Last May I went to as many events as I could at the Northern Territory Writers Festival in Darwin. The highlight for me was a panel of speakers discussing memoir writing and how family might react to the stories shared. All four women had published a recent memoir.The questions asked ranged from, “Do writers edit out parts to protect feelings?” to, “How much time has to pass before dirty laundry can be safely aired and can it ever be aired?”.The consensus was that you have to tell your own story and navigate the “hard stuff” about who it’s going to affect, the wisest, kindest way you can. There was no easy answer to any question raised. Each writer recognised the problem and each had worked out for themselves how to tell their own story with minimal negative impact on family.
Magda Szubanski reminded us that Aboriginal people are very conscious of not telling a story that doesn’t belong to them.She struggled with writing her fathers story, balancing her words carefully so as not to disrespect the Polish Jewish and Catholic communities the family had been a part of. She taught herself to write by finding her own voice and thus making the telling her own, if not the story itself.The memoir took her eight years to complete.
Each person has a unique story, unlike any other. And to be able to tell it freely enables a person to make sense of their life’s experiences. To clarify their emotions, to heal from losses, to inspire and encourage and to preserve cultural identity and so much more. Storytelling is fundamental to human experience. As listeners or readers we are entertained, we learn, we experience vicariously and we are enlarged by the contact with another person’s world. But, for all the benefits it’s still a balancing act to be honest in our telling and to share our story, without taking away from those closest to us what is rightfully theirs. Their story, their perception, their life. And isn’t that the same compromise we face day after day, whether writing a memoir or living our lives.
History put things in context. It isn’t just a boring subject with datelines and exam questions. It lives when stories are recounted and to the listening ear it gives a lot of answers.
I’m writing a memoir of my working life as a remote area nurse and I’ve struggled with how to write about some things I’ve seen in Indigenous communities. I don’t want to add to the negative views already held by much of the dominant culture. I was pondering all this during my last contract in East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory when I had the good fortune to attend a workshop on cross-cultural understanding hosted by Richard Trudgen. He prefaced the two days by giving a short history of East Arnhem land. After he’d presented the past, the present was more easily understood.
I realized that my writing needed some history of Aurukun and other places to put the present into context. I found three well researched television documentaries about Aurukun from the ABC program “Four Corners”. Dating from the late 1070’s. I wasn’t prepared to be moved to tears by the interruption to the lives of local people from state government intervention with the introduction of alcohol, that alone caused social destruction on a large scale.
Now my writing is stuck at my time in Alice Springs…so here I go again to research some history of that place an
A nurse lent me this book in the first week I arrived to work in Aurukun. It wasn’t written about Aurukun people but another group of Indigenous Australians, the Yolgnu, in East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory. Nevertheless, Richard Trudgens analysis of the importance of knowing history, language, cross-cultural communication and understanding another culture from the inside out rather than looking in from the dominant cultures point of view, makes this book invaluable to anyone working with Indigenous people the world over, or indeed, any other culture other than one’s own.
I had the privilege of meeting Richard a few months ago when I attended a two day seminar of his on cross-cultural awareness and learned much more. I’d already found his book insightful, almost like a handbook to me as I navigated my way into remote area nursing. There are few available resources for those of us working outside the dominant white culture, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Mrs Geraldine MacKenzie went with her husband, William, to Aurukun in 1925 and worked there with him for 40 years. She wrote a diary during those years which was published in 1981 with the first edition printing 1000 copies.
At the end of the forward the General Secretary, John P. Brown, of the Commission for World Mission, wrote ” Mrs Mackenzie wrote the following record of her life with Bill at Aurukun. It was a great sadness to her that the book was not published before her death. It is an exceedingly valuable document, full of information not widely known. It is particularly gratifying that the book is being published now because of the struggle that is likely to ensue in the next few years between the people of Aurukun and mining interest-a struggle in which the Aurukun people will need all the informed support that can be mustered: 13th August 1981.
The book is still available, second hand on the internet and is well worth reading as a historical document and for anyone planning to work there.