The poetics of ignorance in the Central Desert
When I was a kid, Warlpiri people were an idea, a story, a mythology that hung on the walls and in the air around the dinner table when my dad would talk about his childhood at Yuendumu. He was kindergarten age when he ran inside the mission house, forgetting to pull his shoes on at the door as per my grandmother’s rules, and announced, ‘We caught a lizard, mummy, and we ate it. Don’t worry, Charlie picked the poos out.’ Darling anecdotes like this pepper my grandmother’s mission diaries. In one entry, my dad as a toddler narrates an imaginary trip to Alice Springs: ‘T’rific dust … I got bogged … shot a kangaroo with my 303.’
We are delighted by the way children pretend at knowledge. Then we grow up, and we get to thinking that our adult knowledge is no longer pretence. My own intimacies with Warlpiri people have been forged only recently, in the last few years, when I have been travelling up to Yuendumu and Nyirrpi and living in camp with Warlpiri friends. And I’ve come to see that I’m still a kid, a kindergartener, in so many ways. Despite my university degrees and my books and all my poems and essays, the things I know and understand about people and how they ought to be in their world are alarmingly provisional.
Kardiya is the Warlpiri word for ‘white person’—or, really, anyone who isn’t Aboriginal. Warlpiri are well used to watching kardiya friends bumble through their world, saying the wrong thing, building the wrong kind of fire, hurting themselves. I quickly got used to my ineptness at simple camp jobs, but what was more affecting than my poor bush skill was my inability to comprehend the Warlpiri lifeworld. The anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner wrote, ‘there is stuff in Aboriginal life, culture, and society that will stretch the sinews of any mind which tries to understand it’. I had been trying for years to stretch the sinews of my mind to comprehend Warlpiri notions of time, space, distance, family, history, obligation and ownership, only to come up hard against the limits of what I could understand.
In 1950, my grandparents Tom and Pat Fleming fell off the Ghan into Alice Springs station—literally fell, there was no platform—and loaded the family’s belongings into a rattling old three-ton lend-lease Chevy truck in ‘horrifying’ condition. They drove the 270 kilometres to the Warlpiri settlement of Yuendumu. They knew their new reality ‘wasn’t going to be funny’, in my grandmother’s words, that it was going to ‘awfully rustic’, and they were ready for the unknown. Yet they knew what their mission was: to teach, to enculturate, to convert. My grandmother Pat recorded her impressions of ‘the natives’ with brutal candour, and during their 25 years at Yuendumu they were enfolded intimately into the kinship systems of the Warlpiri world. But was there a stretching of sinews going on? The story of their time at Yuendumu has always troubled my guilty liberal sensibilities. Were they noble adventurers, sacrificing comfort and normality for a higher calling? Or were they paternalistic villains, wielding religion as a weapon of colonisation?
My grandfather took up the post at Yuendumu because he could no longer bear the petty grizzles of his suburban Moonee Ponds parish, after what he had endured while serving as a padre in the Second World War and in the prisoner of war camps. When Tom returned to Melbourne after two years in the camps at Changi and Sandakan, he weighed 38 kilograms. He was stone deaf. For at least six months he couldn’t get out of bed. When the depression and post-traumatic stress lifted, and he recovered about half of his hearing, Tom resumed work as a minister. He chain-smoked. He was strict and often short. He was undoubtedly a square peg. As he had ‘wanted to go amongst the Aboriginal people’, in my grandmother’s words, since the age of 20, he applied for a post at Yuendumu advertised in the Australian Baptist news-paper, and off they went.
It would be easy to tell this story in the mode of a travel adventure. Dreadful equipment, heroic intentions, exotic peoples, hilarious discomforts; the charming native kids, the good-for-nothing white superintendant; the confronting fights, the spooky rituals; the heat, the snakes, the endless dust. And the white family at the centre of the story, battling through on their noble mission. It is easy to tell what we know, as if it’s the only side of the story.
Pat was a talented storyteller. She was a trained teacher, a pragmatic woman, and an experienced farm girl. She didn’t mind hard work. Judging from her diaries, she rather liked it. They are a record of her work efforts: endless washing of sheets and clothes in the fire-heated copper. Endless polishing of her dark wood furniture. Endless washing of Warlpiri children before Sunday school. An endless cleaning war she waged for 25 years against the red dust.
