In May 2010 two groundbreaking books were launched in Alice Springs: one by a senior Akaye woman, a highly respected artist and educator; the other by a long-term resident, a widely collected artist and cross- cultural observer.
Margaret Kemarre Turner’s Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What It Means to Be an Aboriginal Person (IAD Press) is a challenging book; it is uncompromising in its mix of Arrernte and English, and its Aboriginal style of teaching and storytelling. In contrast, The Hard Light of Day: An Artist’s Story of Friendships in Arrernte Country (UQP) by Rod Moss is an intimate and brutally honest account of becoming part of an Aboriginal family group at a nearby town camp over twenty years, and stories about the paintings he developed, often with their assistance. That both of these books were awarded the major prizes in the 2011 Territory Read–NT Book of the Year awards announced in Alice Springs was no surprise; what is surprising is that these books were published and recognised at all. The Hard Light of Day was rejected for eight years before two offers arrived within ten days of each other. As it turns out, these books may have had an unlikely patron.
Like literary awards, politics is a realm of winners and losers. Former prime minister John Howard knew this like no other. In the run-up to the 2007 federal election, Howard took wedge-political gamesmanship to a new level and declared a catastrophe in indigenous affairs. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response, more commonly known as ‘the Intervention’, was the result. Within months, Mal Brough, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, lost his seat; Howard lost his seat of Bennelong and the Liberal Party was swept from office.
I will not argue the pros and cons of the Intervention, but one indirect outcome was the increased media focus on indigenous affairs and cross-cultural life stories. In this environment, indigenous publishing houses (such as Magabala Books in Broome, Black Ink Press in Townsville and IAD Press in Alice Springs), committed to nurturing, developing and publishing indigenous authors, illustrators, editors and stories, can capitalise.
IAD Press has been publishing indigenous books for more than thirty years. In addition to Central Australian language resources, they have recently published a number of collaborative cross-cultural life stories of senior Aboriginal elders and artists: The Versatile Man: The Life and Times of Don Ross, Kaytetye Stockman by Alexander Donald Pwerle Ross and Terry Whitebeach (2007); Alone on the Soaks: The Life and Times of Alec Kruger by Alec Kruger and Gerard Waterford (2007), which won the 2007 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Arts Non-Fiction Award; Listen Deeply, Let These Stories In by Kathleen Kemarre Wallace with Judy Lovell (2009); Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What It Means to Be an Aboriginal Person by Margaret Kemarre Turner, as told to Barry McDonald Perrurle and translated by Veronica Perrurle Dobson (2010); and Billy Benn by Billy Benn Perrurle and Catherine Peattie (2011).
What helps to make these books so special is the high level of commitment and engagement in the project over many years, and the willingness of all involved to develop and foster mutual respect. Alone on the Soaks took five years of literary support and therapy to write; Terry Whitebeach worked extensively at two indigenous education providers in Alice Springs as a tutor, lecturer and oral historian over seven years, and was instrumental in setting up the creative writing program at Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education; Catherine Peattie, who coordinated the arts centre for three years from 2005 where Billy Benn painted his extraordinary landscapes, compiled a book at the request of the artist; Judy Lovell has been involved in arts therapy and community development at Ltyentye Apurte, the home community of Kathleen Kemarre Wallace, since 2003; and Barry McDonald, having enrolled in an Arrernte language course soon after arriving in Alice Springs in 1999, was asked several years later by Margaret Kemarre Turner to assist her in writing a book. In recognition of the relationship they formed, McDonald, a whitefella from the New England region of NSW, was given the skin name Perrurle.
Respect and relationships develop over many years; for some it takes most of a life. For it goes both ways. The Hard Light of Day would not reveal the great depth of understanding or empathy if Rod Moss had only been in Alice Springs for a year or two. And Singing Saltwater Country: Journeys to the Songlines of Carpentaria by John Bradley with Yanyuwa families (Allen & Unwin, 2010) would not have been possible without the author’s deeply committed engagement over thirty years as a teacher and anthropologist in the Gulf community of Borroloola. If we are to listen and begin to truly understand Aboriginal people, we must sit. And by sit I mean stay and engage. It is a lifetime’s work.
These books are unique in their formation and telling. The development and publication is an exercise in community development, facilitating a dialogue and understanding across two cultures.
The final word belongs to Margaret Kemarre Turner, who sets the scene for her book and for holding—supporting, nurturing, teaching—cross-cultural understanding for all, black and white:
I’m writing this book so that it can be read and understood by all my grandchildren, and also my nieces and nephews—by all those boys and girls. So that they can learn about kinship and rediscover their own Land-origins; trace the kinship roots running through themselves, their mothers, their fathers, their great-grandparents, their grandmothers and their grandfathers; and become aware of the nature of the long path we Aboriginal people have travelled from the beginning.
I’m writing this book so that the young Arrernte kids will learn more about the old ways. They’ll learn about how our Ancestors lived. I’m writing this book so all that won’t be forgotten. … Non-Indigenous people often wonder just how Aboriginal people really are, just what it is to be an Aboriginal person. How Aboriginal people live, what their way of life is, what their knowledge is. That’s one reason why I’m writing this book about my experience. So people can see how Aboriginal people approach life. How they understand the world. How we think. How we can live side by side with white people in the one town. How we keep our traditions, hanging on to our customs and beliefs, keeping on holding so strongly. So that those white peo- ple can see things through our eyes.
Note: The title comes from Margaret Kemarre Turner’s Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What It Means to Be an Aboriginal Person.
© Michael Giacometti