False Claims of Colonial Thieves & Nganajungu Yagu
Nganajungu Yagu by Wajarri, Badimaya and Southern Yamiji poet Charmaine Papertalk Green and False Claims of Colonial Thieves, a collaboration between Papertalk Green and white settler poet John Kinsella, are important works which expand the way poetry as activism can be formed and read in this continent of many First Nations. The activism these works embody is at once open, collaborative, passionate and compassionate. I am engaging with these works as a white settler scholar aware that this limits my capacity to respond adequately to Papertalk Green’s work or with the nuance a First Nations’ reviewer might bring. In this review, I focus not so much on an ecocritical perspective, as if such could stand alone, but on the flow of narrative energy and witness, and the way poets living in this continent might read the impacts of white religion on Country.
Nganajungu Yagu means ‘my mother’ in Wajarri language (65). In 1978 and 1979, Papertalk Green left home to attend senior high school in the state capital, where she lived in ‘an Aboriginal girls’ hostel’ in Bentley, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia (xi). While she was away at school, her mother wrote letters to her; Nganajungu Yagu is inspired by and responds to those letters (xi). The poems use Badimaya, Wajarri and English languages, and occasionally words from Aboriginal English. The letters from her mother sustained Papertalk Green and helped keep her connected to Country, family and community; she carried them with her in a ‘red journey suitcase’ (‘RJS’) which she replaced over the years, and which she also refers to as a ‘red coolamon’, a First Nations vessel for carrying infants and food (1-2, 6). For Papertalk Green, the use of her Badimaya and Wajarri languages honours her ancestors (xi). In the poems, repetition gives the use of First Nations languages an incantational quality (for example, in ‘Letter on 28 June 1979’, 12-13).
Many of the poems are headed by excerpts from her mother’s letters. Each of her responses to these letters begins ‘Nganajungu Yagu’ and speaks to the complexities of her mother’s situation, especially the contingencies of work, poverty and housing in a system where First Nations’ labour was unpaid or underpaid, and providing for a family was frequently a struggle. ‘Papertalk’ was a word used (possibly coined by colonials) to refer to First Nation people sent with news from one community to another (3). Papertalk Green takes this name as a badge of honour and sees herself as a messenger for ancestors and descendants (3). Her work is also secondarily a message to settler Australians, a truth-telling exercise about the realities of First Nations’ lives under the racist colonial policies of Western Australian governments from the nineteenth century, and their ongoing effects across generations. Primarily, Nganajungu Yagu is written in remembrance, enacting gratitude, compassion, understanding and love for her family, especially her mother but also her father, embedding this re-member-ing in the contexts of Country and community (18-19).
Using a methodology that parallels Natalie Harkin’s ‘archival poetics’, Papertalk Green accessed her family’s ‘Native Welfare’ files, to fill in the background to her parents’ lives.[i] These were Government records formerly kept on all First Nations people in Western Australia. Interspersed with her replies to ‘Nganajungu Yagu’ are works of resistance and protest, such as the sequence ‘Cultural Genocide’, which answers the questions set for the ‘Exemption Certificate’, a document First Nations people could apply for officially renouncing their Aboriginality and Community connections in order to live with the privileges of white settler society. Formerly, the Exemption Certificate allowed Western Australian First Nations people to be exempt from the Aborigines Act 1905 (WA) which legislated for ‘protection, control and segregation of Aboriginal people’.[ii] The 1905 Act was in force until 1964, when it was superseded by the Native Welfare Act 1963 in force until 1972.[iii] For Papertalk Green, despite the oversurveillance of First Nations' lives in this period – and it could be argued into the present – and despite attempts to dissolve First Nations connections to Culture, Community and Country, she answers: ‘No dissolving and disappearing for everyone.’ (39). Like many contemporary First Nations’ poets, Papertalk Green claims a space of survival beyond colonialist policies of assimilation: ‘We write about deep Aboriginal culture love / and that shatters their assimilation into pieces’ (‘Walgajunmanha All Time’, 15). As Jeanine Leane suggests in ‘Whitefellas’ when she says ‘Truth is, Australia doesn’t work / without Aborigines! This country would be broke / without Blackfellas’, the contemporary nation of Australia has relied and continues to rely on First Nations peoples for its survival; Papertalk Green answers the invader: ‘Our people made sure you could survive on our land’.[iv]
A subtheme in Nganajungu Yagu is the impact of Christianity, as a colonial enterprise. Papertalk Green wonders in ‘Birthday Present’ why she is gifted an illustrated Bible, inscribed for her first birthday. She writes:
I still have what is left that Bible with half pages missing out of its 1300 The pages with the paintings remain I only keep this book because a gift
Later, reflecting on the trauma her mother endured, surviving as she did the loss of ‘five babies in a seven-year period’ and later her eldest son, and her mother’s strength and courage, Papertalk Green writes to her late mother, ‘I now understand why you and Dad gave me a Bible for my first birthday. A present never carried in RJS.’ (51).
