Books: Afterword

‘I like poetry because I can write about the essence of things,’ says Ali Cobby Eckermann

Tishani Doshi is a poet, novelist and dancer based in Chennai. Her latest book is Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods
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Aboriginal poet and author Ali Cobby Eckermann records the importance of ritual and recognition

Ali Cobby Eckermann is the author of seven books of poetry and prose, including her highly acclaimed memoir, Too Afraid to Cry. She was born in the Kate Cocks Memorial Babies’ Home in Brighton, South Australia, in 1963. Her family history is complicated. She and her mother are part of Australia’s Stolen Generations—the 100,000 plus and ongoing Aboriginal children who were forcibly separated from their birth families and given up for adoption to White families. At 19, she had a son whom she gave up for adoption because she felt alienated by her childhood community. Her adoptive family were Lutherans. Ali grew up on a farm, and she describes the childhood as mostly happy, even though she experienced frequent racism and was sexually abused by a friend of the family. Her favourite writer growing up was Enid Blyton. The Magic Faraway Tree made her believe another world was waiting for her. She found her birth mother and her son after almost two decades of searching. In 2017, she was awarded the $165,000 Windham- Campbell literary prize. She currently lives in Southern Australia.

ALI COBBY ECKERMANN stands at the bar drinking a gin and tonic. The bar is one of those eclectic, trendy places which could be anywhere in the world, but we are in Malaysia for the Georgetown Literary Festival, where the prime minister-in-waiting has just been grilled about the country’s archaic sex laws. There’s a frisson in the air, and Eckermann is enjoying the idea of a country on the cusp of change. In her native Australia, she is a kind of legend. This is the skeleton of her life: a Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal woman separated from her mother at birth and raised by White parents; a survivor of abuse, addiction and a devastating motorbike accident. For all this, she bears the wounds lightly. She speaks with an easy, welcoming drawl and laughs frequently. Moving through a room, you want to touch her on the shoulder just to make sure she’s there.

Eckermann doesn’t do small talk. Within ten minutes, she’s telling me about the first ships from Britain which brought convicts to Australia, how the women were locked up for three days and then set upon by the men to a savage rape debauchery. She also talks about campfires and her inner child, but there is nothing wishy-washy about her. She calls her early, crazy years, “research”. When she was younger, she lacked staying power. She was a good gardener and photographer, but found it difficult to sustain things for very long. She arrived late to poetry, publishing Little Bit Long Time in 2009.

In the bar, she is a fluid presence, moving from cluster to cluster, talking intently with everyone. A giver. One of those writers who doesn’t breeze in and out of festivals doing their thing and vanishing. She gets stuck in. We meet the next evening in the hotel lobby for a proper talk. People keep coming up to her to thank her for the power of her poetry. She tells me about two eagles she saw earlier in the day: “At first I thought it couldn’t be. Eagles are a comforting sight. A cultural totem from home. First there was one, and then another came, as if to say, ‘You silly thing. Of course, I’m here now.’ I felt I was more vulnerable and honest in my last session because I’d seen a sign. If your eyes are open, the signs are everywhere.”

Eckermann’s life has been full of signs. Here is an early memory of dislocation: growing up on a farm, the school bus coming to pick them up, a realisation that she and her siblings didn’t look alike, whereas the kids from other families did. Always a sense that something was missing. Many years later, meeting her real father for an hour—a shift. “I remember walking out of there and thinking, ‘I don’t feel like I’ve got that hole anymore.’ It’s really important to know where you come from.”

“Are people happier in mansions than around the campfire? I see more happiness around the campfire,” says Ali Cobby Eckermann

Here’s another memory: lying broken on the side of the road six weeks after her 29th birthday. “I didn’t think I’d live till 30.” She spent six months in hospital and 18 months in a wheelchair. She was forced to sit, to be humble. “It’s hard to explain but it was like a handing over. My ancestral guardians were saying, ‘You know we gave you a bit of free range, but you’ve made a mess of it. We’re going to step in now and show you a better way.’”

There’s a pride in that early restlessness, even though she admits, it must have been maddening for her family. “I’ve walked out of so many houses. Just left the furniture and everything, got in the car and gone where that unexplained urge has taken me.” She has since learned the value of sitting. There are several anchors that root her to place. The desert, her ancestors, poetry.

