I picked up this book after reading an excellent review of it by Marilyn of Me, You and Books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge last year. The more I read and re-read the work, the more intricate I found in it.
The book is a dialogue between Indigenous author Kim Scott, and his female elder, or ‘kayang’, Hazel Brown, with whom Scott connected when he was searching for more information about his family, as he’d grown up knowing few Noongar people to whom he was related. He learned that his father was cousin to Hazel, who was raised in south west Western Australia. Scott transcribed Hazel’s conversations with him, and added his own commentary about his relationships to his people and land.
Hazel was a straight-talker and pointed out injustice when she saw it, such as when she was told Aboriginal boys should be conscripted for the Vietnam war, and when she asked why, she was told, “Well, Australia’s your country.” She retorted, “What we own in Western Australia is not worth laying down our lives for. Most of us only got the reserve, and even then we haven’t got the title deeds for it. We don’t bloody well own it, so why go and fight for them?” (153).
It’s only been in recent years that the efforts of Indigenous soldiers in the wars are finally finding recognition. Wesley Enoch’s play, Black Diggers for example, showed at the Sydney Festival earlier this year, and will also be on at the Brisbane Festival in September and October.
Perhaps the most harrowing aspect of the work was when Hazel’s small daughter was ill, but when she went to the surgery to get help, she was told by the doctor’s wife that he didn’t have surgery on Mondays. She went to the hospital, but was told that she couldn’t have the baby in the hospital without the doctor’s consent. She returned to the doctor’s house and saw him standing by the window, but was told by his wife that he was at golf. Hazel’s child died that night. She saw that he went to court, and he lost his job. In the street a few days later, he chipped her car in the street, and when she stepped out to confront him, he said, ‘I lost my job.’
That Hazel had to point out, ‘I lost a child. And lots of others did too,’ shows the incredible and nauseating want of empathy on the part of so many of the white people they moved among.
However, Hazel did have positive relationships with some white people. Although the government encouraged deforestation, which contributed to salinity, and which upset Hazel each time she had to pull out a mallee root, ‘many older Noongars are nostalgic about shearing and working on farms. Much of Kayang Hazel’s working life was spent as a rural labourer of one sort of another, and it was the same for most of her siblings and many of their children. Her relationship with the land includes working it in a ‘white’ way, along with the friendships, memories, and respect she gained from doing so’ (226).
Scott’s comments and reflection on Hazel’s narrative are measured and his words were at times, I suspect, very carefully chosen. I found his capacity to consider the nuances and imbrications of situations remarkable. For example, contemplating on the above abuse of the land by farmers, he writes that, ‘Maybe individual farmers can’t be held responsible: it was a time of ‘land settlement’ initiatives, with government policies promulgating such attitudes, encouraging such thinking. As the 2003 documentary, A Million Acres a Year, makes poignantly clear, farmers were damaged as well’ (225). He rarely allows anger to stain his writing, though he surely must have felt bitterness often, and shows a remarkable openness by showing his ‘insecurity, uncertainty and doubt’ (indeed this forms the title of one chapter). In doing so, the contrast with that closed up doctor couldn’t be more clear.
What I loved most about the work, aside from insights into the lives of Noongar people and Scott’s intelligent commentary, was the sound of Noongar language. The opening chapter is titled ‘Wilomin Noongar’, Wilomin being Hazel’s people, which sounds like a sweet rolled in one’s mouth. Scott however writes that ‘Only a little Noongar language fits in this book, since it’s the sound that matters to me, and print does no justice to that’ (246).
The tension between the traditionally oral language and its existence in print form is also raised at the beginning of the work, when Scott explains his attempts to keep the cadence of Hazel’s narration. This technique is explored more thoroughly in his most recent work, That Deadman Dance, in which the reader is pulled into the sound and sway of Indigenous language.
This approach might arise from his positioning as a Noongar man with light skin (and his father was able to pass as a white man), who was not fully involved with his culture as a child, and who can see many different sides to a story. In his keynote talk for the recent Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference, and in this text, Scott referred to novelist Colin Johnson, or Mudrooroo, who believed that Indigenous people should marginalise white people in return, so that they could understand what it felt like. While understanding this polemical approach, Scott believes that it perpetuates and exacerbates the structural opposition between black and white, and doesn’t lead to a sustainable storytelling situation.
Rather, Scott cited Elizabeth Jolley to remind us that literature is ‘a place where people might meet and dwell.’ His writing, with its incorporation of Indigenous language, is like a hand extended, so that we might meet strong, Indigenous women such as Kayang Hazel.
As Marilyn notes in her review, this book is a fantastic way of learning about the complexities of the lives of Indigenous Australians. Scott’s closing chapter, on regionalisms, is a timely reminder of the specificity of Indigenous experience, and that we need many more stories from Indigenous writers not only to understand their culture, but so that they can grow in confidence and strength after the battering of colonisation (which is continuing). I wrote in A Curious Intimacy, also set in south west WA, of the lanolin plant (sadly I don’t know its Indigenous name), which grows again after fire, and it seems to me that this is what is happening with Australia’s Indigenous people, and I believe that we can aid their growth by reading and engaging with their stories, thoughtfully and respectfully.
As with Marilyn, I’m including this post in my (lately shamefully neglected) reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which has held a focus on Indigenous women writers over July, and for Lisa Hill’s Indigenous Writers Week challenge, hosted in conjunction with NAIDOC week.
Book details: Scott, Kim and Hazel Brown. Kayang & Me. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005.
Borrowed from the Brisbane City Council Library.
This is my 4th review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.