The Children’s Country. Creation of a Goolarabooloo Future in North-West Australia
by Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe
Rowman & Littlefield
Published November 2020
Follow the western coastline north from Broome, along the Lurujarri Heritage Trail: trudging across sandy beaches, passing dinosaur prints, through mud and mangroves.
Follow up the Bugarrigarra: perhaps best translated as ‘Dreaming law’, but probably best just to learn this word, and practice saying it, granting Bugarrigarra its independentexistence and grappling with a core and complex Goolarabooloo institution. Bugarrigarra is also a time, an epoch: as in, ‘back in Bugarrigarra’, ancestral beings such as the Marala (the Emu Man) imprinted three-toed tracks and grooved impressions of his tail feathers. Traces of his exploits remain evident today, if one is shown where to look.
Following an ‘experiment’ in ethnographic writing: a ‘partisan’ account of the contestation surrounding the now-abandoned plan to process natural gas at Waldamany/James Price Point. The dispute might first seem to be about resources, but in The Children’s Country it is posited as a contest over reality, over knowledge and also over genre.
Stephen Muecke borrows from the Victorian-era travelogue; charming expository introductions orient readers to nine chapters each devoted to a day spent walking the trail and to a meditation on a large theme, such as ‘history’ (day 2), ‘science’ (day 5), ‘economics’ (day 7), or ‘art’ (day 8). Muecke’s co-author and long-term collaborator Paddy Roe is long deceased.
Roe was born at Jarrmanggunan or ‘sheep camp’ on the Roebuck plains in about 1912. A Nyigina man, Roe was born on Yawuru Country, a days’ walk from Broome. In adulthood he moved around, camping and working on stations across the region and gained respect as a Goolarabooloo maja or law man.
Roe died in 2001. The Children’s Country, published this year, a book which centres around events that took place between 2009 and 2013, was Roe’s idea.
Muecke, who originally trained as a linguist, was sitting on the ground with Roe in the shade of an old Tamarind tree in Broome – a spot also referred to as Roe’s ‘office’. Roe was rasping a boomerang, and after a comfortable silence they talked about the recent launch of their second book together, Reading the Country, published in 1984. ‘That’s it then?’ asked Muecke. ‘We don’t need to do any more work together?’
Roe was quick to respond. ‘No, we have to do one more book… .’ They settled on a title, The Children’s Country, and Muecke promised to return the following year to commence work on it. That didn’t happen. Muecke was busy with other writing and research projects, and Roe was also busy creating – authoring – something else. The 90-kilometre-long Lurujarri Heritage Trail was mapped and established in 1987 out of a Bicentennial Grant. The trail essentially represents an invitation for visitors and locals to walk Country together, pausing for in situ lessons about bush foods, Bugarrigarra beings, First Nations responsibilities to protect, attend to and visit places, as well as the settler colonial history of this multicultural corner of the continent.
Deceptively and effectively conversational in style, The Children’s Country is densely packed with ideas about modes and methods of inquiry, embodied practice, settler-First Nation relations, future imaginaries. These discussions are interspersed with Roe’s captivating storytelling. Here, I attend to just three of the many conversations I picked up as threaded through this book, more or less explicitly. These are: the history and status of the term Goolarabooloo; more briefly, the prospect of finding new ways of inhabiting – not just understanding – this continent; and finally, to Muecke and Roe’s ‘rebooting’ of authorship.
I possess a copy of the 1983 edition of Gularabulu, which is authored by Paddy Roe and edited by Muecke. I picked this book up second-hand in Canberra: the torn cover boasts a pastel artwork depicting a spring; a stamp on the title page stating ‘Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ has a biro slash through it. Gularabulu was republished in 2016 with its subtitle – Stories from the West Kimberley – more prominently displayed on a cover featuring a photo of Roe at a law ground with his adult granddaughter and three great-grandsons. Significant sites and descendants are constants across these two editions and are major themes of The Children’s Country.
Gularabulu comprises carefully organised and very lightly annotated verbatim texts: Roe speaks and the arrangement of words on the page allows the reader to hear: cadence, emphasis, quality of voice and surrounding sounds are all captured – rasping, a CLAP. This was ground-breaking work, and has stood the test of time.
Clearly, though, the spelling of ‘Gularabulu’ has changed since 1983. And a more significant shift has also altered not so much the meaning of the term but its effects in the world. This is a very complex topic and will take some explaining: I appreciate that it demands sensitivity to write about on Muecke’s part.
In The Children’s Country, Muecke points out that the term ‘Koollarrbulloo’ came to Daisy Bates’ attention around the turn of the century. Irish-born Bates was a keen ethnologist, intent on documenting the cultural traditions of the north west in this period. She describes a principal interlocutor as a ‘Koolarabooloo’ man, and talks of the ‘saltwater tribes’, or ‘Koolarabooloo’.
Within The Children’s Country, this term is rendered more consistently as ‘Goolarabooloo’. And Goolarabooloo emerges as an innovation, which refers to a confederation of peoples. This was a creative response generated on a colonial frontier, which makes it possible for various peoples to build back up the Bugarrigarra in the aftermath of invasion, ‘a massive interruption of their way of life’. Roe related to Muecke that in the 1950s and 1960s he watched young people on their way to Sunday School; he was himself absorbed into the racially structured pastoral workforce.
