Richard Hunter, Frans Hoogland, Jaqueline Wright from ABC Open, and I have been working on a project which I’d love to share with you all, it’s about Feeling Country. Many thanks to Jacqui for all the hours of pulling it together and to Gabrielle Norden and Sara Retallick for contributing beautiful sounds from Country. Enjoy!
Click here to read an essay I wrote about the performance of liyan (feeling and intuition) on the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail. The essay is published in Issue 11 of the PAN: Philosophy Activism, Nature Journal.
The complex process of translation spelled out by Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle – from a spirit being to Dyuŋgayan to Roe and Butcher Joe, to Ray Keogh to Stuart Cooke; from Nyigina to Broome English to Australian English; from oral production supplemented with gestures and sand drawings via tape recorders and notebooks to alphabetic script printed on paper – reinforces the idea that translation is emphatically never about reducing the number of mediations, nor indeed facilitating the transfer of meaning.
I am reminded of my own process of watching stories translate between contexts and materialities in my own research. These stories of being with, performed on country, move through. They might offer a moment of fixedness/stability (Frans; Law 2004), otherwise, they draw on metaphor to metamorphose and translate into new forms, including oral stories. Just like the rainbow serpent creator beings that are said to have shaped parts of the Australian continent, stories too ‘dive and reappear in new places’ (Emerson in Levin 1999, p. 3). Stories make themselves visible in one manifestation or another: in country and through storytelling, before they disappear or transform into some other materiality: into transcripts, conversations of remembrance and onto paper. Following stories and metaphors as they reveal themselves as actors in my research, my task as the researcher is to ‘… seek to understand, and to watch what they’re up to’ (Nicholls 2013, p. 42). There can be no prior assumptions about what these actors do; as John Law (2004) states, actors as entities ‘… are not given, [instead] they emerge in relations [with other actors]’ (p. 102).
Dyungayan, G & Cooke, S 2014, Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle, Puncher & Wattmann, Glebe.
Law, J 2004, After Method: mess in social science research Routledge, Oxon.
Levin, J 1999, The poetics of transition: Emerson, pragmatism, and American literary modernism, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C.
Nicholls, A 2013, ‘Paper work’, Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts, vol. 12, pp. 40-3.
A collection of nine stories narrated by Paddy Roe – an Aboriginal Elder of Gularabulu (now written as Goolarabooloo) – and transcribed by Professor Stephen Muecke, the book is a remarkable negotiation of Aboriginal and Settler cultures in the complex, enormous region known as the West Kimberley.
Paddy Roe categorises the stories into three different kinds. The first, “trustori”, are indeed true stories, but the heroes of these stories often do extraordinary things. We might call such tales “legends”.
The next group he calls “devil stori”, in which strange, even unnerving events can only be explained by the presence of a spirit being.
Then there’s “bugaregara” stories, or what we might call “myths”, which tell of the magnificent supernatural beings that created Country and Law.
The book’s title refers to a vast, liminal region of land and sea. Goolarabooloo (“the coast where the sun goes down”) is a large area of coastal country that stretches from La Grange in the south, right through Broome, and north to Dampier Land.
Consequently, Goolarabooloo encompasses multiple tribal groupings, and urban and non-urban lands. Roe stresses that the stories of Gularabulu belong not just to him and his family, but to all the people in this diverse region, including whitefellas.
To tell stories for black and white alike involves a difficult negotiation of cultures and contexts but, rather than shy from it, Roe embraces the challenge. Many of the stories’ characters exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds. He talks to whitefellas so “they might be able to see us better than before”.
Like his characters, Paddy Roe crosses languages, genres and cultures as adeptly as he crosses country. Until the time of his death in 2001, Roe was the head of a large family, and maintained a position of power as a negotiator between government departments in Broome and the surrounding Aboriginal communities.
Prior to assuming such responsibilities, Roe had long negotiated the myriad differences between indigenous and non-indigenous societies. A fully-initiated Nyigina law man, he also spent many years travelling across the Kimberley as a drover, before being contracted to work as a repairer of windmills. He met Stephen Muecke in the 1970s, when Muecke was visiting Broome for the first time as a young PhD student.
