Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2017

Maybe Tomorrow, by Boori (Monty) Pryor with Meme McDonald

I first heard of Boori Monty Pryor when I discovered his children’s book Shake a Leg (2010) illustrated by Jan OrmerodI loved it straight away and incorporated it into lessons for students of all ages.  You can see why from the inspired image on the front cover, black and white kids together, the white kid learning the Shake a Leg welcome dance from the others.  It’s a great story because it’s set in a pizza parlour where the indigenous proprietor has learned the secret of the sauce in Italy (and speaks Italian) so it’s showing indigenous people successfully retaining their ancient culture while living in the modern world.   And it’s funny too.  You can see a video of the author reading it at StoryBox.  (If you don’t want to sign up, you can see a bit of it as a preview).

Two years after Shake a Leg was published, Boori Monty Pryor was appointed Australia’s inaugural Children’s Laureate, and as his memoir shows, this prestigious appointment celebrated the work he does in bringing Indigenous stories to schools all over Australia and beyond.  He was also an Ambassador for the National Year of Reading in 2012.

Maybe Tomorrow was published in 1998, before these honours acknowledged the value of the work that Pryor had been doing for a long time.  The memoir begins with the stark story of the tragedies that have befallen his family.  Most of us know the facts about the alarming rate of suicide and premature deaths amongst Indigenous people, but Pryor makes it personal.  He tells us first about one brother, then another, then a sister, then a nephew.  There are family photos in the book that show the parents and other members of the family and it’s hard to imagine how so much grief could engulf one family without crushing them.  Yet Maybe Tomorrow is an uplifting book, acknowledging the pain yet filled with optimism and determination to stay strong.

When I speak about the deaths of these four special people who died before their time, it’s not to make people say, ‘Oh, poor little blackfulla’ or make us look like victims.  What I want people to do is to really sit down and ask, ‘Why did these people die?’ Because it is an important part and structure of this country.  I’m not just speaking about my family.  Most Aboriginal families I know have lost one or two people in the same way.  As an Aboriginal family you expect that.  You really do expect that.  (p.4)

Pryor leaves the fringe camp of his home, and joins the air force where he learns important skills.  He plays sport – football and basketball – as a way of belonging in two worlds.  He becomes a DJ, he does modelling.  And finally he settles into a role that is demanding but fulfilling, doing presentations in schools that showcase his Aboriginal culture and heritage with story, dance and music.

For a long while I didn’t know why I went off to the city and did all these things […]

It was all to do with me being a link, one of the many links.  There are a lot of people who are links across the land.  The links between Aboriginal culture and the white people.  (p.118)

But he never turns his back on home.

I never turned my back on this place, Yarrabah, even though I grew up in Townsville and then moved away down south.  It’s the strength I get from Yarrabah that makes me able to get up and communicate with audiences of white people.  You can’t explain it.  Your spirit is here.  It is a feeling all around you.  A track of black mothers through time immemorial.  There’s nothing to beat that.  (p.199)

(One of the things I learned from this book, that I didn’t learn as a tourist in Townsville, is that Townsville is named after Robert Towns  who was involved in the slave trade, euphemistically called indentured labour or ‘blackbirding’ for the sugar and cotton industries.  Dalrymple’s Hotel is named after a white man who was known for killing Aboriginal people.  Wouldn’t you think they’d  change the name?  But no, as recently as 2005 they installed a statue of Towns.  What does it feel like, to be an Aborigine, in a town where they’d do such a thing?  I can’t imagine.  It beggars belief.)

Pryor reveals that it takes courage to do his presentations in schools.

It takes a lot to stand up there and face a hundred and fifty, two hundred kids, just in my juddah-jah – my little red undies – and nothing else on except this paint.  When I say paint, I mean this ochre that comes from this earth.  When I put it on, nothing can touch me.  It’s my shield or my plate of armour.  It’s something no one can take from me, my link to the strength from my past.  Believe me, you need it.  You’ve never met any of these students before in your life and you’re standing up there in your underpants.  Sometimes you’ll be standing up there in front of a whole school of adolescent girls.  (p39)

He acknowledges the strength of his own English teacher as a role model for his work:

There was an English teacher who was very special – he was a wonderful man.  He taught me how to use words instead of fists and he also had faith in me that I could write. I suppose through my eyes, at that time in my life, he was pretty uncool.  He wore shorts and long white socks.  I can’t remember him ever laughing.  All my mates thought he was pretty square – the way he spoke, his mannerisms and expressions – trying to teach this rabble the importance of using words.  I never imagined back then that one day I would be standing up in schools in front of mobs of hormonally disturbed adolescents.  At least he had his clothes on! (p47)

In primary schools the kids ask all kinds of questions, but they are rarely intentionally hostile.  Pryor says:

Don’t be afraid to ask a question.  It doesn’t matter if it is demeaning, racist, silly, ignorant, any question at all.  I will answer it truthfully and to the best of my knowledge.  If you don’t ask you will never know.  (p. 72)

Still, it’s confronting to see some of the ugly questions that secondary school students ask.

