My heart was full as I read this unusual and generous book. When I had finished, I felt two things: humility and gratitude. Along the way there were many ‘light bulb’ moments, when aspects of Yolŋu culture that had been confusing or which I had previously misunderstood, became a bit clearer.
Songspirals (published 2019 by Allen & Unwin) was written by the Gay’wu Group of Women (or ‘dilly bag women’s group’), consisting of Yolŋu women from north-east Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north, and non-Aboriginal women. Four sisters and a daughter, and three non-Aboriginal researchers from Macquarie University and the University of Newcastle, have collaborated on cultural and research projects over a decade and also co-authored three other books. Songspirals is an invitation to come on a journey of exploration and understanding.
The women describe songspirals (sometimes called songlines or song cycles) as:
… the essence of people in this land…We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.Songspirals p xvi
The book was written to share something of Yolŋu culture, language, song and law, that have guided and protected people for thousands of years. The women write of milkarri:
We Yolŋu women from North East Arnhem Land … we cry the songcycles, we keen the songcycles – this is what we call milkarri. Only women keen milkarri. Milkarri is an ancient song, an ancient poem, a map, a ceremony and a guide, but it is more than all this too. Milkarri is a very powerful thing in Yolŋu life.Songspirals p.xvi
They share particular songspirals in the book, describing the deep knowledge and deep names of places, animals, clans, things. They also give the clearest explanation I have read of ‘Country’, of what it means within Yolŋu culture and spirituality:
Country is home, it sings to us and nourishes us. It is the feeling of home, the feeling of the seasons that communicate with us. It is all the beings of home. It is everything that we can touch or feel or sense, and it is everything beyond that too. It is everything that belongs in Country, with Country and as Country, including us. And it is the relationships between all those beings too. We come into being together…Songspirals pp.23, 40, 41
Yolŋu keep Country alive with language…the land grew a tongue and that tongue is the Yolŋu people…
Everything communicates and comes through the songspirals.
This communication between animals, between land, animals and people, between the tide, the sun and the moon, is about giving and receiving messages, about the seasons, about the weather, about people’s and Country’s safety and well-being.
I felt humble because of the breathtaking generosity of the women in sharing so much about their culture and their lives. Woven through the narrative are stories from their families, illustrating the resilience, pride and energy of Yolŋu in the face of appalling arrogance and dismissal on the part of non-indigenous people, from the very earliest contact to the present day. The depth and complexity of culture and languages that have been kept alive and vibrant through difficult times, shine from this book. All the authors ask in return is that: ‘...you respect this knowledge, to be respectful and be aware of the limits of what we are sharing.’ Songspirals p 258
Issues such as land rights, the destruction that mining inflicts on the land, bilingual or ‘two-way’ education, the dangers that come with losing language, and the ‘homelands’ or ‘outstations’ movement, (where indigenous people moved away from missions and towns, back to care for Country) are discussed in the book. It is clear that living on homelands is about health – the physical and mental health of people and of the land – NOT a ‘lifestyle choice’ as once dismissively described by a former Australian Prime Minister. Non-linear concepts of history, of time and of relationships, are also touched on.
These are hefty topics and the book is not an ‘easy’ read, partly because of the depth of the issues and partly because of its unusual narrative style, which cycles and repeats as do the songspirals it describes. But I was grateful for the opportunity to read about these important issues, not from commentators or political figures, but from Yolŋu women themselves. And the language – Yolŋu matha words are used liberally throughout (there is a glossary to help) and it’s a wonderful way to be introduced to the complexities and richness of one of Australia’s First Languages.
There is so much more I could say about this book and about the authors: sisters Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs and Banbapuy Ganambarr, their daughter Djawundil Maymura, and Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright.
I would encourage readers to visit the website of the Bawaka Collective to find out more about their work and research.
Also check out the music of other family members in the band East Journey. These musicians write and sing songs which are closely linked to much of the content and meaning of Songspirals.
Siena Stubbs, another of the younger Yolŋu generation, wrote and self published a book (since published by Magabala Books) called Our Birds: Ŋilimurruŋgu Wäyin Malanynha when she was just 16 years old.
