Type
Essay
Category
Aboriginal Australia
Poetry

Reading Interruptions: a review of Roe and Muecke

The Children’s Country: Creation of a Goolarabooloo Future in North-West Australia

There is a Bugarrigarra story from north-west Australia about spirit children, the rayi, who emerge from the water to create future children in the minds of dreamers. Among other things, the story suggests that rights and obligations can be inherited as well as bestowed. The story is significant to Paddy Roe, a Nyigina man from Broome in Western Australia, whose authority and custodianship is linked to a vision of a pregnant stingray he experienced with his wife, Mary Pikalli. In part, the vision conveyed the future coming of children in his family. After his children were born, Roe was entrusted by Jabirr Jabirr elders with upholding their custodianship to Country, as his future children would inherit this responsibility. At the time, there were no Jabirr Jabirr children to inherit these responsibilities following years of open violence, government-sanctioned removals, disease and environmental devastation.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Broome-Kimberley region became a frontier for colonisation and immigration, shielded as it had been from the earliest waves of British colonisation. The region’s pearl industry threw together elements that ‘weren’t just there or evolving naturally, but had to be forced into place and made to work together’. Divers, merchants and traders arrived from across the Southeast Asian region, totalling 67 797 people from 1899 to 1961, with 62 836 from the Southeast Asian archipelago according to Stefanie Affeldt (‘The white experiment’). Often blackbirded into the pearl industry, Aboriginal people were banned from coming into Kimberley townships until 1967. These experiences disrupted the flow of knowledge through territory, language or bloodlines to necessitate other means of distributing ‘attachments, rights and obligation to Country’.

The question of how to pass on knowledge concerns The Children’s Country: Creation of a Goolarabooloo Future in North-West Australia (2020), a book co-authored posthumously by Roe after his passing in 2001 and cultural theorist Stephen Muecke. The book originally derives from a series of tape-recorded interviews with Roe, the most notable in 1985, transcribed by Muecke and reproduced in an article with Oceania in 1988. There, Muecke notes that Roe’s voice ‘is to be relayed further, for this text is destined for his next book which I am to be responsible for writing’. The interview touches on a variety of subjects relating to land rights in the Broome–Kimberley region. Roe differentiates between the ethical and politicised meanings of land rights: ‘we’re not going to take the country away from somebody … we all gotta live together’. In Roe’s words, the political and the ethical reflect a split between older and younger generations of Aboriginal people. He attempted to bring these sides together across the interview, and Muecke comments, 

‘Paddy Roe, in this text, offers a position for the “young generation” to take up, in which they can become something. At the same time he writes himself out of his position, he kills himself off and the last word is his daughter’s’ 

Roe’s words in The Children’s Country will find a different set of readers than the ones who read the original 1988 article, readers more cautious of who has the right to tell a particular story. Muecke anticipates this difference by picking apart the specific conditions in which knowledge emerges, making his own voice answerable to the stories it retells.

The Children’s Country transplants Roe’s interview within the context of the Roe family’s involvement in a political campaign against Woodside Petroleum. From 2009 to 2013, a major Indigenous and environmentalist alliance waged a successful campaign to stop a huge industrial development, a $45 billion liquefied gas plant proposed by Woodside. The Woodside conflict is like something out of an Alexis Wright novel: ‘a mixture of technology and fantasy, glimpses of spirituality amid religious dogma, corporate culture, secret fishing spots, ghosts and problems with the law’. It had all the main players: traditional owners, isolated country towns, environmentalists, Indigenous leaders, a local council, fly-in politicians and the overwhelming gravity of a mining corporation. In Wright’s novel, Carpentaria (2006), Joseph Midnight and the eastern Desperance communities invent a fictitious Aboriginal identity to profit from a working relationship with the mine and the local council, whereas the resistant Pricklebush community are maligned by the town. Woodside cut a similar fault line across the community; the gas hub promised billions of dollars to local Aboriginal corporations, groups and spokespersons, acting in collaboration with state and corporate entities, whereas more politically resistant communities faced legal and political persecution. The Roe family were active participants in the conflict, eventually succeeding in upholding their custodianship over Country, as Woodside decided that the cost of the gas hub outweighed its benefits.

