marginalised Australian voices, including writers who live with disabilities or mental illness, and LGBTIQA+ writers.

The book’s editors, Ambelin Kwaymullina and Rebecca Lim, were prompted to found the anthology when considering the under-representation of diverse Australian voices in children’s and young adult literature.

The results are fresh and important. In Kyle Lynch’s memoir ‘Dear Mate’ we learn of his attempts to snag a job in Kalgoorlie, WA.

‘You gunna help me or what?’ he asks his aunty in the KACC office.

She helps him build a solid résumé—but that’s only the start.

The next tricky thing is trying to find a lift into town so that he can drop it off. There’s a hot thread of tension running through this piece—the checking and rechecking the phone, the disappointment when the first job doesn’t come through—and it’s a tension apparent in the other pieces too.

The writers ask: how does one form a strong Aboriginal identity in the wake of colonisation? How does one form a strong, queer Aboriginal identity? And in the case of Ezekiel Kwaymullina, how does one overcome dyslexia, when the teachers are completely oblivious to the Aboriginal boy at the back of the class whose mind is a ‘fading star’?

All three books are available at www.fremantlepress.com.au or you can check in with your local bookshop.


Heart is full and burstin’ blak

First published in National Indigenous Times on September 12, 2018.

Poet Alison Whittaker. Photo by Jonno Revanche.

Poet Alison Whittaker. Photo by Jonno Revanche.

Whitework, bloodwork, badwork, blakwork: Alison Whittaker’s sassy second collection of poems is structured in chapters ranging from the collective to the deeply personal, from the comic, to the deadly serious. A Gomeroi woman, from the floodplains of Gunnedah in northern NSW, Whittaker flips white Australian narratives about country. In one of the opening poems of the collection she muses on Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, that patriotic poem that begins:

I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains.

‘My Country’ is said to be inspired by Whittaker’s home region around Gunnedah and Whittaker loves this country too, it’s cored in her heart. But unlike ‘sweet Mackellar’ whose ‘gaze turns rivers into sand’ Whittaker has a different view. Her response to Mackellar is like the answering part of a duet, troubled, darker and thread with pain.

                                                                                                   I love white nativity
that digs its roots and ticks to suck the floodplains and the sea—
the love that swept those sweeping plains from Nan, from Mum, from me.

Many of the poems in Blakwork contend with the calamity of colonisation. We meet a trespassing lamb, ‘a tuft of sustenance, adrip with meat’ as it pads the clay, and a stock image barefoot child ‘with pea-thick flies on face’. In the poem ‘beneviolence’ we’re told:

THIS IS GOOD FOR YOU!
THIS IS FOR 
YOUR GOOD. YOUR OWN
GOOD. THIS IS FOR 
YOU.

The arc of the poems takes us from the past closer to the present. She notes a bustling trade in the soft currencies of guilt and reconciliation and is unsparing in her depictions of entrenched racism. Where she’s best, however, is in her vivid observations. Her poem ‘for the feral girls’ is gorgeous in its femininity—we’re accosted by leopard prints and river map undie seams, by sweat and sex and Kmart bras and Centrelink. She writes:

You got that
chain-smoking habit, Nintendo 64 and KFC for dinner …

On the whole, Blakwork is a delight: the challenges to white Australian narratives like ‘My Country’ and ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, the fresh use of form and language and the knock-your-socks-off one-liners like, ‘A tea bag haemorrhaging ‘round its spoon.’

It’s no surprise that Whittaker was co-winner of the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize in 2017, the winner of the State Library of Queensland’s black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship in 2015, and that she was the Australian Indigenous Poet-In-Residence for the 2018 Queensland Poetry Festival. On top of these accolades, between 2017-2018, she was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard Law School, where she was named the Dean’s Scholar in Race, Gender and Criminal Law.

Blakwork was released by Magabala Books, Australia’s oldest Indigenous publishing house, in September this year. More information can be found at: https://www.magabala.com/young-adult/blakwork.html