Review: Ellen van Neervenon Desert Writing

Centre of the Story: Desert Writing: Stories from Country

‘When my family saw the first train they thought it was a giant caterpillar coming, and threw spears and stones at it. They got real frighted true,’ writes Hilary Williams, an Anangu woman living in Yalata, South Australia, in a new collection, Desert Writing: Stories from Country.

Also in the collection, Imela Gugaman, from Mulan, Western Australia shares the absorbing story of the first time she saw a helicopter as a five-year-old. Her people belong to the deep desert, and when Imela was a baby, her parents would dig a hole and bury her with sand to keep her cool. Her mother and her mother’s mother witnessed the violence that contact caused when whitefellas came into their land, the killings, even of children and pregnant women. Distrust of outsiders passed on through the message ‘when you see them, hide from them’. The pilot of the helicopter ‘was the first good one’, bringing flour and meat to Imela’s people.

Desert Writing brings to readers stories of desert communities and the individuals who form them that are not often featured in literature or media. Train lines have been built, and airports made but the places aren’t any closer; these are remote places – far away from Australia’s heavily populated coastal cities, far from major centres; and far from the imagination of the mainstream population. This distance is what makes these places so interesting, their pasts and futures significant. The stories were brought together through a tri-state project assisted by Australia Council funding that gave three communities in Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia access to workshops and mentorship by three pairs of writing facilitators: Kim Mahood and Terri-Ann White in Mulan in Western Australia; Marie Munkara and Ktima Heathcote at Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory; Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lionel Fogarty in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia. The result is an expansive compilation of voices – both individuals and communities are described and represented.

The book is broken up into three sections: the first section, about Mulan, is the largest, and the stories are of a community, of family and kinship. The Tennant Creek section is slighter and features general stories – some fiction, some science fiction. These stories don’t circle around a main theme quite in the way the other two sections do. The final section — about the effect of the Maralinga incident on the people of the Anangu Pitjantatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands – is the smallest but holds a heavy emotional impact.

Mulan is a small community in the east Kimberley, one of the most isolated communities in Australia. The local people are Walmajarri and Kukatja is their language. Just over a hundred people live here, and six hundred in Balgo, 44km to the south west, where many of Mulan’s people were born, in Balgo Mission. There is no mobile phone reception in Mulan, except for the odd reward from a climb up Telstra Hill. Instead, locals use phones at the post office to communicate externally.

At the edge of Mulan is Lake Gregory, a permanent freshwater lake between the Great Sandy Desert and the Tanami Desert. Through the lake we are introduced to the people. Kimiti Wallaby is the ‘owner of the lake’; we hear this from one of his daughters, Gracie Mosquito. He is the senior relative of many of the other storytellers. The Mulan section features four generations of Kimiti Wallaby’s family. In the other sections of the book too, most of the stories begin by an introduction through kinship. This puts the reader into an active role in mind-mapping family trees. The contributors often start their stories by mentioning their mother or father or describing their family’s life before they were born; this is storytelling with a worldly sense of time.

Tennant Creek, the most populous place represented in the book, is a town with a population of 3000, located in the Barkly region of the Northern Territory between Darwin and Alice Springs, which is the closest city to Tennant, 508 km away. The place’s history includes gold mining in the 1930s and 1940s, when it was the third largest gold producer in Australia. Art, music and sport form a big part of daily life in Tennant Creek. Art includes a growing group of writers; Marie Munkara describes these writers as ‘amazing literary talents waiting for the opportunity to burst forth and shine like stars in the desert’. The workshops each had between three to six participants. In total, Marie and her assistant Ktima Heathcote met with almost thirty people who wanted to contribute their story.

There are programs and opportunities in place for writers in this community including Barkly Writers’ Ink, established in 2010 by Ktima with support from an Arts NT community grant to support and develop writers in the region. These writers are writing short stories, science fiction and poetry. Writers from this group, like Maureen O’Keefe, a Walpiri woman, have featured at writers’ festivals across the country and been published in numerous anthologies.

The third location, Yalata, is in the APY Lands, in west South Australia. The people here are under the shadow of Maralinga – after the atomic bomb testings in 1956 and 1957, many were relocated here. Facilitator Ali Cobby Eckermann explains there were ‘many stories “about the dust”’. Ali is an Anangu woman herself, which makes her particularly suited to introduce these voices. Ali talks of the ‘spirits of survival’ from the Maralinga experience and says some of the old Aunties would not share stories in the room but preferred to ‘tell us out bush’.

Last year the exhibition Black Mist Burnt Country toured the nation. Featuring the work of more than thirty artists, it marked sixty years after the Maralinga incident. One of the artworks included in the exhibition was a collaborative campus from Yalata Community Artists, though many of the contributions were by non-Indigenous artists telling the Maralinga story. The scattering of plutonium, uranium and beryllium over the homelands is one of last century’s darkest incidents. And the effects on the communities are ongoing, as the writing in Desert Stories tells. The writing is soaked with this reality of locality. ‘I remember the story my grandmother told me,’ Hilary Williams starts. She begins this anecdote much in the same way as she recounts her ancestors first seeing the train on their land. ‘A big smoke come and they don’t know why.’ Hilary explains how the British soldiers came and took her family, who didn’t speak any English, only Anangu, to the army camp in Maralinga, and held them in quarantine. Hilary talks of other Anangu people shot and killed during these times.

