On May 28, 2000, an estimated 300,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge to show their solidarity with Australia’s vast indigenous population. This was the Walk for Reconciliation, the largest ever political demonstration to be held in the country. Ali Cobby Eckermann was watching it on television with her aunt. “I watched her celebrate this historic gesture, watched her dancing in the lounge room. She believed that Australia had finally reached a maturity in its relationship towards Aboriginal people who were still protesting on the streets for equal rights and recognition,” says Eckermann, 54.
At the walk, the Australian federal government was represented officially only by its ministers for reconciliation and Aboriginal affairs. “My mother (activist Audrey Cobby) was in Canberra, at the forefront. She rang me as she walked the bridge, laughing and filled with joy. At our next phone call, she shared her disappointment as Prime Minister John W Howard squashed reconciliation by refusing to walk the bridge or hold further discussions. The audience stood and turned their backs to him. He fumed. His refusals broke my mother’s hope. I still see this behaviour repeating. In my view, the proper and overdue acknowledgement of First Nations’ people in Australia will always be betrayal-traded over the purpose of mining,” she says.
A celebrated Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha writer and poet from Australia, Eckermann has won this year’s Windham-Campbell Prize for poetry, one of literature’s most coveted prizes, for giving “language to unspoken lineages of trauma and loss.” It is a fitting tribute to a person who knows a thing or two about betrayal and the struggle to find her way back home. A member of the Stolen Generations, Eckermann was taken away from her birth family and raised in a German Lutheran one, just like her mother before her, and her son afterwards, when she became an unwed mother at 19 (Under Parliamentary acts, federal and state government agencies and church missions in Australia removed children of Aboriginals to place them with non-indigenous families between 1905 and 1970). She would meet her birth mother in her 30s and her son, a few years later. In her poignant memoir, Too Afraid To Cry (2013), she writes about her confusion, the relentless bullying and incidents of sexual abuse in her childhood, and her desperate search for an identity of her own. “‘Where you from?’ asked a girl in the bed next to mine. I told her I lived on the farm. ‘But where you from?’ she asked again. I looked away. I didn’t know what she meant,” she writes.
The award, nominations for which are made secretly, has come as a validation of Eckermann’s non-mainstream identity. In her childhood, if there was one thing that helped her negotiate her bewilderment and her increasing inability to grieve or express emotions, it was writing. Reading had always been an escape. She had grown up on stories from the Bible — stories of bravery, faith and morals. Later, she would turn to reading real life dramas. “The first Aboriginal book I read was My Place by Sally Morgan. I think I was 17 at the time. Here was the telling of an Aboriginal family unravelling their identity and finding their true place. I remember feeling I was no longer alone, that the author had similar experiences and feelings to mine. I would love to meet Sally one day, and thank her,” she says.
She began writing poems in primary school and moved to journal entries over time. In grade VII, she learned about journalism and fell in love with the adventure it promised. “But then, it dropped away until I got closer to meeting my (birth) mother. Suddenly, it was back and I filled journals. When I moved back to the desert to live with my community family, the writing was both cathartic and celebratory. In 2006, the federal government under the leadership of Prime Minister Howard forced a takeover of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory of Australia. It is known as the Intervention, or the Northern Territory Emergency Response. The government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act to pass the legislation through Parliament. It was a racist act. Here were my traditional family and friends losing their rights when they had such little rights anyway. This was my pilot light. I had to write to share the truth,” says the writer, who has spent a considerable portion of her life in the region. Eckermann is referring to a package of welfare schemes, law enforcement and land tenure measures introduced by the Australian federal government to address allegations of neglect and child sexual abuse among the Aboriginal communities in the region. It evoked severe criticism from the communities, but successive governments have continued with its implementation with some variations.
Eckermann’s first collection of poetry, Little Bit Long Time, came out in 2009. Since then, she has published several collections of poetry, verse novels, including the award-winning Ruby Moonlight (2012) and the memoir, Too Afraid to Cry. Her last book was Inside My Mother (2015). The stories she narrates are intensely personal, but they are also stories of the making and unmaking of a community, its indelible scars and its slow inch towards healing. “Writing has helped me grow into the identity of the woman I was born to be; despite the separation from my birth mother and family. In doing this, I had to write for my community. It became important to use the dialogue of poetry to revisit history, important to write in an emotive voice, inviting mainstream readers to feel the impact of our history, and how this affects us today. It became important to share our strengths too. Most Australians do not know who we are,” she says.
Eckermann’s poetic language is deceptively simple. It insists on articulating the truth, but is born of deep sorrow and deeper compassion. “I have learnt two different ways now I am thankful for this /is part of my Life Cycle/My heart is Round ready to echo the music of my family but/the Square within me remains/The Square stops me in my entirety,” she writes. This dichotomy has also led her to approach language differently. “Sadly, I speak only a little of my traditional language. It is one of my regrets. English (as a bastard language) is often easy to manipulate. As a poet, I watch for body language in the mainstream. This is the language of Australia to me. In Australia, government promises are mostly overridden by body language,” she says.
At the core of Eckermann’s writing, as in her life, is her community and her deep sense of commitment to it. “There is no life but family,” she wrote in Little Bit Long Time. Perhaps, that is why she continues to be sceptical about the future. It has been nearly two decades since the searing ‘Bringing Them Home’ report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families came out. “The removal of Aboriginal children from their families continues. The stigmas against Aboriginal families continues. I feel most Australians have forgotten about the report. Some of our children and grandchildren know little of this, as families are just trying hard to keep their families intact. The (Tony) Abbott and (Malcolm) Turnbull governments have slashed funding to many Aboriginal services. These cuts continue cycles of trauma for us. It is a vicious cycle. Changing the name of a policy does not change the agenda of the policy under a different title. As for diversity in Australia, I think (there is) not much,” she says.
Increasingly, she says, mining has been compromising the interests of indigenous communities across the world. In 2014, Australia and India signed a nuclear deal to mine uranium in southern Australia, much to the chagrin of the local community. “I am unsure how these deals are brokered. In south Australia, the state government has been pushing for a uranium waste dump. There has been much protest about this and the environmental risks. Aboriginal people are loud in their protest. The Maralinga British atomic bomb testing is the story of my mother’s generation, when they were forced off traditional lands due to contamination,” she says.
In India, too, tribal communities are often finding themselves at the losing end of “developmental” projects. Eckermann feels what renders indigenous communities vulnerable is poor health and lack of education. “So many of our people suffer from poor health. The education system is designed by the society that oppresses, and proves unsustainable to the majority of our children. I feel these are the ongoing issues that create vulnerability. (Only) when true kindness and respect become embedded in government policies, will we witness positive change. I hope I will see this shift in my lifetime,” she says.
Her new book is partly set in India, a country that she first visited in 2013 and has returned to several times since. “The title is Kali; it means boomerang in my language. It will be a fictional story of love shared between two deserts. It will be my way to honour the parallel stories of our lives,” she says.