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.
I’m not sure when I realised that the practice of removing indigenous Australian children from their families (resulting in what is now known as the ‘Stolen Generations’ and the subject of the 2008 National Apology by then Prime Minister Keven Rudd) did not only happen way back in Australia’s history, but was still happening during my childhood in the 1960’s. The understanding that while I was growing up, safe and secure in a loving family, other children my age were in very different circumstances – grieving the loss of their parents and communities, frequently subjected to abuse and neglect in institutions charged with their care – appalled me, as I know it has many other Australians. This is not ‘history’ (locked in the pages of a text book about the past) but the lived experience of generations of Australian families.
The White Girl (Queensland University Press, 2019) is in part an exploration of this blot on Australia’s record. The reader experiences 1960’s rural Australian life through the eyes of Odette, a strong and loving grandmother to Sissy, who she has cared for since her daughter Lila left their town after giving birth to her baby. Odette does not know where Lila is and has had to get on with the task of raising a granddaughter, drawing on her considerable personal resources of inner strength, kindness and respect for her culture and ancestors.
But this was a time and place in which overt racism was part of the everyday for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and Odette and Sissy experience the worst and the best of people as they go about their lives in their small community. The local policeman, Bill O’Shea, went to primary school with Odette and they were friends back then – but he is now an alcoholic reaching the end of his career and prefers to turn a blind eye to the goings-on in town, including the bullying and aggressive behaviour of Joe Kane and his eldest son Aaron, who takes against Odette and Sissy and threatens harm.
Then along comes a new police officer, Sergeant Lowe, who is determined to be the new broom the town needs and who takes seriously his responsibilities as the official guardian of the Aboriginal people in it. Unfortunately for Odette and Sissy, what this means is that he is set on removing Sissy from her grandmother’s care because in his view, an Aboriginal family is no place for a child to grow up, especially one who could ‘pass’ as white – like Sissy.
Matters are complicated by Odette’s health problems and she must find a way to protect Sissy from Lowe while dealing with her own uncertain future.
Along the way the reader is confronted by difficult truths about black/white relations at this time. For example, Lowe has a chart in his office on which he has listed each Aboriginal child in the local area, along with descriptions such as half-caste, quarter-caste and octoroon. Sissy is listed here, categorised as near white (p 115) Later, Odette reflects that:
…white people were fascinated with the skin colour of Aboriginal people, and what it might indicate…(She) understood that what this woman really wanted to know was how she’d inherited the white blood she carried and who it had come from. Odette didn’t know the answer to such questions. All she knew was that the women in her family loved all their children, regardless of the suffering and violence that had created them.p 146
Through Odette, Tony Birch suggests that the appalling and cruel behaviour exhibited by white people in authority over indigenous people, comes about because in order to carry out unjust government policies and laws, they needed to see Aboriginal people as ‘other’ and somehow at fault. Odette comments to her friend Jack:
Think if you were the police, Jack, knowing that one day you’d be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family. If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn’t do that job. This fella giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry with us. Maybe even hate us. The only way they get by.p 164
The novel also deals with the so-called ‘exemption certificate’ that some Aboriginal people applied for. In essence, it was a document stating that they were no longer to be considered Aboriginal – which meant no longer subject to the laws and regulations governing every aspect of life for indigenous people under the Aboriginal Protection Act. Where you lived, if you were allowed to travel, who you might marry – these were all controlled by the relevant Protector or his delegates. Birch deals sensitively with what I am imagine has been a contested and difficult issue for many indigenous people, families and communities.
One of Odette’s friends answers Jack when he asks ‘What will we do, then?’ with the following:
What we’ve always done. Keep our heads down, think smart and get on the move again if the need comes.’p 247
What gets Odette through such difficulties are her recollections of a happy childhood, a loving marriage, and her connections to the natural world and the old people – her ancestors. She teaches Sissy about these things too, hoping that her granddaughter’s strong will and Odette’s love will guide her through life.
