Language and politics in Indigenous writing

Introduction: Arnold Zable, panel chair and president of Melbourne PEN

The preservation of Indigenous languages is a major concern of International PEN, and a challenge for Indigenous peoples worldwide. While some languages survive, many have become extinct and with them a way of life, a way of being, of navigating the world. I cannot think of a more urgent topic for this year’s Melbourne PEN session at the Melbourne Writers Festival than ‘Language and Politics in Indigenous Writing.’

Linguist John Bradley has sat with the Yanyuwa people of the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria for three decades and through language has gained insights into the Yanyuwa way of knowing the world. Singing Saltwater Country is his account of his journey into that world. The retrieval of the Noongar language is a passionate concern of Kim Scott and features in all his work. Scott weaves language into his groundbreaking novel That Deadman Dance with powerful effect. Darwin-based novelist Marie Munkara is a distinct new voice in Australian literature. Her debut novel Every Secret Thing is a biting satire about the mission experience which, among many things, integrates Indigenous words into the text.

The 1000-word limit for the follow-up essays was a tough ask. Yet each essay offers unique insights into Indigenous languages, their adaptations and their critical importance in the contemporary world.

John Bradley

Yamulu, marnijingarna jarna-barlirranji Yanyuwa wuka, jarna-wunkanyinji marda, li-wankala li-bardibardi baki li-malbu kanalu-ngunda ngatha jakarda barra wuka, ngayamantharra li-kularrkularr jalini li-lhungku, nalarrku kalinymaba-mirra wiji warriya li-luku marningarna munanga Yanyuwangala jiwini mulungka ngathangka.

Okay, here I am writing Yanyuwa words, I can also talk this language, the old people, the old men and women have given me many words, now there are only a few of them alive, so many have died, the poor things, I am here a white man talking Yanyuwa, these words sit in my mouth.

As a white person working with the Yanyuwa people of the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria, in a township called Borroloola, a thousand kilometres south-east of Darwin, I have been blessed with amazing experiences, teachers and mentors. Yanyuwa is a language with sixteen noun classes, a language that has separate ways of speaking for men and women, a language that has special ways of speaking depending whether you are on the mainland or on the islands and sea. The more, however, I think about this language, the hardest thing to write about or explain is how the language seems to belong in the land and sea: it is as if it rises up out of the Yanyuwa country.

Yanyuwa people are ‘saltwater people’ – li-Anthawirriyarra – people whose spiritual origins come from the sea. The old ladies at Borroloola composed a song about these origins, which they still sing:

Marnaji ngambala
layirli-nganji waliwaliyangka

We are the people
Whose spirits are from the sea
We are the people who are kin to the island country
(composed by Dinah Norman, Annie Karrakayny and Eileen McDinny, 1992)

The song was written for the judge during a land claim to stress how important the islands and the sea country are for the Yanyuwa people.

Today, only the old people speak Yanyuwa. A lot of other people can understand it, but they can’t speak it, which is something the old people continue to worry about. I have worked with them for thirty years to get younger people interested in Yanyuwa language and culture. For instance, we are still working on the Yanyuwa encyclopedic dictionary, which gets bigger and bigger as the old people think of more things to include.

We have made two films, which both won awards. The first, Buwarrala Akarriya (Journey East), made in 1988, is about walking back into country that no-one had visited since just after the Second World War. In 1992, we made ka-Wayawayama (Aeroplane Dance), which is about Yanyuwa people searching for a crashed Liberator bomber.

With the old people, we have made an atlas of Yanyuwa country so that the young people can really read and understand the law of their country.

