Award-winning poets Ali Cobby Eckermann and Michelle Cahill talk memory, colonisation, and erasure in our continuing Poets in Conversation series.
MICHELLE: I’m going to kick off this interview with you to ask what your thoughts are on the divisive nature of public discussions around changing the date of Australia Day? Jacinta Price has talked about the claimed offended who do not really feel offense. Is it a choice to be offended? And does an individual’s sense of pain, and even political responsibility deepen as they familiarise with the unofficial facts of history? This is something that compels me as I learn more about how European colonisation impacted on my country and my family as minorities.
ALI: I find the debate over Change The Date makes me feel insecure as a citizen. The loudest voices refute that this date is offensive to Aboriginal Australians, that invasion and Terra Nullius has no bearing on today, that Aboriginal people should be grateful and learn to forgive. Personally I have learnt to be grateful for my life and my achievements, despite the traumas I have suffered. When Jacinta Price says “it is a choice to feel offended,” I do feel aggrieved. I have suffered racism in this country. I do feel the division of 'us' and 'them'. I cherish the friendships I can enjoy with people who value cultural identity as an asset to one's wellbeing. I am sad that mostly I do not enjoy a real sense of safety in the wider society. I will not accept that assimilation is the answer for Aboriginal people to secure a true sense of equality. And for these reasons I do support Change The Date. Change is a synonym for hope, and I need that.
MICHELLE: I can’t really imagine how damaging it is to feel unsafe in your own country; to feel racial hatred and judgement. Yet I do experience something like this in India as a woman caught up in cultural intersections, and I also feel it is harrowing to be a non-white writer, here in this country. Security and belonging are provisional.
The idea of nationality based on European settlement being celebrated erodes the vibrant diversity of cultures, our relationships with Asia, southern European and southern hemisphere countries. Change transmits hope and I hear and read the trauma in your voice, which I also recognise. At times I feel despondent with having been dispossessed of my culture, as a minority from India, being forced to migrate, and finding myself in a country where if you choose to write, to express and to explore or to reinvent your identity, it can be demoralising because you are very rarely treated as an equal. It seems to me that non-white writers are being asked to assimilate to white ways of telling their stories, or being restricted in what stories they are allowed to tell. Like many, I think the movement to Change the Date is getting stronger, fuelled by social media disseminating the protest. For me Change the Date is also about deconstructing the white patriarchal colonising ideologies underpinned by racism. Until that mentality has been rehabilitated, I think this country’s culture remains brutal at its core.
I am wondering how you have been feeling about the education of younger Aboriginal artists and writers in terms of offering hope? You have always been a strong advocate; having accomplished so much in your writing, having achieved such prominence as a writer, does that now bring another burden of responsibility, does it stir up trauma?
ALI: My strategy for the change I want to see in Australia is to attempt to teach emotional intelligence. I do not see this in the mainstream. On my journey when I reconnected with the senior Ngangkaris in my traditional lands in north west South Australia this was the peak of learning about myself. I believe the internal change and an understanding of self-nurture, was the biggest gift to me. It is my role to teach younger Aboriginal artists to see the pitfalls ahead, to feel comfort to ask for help, to protect oneself from the emotional disease of the majority. The workplace is a bully environment and often filled with deceit. I refuse to engage in this environment, and lead a fairly quiet life. Mostly I feel my work is unknown in Australia. I believe other art sectors do not read Aboriginal Australia literature because it is a relatively new art form. I would like to see the change, and deep down I know it will. My focus remains on my emotional well-being. I return to the desert often, it is my clinic and where I go to seek my truth. I will not return to a traumatic environment to chase a career.
MICHELLE: I agree that our industry has problems. I stay in the creative workplace because I have more history to bare about the Anglo–Indian experience. That has been written over, spoken for, erased in the historical leger. But inner happiness and peace of mind is damaged by workplace. There are high levels of resistance, fragility and sensitivity to navigate. Being an advocate effectively means trying to orientate the flow of industry and it can become strained, even combative. But there is a sense of achievement, especially about helping other POC writers.
Do you still run the retreat space in the caravan?
ALI: I love my humble little caravan and the privacy and cosiness it provides. So at the moment I keep it as my library-slash-reading room, where I retreat from the world and succumb to my creative imagination. It is my safe place filled with personal knick-knacks and treasures. At the moment I have been blessed with a housesit for one year on the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide. I enjoy sharing the larger space with my friends and creative peers. Everyone who visits here benefits because the spiritual energy of the land is really strong; it is on the border of Kaurna and Ramindjeri lands. Large gum trees grow close to the house so birds abound all day. It is a magical place to watch the sky, and I look forward to more visitors over the coming months.
Michelle, my first question: what is your favourite place/location in Australia? Did it inspire a poem you could share?
MICHELLE: Years ago, I sat on the banks of the Moruya river writing and found sublime peace there. I can’t find the poem now but the town is so picturesque and holds special memories.
A place that I’ve connected with intimately is Bouddi National Park, where I used to walk and swim, often with my friend, Arjen. We would talk about our thoughts, dreams and fears as we scaled down the headlands and across the rocks. I remember the sounds of birds and sea, and the sweet sickly smells of grass and the snakes. It was a paradise to live there and walk from the southern end of Macmaster’s beach into the national park or drive to Kilcare. This poem tries to capture the joy, pain and recovery of life’s journey and of simply being in that coastal sanctuary.