Each night, before Odette fell asleep, she asked the old people for help, that she would not lose Sissy as well.p 42
The White Girl is a beautiful book that deals sensitively with confronting issues of Australia’s past – and present.
For more information on Tony Birch and his books, see the UQP website.
Eggshell Skull, published in 2018 by Allen & Unwin, is a memoir that peels back layers of personal and societal abuse, as seen by the author in her first year as a Judge’s Associate, and throughout her own foray into the legal system as a complainant.
If you or someone close to you has had contact with the police or courts in Australia, either as defendant or complainant, you will relate to much of Bri’s story. Many years ago, I survived a bitter drawn out dispute in the Family Court. Loud bells of recognition jangled in my head as I read Bri’s descriptions of the powerlessness, despair and frustration she experienced during her own ‘journey’ through complex legal processes. She had the advantage of familiarity with at least some of the jargon and steps involved in bringing a matter to court, having completed a law degree and worked as a Judge’s Associate for a year—insight which most of don’t have access to.
Ironically, it was precisely that experience so early in her working life that led her to bring forward her own complaint. After travelling with her Judge on court circuits to Queensland country towns and regional centres, and hearing case after case of rape, sexual assault, and child abuse—not all of which were resolved in the complainants’ favour—something tipped inside her. She began to recognise that her conflicted feelings about her chosen profession, her disturbing memories of an episode of childhood sexual abuse by a teenage friend of her brother, her negative self-image and episodes of self-harm, were all connected.
‘Since puberty I had accepted…that I wasn’t worth anything; that the ugly thing was ever-present inside me. That it was the dark truth, a rotten core, and that the smiling daytime Bri was the façade. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that so many of the feelings I struggled with are perfectly normal for abuse and trauma survivors.’p. 131
She decided to do something about it.
So began her transformation from wearing the robes of a Judge’s Associate, to entering a police station and court house wearing the everyday clothes of a complainant. She experienced the labyrinthine, slow passage of legal matters from complaint to trial and sentencing—and the many points along the way at which the matter can be deemed not serious enough or unlikely to be brought to trial and so dropped from the lists. The cliché ‘roller-coaster ride’ barely suggests the emotional highs and lows someone experiences at these times. Small vignettes, like the painful process of making her initial and later statements to a police officer whose two-fingered typing meant the ordeal was dragged out much longer than it needed to be, increasing her discomfort, are details that brought me right into her experience. I was there with Bri, wanting to shout hurry up! at the slow typing officer. The way the defendant delayed matters endlessly by not showing up or having tasks completed on time, became another form of abuse.
…I’d felt totally powerless…Samuel in control again. He was taking up my time, my energy, my life. Calls about the case invaded my beautiful home. Reminders of the next mention invaded my mind when I slept. So long as the legal process continued I would be the complainant—and every two, three or four weeks, I would be reminded of that. Reminded that I was just the girl, reminded of being pushed on my back, belly-up, frozen.p 284
On top of all that is the added layer of social attitudes towards women who make allegations of rape or other sexual assaults or abuse. How can they be believed? Does their use of the contraceptive pill while not in a steady relationship imply they are sexually promiscuous? Are their memories of childhood abuse accurate or are they imagining it? Unlike other crimes, there is often no ‘hard’ evidence of crimes of a sexual nature, especially historical crimes. So there are plenty of holes into which these matters can, and often do, fall.
The title, Eggshell Skull, refers to a common legal rule that a defendant must ‘take his victims as they find them.’ (p.v) If, for example, a victim of a punch dies because of an existing medical condition, the person who threw the punch is still responsible for their death. When her matter is resolved, Bri Lee finds herself reflecting that the rule works both ways. If a perpetrator of abuse decides to fight the allegations in court, and finds the complainant more determined, braver, better supported by family and friends than he’d expected, well…that’s his problem, not hers.
This memoir is an interesting read in the context of the Me Too movement, in which women all over the world began to call out male sexual abuse for what it is and took action to stop it. Bri Lee’s eggshell skull is perhaps one part of that worldwide picture.
fourW is one of Australia’s longest running annual anthologies of new poetry and prose from Australian and international writers. It’s produced by Booranga Writers’ Centre at Charles Sturt university, Wagga Wagga NSW. I was thrilled to have a short story included in this year’s collection, the thirtieth edition.
