Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2021

WillyLitFest: Nardi Simpson in conversation with Nelly Thomas

The Williamstown Literary Festival was cancelled, but the Hobson’s Bay Library pivoted quickly and so this event went digital.

Nelly Thomas was in conversation with Nardi Simpson about her novel Song of the Crocodile. Nardi, winner of a black&write Writing Fellowship, is a Yuwaalaray woman from North West NSW.

The conversation began with Nelly asking about place, and Nardi reminded us that when Indigenous people talk about being from a town like Darnmoor in the 60s, what they mean is the outskirts of the town in town camps.  Nardi says she wrote the story not from her own lived experience, but from her father’s and so it was important to her to be faithful to that.

Nelly had heaps of questions prepared, but her very first question was about how we tend to look at Indigenous town camps from a deficit model, but there are strengths to living in those camps, especially the sense of family and community.  Nardi’s book is about a time that was a very specific moment in history for the family: before what came after, a time to which you can never go back.  Nelly commented that Nardi has created her story so that a reader feels an existential longing to recreate that time.  But Nardi said you can waste time trying to go back, but rather than wishing you were back in that time, it’s better to recreate the feelings of connection so that you can feel the same way in the ‘now.’

Beautiful memories are made in moments of time.

Nelly then asked about the arc of the book, commenting that the first few chapters at the camp and the camp life and the relationships between the mothers and the children was so beautiful, but as it progresses there is pain.  There is violence in the environment because of floods and there is violence caused by people… Did Nelly plan the novel that way?

Nardi laughed and said she is not a ‘planner’.  She wanted to write about family love, resilience and survival, and to evoke how great people are, how great blackfellas are at making something out of nothing.  So she didn’t ‘set up’ the early chapters to contrast with what comes later.

The novel is not just nostalgia, but it speaks to a universal yearning for a time less complicated, less busy and with space to do things differently.  Everyone wants more time to do the things we love and want to do.  Progress is what we put so much effort into, but sometimes it alienates people from what really matters to them.  Nardi”s book asks: what do we gain and what do we lose when we make a journey to bring progress to the family?

Writing about death: Nelly says Nardi’s style is unique.  What struck her was that the manner of physical death was irrelevant, because Nardi writes in a spiritual way.  Nardi said that she wanted to show the incremental damage of painful events large and small, and the intergenerational pain as it accumulates.  But also that people are never really lost to us.  When Margaret dies, the moment is told like this:

Margaret knew it was her time.  She waited till they were both well asleep before she left them.  She was glad her life had been of some use, and that good, in the form of her darling daughters, had come from her time on the plains.  Her journey on the earth was peaceful.  Travelling over the river, she was released from never-ending change, deposited in the pocket of steady continuance that was her burruguu. On her way towards the Laughing Star she saw her grandmother, Malawildhuulmuranga, the Littlest Shadow at the Darkest Time Before the Dawn.  When her baagii joined Margaret, she thanked her granddaughter for remembering her, and for once again singing the song she had taught her all those years ago. (p.149)

One of the other themes is the theme of denial and the denial of history in Australia.  Darnmore, the setting of the novel, is built on a massacre site, but white characters in the novel don’t want to know about it or be reminded of it.  This is reflective of the national denial: some people don’t want to face up to what was done, and the denial is so deep.  Nardi says that the power of Truth-telling, as in the Statement from the Heart, is that then there can be discussion about the issues that come from that.

The character of Paddy was the catalyst for the novel, because Nardi felt that he is the ‘too-hard basket’ — he’s the boy you see on the news who’s committed the horrible crime, the one who was always going to end up in ‘juvie’ and would come to a bad end.  Nardi wanted to explore why and how this happens, and how fellas like him are part of the Indigenous story, but she tells his story from love. He’s conceived in violence but readers want to look after him and cherish him.  The way his story unfolds is gentle, we see him yabbying, trying to have loving relationships with his family.  She wants readers to have some kind of understanding of the lives of kids like Paddy.

Nelly talked about how she loves the nostalgic references to food all through the novel.  The meals are cooked with love and thought, they are indicators of time and place and part of the memories of that time.

This was such a wonderful conversation.  Nelly was brilliant at steering the chat across some very serious issues yet she could still make us smile and laugh.  Nardi was so wise and generous in what she had to say, I know I am going to love reading this book when I read it for #IndigLitWeek.

If you want to join me in Indigenous Literature Week, have a look at all the wonderful books there are to choose from on the ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Reading List, and sign up on this page.




  1. I loved this novel and I hope you do as well.


    • It’s top of the pile after Where the Fruit Falls which I am reading now.
      But I soooo far behind with my reviews!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think characters like this are often a draw, for authors, into writing stories: the quest for understanding. It’s wonderful that it’s handled here from a place of love. Somewhere in my apocalyptic climate-crisis research, I came across the idea that teaching oneself to default to a place of love (in contrast to fear/hate) is vitally important to the cooperative effort towards survival.


    • I’ve just started reading this, and am about 100 pages in. The prose is exquisite.


  3. […] digital option, I was able to hear Nardi Simpson talking about her book with Nelly Thomas at the WillyLitFest which made me even more keen to read […]


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