She writes about training Warlpiri women to be maids and housekeepers. She complains about the late mail plane, the lack of supplies and support, the other white people at Yuendumu. She records visits from anthropologists, geologists, dental researchers, other missionaries; and she narrates droll little moments of intercultural misunderstandings, like the time Tom misheard Dinny’s new baby’s name, ‘Bess’, as ‘Piss’.
Sometimes the diaries make me laugh. I admire Pat’s resilience, and I wonder how I would have fared, what thoughts I would have voiced, if I had been in her place. However, the paternalism, cold judgement and dark humour are often difficult to read. Always, the pervasive assumption of white superiority makes me ashamed.
Many of the entries strike my ear as a denial of Indigenous humanity. When Pat first glimpses ‘natives’ from the train, she reports them as ‘awful looking specimens’. Another entry talks about one of the maids: ‘Sheila wasn’t very well today and this afternoon decided to have a miscarriage on the wash house floor.’ She gave birth ‘to a glorious mess … so we wrapped it all up in brown paper and hessian and popped it in the sugar bag with Ms Fleming and our address on the outside.’ Another entry reports the aftermath of a fight between two men in camp: ‘We hear over the midday news that the corpses didn’t arrive when they should have as the truck broke down someplace. Poor Stinker. Nurse reckoned Jack who had been well bled would keep, like good meat, but not so Kennie.’
The coarseness of these entries, which describe human remains as either rubbish or meat, may well be a coping mechanism for a woman overwhelmed. That is my generous reading. My ungenerous, unforgiving reading is that these entries betray an ideology that views Aboriginal lives as doomed and disposable.
The truth of Tom and Pat’s relationship with Warlpiri people is undoubtedly complex. Tom was ‘Old Fleming’ or Jungarrayi; Pat was Nangala. Warlpiri men I’ve spoken with remember Old Fleming as a good teacher, a compliment that is always followed by the statement that he was a strict man. You couldn’t be late to class, or he’d hit you on the knuckles with a pencil. ‘Good teacher,’ they say. I’ve heard Warlpiri friends insist that Tom and Pat should have been buried at Yuendumu, instead of Alice Springs; that Yuendumu is where they belonged.
It seems they were remembered with respect, regard, even love. James Marshall, a Warlpiri man, said this in a eulogy for Tom after his death in 1990:
We will never forget Old Fleming. He helped and guided us, and was always thinking of the future. He was always with the old people—always helping them. He knew them. He was always in the sorry camps with the people.
He wasn’t in a hurry to make people Christians. He thought about Christianity yapa way. He never tried to throw our culture away. He was a man of God but he was always thinking of supporting the culture. He loved Yuendumu and Central Australia and died close to here. He knew everything about Warlpiri people. The paintings in the church window show that.
How can I read this and feel unmoved? I even feel a murky thrill of what I think might be pride. Tom and Pat worked incredibly hard. They were a team. In almost every photograph, they are holding hands.
A memory: I am driving out to Altona with my dad. We are going to visit Tom’s remaining living brother, who is parked in a nursing home. Dad is driving. He has been talking nonstop, as he tends to do, in rather a droning voice, about something that I have stopped listening to. Then he starts to tell me that when Singapore fell to Japanese forces in 1942, Tom was put on a ship. The higher ranking officers, and the padres like Tom, were going to be shipped out to safety before things got bad. The ship was about to sail when Tom said, ‘I’m not going, the boys will need a lot of help in the prison camps.’ Another padre and a priest got off the ship with Tom; they disembarked to certain capture. My dad’s voice is shaking. Hours later that ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. My dad almost never shows strong emotion but now there are tears on his face. ‘What do you think that means, Dad?’ I say. I am crying too. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I don’t know.’
Are you moved yet?
But are you moved for Sheila’s baby, a mess on the wash house floor? Are you moved for Jack, who was well bled like a bullock?
