review by Jeanine Leane
Gularabulu is a collection of nine stories told by Nyigina Elder, Paddy Roe, from Broome and transcribed, as spoken to settler academic, Professor Stephen Muecke, in the late 1970s. Its publication in 1983 was groundbreaking as it invited the settler, as a respectful listener into the rich history and stories of the Country of the West Kimberley.
This is an invitation for the settler reader to step outside their socio-cultural moorings and enter into the Country of Aboriginal storytelling that is the living history of a place and people with an unbroken connection to the land, the elements and natural features through the telling and retelling of story. Paddy Roe’s invitation to readers, spoken with the authority of a senior law-man, is a living testimony to the resilience of Aboriginal culture though stories of memory, place, people and all life forms that inhabit the space of Gularabulu. Stories cannot be stolen and stories are the life-blood, the un-severed umbilical cord that continues to connect Aboriginal Australians to Country and people despite ongoing colonial theft of land and oppression. Because Aboriginal knowledge and experience was not distilled and put into books and placed on shelves, storytelling is education and cultural transmission, that as Paddy’s movements will show, was combined with work such as gathering for women, or, in this case, the making of tools, hence the rasping sounds that Muecke records while Paddy is working and talking. Such background noise and movements are not just important but essential to the context of the stories.
Between the first publication of Gularabulu in 1983 and its re-release in 2016, influential Torres Strait Islander academic Martin Nakata coined the term the ‘Cultural Interface’ (Nakata 2002: 281). The Cultural Interface is the space that settlers and Indigenous people inhabit in a colonial situation that is neither an entirely ‘Aboriginal world’ or an entirely ‘Settler world’ and, a place of tension that requires constant negotiation. It is within this post-invasion space requiring constant negotiation that Gularabulu originates. Muecke is invited into unfamiliar territory as a representative of the settler world. The same privilege is extended to the reader.
Central to Gularabulu is the locale – the West Kimberley – Paddy Roe’s Country. Gularabulu is an area along the northwest coast of Western Australia from La Grange in the south, stretching through Broome and Dampier Land in the north. But its vastness and vibrancy, brought to life through Paddy’s stories overwrites the more recent colonial nomenclature.
Gularabulu occurs in the space of many complex interfaces and involves a series of negotiations between Aboriginal and settler cultures. The beginning premise of the negotiation that became Gularabulu is that Muecke is privileged. As a respected storyteller Paddy has a responsibility to a community of listeners, as do all Aboriginal storytellers.
Gularabulu is a series of negotiations where the Aboriginal negotiator decides what will be shared and how. It begins with the most generous negotiation of all – Aboriginal English – not just within the pages of Gularabulu but also within Australia itself. Its invention and continued use as a mode of communication between Aboriginal peoples of different nations brought into contact through colonial dispersion and dispossession and between Aboriginal people and settlers is a testimony to its importance as the language that subtends the space between two very different cultures. Without it this space would be an unbridgeable chasm.
In Gularabulu Aboriginal English comes alive with the Country as the living language it is and Paddy Roe’s use of it brings to the fore the innovative and pivotal role it plays in the sharing of Aboriginal stories of Country, history and experience. When Muecke is invited into the Country of Gularabulu through story his role is that of the respectful listener, a visitor who is welcomed to Paddy Roe’s Country through its stories.
As Stephen listens he is taken across a cultural border, one of many, into what western rationalists label the supernatural, but for Paddy Roe and his people it is reality – the beings that inhabit the Country of his stories are as real as the teeming meat-ants trekking endlessly across the red dirt or the shifting winds that rattle through the acacias or the rolling swirling horizons. We meet a form-shifting maban who undergoes animal transformations; a devil with the head of a donkey and the tail of a dog and the Wurrawurra spirit woman who can turn herself into natural elements such as grass – beings that are beyond the visual field of western reason, categorisations and linear time – but past and present are continuous and all times are alive in the Country of Gularabulu. Paddy Roe assures us Wurrawurra Women ‘still lives today’ (64); or in relation to the sightings of a mysterious Donkey-Devil by women and children, ‘Something live in this country you know’ (93). Beings require no further explanation and move across the Country of Gularbulu as easily as Paddy Roe and his people do. The reader is also aware that there are many presences on Paddy Roe’s Country that are still beyond our visual field – only Paddy Roe and his kinsfolk can read them.
This is the space of forgoing and unlearning western modes of history and knowledge transmission. Paddy distinguishes between three different types of story. There is trustori – stories that can be located in time and space and within the memory of the storyteller; Bugarrigarri – stories from the Dreaming and devilstori – stories of demons, spirits and ghosts. As the stories unfold to reveal the rich and complex story of the Country and people western history is erased and Muecke listens without questions, comments or interruptions because stories told in this space are not to be questioned or judged. They are told because they are. Nothing is retrospective. All times are.
The reader becomes aware through Paddy’s narrative that there are other listeners present too, besides Stephen Muecke. For example when Paddy is telling of the Wurrawurra Woman he pauses mid narration to ask Stephen if he is comfortable with another listener, Joe Butcher smoking. Stephen responds; ‘Oh that’s OK’ and Paddy continues; or, during the devilstori ‘Donkey Devil’ Paddy defers to a young girl:
Beyond this, all listeners are silent unless spoken to because as Stephen and other listeners demonstrate this is an important protocol in Aboriginal storytelling.
The form of Gularabulu also moves beyond the limits of western academic convention that tends to distance the listener from the speaker as interviewer and interviewee. This is first established through the first name basis that is deployed throughout the work to distinguish between different speakers, in particular, Paddy and Stephen. Beyond this, the visual appearance of the text on the page blurs the lines between western literary and historical categorisations of fiction / nonfiction, or poetry or extended prose and song. Paddy’s stories combine all such forms and he alternates between them as adeptly as he moves across Country. Stephen’s transcription is faithful to the flow, the pauses the hesitations and the long extended sounds such as growls that are integral to the stories being told.
Paddy expressed to Stephen that his reason for extending these stories of his Country to a settler audience was that ‘they might see us better than before’ (5). Indeed, readers of Gularabulu will see, hear and feel many things that they had not experienced before. Thirty-three years after its original release Gularabulu should be read as a seminal intra-cultural exchange that subverted or at least suspended the existing colonial power structure of the conventional western academy. In its place a shared space of inter-subjectivity between black and white emerged from which a deeper, layered and more nuanced history of the West Kimberley could be heard. Conventional western historical methods and theories are erased from these living stories of place.
Jeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri writer, poet, teacher and academic from the Murrumbidgee River. She teaches Creative Writing and Aboriginal Literature at the University of Melbourne. Walk Back Over, her second volume of poetry, will be released in 2017 (Cordite Books).
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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste