Review: Timmah Ballon Nardi Simpson

Grief and Sovereignty

I want to remind you that you are not imagining it. It is real.

– Nayuka Gorrie

1. Settler Amnesia

In contemporary Australian fiction places are disappearing. They are also invaded and occasionally remade. In some circumstances the continent itself is pulled in uncanny directions, a consequence of our insidious relationship with western capitalism and colonisation. This bleak conceptualisation of place and our demise is evidence of an urgent need to illuminate the climate catastrophe we are living through while critiquing our government’s inertia. In these narratives regional towns and rural settings often become sites of abjection, desolate in comparison to the city’s cosmopolitanism and progressiveness.

In high school I was introduced to this abjection while studying Peter Carey’s Collected Short Stories. The majority of these stories present listless characters in rural landscapes or towns where little happens and people are stuck in loops of hopelessness. The characters’ despair stayed with me but I also despised them, they were indulgent and often violent so it was satisfying to see the cruel predicaments that besieged them. In ‘American Dreams’ residents of a fictional small Australian town discover that a local misfit has secretly built a model of the town – including its residents – behind a large wall. The details of the model are so accurate that it reveals secrets such as affairs and the replica becomes hyper-real. Before long the model town is a major attraction for busloads of American tourists and the ‘real’ town is redundant.

The Americans pay one dollar for the right to take our photographs. Having paid the money they are worried about being cheated. They spend their time being disappointed and I spend my time feeling guilty that I have somehow let them down by growing older and sadder.

While the story is an obvious allegory for the Americanisation of almost every country it also reveals settler anxiety and amnesia. The desire to be something else, to become American, fits within the logic of colonialism and terra nullius: if there was nothing here to begin with the settlers can build whatever they want. And in doing so they can follow cultural fantasies like becoming America while deeply confused by their own nothingness and disconnection, clinging to the idea that they will eventually emerge as something. As Carey’s narrator states:

We have used it, this little valley, as nothing more than a stopping place. Somewhere on the way to somewhere else. Even those of us who have been here many years have never taken the town seriously.

In Nardi Simpson’s impressive debut novel Song of the Crocodile the fictional colonial town Darnmoor ‘itself is nothing’. It is a construction to begin with and for the sovereign Billymil familyit doesn’t exist; they are Yuwaalaraay people, removed from their custodial lands and relegated to the Campgrounds on the edge of the town when Darnmoor was built over their Country. Unlike the damaged and confused characters of ‘American Dreams’ the Billymils love their country and remain sovereign despite their displacement. Darnmoor ‘itself is nothing’, Simpson writes, in the way that Australia is nothing. It is a settler concept with debilitating consequences ‘neither informative or welcoming.’ But it also does not exist, as Yorta Yorta artist Neil Morris aka the DRMNGNOW proclaimed in his 2018 single, ‘Indigenous Land’. Its construction has not eroded Aboriginal culture, land and spirituality; this continues to exist above the construction of Australia.

Simpson illustrates this through her multi-generational story where Aboriginal peoples’ connection to land and country remains sovereign. Unlike the Anglo-Australian fear of loss in Carey’s story – and in more recent titles that deal with grief and uncertainty in a time of climate crisis such as Dyschronia, The Town, The Island Will Sink, From the Wreck, The Animals In That Country, from which Aboriginal people are strikingly absent – Song of the Crocodile provides hope within disaster. The creation of Darnmoor is by design unsettling for the Yuwaalaraay people but their land was never ceded and remains sacred even if ‘the Campgrounds lean lopsided along the river’s edge, at the end of the Old Black Road and within walking distance to the tip.’ Spirits, land and Yuwaalaraay culture survives in opposition to the settler conception of place established through development, ownership, property and capital. We see this through the younger generations’ relationship with country, which moves beyond the construction of Darnmoor. In an evocative scene Paddy Mili’s teenage son surrenders himself to the ground:

The heavier he became the further his body pressed into the earth. Paddy melted into the Campgrounds and when his bones were finally dissolved into the soil, he heard it ­– a rumbling, subsonic murmur. It was the sounds that insisted mothers begin to steel themselves, fathers to prepare and tend the clearing, their sons to summon bravery and walk towards the unknown.

Within this we bear witness to First Nations resilience. If Anglo-Australian narratives are fixated on the possibility of losing the nation as a metaphor for the climate crisis we are living through Blak narratives like Song of the Crocodile remind us that this loss is real. We are not imagining the possibility. It has already and continues to happen to Aboriginal people – but we are surviving. We are walking towards the unknown bravely.

