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Spreading seeds of culture

  • 21 April 2006

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