In this class, a young boy got up and asked in a really snide voice, ‘How come you Aboriginal people are so slow?  You don’t progress yourselves, and you’re lazy, and you get drunk all the time.’  Even in a situation where you expect a question like this, it still hits you like a bullet.  I asked him, ‘What’s your name?’ This is how I get my breathing space after a question like that. I get my composure so that I can answer constructively and not just fight fire with fire.

You have to be the water to put out the fire.  If you fight fire with fire, everything burns.

I went on, ‘Let me ask you something. Can you speak an Aboriginal language?’ He said, ‘No.’ ‘Do you know any Aboriginal dances?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you know any Aboriginal songs or stories?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you read any books that Aboriginal people have written?’ Every question I asked, he answered ‘no’.

By now I’d cleared myself of my anger and I went on to say, ‘I can speak your language. I can do your dances.  I know your stories, I read your books. So who is the slow one?  Who is being lazy? Aboriginal people were forced to learn your ways.  Here you are being offered a chance to learn.  No one is forcing you.  You must do this for yourself. (p.63-4)

Maybe Tomorrow is a book full of insights like this.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I’ll conclude with Pryor’s advice from page 5:

Start with the basics.  Look at the Aboriginal history from your own area and then you can go on and flow out into the bigger picture, which is the rest of Australia.  There’s a bigger picture than Australia too.  There’s the rest of the world which we’re connected to now. Going beyond Australia to the rest of the world, that’s huge.  But to have your strength, you’ve got to start from your own area.

Pryor is descended from the Birri-gubba nation of the Bowen region and the Kunggandji people from Yarrabah, near Cairns.

This is my fifth book for 2017 Indigenous Literature Week.

I live on Boonwurrung (also spelt Bunerong) land, guarded by Bunjil the eagle.  (You can hear how to pronounce the name of this language here.  Click on the marker in the southeast of metropolitan Melbourne.) Every time I host Indigenous Literature Week I read something that teaches me more about the history of the land I live on.   The language of my area is described as extinct at Wikipedia, but at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages website it says that Victorian languages are in ‘revival mode’ and that there are language awareness workshops for non-indigenous people.  So maybe one day I will be able to start learning it…

Author: Boori (Monty) Pryor
Title: Maybe Tomorrow
Publisher: Penguin, 1998
ISBN: 9780140273977
Source: Personal library, purchased secondhand somewhere.


Responses

  1. […] Maybe Tomorrow, see my ANZLitlovers review […]

  2. What an extraordinary man. His way of dealing with that awkward boy in class was masterful

    • Yes, it was… I don’t think I would have had such self-control, or been able to turn it around so that it was a learning experience for everyone else there.

      • Exactly – that takes real people management skill as well as diplomacy

  3. I’ll have to get Shake a Leg for the grandkids!

    • Oh, yes, they will love it, and you can learn the dance with them!

  4. This is an insightful review of the memoir. I knew some basic facts about Pryor’s literary background but I didn’t know about the extent of his cultural work with schools. It’s good to know that Australia’s literacy and cultural institutions are creating distinguished positions and opportunities for Pryor to educate students and the general public at large about systemic problems of death and oppression amongst aboriginal communities.

    I ditto the blog post writers on Pryor’s grace in handling the racist, ignorant student. Through this particular experience, he reminds us of the important work society (world-wide) needs to do to be culturally literate and social and politically aware of discrimination and oppression at work against people who have been historically marginalized and develop means for better educating others on unity and acceptance.

    It would be nice if Boori (Monty) Pryor could visit the United States and conduct workshops and readings for both children and adults at large. Monty and several other Australian Aboriginal literary activists are doing the necessary work to educate. It’s up to us to be receptive to learn.

    • What seems a bit disheartening is that the same work needs to be done again and again with each new generation. That’s why I think that this cultural work needs to be backed up by strong anti-discrimination laws as well.

      • I agree with you Lisa on that point on legal reform. Aboriginal activist writers and scholars Stan Grant, Dr. Anita Heiss, Dr. Jackie Huggins, Dr. Marcia Langton, Larissa Behrendt, and Melissa Lucashenko would continue to stress this point.


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