Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 26, 2016

Indigenous Language Intensive, Day Two with Bruce Pascoe

Yesterday was Day Two of the Indigenous Language Intensive program organised by Writers Victoria.  Our facilitator was author, educator and researcher Bruce Pascoe who has Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin Indigenous heritage.

Bruce’s message was simple: if you want to include Aboriginal issues, stories or characters in your writing (and often you should) then you can do the research (and you should), but it is also essential to talk to the people whose story it is.  You can only tell the story that you’ve been told, not what you’ve read.  He mentioned a well-known Australian author who repeated in his novel a story that he should never have been told and explained about the hurt this caused to the Aboriginal people of that place.  I could see by the expression on people’s faces that they would never want to cause that kind of distress.  The issue is, how to avoid it?  Did that author know that he was trespassing?  Did his editors?

Reinforcing Tim Rose’s presentation from yesterday, Bruce gave a presentation that showed that writers (like everyone else) have a responsibility to learn.  He mapped the indigenous grain belt that was observed by early explorers, and he showed slides that showed both agricultural practices and buildings.  The most exciting slide showed a stone tool (held at the Australian museum) that had been proven by researcher Judith Field to have traces of starch material at least 36,000 years old.  Bruce credits the user of this tool as the world’s first baker, and admires her intelligence, firstly in experimenting with grinding the grain to make flour, then in adding water to make a dough, and finally in adding heat to make bread.  Yet we know nothing about her, except that she was here in Australia 36000 years ago.  You won’t find any mention of her at the Wikipedia page about the history of bread. But Australian Gourmet Traveller was onto the story straight away, describing a Welcome Breakfast where they enjoyed the sweet nutty flavours – flavours that Mitchell and Sturt first tasted in the 1830s and ’40s and that Aboriginal people have been enjoying for millennia. 

This is the kind of history that we Australians need to know, and research is bringing new discoveries all the time.

BTW Bruce is involved in a project to regrow indigenous grains which have many qualities that make them ideal for a drying climate.  There was a Pozible project to raise the necessary funds and you can see some of the slides that Bruce showed us here.  Bruce says that you and I will be able to buy this bread before long…

I liked Bruce’s forthright approach: he says we are all Australians, we eat breakfast here, we walk our dogs here.  Neither Blacks nor Whites are ever going to go away.  How we deal with those facts determines what kind of country we will have, what kind of Australians we will be.  (I couldn’t help thinking how relevant this also was to the current refugee debate).

Bruce asked which of us had Aboriginal ancestry.  There were a couple of participants who were confident and knowledgeable about family members from the past, and one who said there were rumours in her family, rumours which had been suppressed because of shame.  Bruce chuckled and said the rumours were probably true: in 1840, he reminded us, there were about one hundred white women in Victoria.  There were about 2000 babies born.  Do the maths, and then extrapolate down the generations…

One of the projects Bruce is involved in is a project to alter street signs and the names of places so that their Aboriginal meanings are known.  He mentioned Genoa in Gippsland, Victoria, and gave the Aboriginal word which sounds somewhat similar but I can’t reproduce here because I didn’t write it down.  Far from being a nostalgic naming for a town in Italy, our ‘Genoa’ actually means foot of the path to the mountains (i.e. the Great Dividing Range).  Wouldn’t we like to know the real meaning of names like Murrumbeena, Korumburra, Buninyong and so on?  We would indeed.  (I have always rather liked that I happen to live in a Melbourne suburb named after the town in the Cotswolds where I once visited my only aunt when I was four, though I didn’t know the name of her town when I first moved here).  Knowing the meaning and significance of our place names, Bruce says, is a matter of respect.

