A voice for his coun­try

Prize-win­ning author Kim Scott is help­ing drive a pro­ject to re­vive his tra­di­tional lan­guage, writes Vic­to­ria Lau­rie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Vic­to­ria Lau­rie

DUAL Miles Franklin win­ner Kim Scott ranks Uruguay’s Ed­uardo Galeano among his favourite au­thors. It’s not hard to see why. Galeano writes of ‘‘ the No­bod­ies’’, the voices of the un­seen, un­heard and for­got­ten, and Scott is em­barked on a pur­suit of si­lenced and for­got­ten voices.

Galeano is the kind of writer who can ‘‘ dis­solve old gen­res and found new ones’’, ob­served one re­viewer. One of Scott’s am­bi­tions is to in­spire a new form of in­dige­nous Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture by help­ing to breathe new life into Noon­gar lan­guage, mother tongue of the south­west peo­ples of Western Aus­tralia.

Scott, 55, is best known as the first in­dige­nous author to win the Miles Franklin, for his 1999 novel Be­nang: From the Heart. He won a sec­ond time in 2011 with That Dead­man Dance, his third novel, which also picked up a raft of other awards.

There’s a strong sense Scott’s pride in his award-win­ning nov­els is matched by his other pas­sion, which re­sulted in 2011 — with far less fan­fare — in two slen­der pic­ture story books, Ma­mang and Noon­gar Mam­bara Bak­itj, pub­lished by UWA Pub­lish­ing. Writ­ten in Noon­gar and English, the books are il­lus­trated by mem­bers of Scott’s com­mu­nity. Last June th­ese works, as much as his nov­els, led to Scott be­ing named West Aus­tralian of the Year ‘‘ for the dis­cus­sion his writ­ing has stim­u­lated on Noon­gar cul­ture in the wider com­mu­nity and his ex­cep­tional work in lan­guage re­cov­ery projects’’.

It has been a long jour­ney from his first feted novel to his lat­est one. In Be­nang, he ex­plored the pain of a young man pinned down, like a mu­seum spec­i­men, by colo­nial at­ti­tudes and racist lan­guage: Har­ley Scat squirms at the ‘‘ quadroon’’ or ‘‘ oc­toroon’’ sta­tus ac­corded by na­tive wel­fare to ‘‘ part-na­tives’’ such as him.

That Dead­man Dance vaults over those his­toric ob­sta­cles. In this novel Scott has sure­foot­edly found a path­way back to a time of first Euro­pean con­tact, when Noon­gar peo­ple still con­trolled their own lan­guage and des­tiny on a (mo­men­tar­ily) friendly fron­tier.

‘‘ Be­nang had a lot of anger, dam­age, and it’s a dead end if you’re trapped,’’ says Scott, who ad­mits that be­ing cat­e­gorised as ‘‘ the first win­ning Abo­rig­i­nal writer’’ made him feel as ‘‘ lin­guis­ti­cally dis­placed’’, lonely and freak­ish as his char­ac­ter Har­ley.

‘‘ The last page of Be­nang has the pro­tag­o­nist in an­ces­tral coun­try mak­ing the noises of coun­try as a metaphor for lan­guage. It’s a form of re­con­nect­ing for him.’’

And so it was for Scott, whose next book af­ter Be­nang, Kayang & Me was his ac­count of learn­ing Noon­gar from his rel­a­tive Hazel Brown. A re­spected Noon­gar el­der, Brown and her brother Lo­mas Roberts em­braced Scott in a lin­guis­tic bear hug, school­ing him in oral tra­di­tions and vo­cab­u­lary. Karl, Boodja, Mood­itch — Scott fell in love with the lan­guage and cul­ture he had rarely glimpsed as a child, al­though his fa­ther in­formed him he was ‘‘ of Abo­rig­i­nal de­scent’’.

Over­whelmed by his clan’s gen­eros­ity of spirit, Scott be­gan writ­ing down their ut­ter­ances. ‘‘ I taught my­self the in­ter­na­tional pho­netic al­pha­bet so I could be ac­cu­rate and re­spect­ful of Aun­tie Hazel’s sound, be­cause lan­guage-wise she’s the best of us all.’’ To­gether with Noon­gar speak­ers Iris Woods, Roma Win­mar and Ez­zard Flow­ers, they trawled through a trove of archival ma­te­rial from the 1930s col­lected by an earnest young Amer­i­can lin­guist, Ger­hardt Laves.

On an ex­tended visit to Aus­tralia, Laves had metic­u­lously filled hun­dreds of file cards, cross-ref­er­enc­ing the Noon­gar words and phrases of the peo­ples liv­ing near Al­bany on the WA south coast.

Most af­fect­ing were tran­scribed sto­ries told to Laves by long-dead men Hazel and the oth­ers knew, vivid para­bles rem­i­nis­cent of Jonah and the whale about a young man trav­el­ling the seas in the belly of a large whale, or an­other who hunts down a kan­ga­roo and gains magic pow­ers that en­able him to sub­due even the an­gri­est spirit crea­ture.

Here was a be­gin­ning; the group formed the Wir­lomin Noon­gar lan­guage pro­ject and in­vited rel­e­vant Noon­gar peo­ple into Al­bany’s town hall to dis­cuss a cou­ple of the sto­ries. Scott, as if re­liv­ing it, uses present tense to de­scribe what he saw when printed copies of the sto­ries were handed out.

