“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.” - Aboriginal proverb.
Uluru at sunset
The Northern Territory Writers’ Festival was the bait. And I had taken it. Films like Wake in Fright, A Town like Alice or Walkabout pricked at my memory. A crowing outpost of white settlement, Alice Springs sits surrounded by desert in aboriginal country. I was an outsider whichever way I looked at it. An illiterate in an alien world.
Flying into Alice Springs the white-blue horizon rose high above the dust-shimmer of the scrubby hills. Squat dwellings huddled on the drought-parched roadsides as the shuttle bus headed into the town centre, its passengers ignorant to the murmurings of the dormant riverbed. Fine dust danced above the ground, the Todd River contracting and cracking under the sun-pounded earth.
Swatting flies in the dormant Todd River
Sweating and swatting at the flies, I took the short-cut to the Botanical Gardens for the festival opening. Indigenous kids lolled on shaded boulders, speculating on the struggles of this plump white woman struggling across the naked river bed, sand and grit between my toes, not water.
Dusk settled, the night sky turned on its lights and a pink-violet glow crept up the ghostly trunks of the eucalypts that towered over the Botanic Gardens; a backdrop for the indigenous elders who welcomed us to country. Flashes of lightning illuminated the clouds from time to time, heralding torrential, life-giving rain. In the following days, the Todd River overflowed onto the causeway and festival-go-ers flocked en-masse to covered venues.
The Todd River awakens
The festival topics reflected the coming together of indigenous knowledge and the meaning of belonging. It focused on the liberating power of words, the power of language especially relevant to indigenous communities, where the grandmothers are the keepers of the culture, of the survival skills enabling them to live on country and feed the soul. Broome indigenous poet Charmaine Papertalk Green and W.A. poet John Kinsella, delivered a no-holds-barred presentation from their anthology False Claims of Colonial Thieves, with an interactive updated version of "The Wild Colonial Boy" vs "The White Colonial Boy" and scorching versions of "Shopping Centre Carpark."
You don’t want me to talk about
How reconciliation could be the wrong word
On its own and without truth
You don’t want me to talk about
Native titles process being for the white man
You don’t want me to talk at all
Most of the time – you have your ‘exotic’ pets
You want me to nod, smile and listen to you
And it doesn’t really matter if I don’t hear you
You don’t want me to talk about
How I have got a voice
And you don’t listen
Excerpt from the poem “Don’t want me to talk” by Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella, from False Claims of Colonial Thieves
Charmaine Papertalk Green (L) with a copy of the anthology
A range of panel discussions explored the issues of restoring, renewing, re-wilding and healing through language and connection to the natural world. They examined the need for Australia to take responsibility for its own history, painful as it may be.
One participant asked for advice on how to respond to the genocide, “What do you say to friends who say, ‘That’s all history. They need to move on’?” I bit my tongue. Would anyone dare say that to children of a holocaust survivor? Do we apply a different set of rules for indigenous people?
Educators and elders presenting Children's Ground
Children’s Ground was also represented. An independently-run educational organization, Arrernte educators have struck a blow for cultural identity and for that, children need their own language. Their team gave a slide presentation that showcased their beautifully illustrated books for primary school children, written in their own language. I was privileged to be invited by Felicity and Emma to meet the team at their workplace in Alice Springs two days later.
The work of Children’s Ground reflects similar projects undertaken by Canadian and American First Nations’ people and the Saami (Laplanders) of the Arctic Circle. It underpins the well-researched concept that mother-tongue is the basis for identity, belonging and a sound development of cognitive learning. It’s a human rights issue. For too long the people of our First Nations have been silenced, outsiders in their own land. If you’d like to support Children’s Ground and you missed the Archie Roach fundraiser in Melbourne, you can still help by making a regular donation no matter how modest. https://www.childrensground.org.au/donations
Roanna Gonsalves, originally from India, brought the city to the country, India to Australia, in her electrifying short story collection The Permanent Resident.