Another member of this talented clan, Maminydjama Maymuru, has a successful modelling career as Magnolia. For this young woman,
…living in both worlds has given her a deeper understanding of both worlds and of life. In the Yolŋu way, she talks through the songspirals and that is where her message comes from.Songspirals p 133
For the authors of Songspirals, it is crucial that the next generations keep the language and culture strong while they negotiate living in two worlds. This is for the young people, their well being, health and connection to the things that will keep them strong. But it is also for the wider community, the land, the nation.
There is so much wisdom in this book, so much to absorb, to try to understand and to think about. I thank the Gay’wu Group of Women for their teaching and their generosity.
Clare Bowditch is an Australian singer-songwriter, journalist, actor and writer. She is also an ARIA award winner who has toured with Leonard Cohen and fellow Australian performer Gotye, has been on stage with the likes of Sara Storer, Katie Noonan and Ruby Hunter, acted in TV and theatre roles, and has now written a book (published by Allen & Unwin 2019). Her eighth album will be released this year (2020) Check out her lovely website for updates.
With all this behind her, may come as a surprise that Clare is someone who has suffered mental ill health and struggled with serious doubts about her own self-worth. Which is, in part, what her memoir Your Own Kind of Girl, is about.
Before you think ‘Not for me, then’, let me add that this memoir is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, incredibly honest, moving and encouraging. I listened to the audiobook format which had several bonuses—the story is told in Clare’s own voice, which felt like a warm and comfy chat over a coffee with a good friend. Also, her wonderful mum, Maria Bowditch, shares her traditional Dutch apple tart recipe at the end! What’s not to love? Each chapter is welcomed by a snippet of one of Clare’s songs, relevant to that part of her story. And most gorgeous of all, Clare’s mum also gives a ‘language warning’ at the start of the book, adding in an understated sort of way, ‘I was a bit surprised by the language.’
It is the story that Clare promised herself at age twenty-one that she ‘would one day be brave enough, and well enough, and alive enough, to write.’ from Your Own Kind of Girl Audiobook version 2019
Clare traces her life from her earliest memories of growing up in a loving family in Melbourne’s suburbs to the beginning and development of her career in the arts. Her childhood was essentially a happy one, but marred when she was still a pre-schooler by the illness and death of her sister Rowena. Clare’s memories of this time—the regular visits to the hospital, the kindness of friends and neighbours, the stoicism and enduring faith of her parents, Clare’s own thoughts and feelings—are told with sympathy but not self-pity. It was sobering to hear her description of the ongoing effects of this childhood loss on her own development through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.
What Clare’s story shows is how children can be both resilient and fragile—that youngsters can come through all kinds of early trauma, but there will be scars. For Clare, the scars manifested as a ‘bad feeling’ that she couldn’t understand or name. Much, much later she learned that the feeling incorporated grief, and guilt, and fear. The ‘bad feeling’ was to have a profound effect on her life.
Throughout childhood and puberty she struggled with her size: being a ‘big girl’ became problematic once she was old enough to compare herself with other girls, and to realise that people treated her differently because of it. While still in primary school she lost weight by going on a strict diet. So began years of see-sawing weight, at times dangerously close to serious eating disorder, which flared and receded according to what else was happening in her life.
The ‘bad feeling’ also manifested in an inner critical voice, that told Clare she was too fat, too stupid, not worthy. This voice spoke most insistently whenever she thought of trying something new, like following her love of music and singing. Who are you kidding? the voice would tell her. As if you’d ever be good enough!
