Spreading seeds of culture

Magabala Books has an impressive list of titles in its catalogue and has won numerous awards for the work of its authors, editors and artists, but this is no flash publishing house.

For all its success, Magabala is an unpretentious operation: it is housed in a tin-roofed building in the back streets of Broome on the Western Australian coast; a wall of bookshelves separates the reception area from the production room behind.

Magabala specialises in publishing the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The shelves carry an array of its titles: children’s books, which include The Mark of the Wagarl, about the sacred water snake and how a boy questioned the wisdom of the elders; A Home for Bilby, a picture book about the bush and the animals that live there; and Dabu, the Baby Dugong, a vividly illustrated story from the Torres Strait Islands. There are also oral, community and natural history books, biographies, fiction and poetry.

Magabala’s origins as an indigenous publishing house go back more than 20 years. In the 1980s tribal elders became concerned that their stories were being appropriated by non-indigenous people and being told in inappropriate ways. They met near Fitzroy Crossing in 1984 and decided to set up a publishing arm of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre.

‘It grew from there,’ says Magabala’s general manager, Suzie Haslehurst. ‘The first book was published in 1987 and then in 1990 Magabala Books was established as an Aboriginal Corporation.’ Now, just over 15 years later, it takes a while to read through their list of publications.

‘I always say that it’s difficult for Magabala because we have social and cultural objectives and imperatives, but we also compete in the commercial publishing arena.’

But those social and cultural objectives are non-negotiable. They include the preservation and dissemination of indigenous stories, culture and history, the promotion of indigenous culture in the wider community, and the contribution to literacy initiatives in indigenous communities.

From the outset, the publisher knows that books such as Moola Bulla—a detailed account of a government-run station near Halls Creek—are never going to sell well, but they are of such cultural importance they must be published. Added to this, it is not unusual that some of the authors and artists published by Magabala come from remote areas, and need nurturing.

Magabala has published authors and artists with no fixed address, many who did not have access to regular communications such as phone, fax or computer; nor did they live anywhere near a post office.

‘A lot of other publishing houses may not want to put in the work, particularly with the authors where English is their second or third language,’ says marketing manager Nikky Finch.

It is estimated that one-quarter of books published by Magabala are either bilingual or contain a significant amount of indigenous language.

And not all the texts are written by adults. Eleven-year-old Hylton Laurel wrote The Cowboy Frog, published in 2003. A shy boy from a remote community that is a six-hour drive from Broome, Laurel did not feel confident enough to talk on the phone to the staff at the publishing house, never mind deal with journalists. ‘So we had to do press requests by fax, or in writing.’

Many of Laurel’s community travelled to Broome to celebrate the launch of his book. Celebrations aside, however, the publication of The Cowboy Frog has inspired many other indigenous children to write and send in their stories.

Magabala rarely commissions work, and receives such a volume of stories it cannot hope to publish them all. Yet all the manuscripts are reviewed, and those that are returned to their authors have usually had some editing done and suggestions added; the editors regard helping writers’ development in this way as an integral part of their work.

Magabala has published books from all over Australia, including major cities, towns, remote communities and the Torres Strait Islands. An interesting relationship has formed with the Tropical North Queensland TAFE Indigenous Arts and Culture Centre. Writers and artists from the centre have contributed to seven Magabala books, including Nana’s Land, Kuiyku Mabaigal and the soon-to-be- released Creatures of the Rainforest.

Yet it is the images, not just the text—particularly in children’s books—that captivate readers. The Mark of the Wagarl, deemed ‘notable’ by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, has beautiful illustrations. And A Home for Bilby, a picture book, won a WA Premier’s Book Award.

Magabala usually selects the artist to illustrate a particular text, but sometimes the process is more organic. Finch says The Mark of the Wagarl had unexpected delays when three artists, in turn, had to withdraw from the project. Then the author piped up: ‘I have a niece who does a bit of painting.’

Finch now laughs at this understatement. ‘That niece turned out to be a fantastic artist, and her work was used to illustrate the story.’

As I am leaving the publishing office, I ask what Magabala means, and am told: ’Magabala is the Yawuru [Broome Aboriginal language] word for “bush banana”, a fruit found in northern Australia. Both the skin and the yellowish-brown seeds inside the magabala can  be eaten. The seeds taste like garden peas. The magabala can be cooked in hot ashes and when it is ready to eat it pops out of the fire of its own accord. But the real magic of the magabala is in its seed dispersal, which is by the beautiful silken parasols (like dandelions) attached to the seeds which carry them off into the wind. This is where the name of Magabala Books comes from, because we like to think of our books as spreading the seeds of culture.’

Michele M. Gierck is a freelance writer. Her book Seven Hundred Days in El  Salvador will be published later this year by Coretext.



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