By ROD MOSS
I usually have three or more books on the go simultaneously, bespeaking the strength of my attention as much as the demands of the texts. Margaret Heffernan’s autobiography, Gathering Sticks, not only leapfrogged my current crop, but held me without pause from cover to cover.
A plug for Red Kangaroo Bookshop is due. Its fulsome holdings of books related to First Australians addresses the appetite of we non-indigenous readers keen to understand their lives. We are fortunate such a specialist shop continues to thrive in our main drag from which I sourced Margaret’s recently published book.
First up, hers is an Indigenous voice from country I too have shared for thirty-five years. There have been increasing numbers of Indigenous voices entering the literary zone in that time and I’ve sampled quite a few of them. Whatever their varied aims and merits none has delivered such prodigious sweep, such profound comprehension and self-disclosure between two covers.
Researchers Gerard Waterford and Frances Coughlan are to be congratulated for their support, evidenced in the fluent weaving of contemporary events contextualizing this long, well-lived life.
Many Alice Springs News readers would know of my abiding connections with the lives of the town’s campers. Though I don’t know the author, the names in the book are familiar. So, while Margaret’s story shares an intensity of incident I’ve heard from others of her generation, never have I been gripped in literary form by such warmth and candour about what such events have meant to an individual.
Firm but free of the bitterness which readers might feel warranted, her voice never pulls punches. For instance, we read from the inside how the blight of drug abuse ruining Aboriginal families encroached and came to dominate her culture. It’s painfully, forcefully recounted. If only her testament could reach the policy-maker’s ears, if not those caught in its vicious thraldom.
Right: Margaret Heffernan today. Photo courtesy Franny Coughlan.
A vivid sense of the complexity of her inter-relationships and responsibilities is given without the abstracted language characterizing academic or anthropological literature. ‘They seep organically through the text and we feel how they determine her decisions to move from place to place, whether seizing opportunities on offer or submitting to cultural obligations.
We see the benefits such extended close support networks provided, and how they have been gradually undermined and impacted, first by the missions and then with government policies.
Margaret admits to being something of a contrarian. Without such a nature we wouldn’t have this remarkable book. We also wouldn’t have it had she not early decided to take up the challenge of two-way learning, a passion that has motivated much of her adult life. I won’t weary you by enumerating her many achievements other than to add that an excess of ego does not burden them. The book’s brave foray in embracing both settler and Indigenous culture hopefully inspires all readers to such openness.
Gathering Sticks: Lighting up small fires
by Margaret Heffernan
with Gerard Waterford and Franny Coughlan
IAD Press, 2018