Then there are the animations – seven already – which are an attempt to get the young people to watch stories from their country, to hear the language of their people. It is an attempt to have grandparents sit with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and so far the results have been encouraging. One of the first was The Crow and the Chicken Hawk, which is about why people have fire and water. One could think fire and water are simple enough words but Yanyuwa has so many different words for these things. Buyuka is fire, a word anyone can hear and use, but if you are speaking to your sister or your female cousin or your brother-in-law you have to say wumayangka, and then if you are out on the islands you have to say bujibuji. Wabuda is water, but if you speak to those same relatives you have to say ngalulu and if you are out on the islands, the fresh water from the springs is called ngayulu. So speaking Yanyuwa always keeps you on your toes and in any writing or representation of Yanyuwa language and culture these things have to be demonstrated: it is the Law of the language.

When the British flag was raised at Sydney Cove 222 years ago, there were 250 separate languages spoken on the continent later known as Australia. There were therefore 250 cultures, nations, each with their way of understanding the place they called home. In addition, there were at least 600 dialects of these languages. Whichever way these numbers are viewed they speak of diversity. In 2011, less than one hundred of these languages are spoken, some by only one or two people; of this one hundred, 15 are considered strong: that is, all generations of the language community are speaking the language.

On average, two of Australia’s Indigenous languages are disappearing a year. It has been suggested by some linguists that by 2050 there may only be a handful being spoken. Thus we are confronted by an epidemic of silencing that will result in language and cultural loss, an epidemic that has in part been produced by thinking that everything we need to know can be said in English. Yet only now, as these languages fall silent, have biological and ecological scientists begun to see how much of the knowledge that lives in these languages and cultures is also of value to them: fine-grained details of species and micro-environments have been named and worked with for millennia by Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. In the words of the Malawian-born author Amadou Hampaté Bâ from 1966: ‘An old person dying is a library burning.’

Outside of my own intimate personal life, to hear a language fall silent, a language so enmeshed into the land we now call Australia, continues to be one of my saddest experiences.

Kim Scott

Sometimes Indigenous language – specifically, Noongar – is very important to my writing, sometimes not at all. This importance, however, may not necessarily be to the reading and interpretation of the story, and occasionally it might be the very absence of Indigenous language that is most significant. I think this is the case with my novel Benang, in which the narrator repeatedly makes utterances that, within the novel, are unequivocally recognised as the sounds of his ancestral place. I intended this as a metaphor for Indigenous language. The sounds that demonstrate his ‘authenticity’ and the strength of his connection to that place are not reproduced but only described, and they suggest – or so I would like to think – ‘untold’ stories that are not among those available to conventional researchers scouring the archives. The title itself is a word from Noongar language and translates as ‘tomorrow’.

Perhaps such use of language is so obscure that it can only ever be private. I offer these examples not as some indicator of how the novel should be ‘correctly’ interpreted, but merely as a frank contemplation of my writing.

Kayang and Me, my book written with Noongar elder Hazel Brown, is written mainly in English, but illustrates the importance of Noongar language to personal and collective identity, especially when uttered in the context of the landscape that serves as the ‘text’ for language and its stories. Surely there can be little doubt that Indigenous language has something very special to offer in terms of its inseparability from its natural environment.

John Bradley referred to language and song in the landscape as an almost dormant energy that human agents can arouse and amplify. I think the descendants of the people who created that language are the right and necessary ones to enact that energy, to bring that language back to life. Yet they need collaborators and interested listeners, too. The very act of language regeneration can reveal the extent of historical damage along with, importantly, a narrative of survival, resilience, recovery and inclusion. Add collaboration to this mix and you have a fine expression of ‘reconciliation’ through active recovery of the most ancient expression of the spirit of place, and through people making themselves instruments of that spirit by sharing.

In hindsight, writing Kayang and Me was the formal beginning to a considerable amount of what I call ‘cultural consolidation’ with elders and other significant community members to both rebuild and reconnect to heritage. Some of my most recent writing has been of this nature, and a series of community-based workshops over a number of years has culminated in Mamang and Noongar Mambara Bakitj: two bilingual (Noongar and English) picture books being published by the University of Western Press. Because Noongar is an endangered language and such an important marker of identity, the process has necessarily been collective and included engaging a ‘community of descendants’ with the language and stories of their ancestors in ways that both consolidate that knowledge and provide for considerable control over how it is shared.