You can find out more about Booranga Writers’ Centre here:
The Sydney launch of the anthology was on Saturday 7 December at Gleebooks in Glebe.
Contributors were invited to read from their work, so as the MC suggested, it was a smorgasbord of poetry and prose.
You can buy a copy of the anthology from Booranga Writers’ Centre at the link above. The proceeds support the continued work of the centre to nurture and publish new writing. A good cause for sure.
The Woman in the Green Dress (Pub 2019 by HQ Fiction) is Tea Cooper’s latest historical fiction and the first by her that I have read. I enjoyed it very much and I’m putting her on my ‘favourite authors’ list – which is, I might add, rather long. It’s always a pleasure to discover a ‘new’ author especially when they have written lots of other books, so there are plenty of others to enjoy. I’m not at all sure why I’d not discovered this author before now!
The reason I picked up this particular novel was its setting, both time and place. It is a dual narrative / dual timeline novel, with two interweaving stories that play out separately, but of course overlap at crucial moments – to say any more would be to give spoilers so I’ll leave it at that, except to say that I particularly enjoy dual time frame novels. There’s something about them that when done well, brings the past more fully into the present.
There are two main settings in this book: Mogo Creek, a remote tiny settlement on the Hawkesbury River, and Sydney. The dual time settings are the mid nineteenth century, and the (slightly more modern) early twentieth century – just after WWI draws to its bloody conclusion. I was attracted to the Hawkesbury setting because it is where my own roots lie, though my ancestors settled in the more ‘tameable’ farming land around Windsor and Richmond. For readers of The Secret River by Kate Grenville (one of my all-time favourite and most admired historical fiction novels) Mogo Creek is not too far from the area explored in that book.
There are two protagonists: Della, in the 1853 story, and Fleur, who we meet in the novel’s opening, in 1918. Fleur is an ordinary English woman who lost her parents in the bombing of London during the war. Added to that, her husband Hugh, whom she married in a hasty ceremony just before he went off to fight, is reported as killed in action – but Fleur refuses to believe it. After all, there has been no official telegram, no parcel of his personal items sent to her. Her life turns a somersault when she is informed that Hugh has left her a substantial fortune and parcels of land – in far off Australia. Not a particularly adventurous woman, Fleur is astonished to find herself on a ship bound for Australia. She is convinced she can ‘sort out the misunderstanding’, return to England and wait for Hugh.
In this she is proven wrong. She finds herself trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, but obstacles present themselves. Eventually she travels to Mogo Creek herself and meets a strange old man there. She discovers other clues in the boarded up Curio Shop of Wonders, a Sydney store owned by Hugh’s family for many years.
Gradually we come to see how Fleur’s story overlaps with Della’s. Della is a taxidermist, an unusual occupation for a woman in the nineteenth century. Della is sympathetic to the Aboriginal people she knows – the Darkinjung of the upper Hawkesbury – and distressed to learn of brutal raids and attacks against them by some white settlers and also by the collectors of wildlife ‘specimens’ for her aunt’s store in Sydney – the very same Curio Shop that puzzles Fleur in the later timeline. I enjoyed the descriptions of Sydney across the two timelines, as well as the more rugged parts of the Hawkesbury river and its valleys. The characters of Fleur and Della are both very likeable and we see how they each change as the novel progresses.
A motif throughout the novel is the opal, which in the mid nineteenth century garnered a reputation as a stone that brought bad luck to its owners. It was interesting to read of the very beginnings of the opal industry in Australia as it is now an iconic Australian gemstone, and (as far as I know) it no longer brings bad luck!
Sometimes in dual narrative stories, the reader needs to suspend disbelief a little at the neat way the stories get tied together. In The Woman in the Green Dress, the clues are planted throughout, resulting in a climax and resolution that feels satisfying and believable. I enjoyed this novel and have already added another of Tea Cooper’s books to my ‘To Be Read’ pile.
