I suspect most of you have seen the bright red QANTAS 747 painted with Aboriginal art designs, in photographs like this one, if not on a runway somewhere in the world. Known as the Wunala Dreaming, the design was introduced in 1994–and has recently been decommissioned (i.e. repainted in the standard livery of the airline, although QANTAS has promised a new Aboriginal design for one of its fleet before the end of 2012). But despite years of familiarity with the famous airplane, I didn’t know how the design came about until I read Ros Moriarty’s Listening to Country (Allen & Unwin, 2010) and learned it was just one among many Indigneous-themed designs that she and her husband John have introduced over the decades through their design studio, Balarinji.
The founding and growth of Balarinji is one thread in Moriarty’s multi-faceted memoir, and although I’ve chosen it as the hook for this story, it is really a minor one, and not at all the most interesting. There’s far more to this book than flying ‘roos.
Ros is a balanda who hails from Devonport, in country town Tasmania. John was stolen from his Yanyuwa family before he was five years old and grew up in a series of homes in New South Wales before fortuitously reconnecting with his kin in Alice Springs. He and Ros married in the 1970s and in 1978 he took Ros with him, back to Borroloola, for the first of many family reunions. Their three children may have been born and raised in the south, but they’ve also had firm connections to Yanyuwa country all their lives. In many ways, Listening to Country is about belonging. It’s not even so much about finding a way home as it is about taking up one’s place and being part of a family that remains unbreakable, even if ties become in some ways attenuated.
Moriarty structures her story into two narratives. The first, which opens each chapter of the book, describes a visit to Borroloola in 2006, when she is determined to sit down with the old women for a series of long yarns that she hopes will give her the material to write her book about the family and the culture into which she has been adopted. But as so often happens, the best-laid plans go awry when the women announce that it’s ceremony week, and they are all heading off into the bush. But they insist that Ros should come with them, and after a brief spell of panic (how can she take the extra time away from the office, how will she manage the four-wheel drive journey when she doesn’t even know how to open the bonnet), she is easily seduced by the offer.
In the company of thirteen Yanyuwa women, she sets off down the track, not quite realizing that they are driving two days into the deserts of the Northern Territory for a gathering of women from across the country. Respecting protocol, Moriarty tells us little about what actually happened at the ceremony ground, apart from having received rudimentary lessons in dancing so that she can participate when it comes time for the women from Borroloola to bring their dreamings to the gathering. She is terrified by the prospect, but in the end, the dancing becomes one more link in the bond she has developed over three decades with this community. If this part of the story is short on detail, it is long on emotion, on love and gratitude, surprise, warmth, and belonging.
The second part of each chapter uses the story of Ros and John’s marriage to explore a host of narratives, including the story of how the QANTAS Wunala Dreaming came to be. For me, the most vivid and compelling among these is John’s history as a stolen child. The details are familiar in many ways–the loneliness and confusion of being thrust among strangers in an alien culture and an alien climate, the secret friendships with the few other children from “home,” the barefoot walks on frozen ground, the beatings, the hunger, the determination to get through it all.
What makes this story work so well is that Moriarty saves it until about midway through the book. By the time she unveils the story of her husband’s childhood, we have been taken with the family to Yanyuwa country, met the aunties, seen the children being given their Indigenous names, learned about the beginnings of Balarinji. In short, we’ve been given a chance to know these people in a series of different contexts: they are well-rounded, interesting individuals. When Moriarty then rehearses the stories of the Stolen Generation with John as the principal player, the effect is to humanize the statistics, to personalize the news reports.
There is much more to the historical narrative that Moriarty presents. She writes extensively of traditional Yanyuwa ways before the coming of the colonials and she describes the period of first contact, the gradual incursions, the violence, and ultimately, the coalescing of the people around the settlement of Manangoora. She details the slow ways in which settlement began to erode traditional lifestyles and the rapid descent into anomie that followed, if almost imperceptibly at first.
If all good comedies end with a marriage, Listening to Country inverts the trope by beginning with one, and by detailing the outpouring of love that greeted Moriarty as she became part of her new Yanyuwa family. Tragedies, however, end with the stage littered with the dead, and, sadly, this story ends, if not exactly as a tragedy, with a funeral after Ros’s aunty and chief informant Annie succumbs. The brilliant oration at her funeral is given by John Bradley, whose decades of work with the Yanyuwa is detailed in Singing Saltwater Country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria (also published by Allen & Unwin in 2010, and about which I have written here–a glorious book that gives great depth of meaning and feeling to Moriarty’s much more personal narrative.) There are other deaths, too, and the book ends on an elegiac note, an acknowledgement of seemingly irreversible change.
Luckily, all is not lost, and Moriarty’s stories offer a taste of hope and resolve. The Yanyuwa survive and remain steadfast in their desire to pass on as much of their tradition as they can in the face of staggering odds. Supporters like Moriarty and Bradley focus our attention in ways that are emotionally and intellectually illuminating. Since I wrote about Bradley’s book and its documentation of the songlines, I’ve discovered this wonderful clip from a video that Bradley has developed with the aid of animator Brent McKee that illustrates one segment from a songline involving the osprey and the sea turtle. According to the story published on the ABC Open website, “Professor Bradley says while there have been other Dreaming stories animated in the past they were usually subject to European interpretation. ‘This is the first time in Australia that there has been a conscious effort to record information to keep it within an Indigenous perspective and without a European translation or interpretation of it,’ he says.” It’s a beautiful piece of work and I hope it will help take you closer to the spirit of the Yanyuwa.