Immediately this book opens, we know we are in for a startlingly different view of the British ships, sailing into Sydney harbour in 1788.
The First Nations people of the lands surrounding Sydney are portrayed in a rich cultural context (informative and easy to absorb within the story), however they have European names and wear modern European dress. What does this mean? What is happening here? We are left to wonder.
It is an effective device to ensure that readers approach this story with a different mindset than they might otherwise do. Especially if the readers have been raised in Australia, and grown up with the story of Captain Phillip planting the British flag in the sand of Sydney cove in the name of His Majesty King George.
Instead, we see the ships from a vantage point above the cove, where seven respected Elders, representatives of their various nations, have come together for a day to collectively decide what their response to these ‘visitors’ should be.
The cover blurb of the book reads:
1788, Gadigal country.
They’ve got a big decision to make…The Visitors
It’s a brilliant premise and the reader is plunged into the many considerations and issues that the seven men need to take into account as they ponder their response to this unprecedented situation.
Some of the older men remember the time, eighteen years earlier, when similar ships had appeared and strange looking men disembarked. In their short time on land, those men had cut down trees, trampled precious clean water to mud, and took ridiculous amounts of seafood from the waters. But that time, those visitors left and did not return. Perhaps the same thing would happen again?
Each of the seven men representing their mob have their own backstory: a set of family, cultural and tribal circumstances that affect their behaviour and how they approach the discussion and voting. This allows the reader to see them first of all as people – with their own preoccupations and motivations.
I enjoyed the portrayal of the tensions, petty squabbles, and individual behaviours of the seven. It meant I could approach their story as I could that of any other people dealing with a sudden and unexpected arrival of uninvited visitors of their country.
Within the narrative of a long day of arguments, counter arguments and vote-taking, the author has woven in a great deal of beautifully described customary lore and traditions. It includes one of the best and easiest-to-understand explanations of songlines:
Songs, Joseph knows, are a living map of country – where the fresh water is, the good fishing spots, the whereabouts of steep crevices or marshy swamps and all of the other signposts, so you don’t get lost or travel the hard way. And all songs are three-dimensional, referring to the stars above and the earth and even below the seas. And the songs are always evolving and being shared. They are maps for all who need them to travel for food, for shelter or, like him, for business. And they are sung, because singing is the most effective way to memorise great swathes of data.The Visitors, p33
The use of modern expressions by the men also helps to bring us into our own time, with an understanding that these men represent a spectrum of life experiences and attitudes – much like today’s representatives in our modern parliaments.
There is a telling moment when the men are faced with the idea that perhaps, this time, the strangers won’t leave, and a great deal of irony as well-worn European-centrist ideas about ‘barbarism’, ‘a dying race’, ‘thieves’ ‘superior weapons’ and ‘capable of learning’ are turned on their head.
This book invites us to ask those ‘what if?’ questions: what if the First Nations peoples of Sydney had attacked in a concerted effort to rid their lands of these foreigners? What if the British had been able to listen and learn from the original inhabitants of the continent? What if the diseases brought by those ships had not wreaked such a terrible toll? So many things we can never know, but in the asking of the questions, there is learning to be had.
In a profound way, one of the men, Gary, sums up what was important for those Elders and still remains important today:
Just because they break lore, doesn’t mean we should. Then they’ve won, in a way, before even one spear has been thrown. I think we need to be good ancestors.What are the stories a good ancestor needs to create, to leave behind? Do we want our descendants to look behind them and see that we have failed in our duty, that we succumbed to the lowest denominator? Or do we want them to be proud of us and the stance we took?…I’m voting to let them land and that we do what we always do: we follow protocol to the letter. That means when they step on country, we welcome them and wish them safe passage.The Visitors p222-223
If only those ‘visitors’ could have been so generous and gracious in their response.
The Visitors is published by Fourth Estate in August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This beautiful picture book by Gumbaynggirr author and artist Melissa Greenwood reads as a bedtime story from a mother to her child.
With soft illustrations in pastel and ochre shades, it is a perfect introduction to a First Nations language and contemporary art style for very young Australians.
The text follows the path of the sun and moon across a day and night, incorporating words and phrases from her Gumbaynggirr language from the mid-north coast of NSW.
As the sun shines throughout the day,My Little Barlaagany
it warms your cheeks while we play.