In the novel three generations of Billymil matriarchs – Margaret, her daughter Celie, Celie’s daughter Mili and her children Paddy and Yarrie – experience hardships, poverty, disadvantage and discrimination within the colonial regime. What ensures their survival is their strength, spirituality and ongoing cultural practices. They remain connected to Country despite its destruction. In this way Song of the Crocodile becomes an important antidote to Anglo-Australian literature, which anxiously predicts civilisational collapse. Where dystopian futures are created as allegories of ‘real’ life but Aboriginal people never existed to begin with. Reflecting on settler amnesia within an era of climate catastrophe Paola Balla wrote that ‘we are traumatised yet again, and yet again our voices are extinguished by not only flames and ash, but by narratives of settler suffering of this “hard” and “extreme” Country that settlers are still yet to actually settle into.’ Simpson cleverly shifts the settler preoccupation with place as harsh, unruly, and on the brink of destruction by centring Blak survival. First Nations survival is celebrated and in doing so offers hope and regeneration in a time of crisis. A new framing of ourselves, Country and future beyond the settler despair narrative where our voices are extinguished in landscapes of misery.

2. Grieving as resistance

Death is omnipresent in Song of the Crocodile, taking people too soon. It is an austere reminder of colonisation’s unwelcome presence in Aboriginal people’s lives. Characters pass as quickly as they are introduced. We read thoughtful details of their hopes and strengths, a glimpse of their generosity and then they are gone. Early in the novel the matriarchal figure Celie loses her husband Tom when their daughter Mili is still a child. The reader is left wondering about the actions, love and change these people would have made as their spirits linger amongst their family.

Simpson writes that ‘Tom’s wretched cries echoed across the earth as he travelled into the star.’ His physical body dematerialises but his spirit is still heard. His family grieves with an unrelenting sorrow that is expressed in Celie’s harrowing wail ‘which carried above the crowd, seeping into the darkness of gungala.’ Grieving and remembering are durable connections between the living and the dead, which collapse the material binaries between the two states of being. It honours those who have passed into the stars and keeps them with us on Earth. It also provides important insights for the non-Indigenous reader by emphasising the profound impact recursive death has and the unyielding resistance it also generates within Blak communities.

Seeing members of the Billymil family pass in a cycle of pain is harrowing; I questioned whether the novel occasionally falls into a fixation with trauma and oppression. As if we are always disappearing but never active in the making of our future. But the weight of grief, which fills the novel, has power. It exposes our resistance, a stark resolve to keep fighting in spite of our loss. Within the novel funerals and conversations with relatives passed imbue a sense of hope, a collective form of protest and determination to mark this pain and ensure that these lives are never forgotten. If the role of colonisation is erasure then celebrating the dead becomes a form of resistance.

Grieving is an enormous burden but it enables communities to honour people who remain nameless within the settler nation. In a recent essay titled ‘The labour of death and the radical tradition of burying our own’ Nayuka Gorrie articulates the mixture of heartbreak, anger and defiance, which occurs when Aboriginal people grieve. They write:

Since invasion we have been told explicitly and implicitly that we are a people (when we are considered human at all) not worth mourning. Our lives and deaths are not grievable. So to grieve is an act of defiance. For many of us funerals are the most significant part of the collective grieving process. For a colonised people living under the conditions we do, funerals are painful yet commonplace occurrences in our lives. They are also something else; where we see family we haven’t seen in years or at least since the last funeral… Most of all they are a way for us to remember. To remember our people, when all this country seems to want us to do is forget, is resistance.

If Darnmoor forgets the Aboriginal communities concealed within the Campgrounds the Billymil family resist this through courageous acts of grieving. Tom’s funeral becomes a defiant celebration of life amongst the debilitating pain:

Celie began to moan. Whimpers surged from the women as men shuffled and coughed…The building sorrow was tempered for a moment as the Campground people sang solemnly, led by a few confident voices. The rhythm of the lament offered a momentary respite from the sobs and howls and wails and cries. It gave room for the regulation of breath and a unity of grief.

These moments ensure that Aboriginal people are remembered in a town that only commemorates white soldiers whose names are ‘etched upon polished granite in perfectly spaced rows…which beam outwards into the street.’ Through rituals of grief the dead have a lasting legacy, they remain present within a country that chose to erase them when they were living.