The effort to revitalise my ancestral language in this way is so tied up with who I am and my vocation as a writer that I do not feel the need to weave Indigenous language through my work merely to posture difference or even ‘authenticity’. But I do believe that the experience of regaining one’s ancestral language after being ‘linguistically displaced’ has dimensions it is difficult to articulate here.

The role of Indigenous language in That Deadman Dance is different again.

Originally, that novel had the working title, Rose a Wail, a (poor) pun on a whale breaking from the ocean surface and the hint of an inarticulate cry of anguish. I wondered about the possibility of conveying a Noongar language sensibility as it emerged in English: would this mean a transformation of the language or an adjustment of the sensibility or, and probably most likely, both? The first word of the novel is an attempt by a Noongar character to render a Noongar word in English spelling; the novel concludes with the central character delivering a speech in Noongar. But even more than this sparse spattering across pages and pages of English, Noongar language influences the imagery, rhythm and characters of the novel. This is not necessarily conscious or intended, but is more the product of a growing awareness of the insights and perspectives Noongar language can enable. This process is not overt, perhaps more like that of osmosis. It may not be important to the interpretation of the novel, but was integral to its construction.

For several years I worked on That Deadman Dance, along with the language project that led to the bilingual picture books. They were separate activities but, conducted concurrently, provided a possible solution to the dilemma shared by a number of postcolonial and Indigenous writers who write in English. Often, we write in the language of the coloniser. Possibly, those with whom we most identify form a minority of our readership. And then there are obvious pressures to act, rather than ‘merely’ write, to force change, to supply ‘ammunition for the cause’, to directly contribute to community development.

In the face of those pressures I split my efforts. On the one hand, I explore and create narratives in English, and let the work find its own way according to largely aesthetic, ‘literary’ considerations. On the other, I try to revitalise my ancestral language by bringing together archival linguistic knowledge and descendants of the linguists’ ‘informants’ in ways that, by spreading in ever-widening, concentric circles, attempt to help a contemporary Noongar community (as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board puts it) ‘claim, control and enhance’ our heritage.

Marie Munkara

The spoken word is one of the most powerful weapons that we have on this planet. Words can be used as weapons of mass destruction and they can be used to heal the human heart. Although society teaches us to look at language in the context of words, language is something that is far more encompassing. To me language is the distinctive but intangible voice of my soul, it is the voice of who I am and where I belong in the world and in relation to other people. Where I come from (northern Arnhem Land and Tiwi Islands), language cannot be separated from anything else because it is interwoven into our culture. But for the purpose of this article I’ll stick to using language in the context of words.

I discovered recently that, thanks to my wonderfully literate and multilingual Indigenous family, English was one of five ‘tongues’ I was conversant in and understood by the tender age of three. Although the other four were natural languages – a language that is first spoken then written – my ancestors clearly realised that if they were to survive in a world where our language and culture had very little value in the eyes of the colonisers, then we needed to know their words. We needed to know the words in order to understand the colonisers because we had to accept that it was live beside them or die, and knowing their words takes you closer to knowing the people. This worked to a certain extent but it is impossible to encapsulate the essence of another language or culture by words alone. A language needs to be lived before it can be understood.

I have seen some interesting changes in the Tiwi language over the past twenty years, both in the pronunciation and in the alarming number of foreign words starting to replace the old words. Obviously since colonisation there have been new situations and objects where no words previously existed and these words automatically become incorporated into the language, but the old Tiwi that I first learned is now being replaced by modern Tiwi or, as I call it, Tiwi Creole. Maybe the alarmingly high incidences of otitis media in Tiwi children have contributed to the mispronunciation of many words now. For instance, pularti (breast milk) is now pronounced ‘ploddy’.

