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HomeIssue 13Cause for hope: notes from the NT Writers Festival

Cause for hope: notes from the NT Writers Festival

p2634 NTWF Karu babyBy KIERAN FINNANE 
Last updated 21 May 2019, 3,42pm.
‘Returning’ – in Arrernte, ‘lyapirtneme’ – something growing back, like new shoots after fire: this was the theme of the NT Writers Festival that took place over the weekend, the image sharpened by still-fresh memories of the long, very hot summer and its wildfires that even Saturday’s downpour could not wash away.
How much renewal can there be when the pressures are immense?  In resilient and optimistic response came two beautiful sessions in the program last Saturday, developing the theme, lyapirtneme, in relation to the coming generations of our human children.
Right: Little Sedonyae, a Gurindji baby, slathered with a warm termite mound infusion by Leah Leaman and Violet Wadrill. Photo by Felicity Meakins. 
The first was presented by Children’s Ground, a grassroots initiative from Arrernte families and  collaborators to teach Arrernte children Arrernte way – in their language.
From the 1930s through to the early 1970s it was forbidden to teach or speak Arrernte at school in the Centre, according to a snapshot history that Felicity Hayes of Children’s Ground presented. Bi-lingual education was introduced in the NT in 1972 but like much else in the field of Indigenous affairs, the road since then has been rocky, full of stops and starts.
Children’s Ground and its recent funding boost represent an upswing in a history that would otherwise be demoralising. It is the new shoot, growing back, after the steady dismantling of bilingual education from 1998 and the shutting down of an earlier Arrernte initiative, the Irrkerlantye Learning Centre.
At the festival senior and emerging Arrernte educators, gathered either side of the much-loved Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM, presented some of children’s books they are creating, as authors and illustrators, teaching children about country as they know it, alive and rich with knowledge.
p2634 NTWF Children's GroundArrernte language and world view is given primacy, with translations into English the educators provide. A secondary role for the beautifully-produced books could be as learning support for other people, non-Arrernte, to learn the first language of Mparntwe, with all proceeds from book sales going to the creators and Children’s Ground to further their resource projects.
Left: Children’s Ground educators, from left, Felicity Hayes, Sylvia Neale, Margaret Kemarre Turner, Kathy Turner. 
Traditional Aboriginal child-rearing practices came under severe pressure during the Intervention, often as a result of ignorance and misunderstanding.
Gurindji women and collaborators have pushed back, working with new mothers to teach and help them Gurindji way, with practices that are embedded in their country and in deep knowledge of its life-supporting gifts, as well as the experience of the generations of mothers who have come before them.
Bush medicine, including ground-up termite mound, native lemongrass, conker berries,  can stimulate the production and flow of breast milk – “We discourage mums from using bottles”, said Leah Leaman. Babies are made more resistant to illness by rubbing bush medicine into their skin – “it’s like an immunisation but natural stuff.”
The women work in informal cooperation with the clinic and health system. They accept, for example, that expecting mothers are sent into Katherine to birth in hospital, but they are there to support them in the child-rearing months and years to come with the Gurindji ways – spiritual, ritualistic, good for body, mind and spirit.
Stories recounting these practices have been captured in a book, Karu: Growing up Gurindji, by Biddy Wavehill Yamawurr, Felicity Meakins, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal, and Violet Wadrill, published by Spinifex Press. It is richly illustrated with photographs and paintings created during time the women spent away from the community, at an important waterhole in the upper reaches of the Victoria River.
p2634 NTWF CG WarningsThe book also offers insights into the way new lives are understood as reincarnations of ancestors; how birthmarks are interpreted; the taboos to be observed by pregnant women; the approach to sleeping arrangements; the independence of small children. All this draws on the knowledge held by the grandmothers, whom Gurindji women “are blessed to have in these changing times”, as Leaman put it.
Right: A page from the Children’s Ground book, Alkngarrileme (Warnings).
Another kind of return, nothing to do with the festival, was taking place on Saturday – a majority of Australians around the country were returning the Liberal National Party Coalition to power. As this became clear during the evening (checking my phone), the hopeful image of new shoots withered in my mind. This though made the festival offerings all the more poignant and relevant, in the way they embraced a broad view of Australia’s place in the world.
The rain, so welcome after searingly dry months, meant there were no fires for the Campfire Stories that night. All credit to festival director Dani Powell and her team, many of them volunteers, for their efforts to ensure that the spark remained.
Roanna Gonsalves, born and brought up in Mumbai, India, currently living in Sydney, commented on what a really unique and special event the festival was, centring as it did on Indigenous voices and stories. Other voices and stories sat alongside them, among them hers. She read an excerpt from a short story, “The teller in the tale”, from her collection, The Permanent Resident, which last year won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award Multicultural Prize .
Close to her own story in some of its details – the narrator is an Indian-born woman who has migrated to Australia and is doing a creative writing PhD – it is nonetheless a work of fiction: “Migrant writers also have imaginations,” Gonsalves said, “we don’t just write ‘migrant porn’,” before launching into her vivid account of the relationship between a mother and daughter, worked through the pressures of expectations, the demands of family life and a looming PhD deadline.
p2634 NTWF Fidel
Future D. Fidel (left) restored perspective as the political gloom descended. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he now lives in Brisbane where he works as a singer, dancer, actor and playwright.
As with Gonsalves, the story he read might have been assumed to be closely autobiographical. An excerpt from his first novel, Prize Fighter, it was a harrowing account of the slaughter of the protagonist’s parents and sister. Fidel too lost his parents in the lawless violence that followed the death of President Mobutu, but his protagonist is the author’s creation, a boy who is forced to become a child soldier. This was not the case with Fidel, though he had no doubt also lived through one day “when the whole world had changed” and so had he.
Not that Fidel explained any of this; he let the story have its own power, without adding or taking away. In his introductory remarks, he played rather with the audience’s expectations and assumptions, such as the continued labelling of him as a refugee, although he’s been in Australia for 14 years; he prefers “boat people” as a label – that would make him like 90% of other Australians, he quipped.

