• Books and reading

    Startling: ‘The Visitors’ by Jane Harrison

    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.
    Eleven ships.
    Seven Elders.
    One day.

    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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Revelatory: ‘Reaching Through Time – Finding my Family’s Stories’ by Shauna Bostock

    The photograph on the cover of Shauna Bostock’s story of researching her ancestors is indicative of the book itself: compelling.

    I am going to begin my discussion of the book with this: if you are a family historian or at all interested in Australian history, this book is a must-read.

    The author, a Bundjalung woman who began researching her family story for a PhD in Aboriginal history, has skillfully woven together various strands of her exploratory processes in archives, libraries, and interviews, with the stories of her forebears. In doing so, she has created a vivid and multi-layered picture of Australian history, especially the experiences of First Nations Australians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    There is so much in this book that made me stop, turn pages back and forth to the meticulous referencing, to the photographs, or to previous pages. As someone passionate about uncovering my own family stories from the past, there were many moments of recognition in Ms Bostock’s research journey: the thrill of discovering a previously unknown fact; the way that serendipity or fate so often plays a part in the process; the coincidences of meeting someone or stumbling upon a document that hold the key to the very nugget of information you are seeking. The indescribable feeling of viewing an archival document from the past that tells you something about your ancestor, or an old photo that brings them to life.

    As any family historian will tell you: family history research requires patience AND perseverance.

    Especially so in this case, as Ms Bostock found when she experienced road blocks to accessing important archival information, and evidence of the mind-numbing level of bureaucracy that Aboriginal people have endured since colonisation.

    The book begins with the shocking revelation that the non-indigenous ancestors in her family tree were descended from English slave traders – a huge irony given that one of them arrived in Australia as a convict, having been arrested on slavery charges in the late 1700’s.

    From there, the narrative traverses key parts of the colonisation experience for First Nations: frontier violence and killings; theft of land, livelihood, spiritual and cultural connections; the precarious nature of life on Aboriginal reserves; the deceit and hypocrisy of the various government bodies set up to ‘protect’ and control Aboriginal people and the enduring damages inflicted through practices such as the forced removal of children from their homes and families.

    rural and urban Also looming large are the ugliness of apartheid-like segregation and racism within communities; indenture of young children into service of white families or farms (often akin to slavery); increasing control and surveillance of every aspect of Aboriginal lives.

    I could go on.

    What distinguishes this book is the author’s research and how she has woven together the experiences of the colonisers and the colonised – including of course her own family members:

    To use a photographic analogy…I felt like a photographer adjusting the focus of the lens. I have ‘zoomed in’ with a microcosmic focus on the individuals and the reserve/mission space – and then I have ‘zoomed out’ to capture the macrocosmic bureaucracy of the Australian Government’s Aborigines Protection Board.

    Reaching through History p174

    There are stories of defiance and resistance as well, which the author rightly points out are important for all generations of Aboriginal people to know about.

    I enjoyed the later chapters where she outlines the many creative and artistic ways in which her family members have expressed defiance and worked for change.

    On a personal note, I had a little thrill to realise that several of the author’s close family members were instrumental in producing the excellent documentary film Lousy Little Sixpence, in which elders discussed their experiences as stolen children, in the homes set up supposedly to ‘care’ for Aboriginal children, or working as domestic servants or rural labourers for white people in the first half of the twentieth century. I used this film as a resource many times in my teaching during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and I now see that it was one of the earliest publicly accessible resources telling the stories of the Stolen Generations.

    There is so much to think about in this book. Please buy a copy or borrow it from your local library. It is such a rich resource on our nation’s history. And for family historians, surely we must all resonate to the author’s final words:

    The history of Aboriginal people in this country is also a ‘living wound under a patchwork of scars’ but the process of truth-telling creates healing. By reaching through time and pulling our ancestors’ files out of the archives we restore their humanity…
    Ruminating on the slavery theme, I wondered if family history research was the key to emancipation, because researching my ancestors’ lives has spiritually unshackled them.

    Reaching through Time p319

    Reaching Through Time is published by Allen & Unwin in July 2023.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Loving bedtime story: ‘My Little Barlaagany (Sunshine)’ by Melissa Greenwood

    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,
    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.

    My Little Barlaagany

    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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Sorrowful truths: ‘Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray’ by Anita Heiss

    The first thing I love about this new novel by Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss is the title. Translating to ‘River of Dreams’ in English, it is in the Wiradjuri language, which is also sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative. What a privilege, to be given an opportunity to understand and experience words and phrases in the language of First Nations people.

