Mazin Grace was the winner of the 2011 David Unaipon Award when it was still under the umbrella of the now defunct Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s an award for indigenous writing which offers mentoring and publication by UQP (the University of Queensland Press) and (until 2012) also a cash prize. It’s a very interesting book.
The author, Dylan Coleman, has chosen to weave three languages together in the narrative: English; Aboriginal English and the Kokotha language from the south-eastern Western Desert peoples. She has also chosen to write in the voice of a child. There is a five-page glossary at the front of the book, but even so, this melding of three different languages takes a bit of getting used to:
Ada’s got other sisters too, Margaret or Maggie, and Rose, but they don’t live on the Mission, they live at Mount Faith. Aunty Maggie kids, Andy, Hope, Julie, Marie and baby Joan. Aunty Rose’s got a minya daughter Dee-Dee Doe, and Aunty Dorrie looks after ‘er here on the Mission sometimes. Dee-Dee’s my bestest friend. We the same age and stick together like yumbra mooga stuck in honey. Mumma Jenna say, ‘Real sweet how they play togther like minya twins. (p3)
That’s another way how we different from walbiya mooga, we talk in other ways. We don’t ‘ave to ‘ave talk goin’ on, and on, wonganyi non-stop. Sometimes, we say lotta things quiet-way to each other without opening our mouth and they don’t know what we sayin’. We gotta talk like that sometimes, ’cause them walbiya mooga on the Mission won’t even let us use Kokotha wonga either. We gotta talk English. We talk out kokatha wonga loud-way at ‘ome but not when they around. At school, if Teacher hears us, she growl and sometimes hit us on the murra with the ruler. So we talk it in whisper. ‘Joobardi weena, boonri boonri’. That mean, ‘Silly woman, bossy boots.’ That’s what Teacher is sometimes, that’s what us kids call ‘er anyway. Imagine if I said that loud-way in English. Teacher would give me good hidin’. So when we can’t talk or even whisper in lingo, ’cause they listening’, we use our murra, and other parts of our body, to talk safe-way’. (p10)
At first I had to keep referring to the glossary, but after a while I began to remember what these unfamiliar words meant. And I also began to get a feel for Aboriginal English, which looks to the uninitiated like ungrammatical English, but it’s not: it has a logical grammar of its own. The narrator has a striking, chatty voice, torn between two cultures and struggling to find a place in a confusing world, but still honest and funny.
I had always thought that Aboriginal communities were accepting of mixed-race children, but this novel shows the pernicious effects of mission education on such traditional values. The story is set on the Koonibba Lutheran Mission in South Australia in the 1940s and 50s when Aboriginal people were still being forced onto missions and the children were still being removed from their families under assimilation policies. The Ten Commandments are being used to bludgeon the Aborigines into conformity and the concept of Hell is being used to try to frighten them into abandoning their traditional ways.
Whatever the intentions of the missionaries, they preside over insulting inequity. White privilege is obvious in every aspect of everyday life. The housing provided for the Aborigines is sub-standard and although the family works hard, the children often go hungry. Education, however, is provided and this is the path to a different future for Grace and her equally clever sister Eva.
Grace is fair-skinned, and she is teased and abused by both black and white children in her community where she is labelled a bastard who doesn’t belong anywhere. She grows up in a loving family in a big mob with lotsa mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, but she yearns to know who she is and why she is different. This yearning often triggers bursts of childish anger, swearing, and naughtiness which gets her into trouble.
The story traces the emergence of her curiosity about her origins, and her eventual discovery of her identity. That doesn’t resolve all her problems but Mumma’s wise advice cautions her to learn when to accept what must be borne and what should be challenged.
The author’s note explains that although the novel derives from her mother’s life, it’s not a biography. The novel form enables her to tell a story in an authentic voice, sharing the experiences of her people from an educated ‘insider’ POV.
It’s not a novel where much happens, just Grace’s dawning realisation of her situation and a gentle coming-of-age. It is the kind of book that begs for a sequel where we can see how feisty Grace transcended her circumstances and went on to forge a life that confounded the low expectations that so many seemed to have for people of her race.
Author: Dylan Coleman
Title: Mazin Grace
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP