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.
Traveling up the great chain of being toward the world soul, we may get in touch with things that precede any capability of verbalization, that seem to reach out for contact, that are learning to communicate in a language we can understand – Ralph Abraham
Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright: the Dancing Fairies
Something that has grown as an actor in my research is the word entity; it is a symbol of the more-than-human world, and all of things within, which we are being with when we are walking and dwelling with country. John Law (2004) uses the metaphors ‘impossible, or barely possible, unthinkable or almost unthinkable’ to try to describe slippery entities (but he never actually names them…). I imagine these tricky entities lurking in shadows, whispering to us in our dreams and showing themselves when we least expect them to. But are they really there: perhaps non-physical but autonomous in their existence? Or are they, as Jung suggests, mere projections of our own minds (Sheldrake, McKenna and Abraham 2001)? Does it matter? If we are to imagine an existence without the presence of entities, does it mean that we automatically inherent a disenchanted, mechanistic world? So entrenched is the atomistic and mechanistic view of the world, that it seems unimaginable that past western societies communed with all sorts of entities that now only inhabit our ‘fairy tale’ storybooks. Sheldrake, McKenna and Abraham (2001) question, what if ‘they/we’ (the collective consciousness that continues to perpetuate the modern scientific paradigm) got it wrong?
The eradication of spirit from the visible world has been a project prosecuted with great zeal throughout the rise of modern science. An admission that this project overlooked something as fundamental as a communicating intelligent agency co-present with is on this planet would be more than a dangerous admission of the failure of an intellectual method. It would pretty much seal the bankruptcy of that method (p. 94).
Our Western ancestors and some descendents would call the names of these entities: elves, fairies, sprites, genius and the like, but what about the things that we feel which lack physical form but still feel… sense… yet, grasp to comprehend… What do we name these things?
Walking the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail I see the physical form of country, and slowly I awaken to ‘seeing through feeling’ (Roe and Hoogland 1999), through my liyan, and ‘see’ the country in new light. I am attracted to things that seem to beckon me forth – trees, lagoons, sand dunes, the full moon – but they are tangible. Then there is the feeling in each place, the liyan of that place as Goolarabooloo might say. Is the feeling of each place a memory of the ritual and dwelling that has been performed there one generation after the next? As I write this I think of the ash from fires mounting up and being sucked back into the earth with the rains, then the cycle being repeated again and again. Perhaps the liyan of a place is an entity, a spirit dwelling there, anticipating and recognising us on our return. Sheldrake, McKenna and Abraham (2001) question too whether the morphic resonance (memory) of a place is like a spirit.
A few weeks ago I explored in conversation with a group of women our experiences with non-human entities. We shared stories about our experiences with old trees, stones, and places that called to us. Someone in the conversation brought up the idea that if we allow ourselves to listen to our intuitive sense, we are attracted to entities (trees of whatever they may be). We asked each other, what would it be like to embody attraction as a way of being? When I shared this conversation with another friend amongst tall trees in the tropics, it resonated with her deeply. She told me stories about the places she has been attracted to as a child, which she then journeyed to as an adult. I asked her, did she have a sense that these places had ‘called her’ to be with them so that they could teach her something? I makes me think about all the places I have felt called to, whether they be Gurambai, the creek near to where I live, Wamoon down south, or the lagoon at Ngunungkurrukun; are they pulling me towards them to reveal something, about themselves or about being with? And again I fall back into the words of Kombu Merri woman Mary Graham (2009) ‘the world reveals itself to us and to itself – we don’t “discover” anything,’ (p. 75).
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.
I have returned to the literature of Kombu-merri woman Mary Graham, who writes about storytelling as an Indigenous methodology that is grounded in place. Graham (2009) writes:
The inclusion of Place in a story provides an authentic explanation of how and why something comes into the world. This in turn provides a balance between agency, whether human or spiritual, and point of origin or Place. Balance and rebalance is achieved when Place is used like an ontological compass (p. 75).
Place, as an Aboriginal category, implies that there is no division between the observing mind and anything else: there is no “external world” to inhabit. There are distinctions between the physical and the spiritual, but these aspects of existence continually interpenetrate each other. There is never a barrier between the mind and the Creative; the whole repertoire of what is possible continually presents or is expressed as an infinite range of Dreamings(Graham 2009, p. 76).
I like the way that Graham addresses dualism and creates metaphors for a unified existence between people-place. She speaks beautifully about the agency of Land in her interview with Richard Fidler on ABC Radio.
The way Graham speaks about Land – as a great life force and the holder of knowledge – reminds me of Paddy Roe’s description of Living Country – land that is alive and has the agency to act upon us and reveal itself to us when we are ready to learn. In, Listen to the People, Listen to the Land, Frans Hoogland (1999) describes Living Country as:
… where the land is whole and complete; where the interaction between people and land is alive through law and culture; where the spirit of the land is ‘standing up’, and ‘vibrant’ (p. 30).
The dynamic relationship between people and place is most often depicted from the perspective of human direct experience by non-Indigenous writers. It is so important that Indigenous people’s perspectives rise to the surface to voice their perspectives and give voice to the Land. Graham talks about the recognition that Land has of its people in her interview:
…The Land knows its own people, because it hears the language of its own people and it’s, I know it sounds a bit odd, but it’s sweat, it recognises the sweat of people and they know, ‘Ah yes, that’s the sweat of the people, our people, my people, the people that belong to this area and that sweat, that other people’s sweat I don’t recognise that,’ that land is saying…
Her edict, I am located therefore I am, puts place at the heart of identity and belonging, and I am reminded again of what is slowly coming up and becoming visible, seeking to emerge; narratives of belonging for settler people and subsequent generations through a deep acknowledgement that we are becoming of this place and are becoming of this home, but based on a deep respect and reverence of Indigenous peoples who have always been at home because this country is theirs.
Graham, M 1999, ‘Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews’, Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture & Ecology, vol. 3, no. 2, p. 105.
Roe, P & Hoogland, F 1999, ‘Black and white, a trail to understanding’, in J Sinatra & P Murphy (eds), Listen to the People, Listen to the Land, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, pp. 11-30.