The Bible is an ambiguous gift – because the Bible was part of the colonial cargo that accompanied the arrival of Christianity in Western Australia. In Nganajungu Yagu the Spanish Benedictine Mission at New Norcia is a key site of encounter with Christianity for Papertalk Green’s immediate family. Her father was placed there as a six year old, ‘300 km south of where his family lived’ (18). Narrating an incident when her father refused to let a nun give her piano lessons in Mullewa, she writes: ‘I reckon he suffered the same cruelty in the kids’ prison at the hands of the New Norcia religious assholes as did all the other “inmates”’ (18).
Witness to the impact of colonial religion appears in False Claims of Colonial Thieves in a section focused on the legacy of English settler architect priest John Cyril Hawes (1876–1956). Hawes designed and built a church completed in 1927 in Mullewa; his major work was the cathedral in Geraldton completed in 1938.[v] Papertalk Green and Kinsella write about Hawes’ colonial church-building, both in Mullewa and Geraldton (‘"Hawes" – God’s Intruder’, False Claims of Colonial Thieves, 34–50). Each is critical of the impact of Christianity, the way it both ignored and wrote over the Cultures of First Nations in the region and their deep engagement with the sacred in Country, but the way the two poets depict this is different. Papertalk Green writes of the proximity of the church building in Mullewa as a site of play, but its gargoyles frightened her, and then a bit later in the same poem:
The big church in Geraldton on the sand hill Was not part of my world in Mullewa Our SDA church sat staunchly On Maitland Road waiting for its family We got bags of Weet-bix, oranges, and apples Saved us from really starving so That’s something I guess
(‘Hawes’ – God’s Intruder, 41)
The poem continues ‘But that big church in Geraldton / What a poser standing there like a temple’ ('"Hawes" – God’s Intruder’, 41). When she moves to Geraldton, ‘the Big Church was in my face’, she writes ('"Hawes" – God’s Intruder’, 42). The poet is sickened to learn that ‘The space it so grandly took over / Was once a traditional campsite’, from which First Nation people were moved to places like the infamous ‘Moore River Native Mission’ (‘"Hawes" – God’s Intruder’, 42). For Papertalk Green, ‘social engineering’ and colonial ‘land grab[s]’ went hand in hand (‘"Hawes" – God’s Intruder’, 42). Later in their collection, in ‘Cathedral Avenue’ Kinsella, relocates sacred space: ‘What is held in the cathedral / of salmon gums and wandoo?’ (110).
False Claims of Colonial Thieves is an exercise of truthful, compassionate collaboration which builds organically. Rather than alternating voices as might have occurred if one poem by Kinsella followed by one by Papertalk Green had been printed in sequence back and forth, there are sometimes blocks of poems by one or the other author and the interplay of voices is rendered more subtle. But the perspectives remain different, and the collection works well to demonstrate that First Nations’ connection to Country and an ecologically-informed settler love for place come from shared but incommensurable histories. While there are points of connection, the sovereignty of First Nations is founded in Country, and this as Kinsella has said, too, is the basis for ecological action on Country. In her review of this collection, Timmah Ball writes: ‘A major strength of the collection is its opportunity to see the colonised and colonisers’ voices in parallel, fighting for the same cause in different ways, both determined to see justice, yet never shying away from the enormous gulf that exists between them.’[vi] This is a collection to read and re-read for the poetry, the practice of mutual respect and the honesty around the intercultural space that it enacts.
In Nganajungu Yagu language, family, ancestry, and Country intersect and the poems work to set up spaces of language and narrative that mimic and unsettle colonial language and bureaucracy, resisting the violence of invasion by making something else through maternal connection celebrated and claimed in compassion and love. Charmaine Papertalk Green’s acclaimed work embeds itself in Country and the relations of Country, with truth and kindness. The spaces on the page, the juxtapositions, the edges of text, the uses of punctuation and capitalisation, the prose, the use of text box and archival material, give shape to this truth-telling, as language and story together witness to a compassion that has the capacity to change worlds.
[i] Natalie Harkin, Archival Poetics (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2019).
[ii] ‘Impacts of Law Post 1905’, Kartdijin Noongar – Noongar Knowledge, https://www.noongarculture.org.au/impacts-of-law-post-1905/, accessed online 20 August 2019.
[iii] ‘Aborigines Act 1905 (1906–1964)’, Western Australia – Legislation, Find & Connect, https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/wa/WE00406, accessed online 20 August 2019; ‘Native Welfare Act 1963 (1963–1972)’, Western Australia – Legislation, Find & Connect, https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/wa/WE00423, accessed online 20 August 2019.
[iv] Jeanine Leane, Walk Back Over (Carlton South, Vic.: Cordite Books, 2018), 55; Charmaine Papertalk Green, Nganajungu Yagu (Carlton South, Vic.: Cordite Books, 2019), 41.
[v] A G Evans, ‘Hawes, John Cyril (1876–1956)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hawes-john-cyril-6601/text11367, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 August 2019.
[vi] Timmah Ball, ‘Review Short: Charmaine Papertalk-Green’s and John Kinsella’s False Claims of Colonial Thieves’, Cordite Poetry Review (14 June 2018).
Charmaine Papertalk Green, Nganajungu Yagu. Carlton South, Vic.: Cordite Books, 2019. ISBN: 9780648511601
Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella, False Claims of Colonial Thieves. Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2018. ISBN: 9781925360813