Loving Australia's hard and soft faces

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Morgan, Sally et al. (ed): Heartsick for Country: Stories of Love, Spirit and Creation. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2008. ISBN 9781921361111

Heartsick for Country, edited by Sally Morgan, ISBN 9781921361111The recent Victorian bushfires have caused many Australians to ponder the nature of land, love, community and identity. Aside from the paroxysms of some in the conservative press, it has been a time of reflection with few instant answers.

Fremantle Arts Centre Press's new anthology Heartsick for Country is profoundly relevant in the current climate because its 16 Indigenous authors answer in a rich variety of ways the question of what it means to belong to 'country'. Their country is one whose ancient landscape and traditions of custodianship were violently disrupted well before the 2009 fires.

In some cases it is silent country. Worrima man and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Social Justice Commissioner Bill Jonas, for example, wonders what became of his ancestors at one of the early contact sites in New South Wales. And Nyungar lecturer Joe Boolgar Collard considers the colonial silencing of Indigenous environmental practices of fish stock replenishment and burning-off on pain of flogging.

Other country is not the stereotypical marriage of Indigene and 'land' in the soil-based English sense, but is composed by Indigenous cosmologies, skies, stars, oceans, rivers, dreams and cities. The final chapter even includes post-colonial interpretations of Stars Wars and Star Trek via the Death Star of Terra Nullius and Captain Kirk/Cook.

Above all, Heartsick for Country is about re-orientation: re-orientation to country and traditional knowledge within Indigenous peoples' lives. It also calls for a re-orientation of values and spirituality by all Australians, and for the conversations Australians must have in order to remove our dingy Age of Reason eyeglasses to see what is plainly before us. Award-winning author of My Place and Palyku woman, Sally Morgan, wishes Captain Cook had done this in the first place:

The Unknown South Land was supposed to be a place of untold wealth and beauty. So it was with our particular southern continent. But the kind of wealth and beauty the British desired was not immediately obvious here. Unable to read the signs, James Cook could see only too many trees and not enough paddocks.

Subsequent and enduring imperial motifs are deconstructed, as for example the explaining away of Indigenous people as 'nomads'. Palyku mother and daughter, Gladys Idjirrimoonya and Jill Milroy, suggest that it was actually the British who not only travelled the world but became travellers in both their own and other peoples' stories. They 'dis(re)membered' them and so, like Cook, ignored the signs, the existing wisdom, before them.

Heartsick for Country is particularly generous, in some cases unprecedented, in sharing such wisdom. Oral histories, personal ancestries and traditional stories abound and  contribute to a far more inclusive and uplifting experience.

Stories, such as Nyungar researcher Tjalaminu Mia's account of her encounters with woodachis ('little fellas') and a female Waagyl (rainbow serpent), take us into country undivided by the organisational imperatives of the English language. This country asks if its non-Indigenous occupants can ever pause long enough to read its signs from a non-Anglicised perspective.

Heartsick for Country asks not that we become Indigenous, but that we dare to consider Indigenous spiritual dimensions to be formally, legally, morally, psychologically, narratively and environmentally as valid as any other paradigm. Whether or not Australians can actually do this is a conversation that we must have. In the meantime this book is remarkable in its commitment to a holistic re-orientation of Australian language and value systems.

The book's wealth of stories of creation, love and yearning for place ultimately ask whether Australia is indeed 'the core of my heart, my country' as Dorothea Mackellar so famously put it. If so, then why do we consistently pillage it, from the first axe swing to buried uranium?

This is politically pertinent given the pro-development, pro-nuclear stance of the new WA Premier. But the contributors to this book are not limited to the West, and nor is its spiritual resonance. Increasing numbers of Australians are re-assessing their ties to country and comng to share, in  Mia's phrase, 'a love for country ... both its hard and soft faces'.

Fremantle Press

Toby DavidsonToby Davidson is an associate lecturer in literary studies and professional writing at Deakin University. His research seeks to address the gap in Australian scholarship regarding Australian Christian mystical poetry in line with the literary criticisms of other traditions. He is also a published poet.

Topic tags: Morgan, Sally et al. (ed): Heartsick for Country: Stories of Love, Spirit and Creation. Fremantle Ar



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Existing comments

Thanks Toby for a finely written review. I shall track down the book. I share your views, especially regarding the ambivalence Europeans share regarding the land. Good luck with your PhD - it sounds fascinating.

Have you read Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self? It has a couple of chapters that you might find useful. They explore the role poetry has taken in mediating a sense of the transcendent, and the newish role that poetry now has in its relationship to the 'self', given the so-called death of master narratives such as organised religion. Good luck.

Cameron Johns | 27 February 2009  

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