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HomeIssue 2Desert writing to educate the ‘coast-huggers’

Desert writing to educate the ‘coast-huggers’

p2319-UWA-Desert-Writing-FrREVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE
Remote is a relative term. Remote from where? For many living in so-called remote communities or lands, their place is the centre; it’s the cities and the coast that are far-flung and on many a day scarcely thought of. That sense of Australia lived ‘from the inside out’ strongly permeates the anthology, Desert Writing: Stories from country, recently released by UWA Publishing.
The collection of stories is the result of a purposeful project creating an opportunity through writing workshops and eventual publication for desert-dwellers to educate the Australian majority, the “coast-huggers”. And although it originated in WA, under the leadership of Terri-ann White, director of UWA Publishing, it reached across borders, drawing in story-tellers from Tennant Creek in the NT and from the vast APY lands in South Australia. The Western Australian selection is dominated by contributions from Mulan, a tiny community of mainly Walmajarri people near Paraku (Lake Gregory) in the East Kimberley.
Each of the workshops put its own stamp on the writing. The Tennant Creek stories are as eclectic a mix as you’d find anywhere: there’s affectionate, proud memoir from Warumungu woman Rosemary Plummer; heartfelt verse from police officer Matthew McKinlay; sci-fi adventure from Indigenous writer David C Curtis; a suspenseful murder story edged with the paranormal from Ktima Heathcote, whose name I’m used to seeing on media releases from the Barkly Regional Council. Heathcote was also a leader of the workshop together with the Top End writer Marie Munkara, and as “the birth mother” of Barkly Writers’ Ink, is committed to nurturing the “great literary potential” of the Barkly.
In the stories from the APY Lands the historic event of the atomic bomb tests at Maralinga leaves a long shadow. The workshops, led by Indigenous writers Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lionel Fogarty, were held in Yalata where many of the people who had been living around Ooldea were forced to relocate after the tests. The image of a family walking out through the smoke of the blasts, to the shock and terror of the soldiers, is memorably evoked in more than one contribution (from Hilary Williams, and Kumunu Queama and Margaret May), as is the suggestion that these people were going to be shot “because of the threat of radiation”.
Cobby Eckermann sets up the section with a vivid account of her and Fogarty’s journey to Yalata and then eases the reader in at her side with a gentle poem, ready to listen to story in the mulga smoke of a campfire. She also reflects on the nature of the workshop exercise: “It is difficult sometimes to measure all the outcomes in various workshops. Is a happy heart an outcome? Is healing and reverence an outcome? Is three generational mentoring an outcome? I think so. If so, then it is a good life to live.”
Later she travelled to Pukatja (Ernabella) and Umuwa and gathered more stories, with a range of subjects: being sent to work down south in mission times (from Mavis Wari), on gathering bush tobacco (Wari and Jennifer Summerfield), cleaning rockholes (Sue Haseldine, writing of rough, dirty work, done for the sake of the animals, to give them “sanctuary”), and a deft little tale from a 10 year old, Kaya Kaya Kelly, about the friendship between a man and a fish.
In Mulan, the Aboriginal story-tellers tend towards a bigger sweep of family story rather than focus around a particular theme. Quite a few of the adults, mostly women, look back, to their parents and grandparents’ generations and the country they moved around in, and to their own early years in times of great change.
Not surprisingly the accounts tell of all kinds of outside interferences in their lives, and it’s interesting to read their reflections on this. Joan Marie Nagomara, for example, speaks of her father being forcibly taken as a young man to Alice Springs but escaping when they stopped for a break in the Tanami and managing to find his family again. In later life, he told her that he regretted running away. He would have liked to have gone to school and learned to drive a truck, but he was afraid when he and others were rounded up on Gordon Downs. He thought “they were gonna kill me”. Karen Lulu also regrets not doing more school. “Too much bullying” and punishment – “workforce” – drove her away: “I’m sorry about that.” There’s no more adult education in the school, so her hopes are for her grandkids, that they’ll learn to read and write, “learn white society. Both ways.”
Shirley Yoomarie remembers crying all the way when she was packed off on a truck from Billiluna to go to school at Balgo, at just five years old: “I never used to see my parents”, only on holidays. She says she got used to the dormitory life though and when she left school she continued hanging around there. She was only 17 when she had her first child, without a husband on the scene, and the nuns packed her off to Wyndham.
There are some riveting glimpses of events that leave the reader hungry to know more: Evelyn Clancy, for example, in an interview with workshop leader Kim Mahood, tells of her big sister killed because she was “too bright” (light-skinned) and thought to be the child of a kartiya (white person). It’s not clear who killed her, but the impression is that it was her own people. Imelda Guyaman tells of her mother leaving her sick baby brother to die. But her father tells the “babysitter” to go back for him. Later the boy was cared for by nuns. Did he ever rejoin the family? We are not told.
At Mulan, the workshops also involved school children. The presence of Paruku, the lake, looms large in their lives. From the little kids to the seniors, there are lots of stories of swimming, fishing, finding swan eggs, and cooking up the food on campfires. Who they did these things with – other children and family members – is usually a feature. There’s interesting evidence of great change in their lives too, compared to the lives of their parents and grandparents: Theo Fernandez wants to be an inventor, of a go-kart fit for a Spiderman movie; Junior Ovi tells of getting lost on a school trip to Melbourne, and with the help of a prayer and his own navigation skills, finding his way back to their accommodation.
The writing in the anthology, then, is as varied as the contexts in which it was produced, so it would always have been challenging to find the opening piece in terms of setting expectations of what would follow. From this point of view, the choice to open with two stories that seem to have been produced outside the workshop context, both of them by non-Aboriginal women, Kate Fielding and Holly Ringland, professionals with their own websites, who spent time working in the desert, is a bit misleading.
It’s not that we don’t encounter writing at this level in what follows. We do. But it sets up poles, particularly for the Western Australian selection: at one end, a string of women, coming into communities (Warburton, Mutitjulu, Balgo, Mulan) from elsewhere, reflecting on their experiences with a good deal of flair for written communication (I enjoyed all these pieces, from variously a cultural strategist, a media compliance officer, an art centre director, nurses, a teacher); at the other, the Aboriginal people of Mulan, supported or coaxed through the workshops, to record their stories in English. For the adults, I expect most, if not all of the stories are transcription of spoken word.
Mahood, a writer and artist who spends several months of each year working at Mulan, urges us to approach much of this writing as “a form of poetry, to be heard as much as read”, to read it aloud to appreciate its “rhythms and cadences”. It’s good advice, this makes a difference to the reading experience. But nonetheless I don’t think it gets over the problem of juxtaposing worked up texts by native speakers of English with transcribed, first takes of oral stories in English spoken as a second, third or fourth language.
It’s critical that we hear these Aboriginal voices from Mulan. In situ the experience would be carried richly by all the nuance of people’s personalities, gestures, contexts. Stripped of all those things by scrupulous transcription and unadulterated reproduction on the printed page leaves them as husks of what they originally were. How to overcome this problem is a challenge for future projects like this one, of which I hope there will be more.
Stories from country
Edited by Terri-ann White
UWA Publishing
RRP $24.99, 250 pages
Desert Writing will be launched at the forthcoming NT Writers’ Festival, Wordstorm, Darwin, 5-8 May, as will Marie Munkara’s memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea.


  1. Thanks for a comprehensive and thoughtful review Kieran
    It looks fantastic.
    I am hoping there will be an Alice launch as well…


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