Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 12, 2013

Listening to Country (2010), by Ros Moriarty

Listening to CountryAboriginal readers are advised that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

Listening to Country, by Ros Moriarty, is a passionate call to action on behalf of Australia’s indigenous people.  It was the 2012 winner of  The National Year of Reading 2012 Our Story Collection, and in 2010 was shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year Award Non-Fiction Prize and for the 2010 Human Rights Commission Literature Award.  The ANZ LitLovers reading group chose it for its June selection, where it segues nicely into Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers (July 7-14). 

Ros Moriarty was only 21 and working as a researcher in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra when she met her future husband; he was 39.  There was some dismay about their relationship, and it was not because of the age difference, it was because he was Aboriginal, of Yunwuni heritage, and she was not. Although she does not labour the point, it was just the first of many racist experiences in her marriage.  It is saddening to read that on road trips it was she who went into the motel to book a room, because if he did it, the motel was likely to be ‘full’.   Rental properties suffered the same mysterious instant transition to ‘unavailable’ too.  (As I write this, a highly influential television presenter  in Australia has made a racist ‘joke’ about an Aboriginal football star, and still kept his job.  We have a long, long way to go.)

Racism, however, is not the focal point of this memoir.  Rather, it’s the story of Ros Moriarty’s journey to belonging within her new family, a journey that takes her to Borroloola, saltwater country in the remote Northern Territory.

It seems an odd thing to say, but in a way, the couple were ‘lucky’ that they were able to connect with John’s family.  Aged four, with lighter skin because his father was an Irishman, John was stolen from his family under the assimilationist policies of the time.  They told his mother Kathleen Murrmayibinya that he was going to school for the day, and he never came back.  Mere chance led to John being reunited with his mother :

John counts his blessings that he found his mother again.  During a church holiday to Alice Springs when he was fifteen, a slight, dignified Aboriginal woman walked across the street to ask his name.  ‘John Moriarty’ he told her.  She replied, ‘I’m your mother.’ They just sat down by the side of the road on the ground, and touched hands.  ‘I’m sorry, my son, your grandmother’s gone,’ were her first words.  ‘Why did you let me go?’ were John’s.  It was the start of his journey home. Not right away, because the Protector of Aborigines sent Kathleen back north, and John back south.,  But John finally knew there was a place he would belong. (p. 20)

He was ‘lucky’ also that he has his own name, because many children taken from their families were arbitrarily re-named, sometimes with the name of the place they were taken from, and sometimes with mocking allusions such as Nosepeg John, or Mussolini.  Birthdays were assigned too: April 1 – April Fools Day,  or August 1 (the date allocated for all horses for administrative convenience).

For Ros, each journey north to reconnect with her husband’s family is a learning experience.  From the beginning, she is welcomed as a daughter-in-law, :

I feel the usual welling warmth of their embrace of John, of Tim and of me, a love that wraps around us like a mellow spreading thing.  Each time we return, the joy of it always takes me a little bit by surprise.  This broad extended family tucks its inclusion tightly round us. They tell us ‘I love you’, ‘I miss you’, ‘Too long since we see you, my son, my daughter-in-aw, my grandson’.  They give completely from deep inside.  Unaffected, no conditions, no question.  Not many words are needed.  The first time I came I knew I was transparent to them, from the inside out.  What I feel, what I think, if I am how I say I am.  I know they make allowances for me, excuse me of things.  Insensitivities, impatience.  (p.14)

But their visit to Borroloola with their first child brings new challenges for the author.  The conditions under which the community lives put her child at risk of sickness, yet there seems to be no way that she can reconcile the dilemma:

I feel torn, like I always do in Booroloola.  The poverty is stark, confronting.  The urge is to fix it, change it, stir things up.  Yet I worry that in this urge is my judgement of the reality of their lives.  That I am comparing the grind of their very survival with the privileged pleasures of my city-slick comforts.  I wonder if my way is really a better way.  Or am I ignoring without shame what I would never accept for myself. (p.15)

There were a couple of minor matters where I had some doubts about the reliability of the author’s reportage.  There was, for example, a young woman who died not long after a kidney transplant:

… but her family got her drinking again and she got sick.  But they didn’t know she was so sick.  No-one had told them she was so sick.  A shock.