After morning tea, participants began sharing pieces of writing.  We were asked to bring along a piece of writing that we admired, and something we had written ourselves.  The variety of texts were amazing, and I can’t comment on all of them, but a couple stood out for me.  One was from a memoir of living in WA, where the writer had described the season using its Noongar name.  It was beautiful writing, but it was also powerful in intent.  It was asserting that for millennia the local indigenous people had named the seasons and knew the changes in flora and fauna associated with different times of the year.  (I happen to know from reading a children’s book that there are not just the European four seasons in WA).  This naming and describing gave the writing a terrific sense of place and told us that, for example, the cry of a black cockatoo heralded rain.  Bruce was on to that, because (who knew?) there are multiple kinds of black cockatoo and she needs to know which one.  He advised her to get in touch with the local people, and reminded us all that a cheery email asking for information doesn’t cut it when making initial contact with Aboriginal people because they have often learned to be distrustful of non-indigenous people.  It takes face-to-face contact, and more than a couple of meetings before people are willing to sit down over a cup of tea and share their stories.

The other piece of writing that stood out for me was Michelle Scott-Tucker’s, and not just because she’s an internet (and now f2f) friend.  Michelle is writing a bio of Elizabeth Macarthur, due for publication in 2018, and she read an excerpt from Watkin Tench’s 1788 Diary, (now issued as a Text Classic) drawing our attention to footnotes which showed Tench’s empathy for the indigenous people and the strategies he used to avoid having to obey instructions to arrest six Aborigines in reprisal (any six, it didn’t matter who they might be).  She then read an excerpt from her bio about one of Elizabeth Macarthur’s employees – and you could tell that Bruce was really pleased by the thoughtful, respectful way that it had been written.

Things didn’t go quite as planned for me so I missed the afternoon session, but I got to join the march for White Ribbon Day on my way back to Flinders Street, and although I was pressed for time I also whizzed around the John Olsen exhibition at the NGV.  And couldn’t help noticing the way he has represented our landscapes with respect for indigenous stories as well…

PS I can’t resist mentioning one participant who really annoyed me at this event.  We all listened to her contributions with courtesy (even though I couldn’t quite see the relevance of the writing she admired) but she was reading emails on her laptop all through the contributions of others.  Why would you do that?  Why would you come to a workshop that was booked out, denying other people a place, if you didn’t want to learn from it?


Responses

  1. I am enjoying Australian Indigenous Lit this year, and in reviewing and commenting on it, I am repeating and expanding on Aboriginal stories. I guess where I disagree with the author I can only say so – and at the same time acknowledge the limitations of my assertive old-white-guy-ness.

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    • Yup, that’s what I do too. Sue from WG said elsewhere, (your blog, I think? Correct me if I’m misquoting please!) that it’s better to have a go respectfully and apologise if you err, than to act as if there were no indigenous history or presence here.

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      • Haha, Lisa, I’ve said it in a few places! On my blog and probably on Bill’s. Thanks for remembering.

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  2. Thanks for the interesting information. We have so much to learn.

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    • Would I be right, Anna, in guessing that the same kinds of issues arise with contemporary Holocaust writing? That memoirs written by survivors are always valid memories of their experience, however varied they may be, but that young people writing now need to do a great deal of respectful work before they venture into that territory?

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  3. Thanks for sharing your experience of the workshops. I’ve just passed on Tench’s book to an old friend and I want it returned of course. What a rich resource we have with the indigenous culture in Australia.

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    • Hi Fay, I thought of you as soon as I saw the book Michelle had!

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  4. What a fantastic experience you’ve had!

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    • So lucky my waitlisted application came in, thanks to a cancellation!

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  5. Thanks for this great write-up Lisa. A few comments. Pascoe, as you probably remember, writes about this first baker/breadmaker in Dark emu. I was fascinated.

    On the point of talking to indigenous people, I recently reviewed a fictional book written by a white/non-indigenous Australian which had quite a bit about indigenous culture, much if not all of which she’d learnt by speaking and spending time with indigenous people. In my review I extrapolated from something she’d said in her author’s note. She emailed me to ask if I’d remove this reference because she’d made some promises when she obtained permission to use what she’d learnt – and I’d clearly, inadvertently, stepped into that space. Of course, normally I wouldn’t change a review, but this was a sensitive issue and I certainly don’t want to be the person who sets these sorts of conversations back, so I negotiated a re-wording and all is well I believe.