"I wanted to chronicle as many varied experiences of being an outsider as I possibly could. I feel the short story form is perfect for exploring this multiplicity.” Workshopping together with a young aspiring writer, Roshani housing manager at Amoonguna community, we practiced some of the jewels that bring writing alive.
What visit to the Red Centre would be complete without some attempt to build bridges and gain a sense of that which our indigenous people hold sacred. Yes, I came for the writing. I came for the famed beauty of the territory too: Palm Valley dotted with palms their seeds transported from Northern Australia by early indigenous nomads – their earliest agriculture.
And I came for the spiritual journey to Uluru. You’ve seen churches? Temples? Palaces? Well, I won’t describe Anangu land. You need to visit the Kata Tjuta and the Aboriginal Cultural Centre to see for yourself, to reflect and try to understand the immensity of the place, of the history, of the culture. Uluru, this land, these places are sacred and have been so for over 40,000 years. Nowadays, the land and its sites are curated and run entirely by indigenous communities and demand our respect.
Would you climb the Vatican? Buckingham Palace? How is Uluru less significant?
Kata Tjuta (formerly, the Olgas)
And Roshani, my writing partner, born in Sri Lanka and now living in Alice Springs, led me to her friend Marie Elena Ellis. Respected Arrernte woman and community elder, Marie Elena Ellis is articulate, a stalwart campaigner and a force of nature. She quickly stepped forward to invite me to her community and share her story.
Passing by the primary school, the clinic, the compact homes, solar-powered and neatly fenced, she drew my attention to the vestiges of community life before John Howard’s funding cuts. That was a time when Amoonguna was more or less self-sufficient: here a bakery, there a mechanics’ workshop, a community kitchen, a sewing workshop, even a real community store. Theirs is still a close-knit community but considering this, it’s easy to understand why not everyone living there is as resilient as she and her family are. Alcohol and substance abuse is a significant problem in the broader Australian society and indigenous communities and their elders are keenly aware of this encroaching threat.
For them, the land and belonging, are everything. The land has always belonged to them and they belong to the land. Ask most refugees or asylum seekers where they would rather go, if they could: home, where their history and the memories of their loved ones remain.
Marie visiting with Felicity at Children's Ground, Alice Springs
From there I went together with Marie to visit Children’s Ground and later in the week, we attended the annual rhythm and blues night under the stars at Mpwaltye Arntaye (Honeymoon Gap) at Ilwempe Ilwempe (White Gums). Having met members of Zimbabwe Outback Melody at a performance in Alice Springs, they had asked me to come to their next performance. There Marie and her family gave the Welcome to Country. Wearing brilliant traditional patterns, the choir of Zimbabwean nurses met Marie for the first time. At 20+C and not yet acclimatised, I was still dressed in light summer gear; the locals snuggled into their warm winter hats and jackets.
“You either love Alice or you hate it,” one of the Zimbabweans said. “When I first came here ten years ago I wanted to leave. Now I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
Flora, Malin and Nomusa
Roanna Gonsalves’ reflection on belonging and being an outsider.
"I think experiencing a sense of belonging is a continuous process rather than an end goal. Sometimes my characters feel like they belong in a particular place or to a particular community, only to find that that belonging is contingent upon a number of factors, such as toeing a particular line, or accepting and rejecting certain values. Sometimes my characters find solidarity and belonging with White people of the same class. Sometimes they find belonging and acceptance with other Indians because of a shared history and a shared immigrant experience. Sometimes it is gender that is the glue that binds people together in my book. Some of my characters know they’ve found that moment of solidarity when there is that flash of recognition about a memory, or shared laughter over a joke, or just through silence."
Red Hot Tip #1: Alice Springs is the best kept secret in Australia. A cultural explosion.
Red Hot Tip #2: THE BAKERY (says it all) -- on Todd Mall. Call me superficial.