But what do you know about Jack? What do you know about Sheila? I might be able to draw out a measure of heartache for Tom, because I know his story; it is my story, too. Sheila and Jack, though, are the cardboard cut-out natives in a missionary adventure story. You might sense my anger or my guilt when I report their ‘stories’, but I cannot conjure more. Even though Pat might have known Warlpiri people deeply, any intimacy she shared is masked by humour, or teacherly distance or distaste.
In my trips to the desert over the past few years, I have been trying to overcome some degree of distance, and to challenge my own knee-jerk reactions to the elements of Warlpiri culture that are very different to my own. Alice Nampijinpa Henwood has been my main teacher, friend and travelling companion. Alice is a country woman in her late sixties or early seventies—depending on which of her several official birthdates you choose to believe, none of which will be correct. She has also been my main scolder, teaser, comforter and sharer of resources, sometimes leaning on me for money, sometimes handing me $100 on pension day.
Alice is a matriarch, a Central Land Council ranger, an expert hunter, and the only songwoman who sings the Law for Pirlinyanu country. Our dynamic is something like that of an auntie and niece. As one of the youngest women in camp, it is often my role to get bossed around: Nungarrayi, get warlu; Nungarrayi, get butter, sugar, cup, spoon, kuyu; Nungarrayi, 20 dollar; Nungarrayi, we gotta drive Yuendumu today.
Sometimes, though, I was exquisitely taken care of by Alice, especially if I was sick or sad: I had my forehead stroked, strong tea boiled for me, I was sung to or prayed over, and the blankets in our camp lost their boundaries until I couldn’t tell where my bed ended and the others began.
My dad has lately started planning more trips out bush, too, to connect with his childhood Warlpiri mates. As an exploration geologist, he is profoundly in his element when he is analysing maps, planning routes through sand dune country, cheerfully ordering people around camp, and generally inhabiting his natural role as overactive camp leader.
Dad remembers the Yuendumu of his childhood as a tidy place where everyone had a role and a purpose. It seems the paternalism exercised by my grandparents kept the settle-ment orderly. I think he feels confronted when visiting Yuendumu now. The rubbish, the piles of rusting scrap, the broken toys, the sitting-down families, the burned-out buildings and the weird sprawl between recently bulldozed structures and new government cinder blocks all disturb him.
He looks at a gutted car body and sees waste and disconnection. He doesn’t see that a master mechanic might pop on a set of tyres and a borrowed engine and drive it out bush tomorrow. He doesn’t understand that that bit of plastic is going to be picked up in a minute and used as a potholder, or that that empty can is also a cup and a bowl and a billy, or that those rectangles of corrugated iron that look like they’ve been mouldering for years were yesterday’s windbreak. New objects in the desert look new for approximately 20 minutes before the dust and the fire smoke claims them. What looks like rubbish is often raw material for a highly creative mode of bricolage and making-do—yapa are amazingly resourceful. It’s a good skill to have if you live in a place that is chronically and distressingly underresourced.
My dad talks about his need for his ‘central desert fix’, but it is always on his schedule, with his vehicles, his menu, his agenda. Last year, though, he came along for a few days of a trip with Alice mob. Moving as a guest on a trip that was on Warlpiri time, with Warlpiri logic and Warlpiri camping practices was seriously stressful for him.
Every time Warlpiri leave the community, for example, whether for a week-long trip or an afternoon of hunting, a good chunk of time is devoted to what anthropologist Yasmine Musharbash has termed ‘hithering and thithering’. This involves driving in seemingly endless circles, from one house to another and then back again, picking people up, dropping people off, changing plans. We gotta drive to east camp to collect a crowbar, then we gotta double back to get a jerry-can, then we gotta drive over to Bess’s place to ask whether the bush tomatoes are good out at Emu Bore, then we gotta drive back to Magda’s to pick up Barbara, but Barbara isn’t there, maybe she’s at the shop, and now Joy isn’t going to come any more so we gotta drop her off, then drive back to the shop to buy drinks, then to Kelly’s house to borrow money to buy more drinks, then we gotta go back to the shop. This can go on for hours.