But maybe the faster pace of our society is causing us to rush our words, with no care taken to ensure that they remain pure. If the Tiwi language still exists in another hundred years, I don’t believe that I will be able to understand a word of it. Although there are books with the written form of our language, a piece of paper with words on it cannot accurately convey the right inflections and nuances to a reader or non-fluent speaker of the language. And if a language dies, then the fundamental part of that culture is missing and can never be replaced. Although a great deal of work has been done to preserve Indigenous languages, ours were never meant to be written, so there will always be parts lost in the transition from oral to paper.

But how does language get transformed from a cognitive faculty that enables us to communicate with each other to something political? It’s a complete mystery to me. And although many people have said that my book Every Secret Thing is profoundly political, I still have difficulty seeing it that way because the issues in the book, like the removal of children, or clergy molesting children in their care, are everyday things for me. As ugly as they are, these things have happened to me and they have happened to members of my family so they fit more within the realms of the personal. But even though it wasn’t my intent to create a political work I can appreciate that others might see it that way.

But then maybe that’s the way I’m wired because as I write my second book, I find myself once again eagerly searching for more dirt. Who can I make look like a fool this time, I wonder. I’m not politically motivated and I don’t set out to draw attention to the inadequacies of government policies or religious groups but it’s interesting that the things I find the most amusing happen to be, well, political. And why do I feel compelled to write about Indigenous events and situations instead of non-Indigenous? I think the answer may be that I have a wealth of information to use, so why struggle with something else that I don’t know as much about or that doesn’t interest me greatly?

When I started out as a writer I didn’t want to be classified as an Indigenous author; rather I wanted to be an author who happened to be Indigenous. I’ve given up on that idea now because people take one look at my face and I am immediately labelled despite my objections. So I have chosen to save my energy instead for looking for more things to amuse and shock people with. I’d like to think that something I’ve written has positively altered perceptions because there is still a lot of ignorance and fear out there about the race of people I belong to.

I am beginning to think that being born an Indigenous person means that you are immediately catapulted into the political arena and that’s where you stay until death releases you. So if being born can be perceived as a political act, then it stands to reason that everything we do and say is political as well. With that in mind I think I understand now that when it comes to Indigenous writing, language and politics can never be separate. Even though writing about uncomfortable issues may be seen as an act of defiance (whether politically motivated or not), to create and draw attention to contentious matters can only be a good thing.

* The Melbourne PEN panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and these essays were generously funded by the Copyright Agency Limited.

John Bradley is Acting Director of the Monash Indigenous Centre and Program Director for the Monash Country Lines Archive at Monash University and the author of Singing Saltwater Country.

Kim Scott was born in 1957 in Perth and is a descendant of the Indigenous Noongar people. His second novel, Benang, won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards 1999, the Miles Franklin Award 2000 and the RAKA Kate Challis Award 2001. His latest novel, That Deadman Dance, won the 2011 Miles Franklin Award. He is currently based at Curtin University in Perth as Associate Professor, Indigenous Health.

Marie Munkara was born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhemland. Her first book Every Secret Thing won the 2008 David Unaipon Award and the 2010 NT Book of the Year. She lives in Darwin with her menagerie of cats, dogs and frogs.

© John Bradley, Kim Scott and Marie Munkara

Overland 205-summer 2011, p. 55–60

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John Bradley

John Bradley is Acting Director of the Monash Indigenous Centre and Program Director for the Monash Country Lines Archive at Monash University and the author of Singing Saltwater Country.

Kim Scott

Kim Scott was born in 1957 in Perth and is a descendant of the Indigenous Noongar people. His second novel, Benang, won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards 1999, the Miles Franklin Award 2000 and the RAKA Kate Challis Award 2001. His latest novel, That Deadman Dance, won the 2011 Miles Franklin Award. He is currently based at Curtin University in Perth as Associate Professor, Indigenous Health.

Marie Munkara

Marie Munkara was born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhemland. Her first book Every Secret Thing won the 2008 David Unaipon Award and the 2010 NT Book of the Year. She lives in Darwin with her menagerie of cats, dogs and frogs.

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