This week, 5 – 11 June, is Indigenous Literature Week, celebrating the richness of fiction, non fiction, poetry, memoir and biography authored by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australians. Of course, July is also NAIDOC time, during which events are usually held to mark the culture, history and achievements of indigenous Australians. Due to Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, NAIDOC events will be planned for November.
Over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, there is a wonderful list of titles by indigenous authors in both Australia and New Zealand that could serve as a good launching point for anyone wanting to read more indigenous authors. And below are links to books that I have posted about here on my blog. I would recommend each of these books; they all have something special.
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
Taboo by Kim Scott
Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
The White Girl by Tony Birch
The Yield by Tara June Winch
SongSpirals by the Gay’Wu Group of Women
The Yield (shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize) introduces us to August, a young Wiradjuri woman from a fictional valley in NSW. August returns home when her beloved grandfather (‘Poppy’) dies, after she’d been living in England for some years. The reader quickly realises that August is something of a restless soul running away from – or searching for – several things, including the sorrow and guilt she experienced after the mysterious disappearance of her older sister Jedda, years ago.
The author does not flinch from dealing with the troubling issues and problems that beset many indigenous communities around Australia. In doing so, she places them firmly within the context of inter-generational trauma, the fracturing of families, communities and culture that began with the colonisation of this country by the English just over two hundred years ago. August is dealing with her own childhood memories but also the hints of far bigger events that took place in and around her childhood home. Early in the book, she dreams about her grandfather speaking to her:
…he was telling her that there was a lot to remembering the past, to having stories, to knowing your history, your childhood, but there is something to forgetting it too…There are few worse things than memory, yet fewer things better, he’d said. Be careful.The Yield p9
This theme of memory is woven throughout the novel in several ways. While we never meet Poppy (Albert Gondiwindi) we are introduced to him through his book, a carefully compiled dictionary of lost words and phrases from the Wiradjuri language. This is such an effective device, bringing the reader as it does into his world view, touching on his own life experiences but also the history of white settlement of his country and the interactions between settlers and Wiradjuri. And his widow, August’s nana Elsie, tells August:
There was a war here against the local people. In that war the biggest victim was the culture, you know?…Please don’t be a victim, Augie. It’s an easy road, that one…The land, the earth is the victim now – that needs an army, I reckon. She’s the one in real trouble.The Yield pp92, 93
Certainly the valley is now under direct threat by a proposed tin mine that …slithered up like a snake – worse than a snake – ready to make a million, a billion or more for a couple of greedy mates. (p127)
The place names in the novel’s fictional setting are a deliberate reminder of atrocities committed against indigenous people in the not too distant past: Massacre and Poisoned Waterhole Creek (both of which are real place names), Prosperous Mission, which is based on a real Aboriginal mission that operated in the 1880’s. There is also mention of the ‘homes’ to which Aboriginal children were taken after forcible removal from their parents; practices now known as the Stolen Generations.
If in doubt about the extent or veracity of massacres and other atrocities, you may wish to look at the Colonial frontier massacres map of Australia, compiled by the Centre for 21st Century Humanities through University of Newcastle. It is a sobering website.
Another thread running through the story is to do with the fictional Reverend Greenleaf, a Lutheran pastor of German heritage, who founded and ran Prosperous Mission in the 1800’s. During WWI he is the victim of anti-German sentiment and interred, and we read his impassioned plea for the welfare of the Aboriginal people of his district, foreseeing a grim future for them.
All the disparate threads are brought together by the end of the novel and August is left reflecting on the changes brought about within herself. She thinks about her grandfather’s dictionary and the importance of their language:
English had changed their tongues, the formation of their minds, August thought – she’d drifted in and out of herself all that time. The language was the poem she had looked for, communicating what English failed to sayThe Yield pp306&2
…I’m writing about the other time though, deep time. This is a big, big story, the big stuff goes on forever, time ropes and loops and is never straight, that’s the real story of time.
This is reminiscent of the reflections about time made by the Gay’wu Group of Women in their beautiful book Song Spirals. It prompted me to think again about the fascinating differences across human cultures, as well as the similarities.
The Yield was published by Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House Aust) in 2019. It is an accessible story with beautiful language and imagery. It asks some deep questions such as: is Australia mature enough to embrace all aspects of its history, both ancient and more recent?
The Yield is a worthy contender for the 2020 Stella Prize.
#2020StellaPrize #AussieAuthor20 #readthestella
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.
‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back.” So I was taught in primary school social studies classes in 1960’s Australia. Wheat was also at the heart of our national agricultural economy, until a decade or so later when mining took number one place in the commodity pecking order.
Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ suggests that it is time we dismounted from that metaphorical sheep and stepped aside from the wheatfields, at least in part, and consider transitioning to an agriculture that is more sustainable and in harmony with this continent’s often harsh environment. With crops and livestock that the original occupants and custodians of this land were long familiar with.
I’m a relative latecomer to this book, and I’m aware that since it’s publication there have been some criticisms of the author’s research and arguments. None of those criticisms detract from the overall power of the book’s message, which is that our nation has not had an honest account of our history – both pre and post invasion/colonisation. Not only that, but the history that has been disseminated about Aboriginal people’s lifestyles and cultures has often been inaccurate. Pascoe argues that there is compelling evidence that contrary to the ‘hunter/gatherer/nomad’ stereotype, pre-invasion Aboriginal nations practiced forms of agriculture, aquaculture, harvesting and storage of various grains and seeds, and built dwellings. Not to mention the complex systems of law, justice and spirituality.
While the latter has been recognised to some extent in recent decades, Pascoe argues that Aboriginal people engaged in practices that the European colonisers, settlers and explorers should have recognised, but usually didn’t. Instead, permanent dwelling structures were dismissed as ‘humpies’, careful management and harvesting of resources described as ‘hunter-gathering’ activities. He asserts that:
‘Settlers and explorers were united in their assumption of superiority and entitlement… ‘
‘Colonial Australia sought to forget the advanced nature of Aboriginal society and economy, and this amnesia was entrenched when settlers who arrived after the depopulation of whole districts found no structure more substantial than a windbreak, and no population that was not humiliated, debased, and diseased.’Dark Emu p. 11 & 114
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that Pascoe draws heavily (some have argued, selectively) from the writings of early European settlers and explorers. Accounts from well known figures such as Sturt, Mitchell, Burke and Wills, describe the lifestyles and practices of indigenous people they encountered in ways that contradict the ‘hunter-gatherer’ images of First Australians.
Something else I enjoyed was his descriptions of the yam daisy, or murnong, (Microseris lanceolata) a staple of the First People’s diet, which grew in abundance along river banks and was carefully managed and harvested for thousands of years, but which quickly became extinct in areas settled by Europeans. I recalled Kate Grenville writing about this plant and its importance to indigenous diets in The Secret River and In Search of the Secret River. Until then, I had no knowledge of this plant, and the important role it played in pre-invasion Australian life. So it was with pleased recognition that I read Pascoe’s account of it in Dark Emu.
For me, the power of this book lies in the argument that our nation must move past the collective amnesia and blindness of the true history of our continent and its inhabitants. As Pascoe concludes:
‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral well-being and economic prosperity.’Dark Emu, p 229