Just Tell the Story

What we do is we have an idea and then we tell someone. If we don’t it stays within the confines of our skull. If we decide to share it with someone else we might dance it, we might sing it, draw it or write it but the transfer of ideas to our fellows is what we call culture.

I’ve seen the cathedrals, I’ve heard Beethoven, seen the painting Guernica, read Keating’s Redfern speech but the idea that takes my breath away is the decision made around 70,000 years ago when a million people were consolidating a revolutionary idea. Somehow the minds of the people coalesced around the origins of life and how it might be protected, sustained.

The people understood that they born from the earth and that their obligation was to protect a discrete section of the continent. Languages flourished within the discretion of those boundaries, cultural and economic trades were formalised, land management rules were developed, methods of transferring that information to far corners of the continent devised.

The transmission probably took the form of song, dance, art, story and even transmissible dream. It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now how that transfer took place as long as it was successful because the idea not the form was the most important thing.

Photograph by Lyn Harwood

Australia hasn’t begun to grapple with the idea of the Aboriginal economic and spiritual philosophy because it simply does not have the intellectual tools. If the tools were available then we would be doing a better job of understanding our own history and the obvious achievements of Aboriginal civilization. Surely we are not withholding the application of those tools out of spite!

The explorers witnessed Aboriginal people operating large scale economies: irrigating crops, living in beautifully designed villages of over 1,000 people and building large sophisticated houses, some capable of housing over 40. So, that information is not unavailable it’s just unknown. Why don’t we make the effort to know it?

Most large libraries have the explorers’ diaries so why don’t we read them? And when we do read them why don’t we query their descriptions of the manicured parklands they encountered? True, most of the explorers couldn’t credit this landscape to the management of Aboriginal people, but 200 years later it should occur to anyone with a university education.

Waiting for Australian academies to latch on to these ideas has been a waste of time. We’re finding that our best results are when we go our own way outside the usual academic channels. We are using digital publishing in various forms. Our language committee has developed an application that allows communities to store language on their computers and retrieve it in sentences, film, photographs or audio files. It’s a flexible tool being used across the country and has taken our languages out of the hands of linguists who had a tendency to want to own any language they researched.

We’ve been mucking around with the Night Sky app on our ipads because so much of the information about economic and cultural life is represented in the stars, or more frequently, the spaces between the stars. Apple’s Night Sky is an incredible tool but it is often slow in realising it is looking at southern skies and, of course, never renders the sky in terms of Aboriginal culture. We are looking at producing a First Nations version.

My most recent poem, Grooves, is being used in a Poetry app by the Redroom Company who are trying to re-invigorate the reading of verse. A computer app sounds a perfect way to make the form relevant and accessible.

But the baby and bathwater principle still holds. Remember the cover for Isobelle’s Little Fur? How can you capture that in any other than medium? The best cover I’ve ever seen is Robert Dessaix’s, Night Letters. It’s so simple and elegant I would never want to read that book without the image of the Venetian lion on the cover. Part of our job as writers and artists is to render beauty and the book does it incredibly well.

If you want to investigate some of the ideas Aboriginal Australia holds dear I recommend these clunky old books: Bill Gammage’s new book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, (A&U 2011), Rupert Gerritsen’s, The Origins of Australian Agriculture (2009), and my, Dark Emu, (Magabala 2013). Gerritsen’s books are available as digital versions and Dark Emu will have on-line components when it is released.

It doesn’t matter how this information is received as long as it is. How can a country claim intellectual maturity and moral probity without some encounter with these ideas?

Alright, so much for the amusing and frothy sherbert, now for the serious discussion…

Now in his sixties, Bunurong author Bruce Pascoe was already a writer when he discovered his Aboriginal heritage. Bruce is an award-winning writer, editor, and anthologist from Australia whose work includes Bloke, Shark, Ruby-eyed Coucal, Ocean, Earth, Nightjar, and Convincing Ground.

I first met Bruce years ago, when I moved to Apollo Bay, the home of my heart. I visited the local weekend market and I was of course drawn to the only table where there were books. I started looking at some books for sale, and asked about Bruce Pascoe’s books The man behind the table grinned his infectious grin and introduced himself and his partner Lyn Harwood.

Apollo Bay is small, and the creative community tightly knit and very interactive, so we met pretty often over the years after that. Most notably, Bruce was for years the mc for Warm Winter Words, a truly special local literary event that takes place once a year, when two or three writers are invited to share a bill, speaking and reading. I was asked to read several times over those years, and I was always awed by Bruce’s easy ability to hold and engage an audience and to manage such an occasion with grace and real warmth even when debate occasionally became fierce. This made it incredibly nerve racking, when I was to MC and Bruce was to be a guest. It was his last Warm Winter Words because he and Lyn were moving away.