Principles of time-consciousness and efficiency, which my father values (and to be honest, so do I), don’t mesh easily with hithering and thithering. It’s a practice ripe for misunderstanding. While it might seem to be the height of indecision and inefficiency, it is a conscious practice of community-building, fostering intimacy, negotiating multiple needs in a world of scarce resources, and taking account of the bush knowledge of others.
The cultural differences between yapa and kardiya colour every interaction, every exchange, every meal. By the end of this trip, my father had admitted that simple chops wrapped in tinfoil, cooked straight on the campfire and eaten by hand were superior to the complicated, multi-ingredient, kitchen-apparatus-requiring meals he had planned. He told me he thought I had become a better bushman than him. It’s some compliment, but it’s not true, I am just a little more invested in being adaptable.
Also, I think there is something about my sensibility that has helped me submit to a mode of what I’ve been calling ‘sensitive ignorance’, where I try to hold my own cultural lenses and practices more lightly. Writing poems helps. I have had a lot of practice inhabiting that space of fruitful not-knowing. The poet John Keats famously called it negative capability, when we are capable of ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. W.H. Auden said that great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings; maybe in the poems I’ve been writing about the desert, I’m trying to create clear feelings about mixed thoughts. If I regard a scrubbing-away of my own world view as some kind of end-goal, it would be a grand failure. I may be able to see the limits of my cultural lenses, but I cannot step out from behind them. However, there is a space where I can be awake and alive in what I do not understand about the Warlpiri cosmos.
Early on in my trips with Alice mob, I made some recordings of Dreaming stories (Jukurrpa in Warlpiri) and stories of Alice’s childhood growing up in Yuendumu during my grandparents’ time. I had the idea that I could transcribe these stories in a way that encompassed all their dimensions: the creek bed where we were sitting, the yowling of kids and dogs, the interruptions and clarifications, my questions and misunderstandings—all this I imagined folding into my transcription. All this, as well as the richness and intricacy of Warlpiri cosmology that underlay the words themselves. My idea was nothing if not ambitious.
Although I later realised that writing subjective poems was the only way I could wield language to touch on all these dimensions at once, this recording attempt was a way to fast-track my appreciation of my own profound ignorance. I remember, pre-fieldwork, studying my copy of the Warlpiri dictionary and writing down all the words I could find for ‘grief’ and ‘sorry’. I drafted complex questions for Alice such as: What does your country need from you? What is it about kardiya culture you think is damaging? Did my grandparents understand kurruwarri (Warlpiri law)?
For one thing, asking yapa direct questions almost never results in direct answers. Yapa way is to learn through watching and listening, not through interrogation. My questions were ambitious to the point of absurdity, given the language barrier and the amount of time dedicated to this first trip (mere weeks). On my first trip with Alice mob, I didn’t know the word for water (ngapa), I didn’t know the word for firewood (warlu), I didn’t even know how to make tea the proper way:
1. tie eight teabags together by the strings
2. discard labels
3. fill billy half-full
4. chuck in tea bags
5. position carefully on the coals or, if available, on a ‘wire’ (BBQ plate)
6. watch the steam so you know when ngapa has come to a boil
7. reposition billy on edge of fire
8. fill to brim with cold ngapa so tea will be sufficiently strong but not too hot.
If I couldn’t say and do these kindergarten-level tasks, how did I think I was going to have a conversation about the particular quality of grief that country feels, or extract an account of the complex effect my grandparents’ brand of baptism had on the Warlpiri community? I was constantly anxious about what I would ‘do’ with the experiences and stories shared with me. I wanted desperately not to be such a kindergartener, and to shuck off my white world view like an overcoat in summer.
I soon realised my time with Alice mob couldn’t be about extraction. My father was urging me to ‘get’ Alice’s story before it was ‘too late’. As an exploration geologist, approaches of extraction come naturally to him.
Alice shared stories with me, and I worried about their keeping. I worried about taking her Jukurrpa away from the country where it is sited, where it lives and breathes and has history and purpose, turning it into texts to be circulated in an academic sphere and in a mode of English that is surpassingly alien to her. While I went through the requisite process of gaining ethics consent, I worried that the context and specifics of my project were inaccessible to her, thus rendering her consent ambivalent. I worried that my project did nothing to empower Alice mob.