As the sun sets in the evening sky,
say, ‘Yaarri Yarraang, goodbye.’
Now it’s time for Giidany (the moon) to rise
and we say, “Darrundang, thank you,’
for the gift of the night skies.
It is wonderful to see First Nations language included in texts for children, and I look forward to more works of this kind to add to children’s bookshelves across the country.
My Little Barlaagany was published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.
Ash Barty, three-times Grand Slam tennis champion and much-admired young Australian First Nations woman, has excelled at tennis (obviously!) and also cricket. I suspect she would shine in any sport she chose to try.
Apart from her amazing sports success, Ash has earned admiration for her positivity and kindness, both on and off the court and playing field. She has become a role model and her example is a shining light for aspiring sports players of all ages.
Who can forget the look of unalloyed surprise and joy when Ash was presented the 2022 Australian Open winner’s trophy by none other than her own role model and Australian tennis legend, Wiradjuri woman Evonne Goolagong-Cawley?
After her retirement from professional tennis this year, Ash has moved on to other endeavours, including collaboration in a new series of books for young readers called Little Ash, featuring her own younger self in various adventures that children will relate to. The settings are at school, and various children’s sports activities.
The little books are perfect for early readers, light and easy to hold in little hands with very short chapters and lots of black and white illustrations throughout.
Co-authored with Jasmin McGaughey (a young author with Torres Strait Islander and African American heritage) and illustrated by Jade Goodwin (who has Gamilaraay heritage), this book series is a welcome addition to books for children and young adults by First Nations authors and illustrators.
The first four books in the Little Ash series are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for review copies.
Amongst loss, you need to hold onto what you still have.’After Story p260
What do Australian First Nation’s cultural stories and history have to do with the writings and times of Dickens, Shakespeare, Woolfe, Keats or Austen? The surprising answers to this question are to be found in the pages of After Story, by First Nations lawyer, academic, author, speaker and film-maker Larissa Behrendt.
A tragic loss opens the story, one that forever scars Della and her family. All the other events of the novel hang off that one devastating event and its consequences.
Years later, Della accompanies her now adult daughter Jasmine on a literary tour of England, taking in the places where many of the ‘greats’ of British literature were born, or lived, or worked.
Jasmine sees books as her escape from the claustrophobia, racism and limited opportunities of the small town in which she grew up. She has read widely, graduated from university, and now works in a legal career. She invites Della on the tour with her as a way of bridging the gap that has arisen between them over the years. Alternating viewpoints allow us to experience both women’s perspectives on the tour. Della’s viewpoint is less sophisticated than her daughter’s, especially as she knows little about the writers and their works, but no less heartfelt or insightful for that.
At every significant place visited, the characters in the group chat, argue and reflect on the particular writer, their historical context and achievements. The author has skillfully linked all of these with commentary and reflections on Aboriginal experiences. An example: when told of the plague that struck England during Shakespeare’s time, followed by London’s Great Fire in 1666, Della relates these catastrophic events to the smallpox outbreak and land dispossession that decimated First Nations communities in the earliest years of English settlement:
I thought about what it must have been like for those Aboriginal people who watched the world around them change hard and fast when the colony was set up, who had to watch the destruction of the life they knew.After Story p43
Della’s deceased Aunty Eileen is an important, if unseen, character. It is through Della’s and Jasmine’s remembered conversations with her, that key features of Aboriginal culture, history and beliefs are shared and further linked to European lives and histories. Gazing at a copy of the Magna Carta in the British Library, Jasmine reflects that:
If Dickens reminded us that the system is not fair, here was the hope, the ancient promise, that it might be. Aunty Elaine’s generation had advocated for changes that made opportunities in my life different from those for Mum and Dad. It’s not just the words on the page but the people who push the ideas at the heart of them who really alter the world.After Story p82
The characters are all three dimensional and fresh, their struggles real, and at times there are uncomfortable moments, as the author invites us to consider our own culture’s role in the theft, forgetting or dismissal of cultures other than our own. But for anyone who loves literature and/or stories and their long histories, this is a book to relish, made all the more special by the weaving together of old and contemporary, indigenous and non-indigenous traditions, tragedy and loss with hope and love.
After Story was published by Queensland University Press in 2021.