Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Siv Parker: Part Two - A dedication to storytelling

The politics maelstrom of Indigenous issues can distract from what my preferred work is these days, having first spent thirty years in Indigenous affairs - I am a storyteller. I’d like to dedicate Part Two of my Easter long read guest spot to story telling, and also acknowledge the great loss to her family, community, friends and admirers of an Indigenous writer of international renown who passed recently.

Doris Pilkington Garamara the novelist and screenwriter was best known for her book filmed to international acclaim - ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ [2002]. An award winning writer, her accounts of child removal practices and the impact on their mothers in WA is an exceptional contribution to Australian literary and cultural life, and provided the narrative for the findings of the Bringing Them Home report.

I was working in the arts and through some contacts we’d gotten hold of a copy of Rabbit Proof Fence from the Director, Phillip Noyce, with permission to hold a free community viewing. The small hall was full with mostly Aboriginal people. The audience was deathly quiet for the duration of the movie. And then in one of those lucky connections, I was invited to chaperone the author for a Q & A screening at Albury/Wodonga.
On protocol – and there are many that ensure the respectful and effective approach to Indigenous filmmaker - if an older Aboriginal lady is touring with a film – her film - my inclination would have been for her to be accompanied by a member of her own family. I felt a tremendous honour to be asked but I felt embarrassed that the organizers had thought it more appropriate to have me – a stranger  – escort her, especially as they’d gone to the trouble to have me travel from outback NSW to the NSW/Victoria border city. 

It was at the town’s main cinema complex, and mostly women, it looked like we’d have a fairly substantial pool to throw up questions during the Q and A with the author scheduled to immediately follow the screening.
Following introductions, Doris and I returned to the Lobby. I recall there were some occasional chairs but set well apart. To sit together we shared a seat for one. I’d just met someone I was in awe of and now I was trying not to squash her.
I hope she knew I was doing my best to ensure her comfort for the two day visit, especially as her gentle words and determined spirit went on to inspire a change of direction in my life. It was because of her that I decided I too wanted to win the David Unaipon award. (I won in 2012). Like her, my first books will see the light of day when I’m starting my 50s and a grandmother. And just like many Aboriginal writers today, I write because we have stories that we want people to know. With so little research, some may be the first time these stories are told beyond the circle of family or community. Or they supplement research by filling in the gaps of the lived experiences.
Screenings are synchronized down to the minute and she was a professional. My most vivid memory of this remarkable, talented and dignified woman was when we moved to the door to wait for the credits to roll.
You may recall the ending, the final scene is of the two sisters – Molly and Daisy – as they were when Rabbit Proof was filmed.
‘I never watch that scene’ she told me, so she stood outside the door, in a deserted lobby while I waited at the back of the cinema till they’d faded from view, before walking Doris down to the front as the lights come up and the audience broke into warm applause. It had clearly been a harrowing experience for some, and many looked tear stained and haunted.
The questions were respectful and reflected the extent to which the broader community were coming to terms with the Stolen Generations. And then there was one that changed the mood.
I’d noticed her sitting in the middle of the audience, by herself. Her arms were crossed in front of her body and she sat tightly screwed into her chair. Horizontal stripes and a short neat hairstyle.
Her question went something like ….’ Aren’t claims of stolen generations taking the black arm band movement too far. And I don’t have anything to be sorry about because I wasn’t there’.
The question would have made more sense if it had been asked when the audience member was still in a state of complete ignorance rather than after having sat through 94 minutes of a dramatized account of a true story.
And then I took the Tony Jones approach and informed her ‘ I’ll take that as a comment’ but she would not be stopped from commenting. On and on it went. Clearly distressed, she was now quite agitated and talking over everyone in the cinema. Ok, she was yelling. And then the audience started to murmur and hiss at her to stop.
It wasn’t a great way to finish the event but most were already emotionally drained by the experience. Slowly making our way to the exit and out on to the street and I saw the horizontal tee coming our way.
And then my eye caught a face I knew. Though I’d never met her, I was familiar with who Shellie Morris was from seeing her in my travels in the Northern Territory. ‘I know you’ she said, and we embraced on the footpath. Something about our public display of affection stopped the horizontal tee in her tracks. She turned around and walked away.
Over a decade later, maybe she feels the same or maybe she has moved on like most people who accept this chapter in Australia’s history.

At any time the exploits of three children walking 2,400 kms (1500 miles) is an extraordinary story. At the time there was a desire and a willingness to invest in the making and the viewing of that film.

I’m frequently asked for recommendations for Indigenous reading and I recommend all of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s works :
Caprice, A Stockman's Daughter, (UQP, 1991)
Under the Wintamarra Tree, (UQP, 2002)
Home to Mother, (UQP, 2006) ** children’s version of Rabbit Proof Fence

And where are we today? Stories about identity and bigotry would seem to the order of the day. But there is far more to the Indigenous experience than skin colour and how it feels to be racially vilified. In the context of Indigenous diggers from over a hundred years ago, no mention whatsoever is made of the colour of their skin, but they were referred to as black trackers, and were expected to be willing to die for their country.
If I was going to make comment at all it would be this – when we are living, we’re directed to grow a thicker skin in our determination to be treated as human, and accepted as Aboriginal, but when we die, no one argues that we were Aboriginal. The test for identity is that a person identifies, is accepted by and has connections with the Indigenous community. There is no legal reference to skin colour.
And yet some continue to want to raise it again and again if only to hear the sound of their own voice, much as the wearer of the horizontal tee from Albury Wodonga. She had a freedom to speak, and then as now I have freedom to decide how I respond, and these days I choose writing and filmmaking. Just as I did a decade ago, I can continue to acknowledge a wilfully blind point of view, and embrace the Aboriginal experience.


Siv Parker is an award winning writer, blogger and tweets from @SivParker. Her next publication is in a new anthology being launched at the Melbourne Emerging Writers Festival in May 2014.
For more opinion by Siv Parker on racism and the RDA, please read.
Repealing the race hate laws isn't 'freedom' to Indigenous people
Demonising people of colour is no way to make society safer

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