I’d like to briefly speak to my own circuitous connection to the Woodside story to mirror Muecke’s commitment to divulge the lived experiences surrounding The Children’s Country. Around the time he republished Textual Spaces, I was a very enthusiastic (if very uncoordinated) member of the an Under 9s Balmain Boomers baseball team Muecke coached. Suffice it to say that with the publication of The Children’s Country, I am somewhat more conscious of his academic work. During the Woodside conflict, my dad, Peter Botsman, published an independently commissioned report condemning the proposed gas hub, entitled Land Below the Top Soil, arguing that the economic justification for the pipeline was ‘not sufficient to (1) destroy the significant traditional cultural heritage of the area (2) to destroy a pristine and precious coastal environment (3) and to fundamentally undermine the people-centred tourist and cultural economy of the Broome region’.

At the time, reports like these were hotly contested. I can still remember my dad receiving anonymous death threats after releasing his findings. Before I began writing this review, I asked my dad about the significance of Roe and Muecke’s collaboration. He replied that their collaboration gave voice to generations who cared for Country, and had something of an iron-clad quality, with a painstaking commitment to detail that could not be ignored, authorised by experts in several academic fields.

All this is to say that I may not offer a bipartisan review of The Children’s Country; although, as Muecke indicates, this bipartisanship may be beside the point. Being partisan, he writes, promises objectivity while falsifying the specific conditions that allow knowledge to come into being, a position that allows for universal or normative claims:

If, in the process, ‘academic objectivity’ is seen to be sacrificed, then this is but one symptom of living in times demanding a new kind of enlightenment. Everything will have to change with today’s catastrophic climatic upheaval, not unlike those that have been visited on many Indigenous peoples in the past, ones that threaten the existence of a whole cosmos.

The Children’s Country tells us that faith in bipartisanship belies the structural conditions that endanger our environments. At its best, objectivity is a kind of illusion conjured to facilitate the logics of a free market, and at its worst, a deliberate evasion of peoples’ interests. Muecke reminds us that Woodside relied on its own partisan defenders, who argued for ‘“what is good for the country”, or rather what is good for the stakeholders: a gigantic gas plant!’ The statement ‘what is good for the country’ reminds me of the ex-Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s question, ‘How good is Australia?’, which is to say that it offers no rhetorical alternative to a positive response.

The Children’s Country interrupts exceptionalist fantasies of bipartisanship. Borrowing from Brecht and Benjamin, Muecke defines interruption as a break in regular operations that draws attention to the constitution of an overarching system. Muecke gives the example of a car running smoothly, only for the engine to cut out, a breakdown that forces the driver to assess the working of the system that allows the car to operate. If we ever took the car’s capacity to get us to where we need to go for granted, interruption forces us to recognise that the car is in need of repair. In this case, the interruption caused by the political campaign against Woodside prompted researchers to reconsider whether the gas hub was ‘good for the country’. The gas hub was justified by objective knowledge practices used by specialised researchers, often (although not always) under the employ of Woodside. Muecke attempts to ‘pop the hood’ on this ‘genealogical apparatus’, to unveil that ‘expensive hours of hard work’ and ‘long and complicated networking’ produce ‘facts’ that ‘the social scientist likes to think … were always there’. Midway through the book, he interviews Madeline Goddard, who states that the petrochemical company constrained the scientists investigating the area by imposing restrictions on their resources against rigid deadlines. She says, ‘once consultants are contracted privately, they work to the scope defined by the contract’. Goddard suggests that structural conditions engender certain outcomes and results, as in the miscounting of the number of turtles and whales in the region, a finding that minimised the gas hub’s potential environmental impact.