    The story starts with the drama and tragedy of the devastating 1852 Great Flood of the Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee River) in Gundagai, NSW. There are shocking losses of human and lives, property and livestock despite the heroic efforts of several men from the Aboriginal camp near the river, including Yarri, the father of the main character, Wagadhaany. She works for the Bailey family, a local White family. Yarri rescues his daughter and the two Bailey men who survived the flood, from their precarious perch on the roof of the house.

    The river is a central theme of the novel, a presence both benevolent and destructive. It gives life and just as easily takes it away. The flood is important, as a real historical event that highlights the skill and courage of the Aboriginal rescuers, and also as a metaphor:

    …as the canoe floats with effort to the shore, Yarri thinks about the two men there together; a naked White man and a barely clothed Black man are nothing but two men stuck in the middle of a devastating flood… A life is a life, he says over and over in his mind, knowing that the weather, the rain, the river don’t care what colour anyone is right now, and that in this moment they are equal. Yarri takes a deep breath and works his arms harder than he ever has, willing them both to bring both men to shore, and wishing they were both equals every day.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p33

    Louisa is the other main character: a young Quaker woman who has been recently widowed in the flood, she meets and marries James, the eldest of the two surviving Baileys. Her Quaker beliefs lead her to wish for an equal relationship with the original people of the land, and she endeavours to achieve this with Wagadhaany.

    So much gets in the way of a genuine friendship. Louisa is a good example of how well intentioned White people can still end up using relationships with First Nations people for their own purposes, while still desiring to act in a benevolent manner. The most obvious way that Louisa does this is to insist that Wagadhaany accompany the Baileys when they move to Wagga Wagga. Wagadhaany is devastated to lose connection with her mayagan, her family and the Country on which she was born and raised.

    This allows the reader to try to understand something of the grief and loss experienced by First Nations people since colonisation:

    How can she explain to Louisa, whose family chose to live on other people’s land, that she feels her sense of identity has been robbed, that everything that makes her Wagadhaany, the dancer, has been taken from her?

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p162

    Louisa is in many ways a sympathetic character, and in making her so, the author goes beyond the stomach-turning racism and cruelty perpetrated by Whites against First Nations people in this country, to explore some of the other ways in which racism manifests: the more subtle, systemic and insidious ways in which unequal power and racist assumptions play out.

    Wagadhaany is an intelligent young woman, trying to assert her self and make sense of a world which has changed irrevocably for her people.

    The irony is that, despite all her advantages and relative wealth, by the end of the novel Louisa is not necessarily the happier of the two women. Both characters face profound grief and loss. Wagadhaany’s connection to Country and kin help her to travel through these difficult events and by the end of the novel, there is space for hope.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a novel that uses real historic events to paint a picture of a colonial world which many Australians would prefer to either forget or romanticise. It’s a novel that made me think – always a good thing.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray was published by Simon & Schuster in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cycles of tragedy and hope: ‘Daughter of the River Country’ by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams

    Imagine being not quite sixteen, alone in the world and pregnant. Now imagine being faced with two intolerable alternatives: give up your baby for adoption or choose a life of violence, terror and misery.

    This is what happened to the author of this memoir – not a hundred years ago, but in the mid twentieth century. Brought up in a white Australian family in the 1950’s, Dianne experienced unwavering love from her mother, but abuse at the hands of her father. She did not know she was adopted until later and was confused about many things, including why she always felt different from others around her.

    Daughter of the River Country paints a vivid picture of suburban Australia in the latter half of the last century: the casual racism, bullying and violence meted out to those who least deserved it; the White Australia Policy that was still firmly in place; the neglect, jaw-dropping abuse and cruelty by those in charge of institutions meant to care for girls with no safe home to live in. For these reasons the memoir is hard to read at times but no less important for that. It tells of parts of our country’s history that many would prefer to forget, but which must be remembered so that we don’t keep repeating into the future. And as the author reminds us, some things haven’t changed as yet – the shameful gaps in life expectancy between indigenous and other Australians is one example, as is the shocking rate of incarceration and deaths in custody of indigenous people.

    Dianne discovered that she was one of the Stolen Generations, taken from her birth mother when a baby. Her people were Yorta Yorta, from the river country of Victoria. Her adoptive mother had very much wanted her and Dianne had a relatively happy childhood, though with edges of danger from her adoptive father that were fully expressed in cruelty after her mother died. From there, everything fell apart for the young girl: she experienced multiple violent relationships, incarceration in both a girls’ home and gaol; alcohol addiction and indifference or outright abuse from some who should have helped her.

    Discovering her birth family, her Aboriginal heritage and her people, brought about an incredible turn of events and her life took an upward turn, though not without tragedy along the way. It is the true measure of the woman that she was able to rise above the awfulness of her earlier life and work towards a better future for herself and her own children and grandchildren, and for her community.