It was like trying to be the king, with the king watching! I managed. Just. But no one ever filled Bruce’s shoes.

In his writing, Bruce challenges the continuity of history and uses wry humour and a seasoned understanding to delve into the perspectives of Australian Indigenous people towards the past, present, and future. He has worked very successfully with non-Indigenous editors and publishers, but Pascoe has also encountered some challenges.

“One publisher wanted me to change elements of a character. I said, ‘I can’t change her: that story was given to me by an elder; that’s what she’s like.’

“Aboriginal women are often in the position of having to keep the community together single-handedly, so you meet a lot of these feisty old women who won’t take a backward step. They’re mighty people. It’s not for me to edit them.”

Needless to say I was very curious to learn what Bruce, as a publisher and writer and as a person deeply interested in indigenous culture, would make of the age of the eBook.

4 Responses

    1. Maureen says:

      I am undertaking my history honours this year and our class today was on ‘is history fiction?’ and more specifically is history as historians today in Australia understand it a western construct?

      I see history as a form of story telling and it always puzzles me when people try to claim that history is only a study of the past- for me its relevance and power is its connection to the past, present and future. This is one of the many reasons I love Isobelle’s Obernewtyn series- it looks at the ways the past, present and future connect and intersect.

      I am not an Indigenous Australian and I didn’t know about agriculture and this land use by Indigenous Australians. I will have to go and look up those books you reccomend now 🙂 It is also interesting what you say about Australian academics- about using alternative mediums to reclaim language. I would never have thought of this form of personal agency before but now that you explain its use I could see other groups being able to use apps etc in a similar way in other countries.

      I’ll always prefer to read a physical book if I can help it, but having a discussion about culture and history is important, giving people who have been denied voice a voice in their own histories is important.

      This part of your post struck me the most:

      “Australia hasn’t begun to grapple with the idea of the Aboriginal economic and spiritual philosophy because it simply does not have the intellectual tools.”

      The way history is taught, this is especially true. The way our “national history” is discussed this is definitely true. Healthy debate and discussion, talking and listening may challenge dominant historical views, but that is by no means a bad thing.

    2. Min Dean says:

      “It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now how that transfer took place as long as it was successful because the idea not the form was the most important thing.”

      Bravo and well said 🙂

      Re Little Fur – I know right? The furry covers are so attractive and adorable. I spent *years* hunting down another furry-covered book 1, after giving mine away to a friend’s daughter who I wanted to read something wonderful. 
      The first book in its furry edition has gone out of print. It is *very* difficult to find. 
      So…do I deprive my goddaughter, or my 10-year-old cousin, those stories, because I can’t find the original version? No way – I fell back to the paperback. If they can’t have the furry one, at least they can have the story. 
      I have also been gifted the full set as audiobooks, which are read by Isobelle. This is, to me at least, just as important and precious as the furry ones. Particularly after hearing from her how the story came about, with her daughter. It feels natural that the story be read aloud by her. 

    3. Deb says:

      What a wonderful post. Some of my uni courses have delved into the ways in which historians are now re-writing history, particularly Australian history. I find it fascinating and intend to do more history study in the future. I will check out those books you mentioned.

    4. Bruce, thanks for the thought provoking post.

      Your description of using the Night Sky app made me smile. When that app (or it might have been a similar one) came out, I spent hours with it at an Outstation in the Tanami with a group of kids and a few old people. I’d call up the Greek constellation and we’d try and work out what the Warlpiri version was. Orion is Jakamarra, Pleiades the Napaljarri women and so on. Ever since then I’ve dreamed of making a Warlpiri version one day. I now make apps, so I should probably get my act together with that idea!

      I’ve done a bit of university study and read most of the journals written by early white explorer’s who travelled through Central Australia. While I get that they passed through the country relatively quickly and didn’t write everything down, the journals have always struck me to contain so little detail about the things that matter in the landscape. On hunting trips, or just travelling through country, I’ve always been blown away by Warlpiri stories about the landscape. The older people tend to talk more abstractly about Jukurrpa and things I find hard to understand sometimes, where my rational brain is left guessing where the ‘history’ is as I understand it. Middle aged people tend to throw more dates and movements of people as they tie places together, and young people like to mess with me and sometimes reimagine the characters of their grandparents’ stories to resemble characters from movies or video games. (in case anyone was wondering, the original plot of Star Wars might just have its origins in the Western Desert apparently 😉

      I loved this creative approach to exploring history where multiple voices and points of view, and occasional agreement after heated discussion took place randomly, based on where the kangaroos decided to be that day, or where we got a flat tyre.

      I have found those encounters a rich experience in attempting to understand Central Australian history. I also found some of what was written in those old explorers’ books led to questions that I might not have asked otherwise.

      “It doesn’t matter how this information is received as long as it is.”

      I couldn’t agree more.

      I’m interested to know more about the language application you refer to?