A relationship break up led to her a trip to in London while in her very early twenties, and it was here that she experienced a full blown breakdown which she later understood to be an episode of extreme anxiety. She returned home to Melbourne to try to recover. Her family and friends gave great support but most helpful was discovering a book called Self Help For Your Nerves by Dr Claire Weekes (pub 1962), who was an Australian GP and health writer, considered by many to be one of the early leaders in the field of dealing with anxiety disorders. (see Wikipedia article for more info about Dr Weekes)
This book provided a glimpse of a pathway to better health. Clare realised that what she’d experienced in London was a panic attack but also what she could do to manage her anxiety. This is where ‘FAFL-ing’ comes into the story, an acronym that stands for one of Dr Weekes’ techniques, which is, when faced with anxiety inducing situations or thoughts, to:
Face the fearful thoughts and feelings (don’t run away) Accept (don’t fight against it) Float (don’t freeze) Let time pass (let go of impatience)
Clare describes how she practiced this technique: when difficult emotions or thoughts appeared, she would ‘FAFL’ her way through. Her recovery was slow, but she persisted, establishing a meticulous self-care routine involving times to rise and sleep, healthy eating, quiet times, and FAFL-ing daily. This part of Clare’s story is poignant but as I listened to her sharing at such an intimate level, I could feel nothing but admiration for her determination in the face of frightening and confusing situations and emotions. It was a time in which mental health and illness was not discussed nearly as openly as today and she admits that she knew almost nothing apart from what she saw on TV.
So she followed the steps laid out by Dr Weekes and found that—bit by bit—she was getting better. One day she decided to give the negative, critical voice in her head a name: Frank. And so ‘FOF-ing’ eventuated—‘F#@k Off, Frank’. She realised that trying to ignore Frank’s harping attempts to undermine her confidence and self-belief was not enough. This moment, and subsequent descriptions of how she ‘FOF-ed’ whenever the voice tried to spoil things for her, gave me some laugh-out-loud moments. I still smile when I think of them and I’ve taken to trying out some (silent) FOF-ing myself when the situation requires it.
Claire describes her ongoing recovery, setbacks, first tentative steps towards a creative, fulfilling life with friendships that sustained her, travel, romance and parenthood. All of this leading towards the ‘Amazing Life’ she’d dreamt about but for such a long time did not truly believe was possible.
You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something/ You’ll be a little bit older in October/ You’ve been acting on your pre-birth promise/ Now you think that the story is over/ Let me encourage you to know/ You will feel it when it is over/ It feels like hell taking inside of me/ Time to be still and listen for a while/ You want this amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You think you have to be fully formed already/ Don’t you?/ You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something from ‘Amazing Life’ on the album ‘The Winter I chose Happiness’ by Clare Bowditch
At the end of the book there are additional resources for readers who may wish to explore ways to overcome their own ‘bad feelings’ and move towards recovery and their own amazing lives. I loved the way Clare gives these: once again it was like receiving a gift of relevant information from a close friend.
This is an honest, funny, poignant memoir that made me wish I could sit down with Clare and have a chat about her amazing life.
For a long time now, I have been conflicted about the purpose and meaning of our national holiday, Australia Day, celebrated as it is on the day regarded by First Nations peoples as the beginning of the invasion by Europeans of their land. This year I was able to spend the day, and the evening before it, in a much more positive frame of mind, surrounded by reminders of the strength, resilience and richness of indigenous cultures. On the evening before the 26th January, I was lucky enough to attend a stunning show, Bungul, at the Sydney Opera House (shout out to my beautiful friend Anita for such a generous Christmas gift!)
The concert was a performance by musicians from Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Yirritja and Dhuwa performers from north-east Arnhem land. The music was that of the late ‘Dr G’ (Gurrumul) Yunupingu, sublime and evocative music about his country, his people and his family. Along with the music was live dance performances and a visual backdrop of images from country, dancers, and seascapes. Mesmerising and moving. The joy expressed by the dancers as they performed was wonderful. It was an unforgettable experience and I think for the several thousand audience members in the Concert Hall of arguably Australia’s most famous building, a thought provoking way to experience the eve of Australia Day.
For two hundred years, Australian society has blocked its ears to the remarkable indigenous cultures that are our inheritances. As the urgency grows daily to find a more sustainable way to live with the fragile land that supports us, it is surely time to take stock and learn from the extraordinary cultures that have always been around us, cultures such as the Yolgnu. It is time to listen.Nigel Jamieson, Director of Bungul
After the concert ended, my companions and I headed for Barangaroo, another spot on Sydney Harbour, named for a Gadigal woman who lived around the area at the time of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. There we joined a vigil of Sydneysiders who had gathered together to experience a fire and smoking ceremony, listen to indigenous people sing, dance and speak about what the 26th January means to them. It was a beautiful experience although we missed the first part of the night due to the walk from the Opera House.