    I have nothing but admiration for Dianne O’Brien and her memoir sheds further light on what has often been a hidden part of Australia’s past. It is one of the growing number of books that allow Australians to learn, reflect and hopefully understand more about the experiences of First Nations communities.

    Daughter of the River Country is published by Echo Publishing in July 2021.
    My thanks to Better Reading for an advance reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Welcome 2021: New reading challenges

    As noted in an earlier post, 2020 was (apart from everything else that was so very wrong about it) a bumper reading year for me. I embark on the new year in a spirit of optimism that I’ll be able to keep up my reading to similar levels, and to that end I am once again signing up for several reading challenges.

    First, the 2021 Non Fiction Reader Challenge. I’ll opt for the Non Fiction Nibbler category, in which I’ll aim to read 6 non fiction books from any of the Challenge’s 12 categories.

    The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge is one I have participated in for several years now, and as the majority of books I read do tend to be by Australian women, I’m confident of meeting the target of the Franklin challenge, which is to read 10 books (and review at least 6 of them)

    The Aussie Author Challenge overlaps with the AWW Challenge, except books can be by male and female authors. In 2021 my goal is to reach the Kangaroo level, where I’ll have read 12 books (4 by male, 4 by female, 4 by authors new to me, and across at least 3 different genres).

    I’m adding a new challenge for 2021: the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, which I’m pretty sure will be a shoo-in as I adore historical fiction. I’ll read at least two books set in the 20th Century and five set in Victorian times for this one.

    A personal challenge of mine, begun a few years ago, is to read as many books by First Nations authors as I can. It’s a delight to see so many wonderful works being published nowadays so this one is indeed a pleasure.

    Whatever else 2021 might bring, I do hope it’s a year of entering new worlds, different times and places, adventure, mystery, love and warfare, faith and hope – all through the pages of some great books.

    Happy New Year everyone.

    Image by Magda Ehlers at pexels

    #2021ReadNonFic
    #AWW2021
    #AussieAuthor21
    #histficchallenge

  • Books and reading

    ‘Top End Girl’ by Miranda Tapsell

    I adored The Sapphires from the moment I saw the stage play and fell in love with it again when the movie came out. The four women in the film’s lead roles – Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailmain, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – brought the amazing story to life and added so much to the joyous nature of the experience. Ditto with Miranda Tapsell’s film, Top End Wedding, which she co-wrote and starred in. Both were productions with a lot of heart and soul, with serious things to say, that nevertheless left me with a big smile and a full heart.

    Reading Top End Girl was a similar experience. It’s Miranda Tapsell’s memoir taking in her childhood in Darwin and Arnhem land, her time at NIDA learning about the industry she had set her heart on, her early career (including the making of The Sapphires), and then conceiving, developing, writing and filming Top End Wedding. Oh, and her real-life romance and wedding in between all of that.

    Miranda’s chatty style makes for an engaging read, though this does not mean she pulls back from addressing issues of importance, including a tough call-out of racist stereotypes in media and popular culture, and the limited opportunities from people of colour and other minorities in film and television – both of which she is endeavouring to do something about in her own career.

    What I’m asking is to celebrate modern Aboriginal culture, to subvert the stereotypes that have been pitted against Aboriginal people – that we don’t believe in hard work, that we’re negligent with our children, that we’re all criminals or that we all have alcohol problems. To instead show the complexity and commonplace that we all share while also acknowledging the uniqueness of our story.

    Top End Girl p82

    Miranda’s account of what she calls her ‘charmed life’ does not bely her own hard work, risk-taking and commitment to seizing opportunities when they appeared, learning to believe in herself and sticking to her principles. Nor does she gloss over the challenges still facing First Nations people in Australia and around the world today. She uses her art, creativity and drive to make a difference in these areas.

    There are plenty of talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who have blazed the trail for passionate and ambitious people like me, and we shouldn’t all have to agree to tell the same story to be made to feel appreciated. Our lived experiences are just as vast and nuanced as the non-Indigenous people who have squatted here. I want my community to have a say in what I’m making because I’m reflecting them.

    Top End Girl p291

    She describes how this worked for her in the making of her film: the consulting, yarning, including and respecting Traditional Owners at every step of the process, from script development, decisions about locations and cast, ensuring the team organised appropriate Welcomes to Country during the production. I enjoyed learning about how this respect and inclusiveness could be woven into a fast-paced production journey.

    Top End Girl is a heartfelt story from a talented young woman in Australian cultural life. I loved reading about Miranda’s views and experiences and look forward to seeing what new projects her creative self will develop.

    Top End Girl was published by Hachette in April 2020.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020
    #2020ReadNonFic

  • Books and reading

    No ordinary book – a gift from the heart of Yolŋu culture: ‘Songspirals’ by the Gay’wu Group of Women

    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…

    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.

    Songspirals pp.23, 40, 41

    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.