Liberty at Box Head
It was high tide and I knew I’d find them,
spines suturing the sea, dolphins duck-diving
then surfing the waves in a parallel formation.
How is it we become so snared in our lives?
Time swallows the insults, the barbs we digest,
retract and scar. Yet the same scarp enters me
with its eroded beauty, its headland fingering
the Pacific, noisy today as a cheerful road.
I cannot match the rapid eye of swallows.
Mannequin finches spy me from their perch
and know my game. I’m brushed by banksias,
their waxy leaves sobering my thoughts.
Down by the rocks, the foam’s calligraphy
sparkles in the sun. Spirited waves grant me
tolerance. I cross the green pools, the cunjevoi
that fishermen waste. I think of those seagulls
in salmon rich waters. One may lose a leg
through sheer play—the price of liberty.
ALI: In my healing journey I often talk about 'body memory'. I wonder if you could share, as a migrant who contributes largely to the creative literary landscape in Australia, if you retain body memory from your original home? If so, does this memory sustain you in your creative process?
MICHELLE: Thanks for this beautiful question, Ali. There’s a sorrow of being disconnected from my country of origin because of colonisation, assimilation and contingent migration following Indian independence, when India was no longer a comfortable place for Eurasians. One feels a profound loss of family, history, mother tongue, home. My body remembers floating downstream in the Ganges somewhere near Rishikesh with the smells of monkey, bird, incense, fruit and flower—feeling weightless, trusting the almost conscious and half alert to pujas thrumming, the river turquoise, the tunnelling light and the boulders translucent.
Rivers and waterways are often present in my writing. I started out as a nature poet, but cities are also my home, where words find connection. To walk along an embankment, whether the Thames, the Ouse, the Brisbane river, the Hawkesbury or the Hooghly, is a visual and spiritual journey and sometimes an imprint, a map that informs the creative process.
I wonder if you would share your body memory of country and healing and where you see yourself in your creative practise now, having accomplished so much.
ALI: My sense of body memory awoke when I asked my mother where she was born. I was thirty-four years of age when I finally found her, and flew to Canberra to meet her for the first time since my birth. When she told me she was born at Ooldea along the Nullabor Plain in South Australia, this was a very poignant moment in my life. As a teenager I had run away from my adopted family to that exact place. In the scope of vastness that is Australia how is that possible? I truly believe my body memory took me there, to my traditional lands. Whilst my family were no longer living there due to the atomic testing at Maralinga and Emu Downs, I fell in love with the country. That landscape is quite prominent within me, and still guides me. I love that I knew my country when I was young.
There is also the inherited emotional body memory. When generational removal occurs, as it did with three generations of my immediate family, my mother, myself and my son, this sits in your body. Sometimes our emotions act beyond what is expected of us in a certain incident. There are moments of joy that spring from nowhere, usually on country, and there are moments of abject sadness that we can't understand. My life today is filled with many blessings and for that I am extremely grateful. However I have many days when I cry my mother’s tears, unshed in her lifetime.
My creative process is connection to our land, and its memory. I feel reassured and fulfilled when I hear the voice of the land. Yesterday, as my son and I drove from Adelaide through the mid-north of South Australia to visit family in Port Augusta, that conversation continued. I recite these thoughts over and over, and the essence of this often becomes poetry that I publish. There is much I keep for myself, to share with my family, as their wisdom and love is profound. I am blessed with this guidance as I still have a long healing journey to travel.
MICHELLE: Thank you for sharing this with me; it is especially meaningful and humbling for me today, Invasion day, to be in conversation. I have known at least once or twice in my life how landscape can be psychologically transformative. It is an incredible overlapping of destinies and body memory that you encountered when you sought refuge in Ooldea as a teenager. The disturbance and dislocation you experienced is symptomatic of the violence wielded by assimilation policies.
It is profoundly inspiring to hear you speak about inherited emotional body memory and generational removal! I’ve felt a similar joy when I visited Mumbai for the first time, and when I have returned, especially to London, where I spent formative years. Memories arrive surprisingly: crisp images and voices, preserved in time. It is not superfluous to be able to describe and theorise these affective processes, so as to make sense of them, to press them gently against the assumptions and privileges of white neo-colonial agency, which operates, it seems to me, by occluding the continual procedures and structures of coloniality.
ALI: Michelle, I want to give you the last response. As a non-Aboriginal POC living in Australia how do you see the healing journey for Australia?
MICHELLE: It is difficult to see a way forward that does not get mired in polarised alliances. I think the recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty is paramount. I don’t think the ascendancy of minorities is harmed by extending and embracing an invitation to White Australia to talk about race in less generic and more nuanced ways which open to the kinds of emotional intelligence you describe so eloquently. Race is often framed in political terms as a way of demarcating and positioning people hierarchically, impacting on their social and economic agency. But this misses the opportunity to consider the significant psychological morbidity and affective consequences of being racialized. I see the healing journey for Australia lying in this space, where conversations might become more compassionate and less defensive.
This conversation was first published in The Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy [here]. : https://www.theliftedbrow.com/shop/the-lifted-brow-37
Michelle Cahill's collection of short stories, Letter to Pessoa, won the 2017 NSW Premier's Literary Award for New Writing. Her latest poetry book is The Herring Lass.
Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Poet Ali Cobby Eckerman is the author of seven books, including the verse novel Ruby Moonlight, the poetry collection Inside my Mother and the memoir Too Afraid to Cry. In 2017 she was awareded Yale University's Windham Campbell Prize in Poetry.