Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2013

Kayang and Me (2005), by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown

Aust Lit Month logoKayang and MeIndigenous readers please be aware that this page may contain the names of deceased persons.

Family history is big business these days, and a matter of keen fascination for some.  I’ll be upfront and state that most of the family history I’ve been subjected to is fascinating only to the fan of the family.  Start telling me a ‘fascinating’ anecdote from your family history and you too can be amazed at how fast I will suddenly remember that I have an urgent appointment somewhere else … because as a general principle, I am interested in you, not your long-dead ancestors.

(And if I don’t scamper off hastily but stand there listening to your story apparently with great interest, it is because you are going to feature in my future novel as The Great Family History Bore.  You have been warned).

But Kayang and Me, jointly authored in different ways by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown is a different matter entirely.

Kim Scott is the novelist whose stunning novels Benang (see my review) and That Deadman Dance (see my review) have won the Miles Franklin Award and many other awards besides, and Hazel Brown is his Elder of the Wiloman Noongar People of Western Australia. Their book is completely different in form to anything I have read before.  It consists of lightly edited transcripts of Hazel Brown’s stories, accompanied by commentary, musings, and clarifications by Kim Scott, testing Hazel’s oral testimony against the scanty documentary records of the Noongar people of south-western Australia.  But though this analysis reveals Scott’s scholarship, this is not an historian’s analysis, this is deeply personal.  Scott is not entirely comfortable with his right to identify with the Noongar people and the gaps and inconsistencies in Hazel Brown’s testimony make him hesitate about all kinds of things, including his right to call her Aunty.  He chooses Kayang, which rather like the Indonesian Ibu means ‘respected old lady’.  I like this word, because it seems respectful of traditional Aboriginal kinship systems which (as I understand them) are not like Western ones at all.

I think this book had more impact on me because I had so recently read Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss.  (See my thoughts here).  The contrast between Heiss’s confident knowledge about her identity and Scott’s tentative musings about his, is instructive.  A.O.Neville’s legacy in Western Australia lives on because the implementation of his cultural assimilation and biological absorption policies cemented opportunities based on skin colour.  Under this pressure, inevitably some light-skinned Aborigines chose not to identify with the Noongar and under law that meant severing all contact with Aboriginal people.

One school of thought says that those families whose elders gained certificates – ‘dog tags’ – exempting them from repressive legislation applicable only to Aboriginal people, also gave away their entitlement to call themselves or their descendants Noongar.  It’s an argument that would exclude those who moved in white society without the humiliation of carrying ‘dog tags’.  (p.183)

Is this what is happening in contemporary communities under the so-called Intervention? What scar tissue is being laid down there, I wonder?

Hazel Brown’s stories are like any old granny’s stories in a way.  She has told them many times over the years, and there is a practised rhythm to her narrative voice.  But the stories she tells are both unique to her people and emblematic of the Australian story.  She tells, without bitterness and rancour, of the way her people initially welcomed the settlers, and helped them, only to be betrayed as the balance of population shifted from precarious white settlement to precarious Noongar survival.  There are stories of massacre and her disquiet about the idea of listing the site as world heritage; of child removal and the gut-wrenching fear of it that wove its way into their lives; of doctors who would or wouldn’t treat the sick depending on their skin colour; and of deprivation that saw ration-dependant families not as well-fed as her family which retained traditional ways of living off the land.  But there are also stories of marriage and children, pride in their work history, and acceptance that some of them made choices about partnerships with whites that worked to the detriment of other Noongar.

Each segment of this long family history stretching over many generations is matched by Scott’s thoughtful response, sometimes exposing the pain of how close to the surface is an Us and Them mentality.

Uncle Lomas liked to call in on farmers as we drove back from our visits to country.  We’d have a cup of tea; they’d offer to fuel up our car.
Like Kayang Hazel, he’s proud of the respect and trust farmers show him.
On one farmer’s kitchen table was a letter from a lawyer employed by a Noongar family, positioning them as Native Title negotiators.  Uncle Lomas laughed, but he didn’t respect the traditional authority of these claimants, and he was angry.  The farming couple were worried, and Uncle Lomas felt for them.  They said they thought they’d always had a good relationship with ‘the natives’.
Uncle Lomas didn’t react, but it startled me, the sudden reversion to ‘us and them’ implicit in the language of the farming couple. The conversation had moved from division within the Noongar community to division between Noongar and wadjelas 
[whitefellas]. Perhaps the ‘us and them’ mentality surfaced at the prospect of Noongars returning to the vicinity , especially those who came with lawyers talking Native Title. (p. 231)

While I liked the way each narrator’s voice was clearly marked by different fonts, I found the font used for Scott’s voice very hard to read.  And while I know that these choices are influenced by publication costs, I was also disappointed by the poor quality of the photos, which made it hard to see the faces of the people.

The more I read about Australia’s Black History, the more I want a flag and a constitution and a parliament that acknowledges the prior ownership of this land …

I have only scratched the surface of this book, but Inga Clendinnen wrote a stunning review of the 2005 edition at The Monthly and really, you can’t do better than to read her thoughts.

You can read a sample chapter of Kayang and Me here.

Authors: Hazel Brown and Kim Scott
Title: Kayang and Me
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2013 (first published 2005)
ISBN: 9781922089229
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press


Fishpond: Kayang and Me

Or direct from Fremantle Press


  1. Thanks for the review and for providing the links. I thought so highly of Scott’s novel that I am eager to read more. While I agreed with your review of Anita Heiss’s book, I am ready for something more complex on the subject.


    • I hope you can get hold of a copy in the US:) For me, these two books complemented each other perfectly, but that may simply be that I am at a different place on a learning journey. I think you will love the voice of Kayang Hazel!


  2. Is the earlier edition worthwhile? I think I can get it here, but maybe not the new one.


    • I am not sure. I think the only difference is that there are photos in the new edition, but you might want to email the publisher just to be sure.


  3. […] I recommend this book to all readers wanting to know more about Indigenous Australians.  Perhaps, as Lisa suggests, it could be read in tandem with one of the autobiographies of individuals who grew up more immersed in Aboriginal culture and who directly experienced the abuses of removal from their families and lands. Or perhaps with Kayang & Me, by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, which Lisa recently reviewed. […]


  4. […] Kayang and Me (with Kim Scott), see my review  […]


  5. […] Kayang and Me (with Kim Scott), see my review  […]


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