A voice for his country
Prize-winning author Kim Scott is helping drive a project to revive his traditional language, writes 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.’’