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.
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.