On Australia Day itself, 26th January, I was surrounded by families, dancers, musicians, friends to reflect on and celebrate Australia’s incredible richness of culture at the Yabun Festival, a whole day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, languages, music, dance and much else.
All in all, these experiences added up to a much more meaningful way to spend the national day, away from the sometimes forced and artificial sense of ‘nationalism’ which can accompany this occasion. I think there is much to celebrate about my country but also much that needs to be done to redress past and continuing wrongs. So a day of thinking about and reflecting on these and other aspects of Australia’s story, was most welcome.
Now, to the book I finished just before this experience: The Mind of A Thief, which explores some of these questions.
Published in 2012 (Queensland University Press), it is the second of Patti Miller’s books I’ve read. The first, Write Your Life, is a ‘how to’ of memoir or life writing, the area for which she is justifiably well known. I have heard it said that Miller could ‘write about a blade of grass and make it interesting’ and after reading The Mind of a Thief I have to agree!
Not that this book is about blades of grass—or rather, it is about grasses, and rocks, and the sky, a particular river valley in the central west of NSW Australia, the stories that come from there, and how identity is crafted within those stories and those places. Miller was born and raised just outside the town of Wellington, though she has lived in several other parts of Australia and in Europe since.
It was a hint from an Aboriginal elder, a Wiradjuri woman, that Miller herself might ‘have some blackfella in ya’, that set her on the path of thinking about and exploring the history of the town and its valley and her own family history. Through this she encounters a long running Native Title Claim for The Common. This is a section of land that was the subject of the first Native Title claim after the Mabo High Court decision (which recognised the right of all indigenous Australians to their traditional lands and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that had prevailed since colonisation by the British.) The Wellington claim was bitterly contested by different local groups and partly, the book is about Miller’s attempts to hear and understand all sides of the story.
In doing so, she reflects on the colonists’ treatment of the Wiradjuri, a nation that stretched over a vast area of the state. She discusses how people were herded onto reserves, a process which mixed and muddied connections to country and language. Also, the children stolen from their parents, and the lack of control by indigenous people over their own lives because of laws that treated them differently from all other Australians.
However, the book is also about the author herself; her place in the history of the Wellington Valley, her connections to the land and its people, past and present. She writes that:
There was something in uncovering the story of Wiradjuri and Wellington that … felt like a balm, quieting the restlessness… as if there were nothing else I should be doing.p. 68
Among the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the quotes from the early English and German missionaries who came to live and preach in the valley. They hoped to convert the ‘Natives’ to their Christian faith. An especially telling quote is from the Rev James Gunther who, in the Wiradjuri-English dictionary he compiled in 1839, included this sentence:
Ngunguda nilla buranu ngaddunu; minyamminyambul ngumdiagirrin, which he translated to mean Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat. (p.87)
Whoa. If ever there was a direct quote to illustrate the simplicity and horror of the theft carried out by the colonists of all backgrounds and motivations, surely this is it. Theft of land, of children, of family. Attempted theft of minds and beliefs and hope.
Another quote, from Rev William Watson in 1835, attributed to a Wiradjuri man called Gungin, who on being reprimanded by the Reverend for something, replied angrily:
What do you want here? What do you come here for? Why do you not go to your own country. (p96)
And later, Brother Johann Handt commented in 1832 that, when asked by Wiradjuri women why he wanted their children, he replied that ‘we desired to instruct their children, and to make them like ourselves, after which they replied that they had no children.’ (p.103)
Hardly any more needs to be said about the unwillingness of the Wiradjuri to see their children become ‘civilised’ in this manner.
Miller’s book explores this history within the context of her own ancestors’ culpability in the dispossession and oppression of the Wiradjuri. She discovers that one of her nineteenth-century ancestors was part of a group of leading townspeople who originally commandeered The Common—the piece of land that was, more than a century later, the subject of the Native Title claim discussed in the book.
