Well, what a great – and packed – start to the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). Here’s the start of my summary of the sessions I managed to get to today.
1: (session #18): ‘That Deadman Dance’: Kim Scott in Discussion with Geordie Williamson
I couldn’t think of a better way to start the heart of the SWF week than sitting down to listen to Kim Scott talk about his Miles Franklin and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-shortlisted That Deadman Dance. I loved the book (read my review here) so it was great to hear Kim talk about some of the thinking behind it. Asked about where the title came from he spoke about how it refers to an actual historical event in which the indigenous Noongar people appropriated a British soliders’ drill which they had seen and made it into a dance – how this signified both the way in which Noongar people shared stories and absorbed culture into their own, and also how it spoke of something that is essentially a show of force and rigour into something that became an altogether more poetic thing – a dance. There were many such examples of cross-cultural pollination. The novel seeks to do the same.
Kim works spends time working on the revitalisation of the Noongar language. He spoke about the reading of landscape, how the Noongar most probably believed at the time of colonisation that the white settlers could not steal the spirit inherent in the landscape and in their people. This in part might explain why they were so willing to help the new comers, to lead them to good land and show them where to find water.
Kim was asked to speak to a specific image in the later part of the book in which the heavy weight of the nation’s flag flies atop the bones of his people. It was not just his people, but those of Dr Cross, one of the few white settlers in the book who attempted to recognise the Noongars’ right of ownership of the land. It is something that is difficult to think about and talk about, said Scott, that heavy weight built on the bones of such people.
He spoke of the Noongar literary records he has been researching and how the Noongar people appropriated words of English such as glass into their documents – this is another example of the possible grafting of languages, one into another. Culture is not a static thing, it is dynamic.
He said when asked about the black and white worlds in Australia, how he preferred to think of it as one world, though he made the point that this is very simplistic. He went onto make a very telling point about how western thinking is one way of thinking: empirical, linear, and so on – whereas Noongar and indigenous thinking is different, is centred on place. He spoke that we have perhaps made the mistake of trying to make one way of thinking (black) fit into the other (white) way, whereas we should be trying to fit the white way into the black – that is to say we should make more of an effort to think in terms of place. Geordie made the point that this is not just an Australian-centric issue, that all countries are faced with trying to make this shift too, to look after the scarce resources, to take care of the world in which we live.
He spoke about how difficult it was to write about the inter-tribal relationships in the book, how some non-Noongar tribes acted in consort with white settlers against Noongar, but it was part of the richness of relationships that needed to be part of the novel.
He spoke too about the character name of Bobby Wabalanginy – how his surname is a combination of noongar words which means ‘all of us playing together’, and yet Bobby was a name routinely given to black ambassadors in colonial records, something derogatory and demeaning to turn these helpful people into ‘Bobby’, (possibly based on the English Bobby as the local policeman). So the character name is a combination of these things: the ambassador, the ‘cruel’ name of Bobby, and the positive surname.
The richness of the Noongar language, said Scott, is ‘mindblowing’. The word for kiss – which sounded like ‘Muun’ (forgive my spelling, I figure it is incorrect) – is wonderful as the act of saying that word with the lips makes the act of kissing. Saying the word makes the word. There is a richness in indigenous language which he sees as something we should all be protecting and also as something which can empower indigenous peoples.
A great book. A great session.
My only gripe? Some of those windows letting in the glorious Sydney sun behind the stage need to be covered up to improve attendees’ viewing comfort. There’s plenty of natural light coming in through the sides.
(More to come from day one…)