What The Children’s Country sacrifices in objective fact, it gains in its capacity to resolve the crisis of the imagination represented by the Woodside conflict (how good?), where there is no valid choice other than capitulation to an illusory bipartisanship buoyed by free market capitalism. Alongside other decolonial thinkers like Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Sylvia Wynter and Walter Mignolo, The Children’s Country argues for the validity of different ways of knowing, thinking, walking, speaking and writing. By doing so, it joins ‘the invisible rayi spirits’ by taking their existence seriously, just as seriously as ‘the equally invisible, abstract, powerful concepts of the Euro-enlightenment’. However, Muecke notes, there are considerable geopolitical differences at play in how these knowledge systems are distributed and interpreted, ‘western scientists have traditionally hesitated before treating Indigenous knowledge as expert’. Aboriginal peoples are presumed to be in need of translation, with ‘no standing on [their] own … to be interpreted by anthropologists and articulated, ultimately by the judge, within the legalities’ of Native Title. By reducing Bugarrigarra law to the level of belief, legal administrators erased Aboriginal peoples’ capacity to evidence complex processes of land management in defence of Country. As Deborah Bird Rose has argued, these processes underpin a pragmatic, ecological and continued connection to a living and conscious universe.

The Children’s Country’s openness to different knowledge systems shapes, and at-times, determines its commitment to exemplify as it explains. Drawing on the example of Roe’s storytelling The Children’s Country ‘walks the talk’, so to speak (fitting in a book that opens its first chapter with a guide to different ways of walking). The Children’s Country is well aware of the risk of performance. Muecke meta textually animates these concerns through his conversation with a fictional interlocutor named Theory Girl, who describes a ‘synthetic work that tries to create a system … and everyone gets, how do you say, turned off!’ The encounter vocalises the frustrations of an imagined reader at the same time as it exemplifies a form of response to the reader’s difficulty by encouraging openness to a synthesis of form and content. Muecke intimates that all knowledge practices are in some way situated in a performative context. The book reflects the different positions one can take in relation to knowledge: ‘about, over, to, against, beyond’. Hence, when Muecke describes the difficulty of writing the book after Roe’s passing, he immediately qualifies the phrase ‘to write’ as to ‘write up’ to imply continuation and re-enactment, a pun on the phrase ‘stand up for Country’.

A reader follows Muecke in the hope that they ‘might see what more than one way of knowing can tell them’. Our literary guide leads the way: ‘Let your feet skim the ground. The whole point is not to march, bringing your feet up and down heavily.’ By providing a reader with a way of navigating the terrain signified by the book, Muecke allows the reader to join him along the Lurujarri Heritage Trail, a nine-day walk following a Dreaming track north from Broome established by Roe in 1987. Muecke describes the Lurujarri Trail as the most powerful figure of the ‘philosophy of inclusiveness’ that defines the book: Roe’s defining ‘diplomatic move … a continual gesture of their sovereignty: “Look! This is our Country!” The trail is the guiding metaphor orienting the text forward, with each chapter framed by the conversation emerging from the day’s walking:

Day 1. Walking
Day 2. History
Day 3 and 4. Law
Day 5. Science
Day 6 Politics
Day 7. Economics
Day 8. Art
Day 9. Back to Civilisation

The Children’s Country’s attempt to exemplify as it explains may be ambitious, but it is also fitting: a reflection of the collaborative and performative context in which knowledge practices work. Along the Lurujarri Trail, the reader meets a number of literary interlocutors that interrupt our passage: Muecke, Roe, the Roe family, academics, activists and others. These interlocutors call out to interrupt the reader in their passing, as Paddy Roe does in a section of book’s Introduction, entitled ‘Meet Paddy Roe’:

I was born here middle of Yawur (Laugh). When the station was here you know but I’m the first man to born, one boy in this station in these springs.
Stephen: But it didn’t matter that you were Nyigina?
No. My people come to live in this country to die.

In many ways, these interruptions make for a necessarily slow read as we pause, converse and engage with the voices that call out to the reader from either side of the trail. Through this narrative structure, Muecke also interrupts the experience of reading in ways that animate content and ‘create awareness, and potentially knowledge, through the defamiliarising effect of revealing the workings of the system’.

Muecke’s interruptions also draw attention to the workings of the book itself, particularly the complex positionality of the authors. In a recent review of The Children’s Country, Eve Vincent suggests that Muecke ‘reboots authorship’ by situating the book in a dialogic context. The Children’s Country’s commitment to collaboration can be traced back to Roe and Muecke’s first publication together. In Gularabulu, Muecke painstakingly transcribed Roe’s voice to allow a reader to hear his creative storytelling method: pauses, intonations, hand gestures and claps. Gularabulu emphasised Roe’s singularity as a speaker, with Muecke an almost ghostly presence, invisible to the reader. The next collaboration, Reading the Country, coalesced many voices across the Kimberley region, including Muecke, Roe, Krim Benterrak, Eric Lohe, Butcher Joe, Ray Keogh and others.

