Reviewed: Tell Me Again, Amy Thunig, University of Queensland Press
There’s a barb which we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know well: it’s time we got over the past. How much easier our lives would be—for them, anyway—if we just forgot the complex nature of our existence?
But lives and time are not so simple; what has passed and is yet to pass is never not with us, or us with it. Gomeroi/Gamilaroi/Kamilaroi academic Amy Thunig reminds us of this in her debut literary offering Tell Me Again—an act of remembering that encircles her childhood. It’s apt that Thunig tells her story through confessional memoir, with its etymology rooted in the French phrase ‘un mémoire’. Memories do not arise or disappear voluntarily; they come through Country, bodies and relations, as we catch up with what Thunig calls our ‘past and … future echoes’.
Within its first few pages, Tell Me Again had me transfixed. Thunig’s voice and vision is, for the most part, commanding. Her commitment to stories that are not only told but lived in circular ways resonated with me, as did her compassionate honesty in recounting her family’s history—one inherently interlinked with and lived through her. In both her life and her writing, Thunig refuses to be alienated from her family despite the shame radiated upon them by a settler-colonial society keen to fracture their connection. Thunig’s prose shines when describing things often too difficult to acknowledge, such as ‘the complexities of parenting and dreaming in the present, while processing my own trauma and past’. In a touching scene, she compares herself and her mother to whales and orcas to demonstrate that there are no simple solutions to navigating intergenerational trauma.
Another piercing observation comes when Thunig canvasses how her family was surveilled for being Blak, poor and in the throes of addiction and mental illness: ‘I am watched keenly but never seen’. This makes me think of the footsteps Thunig walks in and alongside, those of other First Nations life writers who were endlessly scrutinised by the settler public and State, and took ownership of their stories through writing and publication.
There is a strong history of Blak life writing. Sally Morgan’s debut, My Place (1987) sold over half a million copies on the continent and became one of the best-known examples of published Aboriginal life writing; I remember it as one of the only Blak books taught at my high school in the mid-2000s. Later came Glenyse Ward’s Wandering Girl (1988), through then-newly established publisher Magabala Books, and Ruby Langford-Ginibi’s Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988), all of which propelled an interest in Blak life writing by settler readers and publishers alike.
It would be simplistic to suggest that the proliferation of Blak life writing—and Blak writing in general—is only a result of market factors; as Evelyn Araluen Corr notes, Blak writers are ‘taking agency and demanding responsibility in the narratives produced by and about [Blak] lives.’ There’s power in claiming space to tell our stories how we want to, particularly when they have so often been written anthropologically, with our perspectives represented by an often unnamed ‘native informant’. At its best, Tell Me Again demonstrates this power, most notably in the ways it resists the colonial desire to control Blak lives and destroy Blak families. Yet this telling is still mediated by commercial publishers, who ultimately respond to the desires of a mostly-settler readership.
Like Thunig, I often find myself navigating familiar tensions within my writing: what compromises do I make to be seen, and how much control do I really have over whether I am seen or merely watched? When Thunig’s narrative narrows—like in the excerpt used to promote Tell Me Again, where six-year-old Amy en mémoire decides that she can lift her family out of poverty if she pursues higher education—I feel these tensions surface. While an understandable thought, child Amy’s conclusion seems too simple an answer, even if Thunig acknowledges that ‘perfect solutions don’t exist’. I wonder how outsiders might link this to a broader political narrative of exceptionalism and bootstrapping—even if this is not the stream Thunig wants to swim in. I wonder, too, if this is another ‘urgent’ Blak book that would have been more nuanced had it had more time to develop.
There is now no shortage of Blak memoirs. In fact, the truth of the colony and its violence is told here every day, not just through literature, but in coronial proceedings, Royal Commissions and journalism. We expose our wounds so they will understand and return what was never theirs to take. But our telling is constrained by the needs and expectations of that same settler public—still broadly closed to narratives outside of their frames of reference, and rarely moved to action. I feel the echo of the native informant with us in these moments, making a valiant, although misguided, effort to translate the untranslatable. Alongside this is the echo of something else: a space where we are free from expectation, and able to write our lives in all their complexities.