Whether we had Wiradjuri ancestors or not, the mere fact of my white ancestors turning up in the Wellington Valley on the currents of English criminal and colonial policy mingled our histories inextricably.pp. 123 & 166
… It wasn’t just symbolic to say my ancestors took the land from the Wiradjuri in the first place. After all this time I discovered one of them, Patrick Reidy, really did take it.
I share with Miller an ancestry of British and German migrants to this ancient land: a mix of English convicts, and Germans leaving behind the political and economic upheavals of nineteenth century Europe in search of a better life. I am certain that some of these people, especially those who came in the early years of the colony, were participants in the dispossession of indigenous people as they gained freedom and were granted land—often large areas of land—in the Hawkesbury, the northwest of NSW and the Hunter areas, for example. This is an uncomfortable truth. I also feel a deep connection to this country of my birth, though it’s a connection that stretches back just over two hundred years, not many thousands as it does for those who were so dispossessed.
So, like Miller, I ‘come from transplanted people.’ Whether this makes us ‘grow a little crooked and ill at ease’ (p.145), I’m not sure. Certainly, there is discomfort, and a wish for my country to do things better now, recognise the First Nations of this land in meaningful ways, try to repair the damage done.
The Mind of a Thief does not have answers to these questions. But for me, the hopeful aspect of Miller’s story is best summed up by this passage:
I wondered about second chances and whether everyone gets them or not. Whether a whole country gets another chance to do things right and whether it ever makes up for doing it so badly the first time.p.233
This is a beautiful book that asks some hard questions without giving glib answers. I am convinced that Miller can indeed write about anything—including blades of grass—and make it fascinating and thought provoking.
Happy New Year lovely readers. I do hope 2020 treats you kindly and you give and receive love in abundance – because that’s the thing that we all need in great quantities. Every single one of us.
In addition, the readers among us need books! Perhaps you have added some new books to your shelves: Christmas gifts, or books borrowed from your local library or a friend, or ones you have bought yourself. Like you, I’m looking forward to another year of great reads.
In 2020, I am signing up to three reading ‘Challenges’. I like to do this to motivate me to expand my reading repertoire and discover authors and books I might not otherwise know about.
The first is one I’ve participated in for the past couple of years – the Australian Women Writers Challenge, now in its ninth year. The #aww2020 Challenge aims to increase the number of reviews of works by women authors in this country. So far it is having great success, if the published review statistics are anything to go by, improving the ratio of reviews of works by male and female authors to near equal.
From the AWW blog:
The AWW challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, living in or outside Australia, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only.
For 2020, I’m selecting the ‘Franklin’ challenge, which means I aim to read ten books by Australian women authors, and review at least six. Given that the majority of books I read in 2019 were by Australian women, I’m feeling pretty confident!
The second challenge for 2020 is the Nonfiction Reader Challenge, which is a new one for me. I’ve chosen to participate in this one because I’ve always thought of myself as mainly a fiction reader, but lately I’ve enjoyed many more nonfiction titles. Some of these were books chosen by members of my book group, others ones I gravitated to myself – mostly in the areas of history, memoir or biography. So, why not set myself a challenge to read more?
For this one, I’ve chosen the ‘Nonfiction Nibbler’ level, in which the aim is to read 6 books, from any category, which are:
1. Memoir 2. Disaster Event 3. Social Science 4. Related to an Occupation
5. History 6. Feminism 7. Psychology 8. Medical Issue 9. Nature
10. True Crime 11. Science 12. Published in 2020
The third challenge overlaps a bit with the others- the 2020 Aussie Readers Challenge, which aims to
Showcase the quality and diversity of books by Australian authors.Book lover Book Review
I’ve opted for the ‘Kangaroo’ level. This means I will aim to read 12 books by Australian authors, at least 4 by female and 4 by male authors and at least 4 by authors new to me, and across 3 different genres.
So, there are my reading challenges for the next twelve months.
Do you like to set reading (or other) challenges for yourself? Do you find it helpful to do so? Let me know in the comments what your best challenges have been, or the ones you look forward to in 2020.
And happy reading.