Ali Cobby Eckermann’s storytelling isn’t linear but circular — the way it is in aboriginal culture. Poet-writer Eckermann, born in rural South Australia, has written extensively about aboriginal rights to the land and the plight of native dwellers, who have, too often, got the short end of the stick way. Eckermann was in India last month for the Navayana Annual Lecture and the Jaipur Literature Festival. Amid slides of mud paths and scrub jungles, her refrain is: “We don’t own the land, we belong to the land.”
She adds, “Traditional literature in Australia is at the cusp of change in that many writers are getting published. Our land, our children and our intellectual property have all been stolen. This is an attempt to save them. We don’t feature in the constitution and our paternalistic and overbearing governments guarantee us no safeguards.”
She is critical of the state-sponsored process of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their birth families and giving them up for adoption to the White population. She calls herself a child of the Stolen Generation. Her last book Too Afraid to Cry (Navayana; Rs 250) is a memoir, composed in prose and poetry, tells of her experiences, from living with her adoptive Catholic family to her search for her birth family and the reconciliation of these two worlds. “My family teaches me the bush ways, and I teach them the ‘whitefella’ ways. We grow smarter and stronger as one” she writes about her Yankunytjatjara tribe. In the book, she is brutally honest about the incestuous assaults made on her as a child, her drug and alcohol addiction, the 15-year search for her birth mother and reconnecting with her family at 33 years of age.
Too Afraid to Cry is her way of coming full circle, from one who loses her mother to becoming a matriarch of her tribe.
Eckermann’s next project is an anthology of desert poems, collated from across the world including Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq. The desert was her refuge in her teens. “I will be exploring India too,” says the 52-year-old, “In the desert, we are naked and bare to the elements as well as to ourselves; its poetry has a certain honesty. It’s written by people from deserts around the world uniting the sparseness of the lives.”