Ali's Prize

Last week Ali Cobby Eckermann, an Aboriginal poet, won a prestigious literary award. The Guardian headlined: Unemployed Indigenous Poet wins $215,000 literary prize. My first thought was that there is no unemployed poet, only underpaid ones. And then I felt pleased for her. She won the Windham-Campbell Prize, presented by Yale University, without knowing she’d been nominated for it.

Ali cobby-eckermann in America with the  international writing program  2014

Ali cobby-eckermann in America with the international writing program 2014

Ali’s work speaks fluently to my mind and heart. Animals and birds abound in her poetry and you can sense the earth vibrating in her lines. Her characters find solace, connection and strength in nature. I’ve been reading Ruby Moonlight, her book of poems that make a novel. The jewel-like verse moves fluently between Aboriginal English, Western desert language and Australian English, both the colloquial and academic kinds.

Perhaps Ali’s work resonates with me so much because I, too, carry bits and pieces of those dialects and languages in my brain. She lives in South Australia now, after many years living in the NT, just up the road from here near Alice Springs. I've heard she left to be free of living under the Intervention. I can understand that. I know many of the birds she describes. I have seen how those desert birds rush in wild flocks. I, too, have grieved the massacres and the disconnection.

Ali’s young life (she was born a year after me) has been full of rich, sometimes painful, experience. Her mother, as a little child in the South Australian desert, walked with Ali’s grandmother and her family out of the Maralinga nuclear blasts. Because these nomadic Yankunytjara people chose to walk south to family, they walked into the wind, avoiding the nuclear poisons that affected people who walked to the north.

This is a small part of the intergenerational grief and desolation that Ali was born into. But not only she did she survive it, she observed the suffering with compassion and a compelling equilibrium. She developed the spiritual strength and emotional intelligence to tell those stories.

Ali is one of many Aboriginal creatives expressing this complex experience of loss in their words and art. Visual artists like the Spinifex Collective express the power of the land in their paintings You can see some of Claudia’s wonderful photos in their catalogue. In dance, The Bangarra Dance Company strove to show the emotion in Frances Rings’ creation named after the bomb site: x300. In theatre, Trevor Jamieson has done it in Ngapartji Ngapartji.

They are important bridge people, these ones. They paint, tell stories, write and perform for Aboriginal people, inspiring us with their courage and showing us ways to speak the unspeakable. These gifted artists help others understand what happened to the western desert people when the British military was granted permission by the Australian government to conduct ‘scientific’ testing of nuclear bombs in the South Australian desert in the 1950’s and early 60’s. People got sick, sometimes immediately, sometimes over decades. The land, which had inspired and nourished Aboriginal people, was contaminated forever. Even now, there are important places where nothing lives.

Nuclear explosion at maralinga, south australia in the 1950's.

Nuclear explosion at maralinga, south australia in the 1950's.

I met a woman once at an aged-care home in Central Australia. Her own family had died after the explosions at Maralinga. Most of the people in the home were from a different tribe, and spoke a different dialect. She was pleased that I was able to say a few words in her language. She touched my hair affectionately and said, “All this mob have a different language. They tease me a bit because I’m the only one.”

It was a loving aged-care home, with a humpy by the fireplace in the yard and cake with tea in the afternoon. As good a home as any for that poor woman. Yet it was not her family, not her language. In her delight in my attempts to speak in her tongue, I felt the sense of abandonment that had followed her even here. She gave me a t-shirt from the campaign she and other women elders had created to protest their lands being used as a nuclear dump. I still wear it.

In 2014-15 Claudia and I had the pleasure to live for several months (on and off) in a converted shipping container in a very remote community in the western desert. The little town was created by people displaced by the British atomic testing. Born under the gnarled arid-country trees, they had lived nomadically in their beautiful country. After the irradiation of their lands, they were moved somewhere else. But some continued to live the peripatetic, ancient desert life well into the 1980’s. Over time, they gathered themselves together and chose another place to live. The land they live on now is safe (for now, at least — there is a big gold mine nearby). They are very remote — a ten-hour drive from the nearest town when the road is good.

All of the housing there is temporary because according to the government, the people don’t own the land and don’t have the right to erect any permanent buildings there. Many younger adults have moved to town for work and a life which is more convenient, if less spiritually intense, and much noisier. Certainly, the little desert community is not a paradise, but without a police station most arguments are settled by the elders. A truck brings fresh food once a week (or so). People go hunting and share their quarry on Sundays when the shop is shut. The shop doesn’t sell lollies. Potato chips are sold on only on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. The children have beautiful teeth.

I know from her work and interviews that Ali Cobby-Eckermann has traveled around the APY Lands, her ancestral home. She may even have been to that little community where we lived and worked. From her caravan in the South Australian outback she made many of us in our remote desert communities feel special, real.

And yet. Her work resonated far beyond our deserts too. Those literary judges in New Haven, on the shore of the Connecticut river got it. Cheers to them for allowing her to speak to their hearts, too. And a literary prize built on a foundation of a writer’s love and dedication to the memory of his male love? That’s very sweet too.

Life-long companions Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell.

Life-long companions Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell.

I’ll raise a glass for you tonight Ali, with your mum in your caravan. The seeds of your carefully nurtured work are beginning to sprout. May strong trees grow out of those sprouts. May that little bit of cash bring you the tangled bliss of many hours of undisturbed writing. I’m going to dream of Ruby Moonlight tonight.


Thumbnail: Bird with its shadow by Darius K.