Fiona Wirrer-George Oochunyung (a.k.a. Fiona Doyle) is a feisty woman of many talents. Through her own initiative and hard work, she’s transcended her beginnings in a remote Aboriginal community to build a fulfilling life which successfully integrates her two cultures. These derive from her Aboriginal mother, a Mbaiwum woman, and the Austrian father with whom Oochunyung was briefly reunited, not long before he died.
Oochunyung grew up ‘on country’ between the two communities of Npranum (Weipa South) and Aurukun on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula. Raised by her grandmothers, she had an idyllic childhood and loved the traditional lifestyle but wanted more than the opportunities she had there. At 16, she took herself off to Sydney to the NSAIDA Dance College where she met and eventually married her husband Dan. One of the saddest moments in this memoir is when she reveals their divorce in 2008 because this memoir clearly shows that for many years this couple had a loving marriage, raising three lovely daughters and supporting each other in everything.
A dancer, a choreographer, an actor, a teacher and an author whose literary career began by winning the David Unaipon Award for Whispers of this Wik Woman in 2003, Oochunyung’s career has taken her over much of Australia and beyond. But as she makes clear, while the passion she has for her work as a performance artist means city life and travel, her heart remains ‘on country’.
I absolutely love travelling by road and getting to see country on the ground, especially with my family. As we farewelled the bitumen road and skidded onto the familiar dirt that would carry us homeward, I looked back at our three beautiful daughters stretched out across the van. I loved these moments when it was just Dan and me and our little family travelling the land together. I knew this country; from Laura onwards this all spelled home to me. I smiled to myself as I realised that my girls would develop a relationship with the land as they travelled along it. They would grow accustomed to the bushland that guided us along, the smells and sounds that would sing us closer to the Cape. (p197)
This sense of identity and belonging to the land is elemental, but like many people with absent fathers, she yearned to know more about the man who was a brief part of her mother’s life. Remarkably, she was able to locate him in NSW reasonably readily, and he was delighted to meet her and make her part of his life. His wife’s attitude, however, was a different story. Unfriendliness became outright hostility after Wirrer’s premature death from lung cancer, and Oochunyung writes movingly about the pain of a funeral in which she and her daughters were given no part. Some healing took place when she was able to visit her father’s relations in Austria and there are some lovely photos of these people who took her into their hearts.
Since I don’t share Oochunyung’s spiritual beliefs about omens and mystical presences, I found these aspects of the memoir less interesting, but overall this is a clear-eyed view of the world. She is realistic about the problems of indigenous life, and alert to – but not dispirited by – racism, but she is determined to live a good life on her own terms and isn’t interested in blame. Without belaboring the point, she also shows that education, hard work and grasping opportunity when it comes your way is the key to building a successful life.
This book is infused with the author’s love of her family and her mixed heritage, but especially with her pride in Aboriginal culture. Oochunyung is the kind of role model that every girl needs and this memoir deserves a wide readership.
PS You could read this one for Indigenous Literature Week here at ANZ LitLovers in the first week of July: sign up here.
Fishpond: Double Native: A Moving Memoir About Living Across Two Cultures
Or direct from UQP.