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A blog is not a book, or random thoughts on important topics

05 Dec

Yes, I had trouble with thinking up a name for what is floating in my head at the moment! Some blogs, as we know, have become books — Riverbend, Stuff White People Like, Salam Pax — but the truth is blogging is evanescent, personal, and in miniature compared with proper books. So important topics tend to be aired in the spirit of good pub conversation, with the proviso that quite a few blogs also closely resemble bad pub conversation. We all know about opinionated drunks…

Not that this blog or any of the blogs I regularly read are in that last category, of course.

Speaking of conversations

My coaching session with J last Monday was the last of the year and became a good conversation — well, I confess to picking his brain rather, but it was still good, and he seemed to enjoy it. Being fifty years younger than I am, and of Mainland Chinese background, though educated entirely in Australia, his perspectives are in many ways quite different from my own. I tutor him in English, but on the other hand he has, he tells me, actually read and understood Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time — a year or two ago! — while I confessed to having read the first few pages and put it back on the shelf, like most people I know. Now there are all kinds of things in this anecdote about our assumptions about reading…

J is interested then in Astrophysics. He doesn’t propose to study History, Geography or even Economics in his senior years. I will probably be on hand to help him survive English, though he isn’t doing too badly. I picked his brain on the subject of dark energy, and how our cosmology has altered so much since 1998. To him this is unremarkable…

He is interested in philosophy, but hasn’t encountered much at school to feed that, he says. This of course is my selling point for senior English! He is also a good musician.

His rejection of the social sciences/history is of course partly personal, but I probed a bit about what if anything had turned him off. Now you mustn’t generalise when you read this, but he may have been killed by good intentions. Answer: too much Australian content! Indeed too much Indigenous Australian content, presented in too repetitious a manner ever since primary school, and focussing too much on the Stolen Generation.* He didn’t deny there were interesting stories there, but it does seem, from his experience, to have entered the world of background mantras rather than being a topic of living interest.

Repeat: don’t generalise too much from this.

When I found myself dealing with the topic in a senior English class in 1997-8 it was all a revelation, and all fresh, and worked because we connected it to a number of living people as well as literary and film texts. I also made a point of accepting opinions from students that were far from PC, but not without making sure I offered stories that challenged the stereotypes behind those opinions. The result was a sharing among us that really did change some attitudes. It hadn’t hardened into a course quite, as we were all finding out new things… (A ghost of that class still lives.)

Jim and Galarrwuy

Jim Belshaw recently gave advance notice of some conversations that may soon appear on his blog. I am looking forward to the outcome. You will note the title though: "Advance Notice – failures in Aboriginal policy." Well, we would have to agree there have been failures. And successes, which (reading between the lines) may also feature in those future posts.

When I browsed the December 2008 – January 2009 Monthly Magazine — where there are many excellent articles — I was drawn to Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow by Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

I was born in 1948 at Gunyangara, a beach on a beautiful headland near what is now known as Nhulunbuy, in east Arnhem Land. My father was Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, of the Gumatj clan, and my mother, Makurrngu, was of the Galpu clan. My parents gave me the name Galarrwuy, which means ‘the area on the horizon where the sea merges with the sky’. As I grew older my father would call me Djingarra, which means ‘crystal clear’. My elder sisters still call me this special name.

My father’s father was Nikunu. His totem was a sacred rock, an unbreakable rock – Yunupingu – a name that my grandfather gave to his son, Mungurrawuy, who passed it to all his children. My totem is fire, rock and the saltwater crocodile. The crocodile – baru – is a flame of fire: the mouth, the teeth and the jaw are the fire and its jaw is death. It is always burning, and through it I have energy, power – strength.

My land is that of the Gumatj clan nation, which is carefully defined, with boundaries and borders set out in the maps of our minds and, today, on djurra, or paper. We have our own laws, repeated in ceremonial song cycles and known to all members of our clan nation. Sung into our ears as babies, disciplined into our bodies through dance and movement – we have learnt and inherited the knowledge of our fathers and mothers. We live on our land, with our laws, speaking our language, sharing our beliefs and living our lives bound together with the other great clan nations of the Gove Peninsula: Rirritjingu, Djapu, Wanguri, Djalwong, Mangalili, Malarrpa, Marrakulu, Dartiwuy, Naymil, Gumatj, Galpu, Djumbarrpiynu, Dhudi-Djapu…

It’s a wonderful reflection, this piece.

Two Australians so close in age, Jim and Galarrwuy. Much binds them, and us, together in community, yet much also speaks of many Australias. We have each our own. And yet…

Today, almost 30 years after my father passed away, I still hold his clapsticks and I am the leader of my clan – with other senior family members I am the keeper and teacher of our song cycles, our ceremonies, our laws and our future. I care for and protect my clan. But I have not mastered the future. I find that I now spend my days worrying about how I can protect the present from the future. I feel the future moving in on the Yolngu world, the Gumatj world, like an inevitable tide, except every year the tide rises further, moving up on us, threatening to drown us under the water, unable to rise again. The water sands under our feet shift and move so often – the land to which we can reach out is often distant, unknown.

I look around me at the Yolngu world. I worry about the lives of the little ones that I see around me, including my own children – my youngest daughter is barely eight years old. I have more than a dozen grandchildren. I look back now on a lifetime of effort and I see that we have not moved very far at all. For all the talk, all the policy, all the events, all the media spectaculars and fine speeches, the gala dinners, what has been achieved? I have maintained the traditions, kept the law, performed my role – yet the Yolngu world is in crisis; we have stood still. I look around me and I feel the powerlessness of all our leaders. All around me are do-gooders and no-hopers – can I say this? Whitefellas. Balanda. They all seem to be one and the same sometimes: talking, talking, talking – smothering us – but with no vision to guide them; holding all the power, all the money, all the knowledge for what to do and how to work the white world. Only on the ceremonial ground do our leaders still lead – everywhere else we are simply paid lip service. Or bound up in red tape.

And the ‘gap’ that politicians now talk of grows larger as we speak, as I talk: as the next session of parliament starts or as the next speech is given by the next politician, the gap gets wider. I don’t think anyone except the few of us who have lived our lives in the Aboriginal world understand this task that is called ‘closing the gap’.

There is no one in power who has the experience to know these things. There is not one federal politician who has any idea about the enormity of the task. And how could they? Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things?…

I offer this with respect, both for Jim and for Galarrwuy.

And leave you to your own thoughts…

* Here is what J did in Year 9 (PDF).

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3 responses to “A blog is not a book, or random thoughts on important topics

  1. Jim Belshaw

    December 5, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Thoughtful piece, Neil.

    If you look at my experiences, at what I argue, the idea that different groups have different experiences each worthy of understanding and respect is central. This flows through to my argument that policy needs to be localised in some way. And my support for minorities, because I see myself as belonging to one. And, too, my own arguments about country.

    The thing that originally triggered my writing was my concern that what I had orginally seen as a success story – Aboriginal advancement in the face of disadvantage – had somehow turned into a failure that seemed to discredit everything that had been achieved. This remains my view. Joe, too, wants start the whole series with a simple statement that will highlight educational success – from just two Aboriginal graduates to thousands.

    It may be that we will have to defer the series for two months. I am starting some consulting work Tuesday that might create a conflict of interest in terms of public comment. I have to discuss this with Joe.

     
  2. Neil

    December 5, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Good luck with the consultancy work.

     
  3. Jim Belshaw

    December 5, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks, Neil. It’s linked to the recent COAG stuff.

     
 
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