Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Storyteller's Tongue

Stayed up all night reading John Danalis' Riding the Black Cockatoo (Allen & Unwin) . Couldn't put it down! He has written a poignant account of his personal journey into Aboriginal Australia via the handing back a skull which his father had kept on the 'mantle-piece' throughout John's childhood. It was the skull of a Wamba Wamba man (from down on the Murray river), and John's desire, which grew into a need to return the remains to country, is at the heart of this memoir. Beautifully written, the book pulls no punches and goes right to the 'black' heart of the racism that colours every thought of white Australia, finding it buried deep in the English language, a stain as difficult as anything to remove - especially from his own soul.
This part of the book, the aftermath of the handing back ceremony, I found really moving. In the process of finding out everything he can about Mary, the name his family had given the skull, the author haunts himself. All the weight of the tragedy of the dispossession of the people that Mary represents comes down on is psyche like a ton of rubble and his attempt to dig himself out of it and come back out into the light of the present is breathtaking.

So, in response to the book, I thought I'd give this old post an airing, as it is about what Danalis has done - tested the truth on the storyteller's tongue.

First posted 25/8/07

I`m listening to the radio when a new Paul Kelly song comes on called "Queenie and Rover".

It`s about old Rover Thomas, the painter. I knew Rover. We were in Venice at the Biennale when Rover was selected for the pavillion. He was pretty old by then. He had a minder with him to make sure he stayed off the piss, not due to any particular care for his health I suspected, but rather to prevent any 'embarrassment' for the organisers. I was travelling with my ex who was much more likely to become a national disgrace on a bellyfull of beer, but he apparently didn`t require a minder.

Queenie was Rover`s saviour (she sewed his scalp back on after a horse accident) and long time compaion - he taught her to paint too. They lived in WA`s north west, up at Turkey Creek. The song relates the story of how Queenie's mother painted her up with charcoal to hide her from the cops, and saved her from assimilation - her father was white.

Every time I hear another version of that story, it annoys the shit out of me to the point of hot angry tears. Everytime I hear a first hand experienced truth of the stolen generation, the big white lie I've been told, and continue to be told about that sorry recent past, just gets bigger and blacker.

What is it with my parent's generation that they just can't admit it to themselves? Is it that they can still remember their grandparents and great grandparents? Is it that they can't imagine that the gentle old people who bounced them proudly on their knees could be the same people who perpetrated such racist, unjust cruelty on the original people of this vast pacific island? Is it that it has all happened in living memory? The skeleton in the familial closet. Shh, not in front of the children.

Well, I`m afraid to say that I do not remember these people, my guilty forebears. I have never seen the whites of their eyes. They are now my ancestors and I can view their deeds and follies with dispassion and hindsight, and see them from a wider view. I can see both sides of the story. I`m in a position to make a judgement about the past, and choose a better path for the future.

I`m thinking this because I've just seen Ten Canoes, that movie about pre-contact aboriginal people, their relationship to time, to their storymaking, and their comprehension of morality and law. It is a very beautiful piece of film making too. I wish I`d seen it on a big screen, the cinematography would have been spectacular, but even on DVD, it looked magical.

But what is briliant about it is the story - it is a story about story, about narative and pacing, about density and meaning, and how narrative is the way we understand ourselves as humans, and what distinguishes us from the world beyond our limited perception. The people themselves produced the film and Rolf DeHeer filmed it. A narrator in the present, tells the story of his people, who recognise their elders in a series of black and white photographs taken of them during a goose egg hunt at first contact. This layer of story is shot in black and white. Within this layer is a domestic drama of a young man on his first hunt, and the men are sending him up for being sweet on his brother`s young wife. On the hunt, he is taken aside and told a story.

This layer of story is shot in vivid colour, and tells a story set many many generations prior to theirs. This story too is about a younger brother who is sweet on his brother's young and beautiful wife. The black-and-white brother immediately starts identifying with the colour character - he thinks it is going to be a morality tale about what he should do to solve his problem, but it turns out to be so much more. The story teller spins side stories, and they all flow round the edges of the initial hook - everytime the young man thinks he's close to the denoument, the teller leads him down yet another path.

It is not till the black-and-white time frame - the hunt - nears it's end, that the colour narrative of all the dimensions of the complex social context of the domestic drama comes gently to rest. These stories contained by stories, do a weird thing to your perception of linear narrative. You start to see story as a physical spatial force. It's damned difficult to explain, but for a writer, it is a brillant visual representation of how storytelling works.

And that makes me angrier than a hornet too. That these people, with such a deeply complex philosophical understanding of the world could be written off by my ancestors as savage beasts. The thing about their ancestor story, is that it was packed with folly, with violence and retribution and payback and jealousy. Nothing is left out. They don't hide any skeletons in the closet. Telling the whole story is the point. How else will the young man know how to proceed, if he isn`t given all the information about the possible consequences of his potential actions? The story takes days to tell, as the youg man is left to sleep on it tll the next day, when he's had time to internalise the details, and imagine himself further into the characters, and recieves the next installment.