Parallels were drawn between the ancient stories of two traditions, both presented in translation.
Pantjiti Unkari McKenzie OAM told with relish, occasionally breaking into song, a story of a man who becomes trapped inside a tree, translated from the Pitjantjatjara with easeful enjoyment by Beth Sometimes. What liberates the man finally, returning him, albeit in an emaciated state, to life with his two wives, is the powerful knowledge of a ngangkari (traditional healer). The story was an offering, the women explained, to the people out there who are stuck in forms of addiction; it shows that there is traditional understanding about this problem and ways to deal with it.
Craig San Roque made explicit the resonance between his version of the ancient Greek story of Persephone and Pantjiti’s story,  including verses in Pitjantjatjara. There was also an echo in the narrative images, the man stuck inside a tree, Persephone drawn down into the earth. And both return – “the way of things, inside the skin of the world” as long as it’s not too late.

The finale of the evening made another bridge between Australia and Europe, and between music and spoken word. It was the work of Rusty and the Infidels, this desert town’s own klezmer band, with Russell Goldflam weaving into their performance the story of the two sides of his Jewish family and how it has led to the music the band plays.
p2634 NTWF Rusty & Infidels

Above: Rusty and the Infidels, Peter Gilham on trumpet, Wayne Eager (obscured) on guitar, Russell Goldflam, clarinet and story, Nick Raymond on double bass, Marina Strocchi on percussion, Myf Turpin and Marg Collins, both on piano accordion.

The story-telling was beautifully judged, with the right weight given to its tragic strand (the murder of most of his father’s extended family in the Holocaust) and to the wry observations about, for instance, the prejudices held onto by family members, even against their own. The story was brought right up to the present, to Goldflam’s  own work as a criminal lawyer here in the Centre, and the way that the music has offered him a refuge from its anxieties.
I’ve heard the band play before, I’ve heard an earlier version of the story, I’ve listened often to their CD; Saturday’s performance might have been their best yet, the sound rich and clear, given such meaning by the story, so full of loss and longing, resilient humour and joy.
On Sunday the sun was out, the flies were thick. I was feeling the downcast dismay of young people around me who had seen the narrowly-focussed majority vote for more of the same, business as usual, protecting present privilege from the demands of confronting a very uncertain future. I heard fear in their voices, despondency, even despair.
I was on the lookout for something to offer them by way of comfort, reassurance. I may have found it, no miracle cure from the crisis that is heading towards existential, but powerful evidence of the possibility of repair to at least some of the damage that we are inflicting on the earth.
Charles Massy was the writer; the book was Call of the Reed Warbler.
Massy is a fifth-generation Australian farmer, running sheep and cattle in the southern tablelands of NSW. After drought in the ‘70s, when his ‘best practice’ industrial-style farming so harmed his land that he had to sell a portion of it to stay afloat, he set out to find a new way.
p2634 NTWF Massy

Above: Charles Massy in conversation with Kelly-Lee Hickey. View onto the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, festival venue.

Its key lesson, drawing on the lessons of others, including Indigenous Australians, as well as on his own experiments, is that we, as humans, are not separate from Mother Earth; she is not there simply as a resource from which to extract profit; when it comes to cultivation and herding, the earth must be put first. In this way it is possible to regenerate country that has been laid to waste by over-stocking and farming methods that were developed for the very different landscapes of Europe.
In a movement that is spreading in Australia, Africa and the US, the principle that regenerative farmers work with is that natural systems will self-organise to a state of health, given half a chance.
The loss of some of his land was what shifted Massy’s mindset. Subsequent research for a PhD, surveying 80 of the best farmers doing this kind of work, revealed that half of them had similarly responded to a major life shock – devastating bushfires, severe drought, chemical accidents.
These experiences had provoked a “paradigm shift” towards regenerative practice. Massy prefers this word ‘regenerative’ to ‘sustainable’ because it is open-ended: improvements are forever ongoing.
Importantly, given the pressures of the earth’s growing population, regenerated land, that has had its biological function restored, offers increased productive capacity.
At the same time it sequesters carbon, which makes regenerative farming, says Massy, the single most effective contribution to addressing the climate destabilisation we are witnessing. (That doesn’t mean though that we don’t have to do anything else.)
As I left Massy’s talk, in my mind the image of a green shoot flowered again.


  1. What I loved about the program was the plethora of sessions and meetings that did not seek, once and for all, solutions to our worldly predicaments. What was offered and gratefully received were moments to think deeply about our role in helping constitute who and what comes to matter – to (re)hear stories that talk about what is entailed in the practice of being open and alive to the possibility of justice in a world that seems to get stuck in destructive cycles. The festival theme, ‘Returning / lyapirtneme’ assisted to disrupt a thinking that sees the past as finished, a distant memoir, and the future as not ours or only ours. This responsibility precisely encapsulated in the words of a young Indigenous author that I have the honour of working alongside – “my story is set twenty-five years in the future, synced to now”.


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