FROM LITTLE THINGS
Australia’s oldest independent indigenous publisher is celebrating its 30th anniversary, writes Rosemarie Milsom
‘ISteve Goes to Carnival feel quite emotional.” Leigh Hobbs, Children’s Laureate, artist and bestselling author of more than 20 books, is sifting through folders of artwork that Broome artist Robyn Wells has been storing in her “undies drawer” for a decade. The colourful illustrations, a combination of painting and stencilling, are the result of lengthy collaboration between Wells and 23-year-old indigenous artist Joshua Button for the children’s book Steve Goes to Carnival. Steve is a jazzloving gorilla and Hobbs, whose immovably grumpy and well-travelled Mr Chicken has acquired fans across the globe, is especially taken with the pair’s rendering of the main character and his four and two-legged friends.
“I love the artwork,” Hobbs enthuses, “because there is nothing staged or overworked about it. It looks spontaneous and fresh, and it’s a challenge for any big project to avoid looking tired and worn out. There’s a spirit of an indigenous sensibility without it being generic, trite or cliched. There’s such a feeling for the animals. I almost want to nuzzle that like a blue heeler,” she adds, holding up an illustration of a jaunty Steve wearing a hat. “I’m not often surprised, but this is marvellous.”
As is often the way in this laid-back West Australian town, the informal get-together at Wells’s fibro home is unplanned. Hobbs and a long-time friend, illustrator Ann James, are en route to Derby where they’ll be based for a week while working with students at the Nyikina Mangala Community School. The pair had earlier dropped by the office of Magabala Books, Australia’s oldest independent indigenous publisher, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Among the numerous children’s and adult titles on display in the office’s light-filled shopfront it was Steve Goes to Carnival that captured the attention of Hobbs. A couple of phone calls later and Magabala’s chief executive Anna Moulton is escorting the visitors to Wells’s by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells; bottom, chief Anna Moulton and publisher Rachel Bin Salleh with Bruce Pascoe home. It is a welcome coincidence that Button, a quiet presence, is there too.
The unique collaboration between the teacher’s aide and her former student would not fly with a commercial publisher. A decade to complete a picture book? Unheard of. But is a perfect example of Magabala’s unique approach, particularly in regard to cultural protocol and schedules (the planned 30th anniversary celebration in June was postponed because of a funeral of a local indigenous man).
Button, who is descended from the Walmajarri people of the East Kimberley, first collaborated with Wells, who is not indigenous, in a literacy program at Broome’s St Mary’s College. He was in Year Five and struggling. Wells saw the creation of a book as a way of improving Button’s language skills and the drawing and painting could develop his fine motor skills, which were affected by a learning disability. While they never set out to be published, their first picture book, Joshua and the Two Crabs, was picked up by Magabala and released in 2008. “They’ve been great,” says Button. “They’ve helped me — both of us — out a lot. I trust them.”
As one of the most geo- graphically isolated publishers in the world — the closest capital city is Darwin, 1800km away — Magabala has quietly but determinedly built a solid reputation by supporting indigenous writers and illustrators across all genres, with a special focus on nurturing emerging talent. This month it launched the inaugural $10,000 Kestin Indigenous Illustrator Award, which is funded by the Kestin Family Foundation. Hobbs, who is in high demand, offered to be a judge while sitting in Wells’s Broome lounge room. He didn’t even have to be asked. Magabala Books began as a response to misappropriation. During a traditional song and dance festival held in September 1984 at Ngumpan, near Fitzroy Crossing, Aboriginal leaders decided an organisation would be established to protect the rights of traditional storytellers and artists. The Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre was formed and its publishing arm followed in 1987. Magabala Books was named after the bush banana that disperses its seeds far and wide across the region. Its first title, Mayi: Some Bush Fruits of the West Kimberley, was a pocket-sized book written by trainee editor and designer Merrilee Lands and featured 10 Aboriginal contributors from five language groups. Wandering Girl, the acclaimed autobiography by Glenyse Ward, followed and in March 1990 Magabala Books became an independent Aboriginal corporation. It has since published more than 250 titles. “The original intention was to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytellers and artists in the area of publishing and copyright,” says Edie Wright, writer and chairwoman of Magabala’s indigenous-only board. “Thirty years ago wellmeaning researchers and writers were taking our stories with little or no acknowledgment and remuneration. In many ways the formation of Magabala was about self-determination. We wanted to be in control of the integrity and journey of our stories. It was part of that wider national movement at a time when Aboriginal people were saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ It had a moral purpose.”
Wright, a retired teacher, regrets the absence of indigenous books when she was a child. “All we had was Enid Blyton. Then when I raised my two boys, books like Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and [ The Tale of] Peter Rabbit were common. Now, as a grandmother, there are all kinds of books in different genres available. Being able to pick up Staircase to the Moon, by local author and illustrator Bronwyn Houston, and read it to the grandkids is special. They know the tides and can connect to the storyline. They can see their home, their story, in the book.”
Magabala’s founding editor Peter Bibby believes the publisher broke new ground from its inception. “We were putting the ownership of the stories back into the hands of the storytellers,” he says. “We were completely focused on appropriate ownership and that meant working closely with people out in the field, going out to communities from which the stories came and reading manuscripts to people. There weren’t any shortcuts.”
Bibby helped to train indigenous staff including publisher Rachel Bin Salleh, a Broome local who has worked for Magabala on and off for 20 years. She echoes Wright’s view about the importance of indigenous stories to the younger generation. “It’s essential that we see ourselves and our culture reflected back to us,” she says. “When you live on the fringes and things aren’t spoken about openly, you don’t feel part of society. I have an Irish mother and my father is an Aboriginal Malay man from Broome, and when I was younger I never considered myself to be Australian. I felt like an immigrant in my own land because nothing about my identity, my history, was reflected back at me.”
Magabala is uniquely placed to take advantage of a shift taking place among Australian readers, reflected in the critical and commercial success of writers such as Bruce Pascoe, Ellen van Neerven, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Stan Grant. The establishment of the biennial Kestin award is partly in response to an increasing demand for indigenous illustrators.