A year spent observing

The descriptions in Mary Ellen Jordan’s Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land will resonate for many of us who have lived in Aboriginal communities. Jordan has managed to capture many of those early impressions and conversations that people experience when first living in a remote community: the weather, local store, accommodation, ever-present dogs, and, of course, local people. Jordan has come as a balanda (a Macassan word for white person) to live in a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. There is much for her to experience within a community of people who speak other languages before English.

What I particularly liked in the beginning of the book was Jordan’s willingness to arrive with a ‘patchwork of understandings and confusions’. She manages to capture well her intrigue and interest, where so many securities and predictabilities are removed and so much can be ‘different’. Her sensitivity to a new place is well articulated and evocative. As any veil of possible romance is lifted, one can get a sense of what it might mean to live in a remote community, joining a minority of white staff (although a dominant minority in many other ways), in a time and place that do not simply or quickly accord with university and city living. As a challenging experience, it also raises self-scrutiny. She is not just a female balanda in an Aboriginal world; she brings her own history with her.

There is a significant shift, about halfway through the book, when Jordan describes being assaulted. It is a Sunday morning, and she is confronted by a young Aboriginal man. She has been in the community for only a few months. A couple of days later she hears that her father has died. It is not the assault that touches her vulnerability, but the memory of her father. Fears, deeply etched within her since she was a little girl, surface at the memory of his death. She leaves for a three-week break, and returns to give the community a second chance.

Jordan finds that coming ‘with good intentions’ is not enough. It’s not just the isolation from family and the familiar that she finds difficult, but a social and communication divide. It is a divide that accentuates her feelings of difference and helplessness. It also accentuates her fears. Despite the efforts of Valerie to draw her into the world of local kinship and be a ‘sister for her’, her own relationship with Valerie or others does not appear to develop or become deeply sustaining. Her own linguistic skills, developed at university, have not helped and she finds little to bridge her into the Maningrida world.

It is here that my disappointment with the book lies. Jordan does not appear to have informed the local people of her intention to write about them. Ostensibly, she came to write a book on weaving in Arnhem Land. Nor does she appear concerned that people might be sensitive to appearing in books such as this, however well written. Changing names doesn’t disguise identities—if you know Maningrida or the people and you live in the community. As the book intrudes into the personal lives of both balanda and Aboriginal, one wonders how they felt about such a portrayal and what choice they had.

I am not surprised that Jordan develops strong opinions after such a short period of time. A suicide prompts a reflection on the existence of boredom, hopelessness and despair. She may be right about the life that Aboriginal people experience. However, I suspect there is more to life, and death, in Maningrida than that. It is not that Jordan found the experience more difficult than she imagined it would be, but that she did not find local people who could take her beyond her world and into theirs. When bored, confused or frustrated, she turns not to others but to art. It was, she says, a year spent observing.

The image of her final departure on a Sunday afternoon is most revealing. She is the only person on the plane, as if this is how her time has finally come to be. Her reflections on white paternalism might be true, but there is a sense that she has not come to know the people well. Whether this aloneness was sharpened by the assault, closely followed by her father’s death, is not considered. It would be difficult to think otherwise.

I continue to wonder why some people spend shorter times in Aboriginal communities than others. In this book I gained some insight into that. Perspectives change, as do relationships. And fear will touch us all in personal and distinctive ways. It is not enough to come to an Aboriginal community with good intentions or even with university degrees. We each bring something of our own history with us and, for many and various reasons, our spirits sometimes do not settle. The biggest mistake would be to think that was simply because the community was remote, in Arnhem Land, or even Aboriginal.

Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land, Mary Ellen Jordan. Allen & Unwin, 2005. isbn 1 74114 280 6, rrp $24.95

Brian F. McCoy sj is a Fellow at the Centre for Health and Society, University of Melbourne.

 

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