Australian Women's Book Review

ISSN 1033-9434    
Editor:  Barbara Brook
Contributing Assistant Editor:  Katie Hughes
Photomontage:  Set in Stone, Adele Flood
Volume 12, 2000

Three new children's books from Indigenous Publishing Houses: and questions of appropriation.

Kupi-Kupi and the Girl by Daphne Punytjina Burton. Illustrated by Caroline Windy. Magabala Books.

Down the Hole by Edna Tantjingu Williams and Eileen Wani Wingfield. Illustrated by Kunyi June-Anne McInerney. Jukurrpa Books, IAD Press.

Anna the Goanna by Jill McDougall. Illustrated by Jenny Taylor. Aboriginal Studies Press.

Reviewed by Terry Whitebeach.

Kupi-Kupi and the Girl is published by Magabala Books. Teachers and librarians who work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children welcome and stock their shelves with each new offering from this publisher. The bright appealing illustrations, accessible and culturally relevant texts, and inclusion of bilingual print texts, maps, and cultural information, as well as photos and biographical information about the authors, identifying their family and community connections, make these books important additions to the growing body of published Indigenous literature.

In Kupi-Kupi and the Girl, a traditional story from Areyonga in the Northern Territory, the bilingual text in Pitjatantjara and English is illustrated with stylised paper cut-outs which reinforce the mythic elements of the story: the terrifying magic of Wanampi, the rainbow snake, the despair of the girl at being in his thrall, her parents' sorrow at the loss of their daughter, and their joy at her eventual release, and the ceremonial measures they take to keep her safe.

The book contains a lot of covert and overt cultural information, couched in a very appealing story format, cleverly devised by Daphne Punytjina Burton to appeal to people of all ages, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous who love a story. The familiar opening lines: “Long ago…”, pull us into the story and whirl us through a series of adventures, near disasters and rescue attempts, until we reach the well-known ending: “… and they lived happily ever after”.

The wealth of vernacular materials being produced in literature centres on remote communities - reading and story-books; cultural teaching material, covering a range of curriculum areas - is a well-kept secret. These books and charts are created by teachers, community members and literature officers and are rarely distributed beyond their networks. Similarly, the BRACS (Broadcasting in Remote Areas) networks are producing videos and radio programs of excellent quality, the wider dissemination of which would enrich the cultural mix which is Australia, as well as foregrounding the work of talented Indigenous artists and writers.

Jukurrpa Books, an imprint of IAD Press, scooped the pool with its award-winning first children's book, Going for Kalta (reviewed in AWBR 1999). Their second title, Down the Hole, is a real winner as well. It's both the archetypal bogey-man story of every culture and race on earth (see Heather Nix's review of Warner's No Go the Bogeyman, this issue), the story of terrified parents struggling to hide and keep safe their children, who are being snatched by a powerful ogre, and a personal retelling of one of the outrageous chapters of Aboriginal history since white “contact”.

The child-snatching ogre here is “THE STATE”, its minion, the almost mythical Daisy Bates. The book is a hair-raising read: the terror of the children - both the “little fair ones” and “the maru kids - the dark kids” - is palpable in the gold, brown and orange paintings that accompany the Aboriginal English, Yankunytjatjara, Kokatha and Matutjara written text. It is a text which is breath-taking in its accurate realisation of emotions and events. The voice of the story-teller is compelling in the urgency and horror of lines such as:

My Old People used to chuck us down pitingka—chuck us down the holes.
We used to sit down real quiet too.
Running from that kungka pilti—running from that old woman.

And in the triumphant elation of the closing lines:

I been still hiding away—and here I am today.

For, above all, the story is one of tenacious strength - the strength of family and community against outside forces that threaten to destroy these ties - of survival against the odds, of escaping the evil witch's clutches, and finally outrunning the monster:

when we were seventeen or eighteen … then we became free.

I would be interested in the reactions of Holocaust survivors to this book: there are chilling similarities - hiding in holes, being mustered “like sheep”, herded onto trains by implacable captors - but also in the resourcefulness and wisdom and humour of the families who hid the children. It's one of the more important stories to emerge from the aftermath of the Stolen Generation, and it has the unmistakeable ring of truth.

The final five pages of the book contain important supplementary material: a section “Why were they hiding?” that gives accurate and sensitively written historical material; photographs and biographies of the writers and illustrator; a short biographical text on Daisy Bates which outlines her contested place in Aboriginal history; and a guide to pronunciation of the Language text. These clearly underline the seriousness and importance of the story: it has come out of lived experience.

Nowhere has IAD Press been more faithful to its brief of maintaining and preserving Indigenous cultures whilst giving readers a visual and reading treat than in this wonderful picture book. Down the Hole is a very significant book. Buy a copy for everyone you love.

Unlike the two preceding books, Anna the Goanna, while reflecting the day-to-day experience of the life of Indigenous children in remote communities, in a series of rhymed verses and accompanying illustrations, was created by two non-Indigenous women. Jill McDougall, a teacher of Aboriginal students in remote areas for more than ten years was frustrated by the lack of material that would “capture the hearts and minds of…students” and would “reflect a little of themselves and their world, their dreams and their imaginings”. She decided to create that reading material herself.