If you enjoy an author who never seems to write the same book twice, I can recommend the works of Jock Serong, a Victorian based author who has to date published four books. I have read three of these so far and I can honestly say that the only thing they have in common is the quality of the story telling.
Quota, Serong’s first book, also published in 2016, is the one I’ve yet to read. It won the Australian Crime Writers Association’s Award for best debut novel (and it’s next on my TBR list.) In the same year, The Rules of Backyard Cricket appeared, which (while there are certainly criminal elements within the story and some of its characters) is also a meditation on the role of sport in Australian society and, more especially, Australian masculinity. Then in 2017 came On the Java Ridge, a stark and heart-breaking look at the ‘problems’ posed by asylum seekers for our politicians, for our moral compass as a nation, and for those who are at the front line of the tragedies that play out in the lives of those who seek safety from trauma and brutality. Lastly, Preservation, published in 2018, is a retelling of a true historical story, with the flavour of a psychological thriller. Four novels, no two alike, but all the work of a writer in superb control of his craft.
So, to The rules of backyard cricket. This is the story of two boys, Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally, raised in the hard-scrabble inner west Melbourne suburb of Footscray in the 1970’s by a tough and loving single mum. The novel opens with Darren reflecting on his life and on the series of choices and events that led to where we first meet him – in the boot of a car, bound, gagged, and with a bullet in his knee. Immediately, we think this will be a crime novel, right?
Yes…except that so much of the story involves the brothers’ lives in the world of sport, specifically cricket. While they start their cricketing trajectories together in their scruffy childhood backyard, their paths diverge: Wally (the older, driven, disciplined and focused brother) becomes the captain of the Australian test team, while Darren (the younger, charming larrikin) experiences early success but due to some spectacularly bad choices, ends up with his cricket career in tatters. And yet, Darren goes on to become something of a media celebrity and commentator, proving that even very bad behaviour can be forgiven by the public in certain arenas of life – and in Australia, sport is most definitely one of those arenas. Here’s a quote from the book:
“Sport goes to the heart of everything. If you can reach inside it and f**k with its innards, you’re actually messing with society . . . Bigger than drugs. Bigger than hookers and porn, because people shy away, they can smell the desperation. But the same people will go on consuming sport long after they know it’s rotten to the core. They’re insatiable.”From ‘The rules of backyard cricket’ by Jock Serong.
We know that Darren ends up in a sticky situation, though. Each chapter opens with a reminder of this, zooming back to focus on Darren in that car boot as he ruminates on all the actions and events that put him there. We watch as his life becomes a train wreck, and Darren is sufficiently self aware to offer a critique of his choices and behaviours, so that we feel as if we are offered an insider’s view of it all.
In a Goodreads interview, Serong offers this:
On one hand “the book is about men and Australiana and sport, but on the other is … about family and brothers and in a subtle way it’s a story about women.https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30271762-the-rules-of-backyard-cricket
I wanted to think critically about men and sport and how those men behave in the public arena, to look at how it is that happens and why as a society do we encourage it. ”
This novel works on so many levels: as crime fiction, as an analysis of important themes in our society, as a tender reflection on family and as a thriller – I did not see the twist at the end coming!
This weekend I had the pleasure of being one of a big team of volunteers at the very first independent Writers Festival in the Blue Mountains. Presented by Varuna the National Writers House, and held at three venues in Katoomba, it was a success both in terms of tickets (most sessions were sold out) and great enjoyment.
Some stand outs for me, in no particular order:
Philosopher, academic and writer Chris Fleming’s candid, and often hilarious, account of his years of drug addiction and recovery. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one, to be honest, but it was wonderful.
ABC radio’s Cassie McCullagh’s chat with Chris Hammer about the inspiration behind his crime novel ‘Scrublands’
Hearing about the special working relationship between a best selling author (the wonderful Melina Marchetta of ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ fame and many, many other books) and her editor at Penguin Random House, Amy Thomas, as they chatted with James Valentine from ABC radio and TV.