When I voiced this last worry to Jo Thurman, a friend and anthropologist who had lived with Alice mob for a couple of years, she replied bluntly: ‘Alice and her family don’t need you or your project to empower them.’ She told me I needed to get over my angst about working with the material Alice had shared with me. She reminded me that Alice had educated me in full possession of her powers as a Law woman and an experienced ‘informant’, to use the ethnographic term. Jo went on to say, ‘To treat the material they shared with you ethically, is, I believe, in some ways as simple as holding onto the relationship you’ve built with Alice and her family, and keeping that spirit of reciprocity going into the future, in whatever way you can, given the distance.’
In an earlier time, when I was just as ignorant as I am now, though perhaps less sensitive about it, I would sit in the State Library in Melbourne and mine ethnographies by Berndt and Meggit for (what I saw as) unartfully translated songs and stories—‘raw material’—that I might rework into more potent geodes. This was play, but it assumed superior poetic powers on my part, and an in-depth understanding of the ‘subject’ culture as implicitly unnecessary. While an overhanging intuition of censure kept me from pursuing it, the censure was abstract. The ethical warning lights were isolated from personal experience or living people.
Now the eyes I feel looking over my shoulder are not theoretical. They are Alice’s eyes. In response to all the writing I’ve shared with her, she has only said Ngurrju, ‘Good’. Because of our rapport, Alice trusts what I put down on paper. However, the poems are composed in registers inaccessible to her. This makes me extremely uncomfortable. I am staying with the discomfort.
I continue to write, under the constellation of these complex obligations. Honest reportage of camp life is often in conflict with my wish to protect Alice mob’s privacy. Violence, for example, is distressingly normal, and while I can’t tell stories that aren’t mine to tell, to scrub my pages of all mention of jealousy and domestics is to deny the complexity of community life in the central desert. The best I can do is to write capaciously enough that the whole spectrum might be in attendance: generosity and jealousy, amusement and grief, the stagnant noontimes stuck in camp, and the long, soft drives through an impossibly subtle desert-scape, stories spooling lightly out the window.
I also feel compelled to insist, somehow, in magnetised language, that all this is seen through my eyes, through my flawed, bewildered subjectivity. I must be honest about my reactions, too. Sometimes I must say aloud the things that unsettle or even repel me about yapa life—the same sorts of things my grandmother recorded, unquestioningly and uncritically, in her diaries. Kids ‘playing’ with baby birds until they expire. Dried blood from Monday’s butchering gone black all over the kitchen. Lazy husbands. ‘Carelessness. Waste.’ White power doesn’t like this. White power prefers not to admit that racism is structural, that it is ingrained, to some degree, in our cultural lenses, and that we need to be awake to notice it.
Because of these ingrained cultural lenses, yapa and kardiya are constantly misunderstanding each other. I remember sitting in a creek once in Alice’s country, and puzzling over a map. We’d been talking story—little bit Jukurrpa, little bit history. She was telling me the name of the creek, a multi-syllabic Warlpiri word that I was struggling to get my tongue around. I was searching for the creek on the map. If I can see the word written down, I thought, I might be able to say it out loud. ‘Nginyirripurlangu,’ she said. ‘Neen–i–pa–?’ I tried. ‘Nginyirripurlangu,’ she said again, ‘Nginyirripurlangu is here. That’s my outstation.’ I kept my head sunk to the page. ‘I can’t see it,’ I said in frustration. ‘I’m looking for it, but I can’t see it anywhere.’ ‘It’s here,’ she roared. ‘Nginyirripurlangu is here, in the creek here!’
This droll little misunderstanding is an inversion of sorts, as I’m usually the one taking others too literally. In this moment, as in so many others, Alice and I were running on two different realities while sitting in the same place. I feel I’ve still got my head sunk to the page, trying to get my tongue around what I want to say, and to say it the right way. I’m still struggling. I likely won’t get it right. I’m okay with that, I think, as long as I can stay awake.
Joan Fleming is the author of Failed Love Poems (Victoria University Press, 2015) and The Same as Yes (VUP, 2011).