September Review of Books: Miscellany

A few new books came my way this month, which I’ve only had a chance to dip into but will provide fodder for future posts. So here are just a few quick looks in anticipation, in case you’re looking for something to read.

Cleared Out: first contact in the Western Desert, by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson, and Yuwali (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005). This one looks like it will be a fascinating history of the period in the early 1960s when a group of Martu people were cleared out of the path of the Blue Streak rockets from the Woomera Proving Grounds and brought into Jigalong. The centerpiece of the book is a pair of chapters that tell in diary style, using contemporaneous photographs and quotations from those involved, the story of two patrols in the Western Desert to bring the Martu into contact with whitefellas for the first time. It looks to be unusual in focusing on one young girl of 17, Yuwali (also known as Janice Nixon) and how she perceived the experience. Introductory chapters place the Martu in their pre-contact environment and trace the decision to bring the Aboriginal people out of the path of the rocket tests. A final section examines the aftermath of the patrols and the future of the Martu people. If I weren’t already in the middle of a great book, I’d been deep into this one.

The Original Australians: story of the Aboriginal people, by Josephine Flood (Allen & Unwin, 2006). When it comes to analysis of the archaeological record of Aborginal life in Australia from the very earliest known sites to the recent past, there’s probably no more influential scientist working in Australia than Josephine Flood. I’ve read a couple of her earlier works, Archaeology of the Dreamtime: the story of prehistoric Australia and its people and Rock Art of the Dreamtime: images of ancient Australia, with great interest, and I have to confess I’m usually not much for the rather dry science of reconstructing the past from bone and rock and ochre. The current volume looks to be a more narrative history that combines scientific rigor with sociological inquiry. I expect it will be one of those books that ought to be read early on in a program of study of Aboriginal people: cohesive, factual, and broad in scope, an excellent introduction to the subject for beginners but still full of lessons for the more well acquainted.

Boundary Writing: an exploration of race, culture, and gender binaries in contemporary Australia, edited by Lynette Russell (University of Hawai’i Press, 2006). Nine essays, five of which deal with Aboriginal issues, comprise this academic volume which in part of the series Writing Past Colonialism out of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies in Melbourne. The relevant part of the table of contents looks most interesting.

“Cultural Calculus: cultural translation and the politics of indigenous cultural property,” by Stephen Pritchard.

“‘…different lives in different places’: a space for multiple white identities through Aboriginal rock music,” by Liz Reed.

“Indigenous Rights and the Mutability of Cultures: tradition, change, and the politics of recognition,” by Bruno David.

“Beyond Orality and Literacy: textuality, modernity, and representation in Gulurabulu: Stories from the West Kimberley,” by Michele Grossman.

Rom and the Academy Repositioned: binary models in Yolngu intellectual traditions and their application to wider intercultural dialogues,” by Aaron Corn and Neparrnga Gumbula.

This last essay is the only one I’ve given a proper reading to so far, and it provides a good introduction to the ways in which Yolngu people structure knowledge and their experience of the world. A painting by Gumbala, who hails from Galiwin’ku, is used to model concepts from the simple division expressed in the Dhuwa/Yirritja moieties, through increasingly complex subdivisions of Yolnlgu “philosophy.” Unfortunately, either in order to justify this essay to a white academic audience, or to push the “boundary writing” conceit (the academic urge to marry cleverness, puns, and irony really ought to be beaten to death soon, before it beats the rest of us senseless), this exposition of the stages of the acquisition of sacred knowledge among the Yolngu is framed by a (not terribly clever) comparison to the stages of higher education in the Western academy: Dr. Gulumbu Yunupingu, Ph.D, anyone? 

Kayang & Me, by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown (Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 2005). Kim Scott is the author of two acclaimed novels, True Country and Benang; Kayang Hazel Brown is Noongar elder whose traditional country lies along the southern coast of Western Australia. The book is written as a kind of dialog between the two: Brown’s reminiscences of old days, and Scott’s commentary and reactions to them. Scott, like another famous West Australian author (Sally Morgan) was raised to think of himself as white; this book is as much discovery as it is biography, a story of learning what Aboriginality means and finding a place in a community.

Darby: one hundred years, by Liam Campbell (ABC Books, 2006) is the book of the moment for me. I’m not quite half way through it, and loving every minute. It is extraordinarily well written, beautifully illustrated, and lavishly produced–a book that feels lovely in your hands. Nicolas Rothwell’s review appeared in the The Australian on August 26th. In that review he passed quickly over the concept of “Aboriginal biography,” mentioning previous efforts by Lloyd Warner, W. E. H. Stanner, and Jenny Green. That brief paragraph has planted a seed for next month’s review, so I’ll end with a promise to return to this book, along with Stanner’s White Man Got No Dreaming and Green’s The Town Grew Up Dancing in a few week’s time.

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