Margaret Somerville is a writer firmly engaged in the land she is standing on and all the past and present that come with it. Her fifth book, Singing the Coast, perfectly illustrates this. Written in conjunction with Tony Perkins, a Garby elder from the Gumbaynggirr nation, Singing the Coast explores the way that this connection changes as stories are told and retold as more of the history gets known. Singing the Coast also explores the difficulty of language translation and of recording an oral culture in a written text. It looks at the gaps that this creates, gaps that are filled with each telling and retelling of stories of place.
The book, for the most part, concerns itself with the stories that make up the history of the area around Corindi Lake. A place known as No Man’s Land because it’s a small section of land along the NSW coast that was entirely missed by the missionary and the welfare board. As Singing the Coast shows, this place becomes a sanctuary for those families that lived there. A place in which they could speak Gumbaynggirr and practice their culture, although as Singing the Coast shows, this practice of culture has changed with the passing of generations.
The first chapter, ‘Singing differently’, outlines the way in which country is called through the songs that are sung, the way in which they are recorded and passed down, and how this has changed as the years have gone by. As Tony Perkins puts it:
We see it as a new way of getting our message through… we tried all the avenues of holding all the information, we tried all the retaliation of marching in the streets, being locked up because of riots, but the political power there was too great, you couldn’t defeat it,… The only way we can fight against that political power is now through, to come out with the knowledge, the power knowledge within Aboriginal people and let that go so it is recorded. That’s why we attached ourselves [to the research], to gain the power behind our statements.
The second chapter takes a look at a ‘massacre story’ and explores the intricacies of the way it is told and retold, of the hidden meanings and understanding gained by the different telling of the story. The chapter explores the notion of massacre and what it means to hear these stories. The massacre the book refers to took place at a spot known as Red Rock, north of Coffs Harbour. As told, the massacre involved an undisclosed number of people shot as they hung around the mouth of the river, their bodies falling into the river, their blood colouring the rock red. The chapter unveils the way in which this story is told, first as taboo: don’t go near that point. Then as time passed, it’s told in full, the whole story known. Two people are said to have survived this massacre and escaped by swimming through a cave system, ending up in No Man’s Land. Here, the complexities of massacre stories are examined and the chapter tells in a lot more detail of the difficult middle ground in recording and telling stories.
The third and fourth chapters concern themselves with the physicality of No Man’s Land. Be that through the experience of Magaret Somerville walking through the place, or recounting all the food that can be found: pippis, turtle, jewfish, even kangaroo and wallaby. We are told of the development of houses there, formed from old bark and leaves. It is in this chapter that the past is bought to life so vividly, not just through Tony’s stories, but the stories of the rest of the Garby Elders. This echo of the past is elaborated on in the fifth chapter, the spirits in place. Here, Magaret Somerville, through these stories, tells the history of the old spirits of the land, of they way in which they are sung out.
The book then moves from No Man’s Land to further south, to the Numbucca Heads Cultural Centre. This chapter illustrates the long process (the book was written after 10 years of working with the Garby Elders, a period which produced many discussion papers and historical sheets) of recording stories. The cross-checking, and the deep mapping involved where each story is written onto a map so the connections – of people and place, of people and story, of people with place, of people with story – are told and understood. It’s a place where these stories become common shared knowledge and reveals how this exchange happens and the reasons it needs to happen.
Finally, the book connects those dots that bring the stories and language back to the country on which they are spoken. It traces those original songlines through a landscape that has changed tremendously. Singing the Country shows how this cultural knowledge is passed on through generations, how this land and its stories are conveyed to those who have long left the place, how through this passing of story the knowledge of the land is passed on.
Overall, the book itself is a revealing read. It transforms a place, the Northern part of NSW, from a list of names on a map into an intricate web of connected stories: a place in which the currents of the past run freely alongside the paths of the present and future. It reveals a way in which a deeper understanding of the land and all the trauma of it can be revealed and begin to be understood.