Aus­tralia’s old­est in­de­pen­dent in­dige­nous pub­lisher is cel­e­brat­ing its 30th an­niver­sary, writes Rose­marie Mil­som

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

‘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.

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