Yilaalu is “the word that starts the story” in the Gamilaroy and Yuwaalaraay languages. I learned this listening to Nardi Simpson’s recent interview on Awaye!
Yilaalu is also the name of the first piece written by Simpson in Another Australia, the latest anthology produced by Sweatshop and Diversity Arts Australia, and published by Affirm Press. It is a collection of pieces by First Nations writers and writers of colour that together paint a picture not of an alternative Australia to our reality, but of my Australia and yours. An Australia that holds the ancient living cultures of First Peoples (too often without enough care and respect); an Australia that is scarred by the legacies of its colonial history; that’s been shaped by the many waves of migrations as so many of us have settled here and reaped its many rewards; and an Australia that is a container for all the complexities and dissonances from the collision of all these aspects of its existence today.
The first piece, Yilaalu, situates me as reader exactly where I should be in Another Australia, where First Nations’ voice is first, in several meanings of the word:
first as in preceding all others;
first as in leading the way;
first as in in a position of respect and esteem;
first as in a priority above others.
Two more pieces by Simpson punctuate and book-end the collection respectively, so the reader is reminded of the continuity of First Nations’ culture and of the fact that this Australia, mine and yours, always was and always will be Aboriginal land. This is an editorial choice made with care and one that I think many readers will appreciate.
A little disclaimer: I’m not a critic and this isn’t a review. As always, I write about cultural experiences and offerings that excite and inspire me, and that speak to cultural and creative diversity, inclusion and equity. So, it’s in this spirit that I write this commentary on some of the works in the anthology that stood out to me, especially.
Simpson’s pieces are in language followed by English versions of the text. In her interview on Awaye! she speaks of her process in constructing these pieces, explaining that she starts with English in the writing but that construction actually begins before this with her ‘thinking in culture’. This is a deep insight into the works and makes for a richer reading of them. In Yilaalu, her descriptions of the built landscape as living creatures in nature are poetic and grounding. In the final piece, Warran, she writes so beautifully of the interconnectedness of woman and tree, the oneness of them, and the recognition of kinship in each other. Again, as reader I find myself located exactly where I feel is the right place for me to be in Another Australia – a position that recognises and revers First People’s wisdom and ways.
Osman Faruqi offers up the second piece in the anthology, A Tale of Two Colonies. This piece is part history lesson (it should be part of the high school curriculum!) and part personal recounting of family histories, revealing the author’s position in the complexity and dissonance mentioned earlier that characterises a lived experienced of being both colonised and settler, in different contexts and across time. This is possibly my favourite piece in the collection, but not just for its rich and nuanced historical detail and perspective. More for its hopeful message in its final sentences. “… nothing is static, immovable or unchangeable. What we call Australia hasn’t always been like this. It doesn’t need to be like this. A series of explicit decisions made by a particular set of people made it like this…”. I don’t want to give away the rest as it is very powerful, but I do want to say that the sense of hope in Faruqi’s ending sentences was amplified for me as I watched a new Prime Minister assume office and a new cabinet, apparently the most diverse (for want of a better word) this country has seen yet, take shape on the news.
Amani Haydar’s writing hits close to home again in Bad Transplant. With only a photo of her groom to recognise him by, a woman makes the trip to Australia from the other side of the world, with hopes and dreams of a new life and new family in this lucky country. She finds duty, subservience and struggle. She finds escape, joy and lightness only in her imagination. Haydar writes the character of Mariam with such truth and care that Mariam becomes much more than a cliched proxy bride in a story that many have told before. If we changed Mariam’s name, she could be my mother, or yours perhaps.
Shirley Le’s Coi Bói is funny and brilliant and familiar to me for different reasons – the appearance of the legendary fortune-teller in Fairfield for one! Everyone in the area when I was growing up knew of this mystic. Apparently the real mystic (unlike the one in Coi Bói lived in some dodgy back alley behind some shops and up a flight of stairs). More than the legend of this character though, and more than the familiarity of place in Le’s descriptions of South West Sydney, it’s Le’s writing from the perspective of a child of 1st generation migrants that is most familiar. We occupy the spaces between belonging and not belonging, inside and outside of family, school, our stomping grounds etc. We know the codes of both cultures and switch between them hundreds of times a day. Le captures this experience effortlessly and with total authenticity.
I Am by L-FRESH The LION, marks his debut as a writer. Many readers will know L-FRESH as a rapper, song-writer, producer and performer. As a rapper, keeping true to the genre, his persona is one marked by confidence and bravado, by ego. Now I’m a fan of his music, but what a beautiful discovery it was to hear his voice as a writer. His storytelling was gentle and generous in its vulnerability and openness. The piece itself unpicks this very duality, which is one of many he describes, ultimately reconciling the seemingly contradictory aspects of his identity that together make the one complex and complete whole. The detail in this very personal recount is unique and nuanced but the experience is universal. My favourite excerpt is L-FRESH’S description of his grandmother’s and his parents’ gardens in Glenfield – places of abundance, nourishment and connection. I read parts of this autobiographical piece aloud, and it carried a natural and innate cadence and musicality.
Sisonke Msimang’s, The Innocence Project, echoes Faruqi’s piece in it’s positionality, where the author shares a personal lived experience as both colonised and settler. Similarly also to Faruqi’s piece, The Innocence Project provides historical facts and context by contrasting the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to Australia’s Bringing Them Home enquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. More to the point, it contrasts the different approaches and actions (or lack of) the respective governments took in the wake of these enquiries. Msimang’s piece also ends powerfully, but in this piece any sense of hope is precarious, dependent on an urgent impending reckoning in its call for truth, accountability and reparations in a future Australia … “In Another Australia, there will be justice.”
Though I’ve only selected a few that resonated with me a little more deeply, all the pieces in this anthology are worthwhile reads. Each one reveals an Australia that is a reflection of who we are today, of where we are right now, and perhaps of what we are inching closer to. And that’s what I appreciate most about the collection, that there is truth on every page and in every version of Australia – mine, my mum’s, your neighbour’s… yours too.