3. Sovereignty

If people die too soon in Song of the Crocodile survival pulses the narrative with boundless force, a converse response to the colonial agenda. Aboriginal survival and ongoing sovereignty is most evident though the Blak matriarchy. Celie and her daughter Mili traverse hardship with a lightness of spirit, displaying both courage and kindness in the face of unspeakable injustices. Culture is retained and passed through generations defying the gravitas of environmental and human loss. First Nations survival is demonstrated through Celie and her sister Emma’s work in a laundry, which the town’s residents rely on. Its success provides some independence and control for the family and reflects the strength of Aboriginal women to provide, nurture, pass culture and remain confident even in oppressive situations:

Celie was proud of her sister, in awe of the exquisite precision of the work she produced. She was especially happy to see the sense of pride it produced in her.

Although systemic racism limits their educational and career attainment they remain proud and confident of their role and connection to place. At school when other students refer to the Campgrounds as a ‘dump’, a hellish place for impoverished blackfellas to die, Mili’s daughter argues back and in doing so asserts her family’s sovereignty:

[She] told the class the truth of the place. Mili Billmill served as a reminder that, despite the best efforts of people…the Campgrounds still existed and everything the town was built on was in fact due to the likes of them.

Women’s survivance continues even as we witness the chilling brutalities that Mili endures. At fifteen she is told that she no longer requires an education and is asked to leave her high school. And later a malicious act has consequences that flow on to her children. But within this horror she becomes a mother raising two sons with a stoic calm. While pain and tragedy haunt her and her children they remain sovereign amongst the change they have no control over. Mili describes how:

She dreamed of the Campgrounds, and a string of soft cream sheets that fluttered in the breeze that rose from the river. The cockatoos darted among the gums as the squawk of the pink and grey galahs cannoned off the water…In the distance she saw Paddy…turn and run into the bush.

Aboriginal sovereignty is also established by critiquing the linear meaning of ‘progress’. Assumptions that development, technology or moving to the city equals improvement are quickly challenged. Early on Celie is clear with her husband Tom that she doesn’t want to move to the city: her life in the Campgrounds ‘feels real to me’ she replies. And while future generations move they remain connected to the Campgrounds conveyed through Mili and her sons Paddy and Yarrie’s relationship with the place.

In high school other Aboriginal students tell them that they are ‘Fucken sell-outs.’ They accuse their father Wil of being a ‘Gubbah lover’ because he has worked with council and is from Illaway, a more assimilated town. This reveals the complex relationship some Aboriginal communities have with mainstream definitions of progress. To ‘progress’ often means to leave family and culture behind and become something else. But through Paddy we also see that people return and maintain sovereign connections. As he grows into a man he is drawn to the Campgrounds despite not living there:

It filled him, the remnant echo of wood fizzling through air – the call to bora, the transition for child to become man. It was a rumble that ignited in the marrow of his bones. Murru-mana-manaa, murru–mana–manaa, murru-mana-manaa. It was the oldest and most sacred language the land possessed.

At an Inner West Council Speaker Series Nardi Simpson articulated how ‘we would say significant progress is made when people listen’. Being heard is rare for Yuwaalaraay people who are consistently discredited by Darnmoor townspeople. This becomes a critical theme within the book exposing Australia’s settler ignorance, which disregards Aboriginal land management, even as we watch Country burn.

In the novel settler ignorance is represented through the development of a mound to keep water out. The townspeople believe that controlling the environment is progress despite Yuwaalaraay knowledge that water is needed to replenish place and is part of a natural floodwater process that maintains health. Witnessing the consequences of settler ignorance is painful but it also reinforces Yuwaalaraay sovereignty, which continues even as Country is violated. In a powerful ending Country asserts itself as we watch the river rise up. Simpson writes:

Those in the stilt houses on the River Reserve gathered on their balconies and watched the floodwater rise and rush beneath them, the townspeople watched the levee, holding their breath, waiting to see if the mound would breach, wondering if all they had created would be destroyed then washed away.

Opposing belief systems still collide but we are left confident that Yuwaalaraay people’s sovereignty will wash away settler Australia’s damage.

Works Cited

Paola Balla, ‘Tyirrem; the end of the world as we knew it’, Sydney Review of Books, 2020.

Peter Carey, ‘American Dreams’ in Collected Stories, Penguin, 2015.

DRMNGNOW, Australia Does not Exist, 2018.

Nayuka Gorrie ‘Why does it take black trauma for you to believe us?’ ACMI 2017.

Nayuka Gorrie ‘The labour of death and the radical tradition of burying our own’ IndigenousX, 2021.

Nardi Simpson, ‘Speaker Series: Song of the Crocodile with Nardi SimpsonInner West Council, 2020.