January Books: Indigenous Writing

Having thoroughly enjoyed Kim Scott’s first novel, True Country (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993), I decided to see what his recent non-fiction work, Kayang & Me (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005), co-authored with Hazel Brown, had to offer. As in the earlier book, Scott is trying to find his way back into his indigenous heritage, to connect back to Noongar roots that he is only dimly aware of. Scott was raised in the suburbs of southwestern Australia in the 1960s, with grandparents on both sides of the racial divide, and lived as a child not far from the “native reserve.” He was a borderline child in many senses of the word, perplexed by the idea of being told to be proud of his Aboriginal blood in a community where Noongars were objects of scorn. He was bedeviled by this notion of “blood,” a supposedly quantifiable, biological marker of obscure, cultural differences. And yet the cultural barriers were all too real as well: he did not speak the language his grandmother knew, and he had only sketchy details, little more than names, of Aboriginal kin.

With a white man’s education, and being a writer, Scott began with historical research that ultimately led him to his Aunty Hazel Brown, whom he comes to call “Kayang.” She agreed to tell him the stories of her life, and through these interviews, he began to know the shape of his family’s past. From the outset, Scott describes it as a disorienting, discomfiting experience of, for example, attending a family funeral where he needed to be introduced to almost everyone present, facing relatives who are strangers. This simple and stark contrast is amplified over and over throughout the book’s stories. There are the historical records describing the “first white man born” and the “last full-blood aborigine,” terms so common that he began noting them as “FWMB” and “LFBA.” There are slippery genealogies, where two or more possible ancestors share the same name, while a single Noongar person might be known by two or more personal or family names.

And then there is Bobby Roberts, the Noongar man who lived in the mid-nineteenth century and work closely with the first white men to come into southwest Australia. Aunty Hazel claims that Bobby guided the early explorers Eyre and Forrest. Like many people indigenous to Western Australia, Bobby probably helped many of the earliest immigrants to the country to survive in harsh, unexpected territory. He adapted to the cash economy. He was politically smart, knew how to take care of himself, made friends. He was given a gun. He worked as a police tracker. He made money dancing corroborree for the white men. There’s a sense of pride that Scott feels in this capable ancestor, and a sense of shame as well.

It’s hard to know what to make of him.

He may just have been a brutal, opportunistic man.

He may have become so isolated and fearful that there was no alternative to co-operation, and so he admitted defeat, gave up.

Or Bobby Roberts, having come to know influential men in the new colony, appreciated their power, saw himself as their equal. I very much doubt he wanted to give everything away — his land, his rights — only to start at the bottom of colonial society and work his way up as if he were a convict, a stranger, or someone who had to prove himself.

Whatever the case, our Bobby Roberts appears to have gained an appreciation of innovation and strategic thinking, acquired political acumen and ruthlessness.

Very modern skills, really (pp. 53-54).

From these earliest historical researches, a blend of his own work in archives and newspaper morgues, along with the stories he learns as he comes to know Kayang and is introduced to her family’s history, Scott builds into a strong central section that is dominated mostly by Kayang’s own reminiscences of life in the first half of the twentieth century. There are stories of mission life, of moving from settlement to settlement, sometimes eluding the reach of the colonizers, sometimes returning into their orbit to survive. There is the now familiar mixture of nostalgia for days faded in time and resignation at the hardships that can’t fall away with passing years.

In the last part of the book, Scott speaks more in his own voice again, trying to sort out what this journey into the past has brought him and cost him. He speaks movingly (balancing fact and metaphor) of his struggles to learn to speak Noongar, of the difficulties that Aunty Hazel’s encroaching deafness brought to this task, and of the cultural deafness that afflicts him as he listens to the words and tries to imagine them in their original context.

I found Kayang & Me, like True Country, to be an eloquent record of one man’s attempt to discover what Aboriginality means in a very personal manner. It is no less moving for its lack of clear, simple, or unambiguous answers. It is in that respect quite unlike Sally Morgan’s My Place, from which the reader can turn with a sense of closure, of a mystery unraveled. Scott’s books, rather, illustrate the adage that it is the journey more than the destination that matters.

Scott is one of the authors included in Those Who Remain Will Always Remember: an anthology of Aboriginal writing (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000). His short essay, “Disputed Territory,” draws on the research that ultimately produced Kayang & Me. The fantasia “Into the Light” takes as its starting point the painting by Hans Heysen and explores the mind of a bushman in extremis. The two contributions illustrate the spectrum encompassed by the selections reproduced in this volume: from the historical essay or memoir at one end to the imaginative lyric at the other. The collection’s unity arises from two sources: the authors selected for inclusion are from the western reaches of Australia, and for almost all, as another adage has it, the personal is political.

The two ends often are bound up in a single piece. If one considers poetry in the realm of the “imaginative,” the selections included here are as polemical as some of the historical and political essays. On facing pages half way through the volume are two verse selections: Jimmy Chi’s lyrics to “Acceptable Coon” (“You’re doing the wrong things/believing it’s right/Australia’s just churning out protoype whites”) and Robert Bropho’s “atsic.”

all these gifts
the white man gives us
like atsic
they’re
like
time
bombs

For straight political polemic, these two pieces are followed by Robert Eggington’s manifesto “Janga Meenya Bomunggur (The Smell of the White Man Is Killing Us),” whose declaration “May Our Campfires Burn Forever” repudiates ecotourism; and Denise Groves’s “To What Extent is Contemporary Aboriginal Identity Political?” which critiques the Mabo Decision’s criteria for establishing identity as a prerequisite to claiming native title and the paradox of self-proclaimed Aboriginality being subject to the test and judgment of non-Aboriginal institutions. More personal but no less political are pieces like Doris Pilkington’s “The Hurtful Legacy of Racism.” Having discovered an Adelaide address for her long-lost sister Anna, Pilkington suffers yet another blow when the parcel she sent containing her novels Caprice and Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is returned with the postal stamp, “Rejected by the addressee.” 

Some pieces straddle the boundary of fiction and memoir so effectively that it is hard–impossible–for someone like me to decide how to categorize them: the most important lesson may be that such distinctions are irrelevant to Aboriginal writing. One of the best of these is Lorna Little’s “The Miracle.” It is a vivid tale, full of humor and profanity, of water turned to wine at a worker’s camp during spud-digging season.

The pieces that I’ve enjoyed best so far are those that depict the personal and wonderfully varied experiences of family and country. “Recollections of the Early Days” by Septu Brahim, son of Bunuba woman and a Malaysian Muslim born and raised in Port Hedland in the 1930s, brims with history of the pearling fleets, fettlers’ lives on the western railways, camp life during World War II, and the author’s baptism into the Catholic Church. This last event provokes his father’s rage and his mother’s speedy exodus to safety at the home of an old Greek woman with whom she shared a sympathetic understanding if not a language. “Lenny’s Story” as told by Betty and Colin Indich is one of a man whose limited intellectual capacity in no way restricts his sense of adventure as he bobs like a cork around Fremantle and Perth, and even as far away as Redfern. Tom Little’s story of the death of Rodney Champion (“The Champion”) is an inspirational piece of detective work that tells how one old man left a legacy of kindness that continues to nourish the Nyoongar people near Pinjarra.

The editors of this collection, Anne Brewster, Angeline O’Neill, and Rosemary van den Berg, have done a splendid job of assembling a set of narratives and lyrics that reflect dozens of voices across time and space. There is plenty of variety to keep the reader engaged. At the same time the volume develops the overarching theme of Aboriginal self-determination–assuredly a political stance, but here given repeated personal definition as the authors use their stories to say “this is who I am; this is Aboriginal.”


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