    Re the black cockatoo. I’d heard that theory about their heralding rain from a neighbour who has spent time in central Australia, but then someone else told me this theory has been debunked. Was Bruce’s point that not all black cockatoos do this?

    Finally, if you visit northern Australia – like Kakadu – you learn that there are 7 (I think I’m remembering the number correctly) seasons. Made me realise, once again, how much of what we think we “know” about the world is culturally-based. The sooner people learn this the better, eh?

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    • I don’t know what seasons they used to have but this year we’ve had two. Bloody cold till a couple of weeks ago, then Hot (34 today I think). Climate change probably.
      Driving around you see Black Cockatoos with red tails or white. WWF says there are 5 types and I’m guessing what I see as white-tailed are actually Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos (awsassets.wwf.org.au/downloads/sp018_fs_black_cockatoo_26feb08.pdf)

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      • Yes, I’m aware of yellow and red ones, but I wonder how many there are?

        Oh, and how many seasons in a day does Melbourne have?!

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    • Well, there your experience shows that we reviewers need to take care just as authors do, and it is easy to inadvertently ‘step into a space’. That was my motivation in doing this workshop, but one of the things I’ve learned is that paradoxically it may be harder for us than for authors. The author has months and years to sort out issues – and also has an editor to offer guidance and advice. But reviewers like us, ordinary people who read widely across numerous cultures, can’t possibly be across all cultures, and it’s not feasible for us to engage with multiple communities to establish what’s ok and what’s not. All we can do is do learn as much as we can, do our best, be open to advice and be willing to apologise and make good as you did in negotiating a change to your review.
      Re the cockatoos, I think they said there were five, but the room was noisy and I can’t be sure!
      Melbourne’s seasons? Four in a day is the current joke…

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      • Yes, agree, that’s all we can do – be as sensitive and as responsive as possible. Only four seasons? Surely you can do better than that!

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        • Hmpf… *our* four seasons are high quality seasons, decisive and forceful!
          No, seriously, we have seven, see https://museumvictoria.com.au/forest/climate/kulin.html

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          • Seems like quite a few indigenous groups have more seasons then we do – and they’re probably right.

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            • I don’t know, my vegie patch tells me that the seasons have changed quite a bit. My cauliflowers are hearting already….

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              • Plants certainly tell us what’s happening don’t they?

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  6. Thank you Lisa, for your generous and kind comments. After you left things got even more emotional and intense (in a good way). I might try and blog about it, if only to add what I can to your terrific summaries. Bruce Pascoe is truly a gifted teacher.

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    • I hope you do, Michelle, that would be great:)
      I hope we meet up again at some other bookish event in due course!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for sharing all of your insights – makes me almost feel like I was there. I’m also reading Tench’s book to try to understand what it would have been like for a convict woman then. His insights into the indigenous peoples are helpful. I’ve heard Bruce speak (at the Melbourne Writers Festival) and he was brilliant.

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    • I’ve often wished that more of those women were literate and had recorded their stories…. but of course they probably wouldn’t have been in the position they were if they’d been literate.

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      • I agree, and it was part of the times where it was only what the men did that was of interest to the scribes. The only women of interest were those who married the important men… Love a good challenge though!

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    • Try (if you haven’t already) ‘Convict Women’ by Kay Daniels. Allen & Unwin 1998. Highly recommended.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, hadn’t heard of that one, another one to add to my list!

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      • Thank you! I will

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  8. […] On day two I attended a course at Writers Victoria, run by Bruce Pascoe, called Indigenous Language Intensive. Again, Lisa at ANZLitlovers has provided a marvellous overview. […]

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