‘‘ Within 10 min­utes ev­ery­one is crying and all we’re do­ing is hand­ing back some­one’s dad’s story, some­one’s un­cle’s story. We read the sto­ries aloud, see what else peo­ple can add to them, and it’s a lot. I feel emo­tional about a lan­guage I should have grown up with but didn’t. It’s re­ally spe­cial stuff.’’

This is an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent Scott from the author who was be­set by nag­ging doubts af­ter Be­nang’s suc­cess. ‘‘ First, you’re writ­ing in the coloniser’s lan­guage, the lan­guage of peo­ple who con­quered your peo­ple,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ And I won­dered how use­ful a book like Be­nang was to the Noon­gar com­mu­nity.’’

Run­ning the lan­guage pro­ject in par­al­lel with novel writ­ing was his way out of that post­colo­nial dilemma of ‘‘ Who are you writ­ing for?’’. That Dead­man Dance moves away from ‘‘ cir­cling the same old ground’’ of vic­tim­hood; on the very first page, old man Bobby Wa­balanginy takes chalk and slate and be­gins to write a whale story, in an act of record­ing, re­an­i­mat­ing and com­mit­ting sto­ries to lit­er­a­ture.

Scott, a for­mer teacher and now a Curtin Univer­sity lec­turer, feels ex­hil­a­rated watch­ing the act of shar­ing lan­guage, not­ing how the giver is man­tled in an un­ac­cus­tomed au­thor­ity. ‘‘ You are so con­fi­dent of your­self as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the spirit of place that you can’t be con­quered. Like Bobby Wa­balanginy, you grab new ex­pe­ri­ences, you are clever, you make al­lowances for silly peo­ple. That’s ex­actly what this lan­guage stuff is about.’’

He notes that Miles Franklin wrote: ‘‘ With­out an in­dige­nous lit­er­a­ture, peo­ple can re­main alien in their own soil.’’ Scott ob­serves: ‘‘ When she spoke of in­dige­nous Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, she meant lit­er­a­ture in­fused with a sense of place, and I sus­pect Abo­rig­i­nal lit­er­a­ture was a sub­set or niche of that.’’

He re­calls go­ing to book­shops in Syd­ney to see if Be­nang was on the shelves. It was, but in the Australiana sec­tion. ‘‘ That’s the dan­ger of that niche men­tal­ity.’’

Scott is en­thused about Noon­gar cul­ture’s po­ten­tial to ‘‘ in­form a re­gional lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, not as a sub­set to pat on the head, but the guts, the core’’. It’s more preva­lent than most peo­ple re­alise, he ar­gues, and has in­fil­trated the English lan­guage. Some Noon­gar words, such as gidgie, mean­ing weapon, and kylie (as in Kylie Minogue), mean­ing curved boomerang, have even passed into com­mon us­age.

Many WA an­i­mals and plants are called by Noon­gar names — chu­ditch and num­bat for lo­cal mar­su­pi­als, jar­rah and karri for trees. ‘‘ We ask kids if they know any Noon­gar lan­guage and we show them a map of places like Joon­dalup, Tam­bellup, Ko­jonup, Katan­ning and [teach] the mean­ing of those names, and we say, ‘ There you are, you al­ready speak some Noon­gar lan­guage.’ ’’

Scott was sur­prised by the fre­quency of ac­counts from the early 1800s, by early ex­plor­ers, govern­ment of­fi­cials and set­tlers, that record Noon­gar peo­ple’s nat­u­ral propen­sity to move to­wards lit­er­acy.

At New Nor­cia Abo­rig­i­nal mis­sion, he says, ‘‘ Bishop Salvado talks about meet­ing Noon­gar chil­dren who, within min­utes, had learned the let­ters of the Span­ish al­pha­bet, and could write them in mir­ror im­age — the mean­ing of small marks was not a prob­lem.’’ Author Henry Law­son recorded meet­ing a Noon­gar man on the south coast, clad in a kan­ga­roo skin, who spoke flu­ent French.

‘‘ But it’s no good just to slip the Noon­gar lan­guage into lit­er­a­ture,’’ Scott says. ‘‘ It fur­ther dis­em­pow­ers Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple if lan­guage in­forms a main­stream com­mu­nity lit­er­a­ture about iden­tity, long­ing and place, but those peo­ple are not in the loop. It fur­ther alien­ates them. They must be at the cen­tre of the ac­tion, as sto­ry­tellers.’’ So the Wir­lomin lan­guage pro­ject has set up a not-for-profit body that con­trols copy­right and re­ceives roy­al­ties. Two more story books are due out in Septem­ber.

‘‘ When the books come out, the idea is that peo­ple can say, ‘ I know about that, I know the peo­ple who did that’, and they can go into schools at $30 an hour to read them. I don’t know if that’s hap­pened, but it’s a way to make sure they’re not left out in the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of cul­ture.’’

Scott is care­ful not to trum­pet th­ese suc­cesses, in the way that oth­ers praise his nov­els. ‘‘ I’m never con­fi­dent. But it in­ter­ests me, in the con­text of an en­dan­gered lan­guage and a com­mu­nity car­ry­ing the legacy of op­pres­sion, how as Aus­tralians we can all be en­riched by con­nect­ing with a pre­colo­nial her­itage.’’

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