The book bears the teacher's stamp, with its counting rhymes, word games, rhymes teaching spatial concepts: up and down, above and below, or emphasising health issues. The subjects are familiar ones to community dwellers: flies and mosquitoes; animals and plants of the outback; sport; dogs; bikes; family ties and connections to country; as well as the more sobering and sensitive issues of grog and petrol-sniffing.

There is nothing particularly memorable in the verse, but it is catchy and upbeat and kids will enjoy chanting it. It's fun and it goes part of the way to filling the need for material that is appropriate to Aboriginal children on remote communities. It has its moments, though: the final lines of “Too Many Drunks”, accompanied by the deeply moving illustration of two wide-eyed, scared kids clinging to one another, are a powerful evocation of a troubled past that continues to wreak its daily havoc:

Too many drunks
In too many places,
Too many hard times
On too many faces.

Jenny Taylor's watercolour illustrations, in fairly muted tones, interpret the text intelligently. In fact, they add a visual text which would enable pre-literate readers to “read” most of what is happening. From the mad excitement and impending disaster of '”The Bike Ride” to the comfortable reclining figures grouped so that they enclose the child in a protective way, in “Going Home”, Jenny Taylor, a well-known Central Australian artist, who knows the desert well and had made meaningful relationships with communities, over a number of years, has provided an understated but accurately detailed visual depiction of a world that is intensely familiar to some Australians, unbelievably alien to others.

We cannot ask of every book printed that it be of the calibre of high art, but Anna the Goanna has earned its place in classrooms and libraries. Who couldn't get a giggle out of “Going Hunting”?:

My father goes hunting for turkey,
My brother goes hunting for toys,
My mum and my nanna,
Go hunting goanna,
But sister goes hunting for boys!

There is much dissent about non-Indigenous writers and illustrators appropriating and interpreting Aboriginal experience and, in fact, this is one reaction to Anna the Goanna. We have all heard the horror stories of sacred designs being reproduced on tea towels, “autobiographies” of Aboriginal people by a white author who retains copyright and subsequent royalties, and builds his or her own reputation on the work. The issue of appropriation is a vexed one and becomes more complex when the person accused has a long and honourable history of service with a group or community.

There was a clear protocol in traditional Aboriginal society, whereby certain groups and people had ownership rights and responsibilities to certain stories and other cultural material and objects. The antithesis of this is the “anything goes” and “everything up for grabs” attitude of people who see no ethical dilemma in appropriating anything they see or read. There is justifiable anger at the way Indigenous stories and cultural materials have been, and still are, appropriated, and some of that anger may, on occasion, be unfairly apportioned.

It's true that Jill McDougall has “appropriated” things she saw and heard (as we all do) as material for her book; that, without the children of the various communities whom she taught, she would not have been able to write Anna the Goanna. But perhaps she would not have wanted to: I believe she was motivated by genuine goodwill, as was Jenny Taylor, the illustrator. That said, it must be a source of regret that such books are still being written mainly by non-Indigenous people. There is such a wealth of talent, story-tellers of such grace and skill in the Indigenous world, that sometimes I wish I had a dozen lives, all running concurrently, to facilitate the writing and publishing of these stories.

So the postscript to this review is to celebrate the graduation of the students/writers of Batchelor Institute's inaugural Indigenous Creative Writing course. The achievements are many, and the output of the writers has been prolific: life histories, screen and stage plays, novels, and collections of poetry. One novel was entered in the David Unaipon Awards, honourable mentions achieved in the NT Literary Awards, and a special Creative Writing edition of Ngoonjook, Batchelor Institute's journal of Indigenous pedagogies, was produced during the course.

The need for culturally appropriate training for NT Indigenous writers was highlighted in a 1994 publishing study, Reclaiming our Lives and our Histories. A further study looked at existing facilities for culturally appropriate writing training in the NT and found them to be non-existent. Five years later, after much research, planning and consultation between Indigenous and other education bodies, community members and NT CREATE, the Arts Industry training body, the course was up and running. Eight students and a part-time teacher and coordinator (myself) and a host of guest writers and speakers all crammed into a demountable classroom which had been hastily erected on the lawn next to the Arts and Craft studio at Batchelor's Alice Springs campus.

A hectic, hilarious, heart-breaking, exhausting, passionate experience it is, to be part of this hotbed of writing: stories, songs, poems, memories, old and new pains and pleasures tumble about the little square classroom. Benign and hungry ghosts jostle for space, dreams are dreamed and realised, people argue and weep and laugh and shiver and sweat over their work, and sometimes fall silent, feeling the presence of the ancestors and the blessing of the intense blue Central Australian sky, and the goodness of the country. We are full of relief that daily, hourly, the silences are being broken, the unheard is being voiced, the work is being made, by and for “the mob”. And we are part of it all.

Terry Whitebeach is a Tasmanian writer who lives in Alice Springs and teaches at two Indigenous tertiary institutions.


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