The ever-present possibilities of transformation and expansion in Gularabulu give Roe’s narratives a distinctly contemporary feel. The absence of any controlling, authorial point of view contributes to a plenitude of explanations for why or how things happen. Roe’s landscapes are richly poetic, full of various rhythms that allow them to become more than static literary representations.
After all, no place is still in Goolarabooloo country.
The ground is alive with meat ants, the horizon is thrashing with acacias or ragged swells. Roe’s stories, like the places in which they are told, are alive with an energy that thoroughly captivates Muecke, who takes them from local yarns into the global realm of literature, from oral narrative into written poetry. Gularabulu is an example of being “always here, and always on the move”.
Roe and Muecke use a number of strategies in order to allow Gularabulu to “travel” across the locales included in the narrative. Roe’s Aboriginal English, as Muecke notes in a useful introduction, is a crucial mode of communication between Aboriginal people of various language groups. Furthermore, it is also a way in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can communicate.
For Muecke, then, Roe’s could be “the language of ‘bridging’ between the vastly different European and Aboriginal cultures”.
Consequently, one could say that Roe’s language articulates a distinct mode of poetics and politics: the mode of the in-between. Here, it matters as much that Roe’s stories describe his country as it does that non-indigenous readers enjoy them.
To travel into the realms of written literature, the narratives depend on Muecke’s response (and subsequent transcription); it is therefore important for Roe that Muecke understands him and that he performs his own role as a listener.
One touching moment comes to mind from the story Worawora Woman – a trustori about a married man who goes hunting with a greedy woman – in which Roe pauses the narration to find out if Muecke is uncomfortable about their friend, Butcher Joe, lighting up a cigarette. Roe continues only once Muecke has said, “Oh that’s all right”.
That’s not to say that Gularabulu is all about talking to a white audience. As I’ve written elsewhere, often Roe threads his stories with words and phrases that are left unexplained and mysterious to those unfamiliar with Nyigina language or culture.
During his telling of Djaringgalong – a tale from bugaregara about a monster bird who ate people’s babies – Roe laughs and says to one of his countrymen, “binabinaba”, the meaning of which is never explained.
And a large chunk of one of one of Roe’s nurlu, or songpoems, is included in the book’s opening story, Mirdinan, with only a very basic gloss. By repeating these fragments of stories or songs, older patterns of tradition are imprinted on contemporary texts.
Roe’s voice is, therefore, an example of what scholars Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra have called an “Aboriginal Polyphony”. Rather than a text which represents a “pure” Aboriginality, Gularabulu is a “composite and federalist” literature that crosses a number of genres and can operate in many different cultural contexts.
Indeed, Hodge and Mishra remind us that a link to oral modes is a sign of exceptionally high status within Western literary culture. Roe’s stories exploit this link: like his stories, the most famous members of the Western canon show the marks of their oral origins (retarded narratives, prolepsis, bricolage, dialogue).
Muecke’s innovative typography does not eliminate or disregard the features of Roe’s speech, either, but translates them into minimalist arrangements familiar to readers of Western avant-garde poetry. Muecke’s system produces written marks not only for Roe’s narration, but also for his growls, hesitations and other pauses.
If we read the language as poetic, Muecke says in his introduction, we pay attention not only to its “underlying content”, but also to its very form. After all, Roe’s stories are much more than spoken language: he growls, sings, rasps a boomerang, draws pictures in the dirt, or members of his audience will interject and contribute to the story.
To understand this book’s real importance, suggest Hodge and Mishra, we might consider that Gularabulu consists “of a set of genres which will not all correspond exactly to any equivalent in English”. Reading Gularabulu is to verge on an experience of watching or listening; it is to be following Paddy Roe through his country while also aware that there’s plenty you can’t see or comprehend.
To read this book is to be always moving somewhere else, away from the confines of Western literature, of settlement, and of the edifice of colonial thought.
