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A journey with Indigenous 'in-laws'

Ros Moriarty: Listening to Country. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2010. ISBN 9781741753806

Listening to Country, Ros Moriarty, 9781741753806 The author offers her readers a window into the lives of some women of Borroloola in the Northern Territory as they travel to a desert location to conduct a women's ceremony.

Ros Moriarty gained access to these experiences through her husband, John, who was born at Borroloola, but was removed from his mother when he was four years old. Like many of the Stolen Generations, John had a white father and an Aboriginal mother; in the eyes of the authorities, this was enough to justify his removal from his young mother. John's story is very much at the core of his wife's account.

Nine of the book's ten chapters begin with a diary entry from Ros' journey with John's classificatory mother and other Yanyuwa women from Borroloola to a ceremonial ground in the Tanami Desert. These entries convey a sense of the excitement and the logistical and other practical aspects as the women travel from their remote community to an equally remote place to gather with others from several other far-flung communities.

The women assemble to sing, dance, tell stories; thus the elders induct younger women, including the author, into some of the religious knowledge and rituals that are shared across a wide area.

However, the bulk of the book is about the author's life and that of her husband, her love and admiration for whom comes through in every chapter. She writes about his Irish father as well as his mother and the Borroloola family. She devotes attention to their children, and to her own background. She provides detail about the vicissitudes of setting up a business, Balarinji design company, and its success in Australia and abroad.

The diary entries, written in the present tense and chronologically, tell the women's bush story, while there is a more wide-ranging account, in past tense, of the Moriartys' lives, including Ros' introduction to John's family and many subsequent trips to Borroloola. These parts of the book seem like random musings, switching back and forth over her life and more than 20 years' connection to Borroloola; there is a fair amount of repetition.

For readers unfamiliar with Aboriginal people and with outback communities, the book provides a gentle introduction. Moriarty paints vivid word pictures of the landscape, the people and their situation. In economical language and with a personal touch, she conveys information about living conditions, poverty, health and other problems that are often the subject of detached statistical accounts.

She offers insights into the stoicism, patience, affection and humour of this extended family. The contrast between their lives and the life she and her own nuclear family have attained, despite her husband's scars from his early removal from family and unstable institutional existence, is stark.

The Moriartys' success is countered by the many tribulations of their Aboriginal relatives; the author makes the contrast plain and conveys her frustration and anger about this from time to time, but in muted tones, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

The trajectory of John's life shows the value of education, the importance of serendipity, the power of kindness, the human capacity for change and resilience.

There is much to applaud also in the lives of the Borroloola family who have endured much hardship and yet come across as positive, forgiving and generous. The voices of the Aboriginal women appear in several chapters in transcriptions of their accounts of history, beliefs, family relationships and so on.

One of these accounts is Yuwani Annie's origin story, which blends a Yanyuwa version with the biblical Adam and Eve story. There are also poignant accounts of separation and loss — of country and family — and of fears for the future in conditions of rapid change, so much of which is imposed rather than chosen.

Readers with experience of unstructured time among Aboriginal people on their own lands in remote settings, and who are familiar with the history and anthropology on which the book touches, may be less satisfied than less-informed readers. The author invokes clichés and tends to romanticise the past.

Phrases like 'the last of their line' have been used by observers for many decades now; 'songs handed down for thousands of generations' and 'the world's oldest culture' invoke a changeless culture from before colonisation. And some accounts of mystical experiences are presented in a just-so fashion that begs for analysis.

These quibbles aside, this book is well-written and offers a personal and family journey that is predominantly positive. It will be appreciated by many as an example of Australian small business success, as well as for the story that is given more prominence in the book's title and blurb.

On Indigenous Literacy Day, Wednesday 1 September, Reader's Feast Bookstore in Melbourne will host an evening in conversation with Ros and John Moriarty. Arrive 6.15 for a 6.30pm start. Bookings: (03) 9662 4699

Myrna Tonkinson

Dr Myrna Tonkinson is an honourary research fellow in anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia who has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974.

Topic tags: Ros Moriarty, Listening to Country, Allen & Unwin, ISBN 9781741753806



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