Tim Flannery describing an ancient Europe and a pre-history when hippos swam in the Thames
Hearing about the experiences of two women which led to the writing of their extraordinary memoirs about family: Vicki Laveau-Harvie (author of the Stella Prize winning ‘The Erratics’ and Jessie Cole, author of ‘Staying’, interviewed with humour and sensitivity by Benjamin Law.
An insightful and informative panel discussion illustrating how a work of fiction goes from manuscript, to agent, editor, publisher and eventually lands in a book store near you.
And my last session for the weekend, a beautiful discussion between Blue Mountains poet and songwriter/singer/musician Kate Fagan and Tishani Doshi from India. Tishani is a poet/novelist/dancer (can you see a theme here of multi talented people?) who performed several heart stoppingly gorgeous and powerful poems as well as an extract from her latest novel. Such a treat.
As with any festival there were hard choices to make with multiple sessions on at the same time. Ones I missed included a talk by Patti Miller and Leah Kaminsky, a film screening with Clarence Walden and Alexis Wright, a live conversation with Behrouz Boochani (on Manus Island) and Markus Zusak in conversation with Rosanna Gonsalves.
Another lovely feature of the festival was the ‘Social Book Nook’ corner of the comfy lounge at the glorious old Carrington Hotel, where attendees were invited to talk books.
My literary cup truly ran over all weekend.
This was my effort for the https://www.writerscentre.com.au/category/furious-fiction/ contest in June. The parameters for the month were:
The story (500 words or less) had to have a ‘party’ of some kind in it, as well as a ‘button’, and include the words ‘The air was thick with…’
Australia had not long concluded a Federal Election so I guess that theme was foremost in my mind.
Here’s my entry:
I Care by Denise Newton
‘Vote One for the I Care party?’ The volunteer’s face was hopeful. She clutched narrow black and white leaflets close to her chest like a protective shield.
I watched people pass by her on their way into the polling place. Some shook their heads in a curt dismissal. Others gave an apologetic smile. Most simply ignored her. None took the proffered paper. I was intrigued. She didn’t falter, even when a young man made a rude gesture at her with his finger and knocked the papers from her hand, scattering them like clumsy confetti on the ground. At that point, I stepped across to help her pick them up.
“Thanks!” She gave me a wide smile as I held out the leaflets to her.
“Hope you don’t mind me saying, it looks like no one’s interested in your party,” I said, as gently as I could. Why was she persisting in the face of such apparent disregard?
“So why do you bother?” My question was blunt, but I wanted to know what drove this young woman to volunteer her time on a chilly election day, standing in a blustery wind that nipped at the edges of comfort.
“Oh, well…” she undid a button on her coat, before slipping some of the leaflets into an inside pocket. “I want people to know there’s a point to it all, you know?”
I shook my head, bemused. “A point?”
“People get all riled up about things. I just want them to know that some people care.”
“Care about what?”
“Care about them.” She smiled at an approaching couple, and held out a leaflet. They sidled past. Her smile didn’t falter.
“But…what does your party promise to do?”
“Oh, we don’t promise to do anything. Just care about people.”
I began to chuckle. “Don’t all parties promise that?”
“Of course not. They promise to build roads, or employ nurses, or turn back boats. No one promises to care. But the I Care party—that’s the only promise we make. Everything follows from that.”
I examined her. She didn’t appear to be psychologically disturbed, but then I was no expert. Perhaps the I Care party was a cult of some sort? She was dressed normally, no weird hippie gear, and she didn’t look undernourished, as I thought a cult member might.
“And what would you do if your party won a seat?”
She gave a small shrug, as if the answer was obvious.
“We’d care, of course!”
I gave a little shake of my head. “OK, well, nice to meet you. And—er—good luck.” I held out my hand. She shook it, her blue eyes crinkled in another smile.
I left her then, entering the polling place to cast my vote. The air was thick with the odour of antagonism, carefully hidden beneath a screen of civility.
In the voting cubicle, I watched in disbelief as my pencil marked a ‘1’in the box next to the I Care party candidate.