I do find it hard to believe that anyone could go through a very serious procedure like a kidney transplant and the family not know just how serious it was. Particularly since kidney disease is rife in Aboriginal communities.

One of the aspects of traditional life that I would find very difficult to reconcile for myself is the very strict gender roles that the author describes.  Moriaty says that feminism is ‘unfathomable‘ at Borroloola where there is ‘deep respect’ and ‘a valued respective place in the world’.  Male knowledge and female knowledge are exclusive, and each must be guarded carefully under their Law.  I understand that this is an ancient cultural tradition that has the force of Law for Aboriginal people, but like most women of my generation I had to join the struggle for gender equality in the 1970s because there were all sorts of barriers in my education, my workplace, and even my social life.  I could not now willingly surrender the gains that have been made.  I refuse to be defined or pigeonholed because I am female, and I will not submit to being either limited in access or granted special rights on the grounds of my gender.   I won’t, for example, travel to places and spend my tourist dollars where I have to cover myself from head-to-foot because the state religion deems it necessary for women but not for men.  While I’m unlikely ever to be in a position similar to Ros Moriarty who was expected to trek out into the desert to perform ceremony in strict isolation from the menfolk, I have felt confronted by signs in an indigenous art exhibition in Melbourne which requested that women keep out.  I was equally confronted by limitations on women’s entry to temples in Indonesia, and while I cooperated with these requests out of my own choice to be courteous, I was privately angry about it.

One of the issues raised by Ros Moriarty’s book is the tragedy of indigenous knowledge dying out because it can only be passed on to initiated people – and initiation is gender-based too.  When young indigenous people of the next generation themselves are in some way not ready or willing to receive this information, it is lost, and lost forever.  Like many people of goodwill in this country, the author doesn’t really have a solution for this dilemma, and the preservation of indigenous languages is problematic too.

Listening to Country is a chastening book to read.  Although it’s not a substitute for reading the authentic stories of indigenous authors, I recommend it as a window into indigenous life in remote communities.

Author: Ros Moriaty
Title: Listening to Country, A Journey to the Heart of What It Means to Belong
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2010
ISBN: 9781742378152
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond


Fishpond: Listening to Country


  1. Ah, yes, I should read this book. Moriarty is the man who designed the art work for that gorgeous Qantas plane isn’t he? I admire people who can make a relationship work across such different cultural boundaries … and I reckon her story would be useful for us to read along side those by indigenous writers.


  2. Lisa, thanks for the review of this book. It sounds wonderful and I think I might try and get this for the Indigenous reading week (this does count?) Either way, it sounds a great story.

    In response to whisperinggums – oh the paintings on the side of the Qantas planes! To pass the time when in Sydney airport last year we tried to count how many different images we could see on the planes. It passed the time when really I needed to sleep after the long haul from the UK.


  3. Yes, the book also includes the story of how they developed their design business and the Qantas plane is a wonderful part of that story. (There are beaut photos in the book too).
    But Julie, I’m not sure how to answer your question about whether it ‘counts’ for Indigenous Literature Week: reading Ros’s account of how she was welcomed into the family suggests that in one way, it would ‘count’ (and also, she says that it turns out that she may actually have indigenous ancestry in Tasmania). But in another way, it’s not really in the spirit of ILW to read a book by someone who doesn’t identify herself as indigenous, but consistently identifies herself as a White woman of non-indigenous background. Then again, in yet another way, it does count to read a book so passionately concerned with indigenous issues.
    *chuckle* I think the best way to resolve it is to read two books, the other one by an indigenous author!


    • Lisa, I re read the review again and the “rules” of Indigenous Lit Week and of course can now see it doesn’t count. That said, I am going to read this, because it sounds wonderful and fascinating and in fact I used the thought process to write this week’s Thursday Thread at Historical Fiction with a link to your review.

      The book is downloading to Kindle (iPad reader actually) as I type and I am going to start the book whilst having a late lunch.

      Thanks for the review and the inspired reading!


  4. her story sounds like a women that has made her way in the face of old views ,good for her and for letting people know it can be done connecting across cultures ,all the best stu


  5. […] that many whites had family histories that were very closely entwined with Aborigines.’ (see my review of Ros Moriaty’s book Listening to Country for more about this most inspiring […]


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