The Children’s Country appears to return to the two co-authors, despite its key interview taking place in 1985 and Roe’s passing in 2001. The Children’s Country opens by letting the reader know that it has emerged from ‘decades of collaboration’. However, in this book, Muecke works from a fundamentally different authorial position. In this iteration, the two writers have switched places: Muecke the speaker and Roe the invisible transcriber. Muecke is the storyteller tasked with the responsibility of passing on knowledge, whereas Roe interjects to clarify particular events as a conscience or moral voice that speaks through quotations of earlier conversations and interviews. Roe’s voice spills out in footnotes and indented paragraphs to interrupt Muecke, as in a footnoted commentary on the imposition of Catholicisim on young Aboriginal children:

we let them go too, that’s alright—
to learn about the English and all about schooling you know, European ways—
but they never come back to us—

Muecke’s commitment to his own interruption can often make it difficult to extricate himself from Roe, to the extent that it is at times difficult to discern who is speaking. For instance, Muecke repeats an exchange with Roe that inspires the book in conversation with the fictionalised Theory Girl:

I said to Paddy, ‘So, that’s it then, no more books?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘we gotta do one more book. So that’s how come I’m writing this third one now, The Children’s Country we are calling it. But I can’t do it the same way. The theory’s changed … I mean I don’t see things quite the same way. I’m into multiple ontologies. As with Bruno, multiple modes of existence.’

The passage stages multiple conversations at once: between the reader and Muecke, Muecke and Roe, as well as Muecke and Theory Girl. By layering these conversations onto one another, Muecke instructs the reader in a way of reading the original event of his conversation with Roe. Like the spectator of Brechtian theatre (an important influence in Muecke’s understanding of interruption), the reader is estranged from the text in ways that distance us from the original speaker. It is this sense of critical distance that allows Muecke to work through his own authorial complications as storyteller, as he acknowledges that he ‘can’t do it the same way’.

Muecke’s encounter with Roe and Theory Girl exemplifies the complicated legacy of the text as it becomes answerable to its own commitment to multiple ways of thinking. For certain readers, Muecke’s mediation of Roe’s voice may risk a form of appropriation. However, Muecke’s insistence on partisan perspectives elegantly communicates the limits of his authorial reach. In the Introduction, Muecke acknowledges this in a rare turn to ‘my’ rather than ‘our’ or ‘we’ (inclusive of Roe) when he describes the writing of the book:

[M]y writing hopes to mobilise the syntax of energy on the increase, by jumping and transforming in its risky desire to persist in the contours of an imagined ceremony which must see the lives of beings honoured with the intimate language of ‘response-ability’, not the summaries of social science.

Muecke’s responsibility as a storyteller makes the rayi story all the more significant; he is answerable to their capacity to determine who has the right to tell the stories of a particular place. He lives with the responsibility of passing this knowledge on in a realisation of an inherited form of kinship. Rather than authenticate the speaker, the weight of responsibility multiplies the authorial voice to encompass various fictional interlocutors, invented and real-life experiences, conversations with real passers by, and interviews with researchers, a simulacra of the authorship of Gularabulu. The Children’s Country’s commitment to this kinship enhances the authors’ capacity to interrupt (and therefore transform) the cultural interface by which knowledge is passed on.

A reader will likely have to read slowly through the interruptions, delayed and diverted in their search for meaning. They may leave the book with the feeling that they have spent energy, as if they too have taken the nine-day trek across Goolarabooloo Country. They will have travelled with the story, for ‘whatever people who claim they are being realistic say, facts are always carried by stories, and stories can carry hope.’

 

 

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Dashiell Moore is a researcher, writer, and educational designer at the University of Sydney. His research interests lie in Indigenous studies, postcolonial literature, comparative literary studies, and widening participation in higher education, having published scholarly journal articles in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and Overland.

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