There were endless cups of billy tea, guitar, card games and laughs under the corrugated iron roofed outdoor kitchen outside JR and Margie’s place at Milibinyarri. Perched at the top of the hill, you could sit in the shade with a hot cup of tea in hand and look out at the crystal blue ocean from that outdoor kitchen.
I first came to sit atop that hill with JR on my first visit to Broome in 2000. I was walking the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail as part of an RMIT University group and met him and his young family on my arrival at Milibinyari, the Goolarabooloo community’s block out at Coconut Wells.
After walking the Lurujarri Trail with JR and his family that year I stayed on at Milibinyarri and worked on a report about cultural perspectives of burning country with the Goolarabooloo community. I recall my keenness to speak with JR about his perspectives; not a day went by when I wouldn’t ask him if we could sit down and ‘have a chat’ about burning country. His response, ‘Later better maybe,’ became familiar to me and fueled my anxiety about getting the report ‘done’. Little did I realise that every conversation, every story needs to be told in the right place, at the right time.
I was sitting in the shade of the outdoor kitchen on my last day at Milibinyarriwhen JR came up and said that now was a good time to talk. Silly me, I pulled out my notebook and pen, poised and ready to learn (I was young and green and had no idea about just sitting, listening and being with). JR just looked at the contents of my hands and said, ‘You don’t need that stuff.’ Sitting on the edge of his verandah, he bent over and drew in the red pindan, teaching me about fire, about burning country. JR’s storytelling that day was brief and laden with distilled wisdom. Not a word was wasted.
Since then I’ve returned to Broome to spend time visiting JR and his family and their country; sometimes walking and volunteering on the Trail, other times just to visit and spend time fishing, camping and laughing under the corrugated iron roof. As the years have passed the door has always been open and the friendship unconditional. I never felt like a tourist or visitor to Milibinyarri, I was welcomed as a friend. The outdoor kitchen with its corrugated roof no longer stands in that place and much has changed on that country, as have the relationships that bound us together.
JR had a big job, to look after his country and people, but he always had time for a cup of tea and a chat and to teach me a little bit more about being with country and myself.
He was best known as the face of Aboriginal opposition to gas processing at James Price Point north of Broome, and for being a grandson of celebrated Broome cultural leader, Paddy Roe.
The Goolarabooloo Law Boss, who cannot be named for cultural reasons, passed away in a Perth hospital after he suffered what is believed to be a massive heart attack while in Broome. His death comes as a shock to many who knew him as a vigorous opponent to the State Government and Woodside Petroleum’s plans to build a gas processing facility at James Price Point north of Broome.
He first lodged a native title claim over the James Price Point area in 1994. He described his connection to this country as the Keeper of the Northern Tradition, which had been passed to him from his Grandfather, Paddy Roe, who was given cultural custodianship by the Jabirr Jabirr traditional owners in the 1930s.
He, and his grandfather before him, were regarded by many in Broome as cultural leaders who maintained active Aboriginal religious beliefs which coexisted with modern society. But he was a controversial figure and his opposition to the planned James Price Point gas facility lead to a division between his Goolarabooloo family group, and the Jabirr Jabirr traditional owners.
He led many appeals and challenges to the gas processing facility planned for James Price Point. Eventually Woodside decided not to proceed with the project as it was determined to not be economically feasible.
Since that decision, the State Government has proceeded with the compulsory acquisition of James Price Point in spite of there being no known industry interest in developing the area. The Goolarabooloo Law Boss was unmoving in his opposition to efforts to industrialise the area.
Tributes have flowed today for the man from the Australian Greens with Senator Rachel Siewert expressing deep sadness at the man’s passing.
“His courage in fighting the James Price Point Gas hub proposal was inspiring and his leadership was a key to the success of the campaign,” she said today.
“His work will long be remembered and respected across Australia. It is a great shame to lose a leader at such an early age. He will be greatly missed.”
“I offer sincere condolences to his family, friends and community.”