And it makes me remember the painting of Rover's that I lived with for many years. It showed a water hole on one side, and on the other, a single set of footprints leads from the edge of the picture to the edge of the waterhole, but when the prints arrive at the waterhole, another set appears. It drove me crazy for ages - why is the other set of prints there? Then I heard a story - that young boys were taken on the shoulders of the men to the sacred waterhole. After that, the picture came to life and gained another dimension.

The chorus of the Paul Kelly song refers to Rover and Queenie as immortals, ancestors whose names will live on in conscious memory becasue they told their stories. I know their names, they sit beside my grandparents as ancestors becasue I know their story as well as my own.

The eventual winners in this particular historical narrative will be the best storytellers, the ones who tell the truth and nothing but the truth about the past, in all its ugly pitiless pitifulness. Histories based on selective omission are never secure becasue their narratives lack a moral centre. They don't hold up to later generations who, with the luxury of hindsight will worry at it, and try to plug the moral gaps. Truth like water, always seeks it`s own level.

And its level is tested on the storyteller`s tongue.


  1. A really thought provoking post.

    I have noted, with interest, that there is now quite a vigorous push, from various sources to have a number of scholarships created, which fund the education of aboriginal children at some of the nations boarding schools. Schools which aren't exactly repositories of aboriginal culture.

    It will be interesting to see how these efforts are viewed by succeeding generations.

  2. As always Hughsey you manage to stir the ashes of my soul. And yet another book to buy..

    In a partial 'answer' to the seond part of the post. The inability to acknowledge the actions of the past is too often not a refusal to contemporise the ethics of previous generation but a continual level of racism based mainly of the way the media portray the decendents of the original caretakers of this wonderful continent.

    The media get away with this because of a continual failiure by all political parties to close the gap between our indiginous population and the newcomers. So the older generation can point at the images on the TV from Halls Creek or the outskirts of Alice, say how disgusting it is and be self assured that the actions of their forefathers were not wrong and because they were stopped that things have got worse.

    lerms point is well put i have followed the scholarships at some of these schools with interest. I also saw a heartening article on the increase of 'intermarriage' (god, i still can't believe that term can be used anymore) and wonder with the continued health problems for the remote communites how many generations are left to go before all that is left is 'White' Australia

  3. The only person I still have anything to do with from my posh boarding school is an aboriginal woman - another bursary girl like me. To the 'gels' at school back in those days, this meant that we had POOR stamped on our foreheads, but it actually meant that we were smarter than the average "House & Garden" obsessed bear.

    She is an educator, quite high up in the Uni system, but a 'white' education didn't make her any less aboriginal. She didn't become assimilated. But then, neither did I. She did however get a leg up out of poverty, same as me.

    But she was, as I said, smart, and could already speak whitefella, unlike the other poor little sods they trucked in from Cherburg in their do-goodliness. Those poor kids only spoke language, and just about died of home sickness, just like their white country cousins.

    There is no one way to deal with the problem - its horses for courses, but a bloody good start might be to teach an aboriginal language as a second language in primary school and get elders in to teach EVERYBODY, not just the blackfellas, aboriginal culture.

    I have a theory that there's actually a lot more whitefellas around with a touch of the tarbrush than there are balckfellas with a lick of white. There weren't a lot of white chicks to go round in the early days of settlement. So, um, what do you reckon is the heritage of all those allegedly 'white' currency lads and lasses? My father has a very brad flat nose and brown skin, unlike the rest of his siblings. He has a pommy name and birth certificate to prove his pedigree, but I bet his great great grandmother doesn't. Must look into that one of these days.

  4. I'm also fascinated by the place of narrative in human culture and the relationship between knowledge, truth and stories. Our culture still seems to need to arbitrarily dismiss others' claims to truth for generally extremely superficial reasons, which to me at least show up how flimsy the easy certainties people hold can be when faced with counterexample.

    On education not being the same as assimilation, see John Kickett's letter about halfway through this:

    That page is actually a pretty good read. I'm very interested in what is called the second dispossession and the period immediately after the first world war. The most obvious story in that, and one that I'll try to write one day, would be of an aboriginal ex-serviceman whose reserve land is taken away, and alloted to one of his white mates from the trenches.

    I think the thing a lot of people forget is that racism as we know it is primarily a 20th century phenomenon and that the worst of this happened here in the 1910s to 1930s. So yeah, our great-grandparents' generation were in the thick of it.

  5. Hey,
    I was just doin a bit of blog maint & found your invite 27/2/09.

    I feel I've been terribly rude and I am very sorry. I'd love to, if it's still open & not just for the free pass to the other sessions.
    Call me @ work & leave a number on the office machine?