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A hardboiled memoir for Australia’s Lost Generation

Australian memoirist Ali Cobby Eckermann talks to Aditya Mani Jha about the unexpected release of her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, in India and the incredible cultural wealth of the Aboriginal people.

ADITYA MANI JHA  31st Jan 2015

Ali Cobby Eckermann.

li Cobby Eckermann's memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, was first published in 2013 in Australia. Delhi-based publishers Navayana brought this wonderful, brave book to Indian shores recently, and had Eckermann also deliver the Navayana Lecture last month. The aboriginal poet and writer's deceptively simple style and her stark, brutal poetry serve her well in this story of the Lost Generations, thousands of aboriginal children snatched away from their birth mothers by an apathetic, mostly white populace. Guardian20 caught up with Eckermann after her session at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this month, where she was in conversation with poet and novelist Meena Kandasamy.

Q. When was Too Afraid to Cry originally published? How did Navayana happen?

A. It was first published in 2013, by Ilura Press, which is a small boutique press in Melbourne. I wrote the book in 2006. I think Anand's [S. Anand, the founder of Navayana] wife Priya picked it up in Sydney and read it by chance, by the gods. Anand wrote to me and said that he wanted to publish it in India. I only met him last weekend! I think it's a wonderful story that a book can travel thus, and that it's talked about beyond the continent, beyond the culture that it's set in, and it has resounded enough for a publisher to buy the rights. To be able to talk about it, to people beyond my culture, beyond's just beautiful.

Q. Meena Kandasamy, who wrote the introduction to your book, also deals with some politically charged material in her novel The Gypsy Goddess. But where she plunges headlong, armed with facts and figures, names and blames, you keep it all tightly wrapped up in the background, almost like an afterthought. Was this a conscious choice that you made early on while writing the book?

A. I think data and dates and facts actually allow the reader room to separate, to deny, and to say: "Oh, those facts mean it happened over there" or "It only belonged there". I wanted to write Too Afraid to Cry as an emotional timeline, so I didn't really mention the names of places. I wanted to remove all the factual elements as a way of allowing the reader to immerse themselves into the story and to travel on that emotional highway, because it's one thing that human beings around the world share: emotion, and it's really underrated these days.

Q. Tell me a little about the circumstances around National Sorry Day in Australia. How do Aboriginal people in Australia feel about it today?

A. I think my [birth] mother was quite instrumental in bringing about National Sorry Day. She was part of a committee that worked quite hard, in the 1980s and '90s, to bring about reconciliation in Australia. The first National Sorry Day was held in 1997. Oh my god, I just cried and cried; 2,50,000 people had walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was such a huge gesture in terms of what the average Australian felt towards the Aboriginal people. And John Howard squashed that; he was supposed to sign the memorandums of understanding that would have really brought reconciliation to the fore.

He funded and promoted Anzac day. He wouldn't fund Reconciliation Day, so we were left with National Sorry Day and a few other days. But the support from the general Australian population was supressed. He has to live with that. When he opposed Reconciliation Day, there was a moment — I think it was in the Sydney Opera House — when the crowd turned their backs on him. He freaked out. My mother was there in the room. But we [Aboriginals] are not a vindictive people, we're quite forgiving; probably to our detriment sometimes.

“The lives of the Aboriginal people, however, haven’t changed despite these efforts and the white people have got rich, or had comfortable lives, a lifetime of employment. White people don’t seem to know when to leave. Actually, through all that “help”, they have helped create this idea that we can’t look after ourselves, that we are deficient minds.”

Q. There is this image in popular culture, perhaps accentuated by the Aussie cricket team, of the Australian man being a somewhat crude but essentially nice, cheerful person with a sunny disposition, not entirely unlike the Hollywood cliché of the tractor-riding Texan. Then there was that series of racially motivated attacks in Australia. Does the truth, perhaps, lie somewhere in between?

A. I think Australia has had a bit of a holiday lull. In the '70s, there were a lot of people — Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese and people of other nationalities — who migrated in numbers; that was the time when I was a teenager. I think there was a fair bit of prejudice back then: you were a "woggy" or a "dago" or a "slopie" [Aussie derogatory slangs referring to Mediterranean, Italian and south Asian people, respectively]. Since then, there has been a lull. Australia is still such a young country. Maybe, back then, the skills and the contributions of these people (immigrants) melded quickly and they fit into society. There were clashes, but in general, those families immersed pretty quickly. Now, they say the "white Australia" policy has been disbanded. I would say no, that now there's a new wave of migration and the government is using it as a way of controlling the people through fear. Unfortunately, there's also not much difference between Liberal and Labour any more.

Q. To my mind, your book is a moral story, rather than a political one. Towards the end, it focuses on the traditional wisdom of the Aboriginals, and everybody who cares about this culture would ask you the same question: what archival efforts, if any, are being made to preserve this incredible wealth?

A. There have been efforts, certainly. I think a lot of Aboriginal people shared knowledge with white people: missionaries, anthropologists and so on. A lot of our intellectual property has been stolen. To a certain extent, Aboriginal people have financed a whole generation; a generation of white people who have worked so bloody hard for the Aboriginal. The lives of the Aboriginal people, however, haven't changed despite these efforts and the white people have got rich, or had comfortable lives, a lifetime of employment. White people don't seem to know when to leave. Actually, through all that "help", they have helped create this idea that we can't look after ourselves, that we are deficient minds.

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