Roe was thus part of concerted efforts to attend to Bugarrigarra in the midst of hostile conditions, keeping alive stories and knowledge that traversed a number of buru or territories, each associated with distinctive languages. He grasped that not only were the times-a-changing, but the nature of time was changing, becoming ‘more future-oriented’ and less exclusively about the (re)projection of the past into the present. The encompassing term Goolarabooloo doesn’t erase more specific terms of identification such as Jabirr-Jabirr, Yawuru, Ngygin. Rather, Muecke interprets Paddy Roe as clever strategist and mediator, with an eye to Goolarabooloo ‘foreign policy’. Goolarabooloo encapsulates an expansive vision, and can be extended further still to invite others to walk Goolarabooloo trails.
However, identification with this term rubs up against the ask, indeed demand, of the native title claims process: that Aboriginal identities are sourced in the pre-contact past, and an assumption that language, group name, and territory are isomorphic. The Children’s Country’s readers are offered the opportunity to grasp the stakes gradually, travelling alongside Muecke for those nine days and along Roe’s routes.
Slowly, my understanding of rayi and their role in this story deepened. Rayi, also documented by Bates, are described as ‘spirit children’: beings which might animate a person conceived on that spirit’s Country, bestowing rights to it. That is to say, Muecke argues that rights to Country in the West Kimberley – rights to speaking and rights to caring – might also be acquired through ascent, rather than descent, through these spirit children. (This is an example of ‘conception totemism’, as it is discussed in a much less readable anthropological corpus.)
Muecke describes the machinations of native title-related proceedings that do not ultimately appreciate this passage to rights in land, and have disenfranchised those who identify primarily as Goolarabooloo, reducing the potential of this idea. This is something I’ve also documented happening. I am struck by the fact that in Muecke’s account, the words ‘trauma’ and ‘traumatic’ are both used. Across this text, interruptions are welcome and drawn attention to – they are a mode to think with: interruptions bump us off course and open up possibilities. But the interruption into the idea of Goolarabooloo, it would seem, is more like a rupture that has deeply felt effects.
‘This is a book made by walking!’ writes Muecke. On Day 1, Muecke demonstrates different methods of walking to those gathered in the grounds of the Old Native Hospital in Broome, waiting to commence travelling the Lurujarri tail. Muecke demonstrates skimming rather than marching—to move with the Country rather than on it or against it. Let your shoulders slump, and your arms swing free. Fall forwards, slightly. On Day 2, which deals with history, Muecke pursues ‘ambulatory history,’ wandering through old homestead and station sites with local historian Robyn Wells, chatting and evidently recording Wells’ extensive place-based knowledge.
Elsewhere in the text Muecke dwells for some time on a very delicate hand gesture captured on film. Paddy Roe’s hand ‘dips and turns like a falling leaf, or a bird’, descending to meet his other hand in his lap. There’s a whole ‘grammar of hand signs’ that belongs to Country, and which must be learned.
Embodiment emerges as a key theme of the work, then. There’s a repertoire of corporal possibilities scattered throughout the text, which I took together to point to deeper possibilities. Walking long distances takes time. The multiple realities Muecke attends to in this book reveal themselves slowly as we follow him north and follow his trail of thoughts. And over the course of the walk, visitors become more receptive, more responsive to the effects of living country and energised by that responsiveness. The Country might also reveal itself to those moving through it – libidinal, pulsing, nourishing, but also fragile, wounded and in need of protection.
The Children’s Country documents a contest over genre: the gas processing plant’s proponent dealt in speculative fiction in authoring a prosperous future begotten by development, with no adverse or unexpected effects. What genre then do Muecke and Roe work in here? ‘Experimental ethnography’ is the answer Muecke gives.
I think something more specific is happening. Muecke and Roe ‘reboot’ authorship, to use one of Muecke’s favourite terms (he calls for the ‘rebooting’ of science, among other disciplines and institutions). They reboot authorship as dialogue, and collective – Muecke is constantly drawing in others to discuss his wonderings with, and their conversations don’t so much inform the text but become committed to the page as ‘the text’. This seems an exciting extension of Roe and Muecke’s work in Gularabulu to render speech in writing; to explore how oral cultural knowledge and the aural can be transposed into writing.
The idea of an ‘oral culture’ is in some sense a reification: all human life involves lots of talking. Sheila Heti made a book with recordings in How Should a Person Be? and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy searches for a feminised literature that is somewhere between speech and writing. Closer to home, Margaret Somerville, Marie Dundas, May Mead, Janet Robinson and Maureen Sulter documented the Aboriginal history of Coonabarabran in the vernacular, and in dialogue with one another. Alexis Wright’s celebrated Tracker represents a highly skilled crafting of a multi-authored and polyvocal biography. In The Children’s Country Muecke puts his own speech in writing, both his conversations with those on the trail and also capturing a kind of internal voice that thinks and talks with others; thinks and talks with Country; and is always – still – talking and thinking with Roe.
This is an extended version of some thoughts on The Children’s Country shared at an Institute of Postcolonial Studies launch event featuring Stephen Muecke, Tony Birch, Chris Healy, and Jason Roe. The event was titled, Why Australian Needs New Storytelling.
Cusk, Rachel. Outline. (Faber and Faber: 2018).
Heti, Sheila. How Should a Person Be? (Harvill Secker: 2013).
Roe, Paddy. Gularabulu: Stories from the West Kimberley (Fremantle Arts Centre Press: 1983).
Roe, Paddy. Gularabulu: Stories from the West Kimberley (University of Western Australia Publishing: 2016).
Somerville, Margaret, Marie Dundas, May Mead, Janet Robinson and Maureen Sulter. The Sun Dancin’: People and Place in Coonabarabran (Aboriginal Studies Press: 1994)
Wright, Alexis, Tracker (Giramondo: 2017).