Because of the radiation effects of the atomic bombs, in 1993, the Australian government gave many compensation, including Hilary’s mother. But as Hilary suggests, this couldn’t compensate the loss, including that of family ‘to asthma and cancer’. ‘If they got sick they used to ngankari (healing) themselves, no tablets wiya. All healthy those days.’ Perhaps a line in Kumunu Quera and Margaret May’s story says it all: ‘big mob all gone, cemetery full now’: the shattering of a community.

Says Johnny Watson, famous for making and painting the Yalata icon – a 35-metre long boomerang in the middle of town – ‘everyone was happy until the bombs’. In story after story we are shown how these people are still suffering enormous pain. Generations to come will be affected. The country is still contaminated. Analgu have been handed back the land but can’t live there.

Land ownership is also importantly discussed in the Mulan section. It has been a long fight for these people to live on their lands. Shirley Yoomarie, Gracie Mosquito’s sister, describes ‘signing, signing, all the old people, to get this land back’. The removal of people from their lands is an ongoing tale. Many residents of Mulan were taken as children to Balgo Mission. Cathy Lee recalls being taken away from her parents, how there was no language in the dormitory, and they were made to speak English only.

Gracie Mosquito’s Balgo Mission story about the tricks they got up to as young girls is sparkly. The humour is weighted well, told by a natural storyteller. We feel how homesick she was placed on the mission, and the ways the girls survived this (some by mischief). The girls got to the goat yard first, before the sun, before the nuns, moving to the creek to make a fire to heat the milk – leaving the nuns very confused when they couldn’t get any milk later in the morning.

After Gracie’s story, the community’s new young voices are featured. The middle school children in Mulan aspire to be inventors or footy players for the Melbourne Demons. They describe everyday life after school as a mixture of tradition and modern technology, helping to shoot ant mounds, and then going over to a mate’s place to play on the PlayStation.

These are the voices we should be hearing but so often stories of these places have been told by outsiders. Hilary Williams’ grandmother’s story was recorded in a song by Paul Kelly, ‘Maralinga’ and another of the same title by Midnight Oil. Photographs were taken, and a portrait with the atomic bomb behind her. Hilary asks for this to end. ‘She’s not here to give you any more story. Let her rest!’

The politics of engaging with communities to produce books is the subject of the Australia Council’s protocols for producing Indigenous writing. Ali Cobby Eckermann is reluctant to outline the ‘outcomes’ of projects centring Indigenous voices such as this one. They speak for themselves. She explains in her introduction the power of hosting these writing spaces on country. Cobby Eckermann laments communities not having access to books. They need these to be available for young generations to be encouraged to read and write.

Books written about land and place from an Indigenous perspective provide a powerful insight to true history and culture. Recent important contributions include Palawa woman Patsy Cameron’s Grease and Ochre on Tasmania, and Bunurong man Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu on Aboriginal agriculture in Victoria. Both put Indigenous people at the centre of the national story.

Connection to land cannot be measured in economic terms. Desert Stories highlights the importance of keeping the culture and story alive, and how country’s health is the health of the people who belong to it. Sue Haseldine’s story about looking after country describes in much detail of her family’s commitment to keeping their waterholes clean, embarking on two trips a year, before and after summer: ‘Without the land, you lose your soul’.

Land is always at risk from those seeking to exploit it; Cobby Eckermann expresses concern that the silica from the sand mining on traditional land will cause health problems comparable to that of Maralinga for a new generation of Aboriginal people. The health and social risks to Aboriginal people of these communities are ongoing, and drugs, alcohol, suicide and lack of educational opportunities contribute.

We are seeing the past repeating itself in these three states: in South Australia, a high-level nuclear waste dump is proposed; in the Northern Territory, the Intervention continues through Stronger Futures legislation; in Western Australia, communities will again be moved. This collection was put together before these closures were announced. The state government plans to shut down several remote communities and dislocate people from their homes and traditional lands.

In ‘Mulan Rap’ the high school students of Mulan rhyme, ‘We are a tight knit community/A land of opportunity’. Their ‘land of opportunity’ is the government’s inconvenience, an opportunity to free the land for exploitation. It hasn’t yet been made clear which places will be closed, but Mulan, with its hundred residents and outmost location seems to be a prime descriptor of the ‘lifestyle choice’ discouraged by Tony Abbott.

Since the decision, there has been a growing anxiety in Mulan. The pressure has caused some people to move away prematurely. This is an experience the people are all too familiar with which adds to the feeling of loss of self-worth. In a lot of cases, moving into a big town can increase risks. Mulan resident Veronica Lulu says, ‘When I go to town, no good. Knowledge and Strength and Power. Desert gives it back, gives me strength and power to live and learn my young people.’

In the last 250 years, trains and helicopters have arrived, much has been disturbed. The stories of the people in this collection shows how modern technology can not replace the old technology, the old eyes that see country. Culture and learning for Veronica Lulu is a continuance of a long-held custodianship. These views are central here, and through these pages, we can gauge a sense of their worth.