The idea of poetry changing one’s life is a fashionable one, but rarely does it translate to actual fact. For Eckermann, it was poetry that led her to finding her birth mother and son. It was poetry that led her to politics and purpose. She began running away at 17, searching, restless, to the desert, which is the place she feels safest. “Australia is such a large place. How can you run to the place your mother was born, under a tree in the bush? There’s lots of things I can’t explain, and that’s why I like poetry because I can write about the essence of things. I don’t have to write about the factuality of it, because it almost can’t be explained.”

On one of her first trips to the desert, Eckermann was documenting one of the little Aboriginal schools, and after a few days, the people there told her, “We are your family. You have your grandmother’s face.” Even though they hadn’t seen her grandmother in years (she’d vanished off the side of a road, and it had never really been resolved), they recognised her. “That was a really powerful statement. Even though I’m a different colour from my grandmother, all they could see was my grandmother’s face.”

Dear Mother
The mission is good.
The food is good.
I am good.

rips the paper from the typewriter
scrunches the page until it bleeds
kicks it under the wardrobe

inserts a fresh page
tentatively with finger
poised and types

Where are you? - Ali Cobby Eckermann

Recognition is an important trope in Eckermann’s work and life. When she speaks of Australia, there’s a frustration and anger. As a collective, she believes the country has been blindsided by the ego of conquest. When she says ‘they’, she’s referring to politicians and the upper tier of society, who forget that the land is alive. Even though they damage it with mining and other activities, she believes the land holds memory. The opposite side of the coin of recognition is a refusal to see and the rifts it can cause. “One of the things I regret is the loss of ritual. In Aboriginal culture, every phase of growth as a human, from the baby to dying, had a ritual. So puberty was honoured, every phase of growth was honoured.” She has made rituals of her own. She practises sitting. Even in the city, she believes you can make a harmonious place inside the temple of your body.

SHE ALSO RECOGNISES the role of her adoptive mother. “There was a time when I was prioritising my birth mother because it was so romantic to finally find her at 34 after such a long search, and it was the first time I saw someone that looked like me, but I knew in a short time that I needed to honour them both as equals.” Eckermann says that her adoptive mother never dumped her, even though her behaviour might have deserved it. “Lots of other non-indigenous mothers that raised Aboriginal kids actually did turn their back. She chose not to. And that enables me to care for her now in her eighties.”

Does it ever get too much? The responsibilities, the expectations, the talking, the festivals? “Sometimes,” she says, and then there is a long pause. “Out in the desert, we had traditional healers, so they’ve taught me how to cope. I’ve learned the necessity to cry. I never used to. Desert women all around the world always had some sort of wailing as a form of release, so you could stay healthy. These were the skills they taught me. Because I found my family later in life, I only know a little, but a little was enough.”

I ask what she sees in Australia’s future. More rifts? Resolution? “It’s really hard at this time to answer that,” she says. “We’re at a writer’s festival where everyone is forward- thinking and open. It’s a safe environment. When I go home, the first thing I see is this sadness. I think Australia is at risk of becoming a very sad place, and I think there’s this pretence that if you’ve accumulated everything then you could be free from that sadness. But that will not prove right, you know? Are people happier in mansions than around the campfire? Because I see more happiness around the campfire.”

Reading Too Afraid to Cry (Navayana), Eckermann’s memoir of a stolen childhood, can sometimes have the effect of being exposed to a jackhammer. The litany of abuse is unrelenting. But finding her birth family allows her a way of coming back to herself. I ask about her struggle with alcohol and drugs. Does she sense a contradiction between wanting to be open and escapism? Another pause. “The way the modern world looks at addiction is degrading,” she says. “There’s a lot of hypocrisy around it. I’ve heard that the most number of boxes for needles is near parliament house. So how dare they judge?”

For Eckermann, addiction was escapism, but it was also survival. It gave her a sense of belonging that she wasn’t feeling anywhere else. “I was blessed to survive addiction. It’s a dangerous path, but sometimes it’s a necessary path. You see the world a bit more honestly when you’re fractured from the mainstream, and it can often be quite fun. I had a lot of fun. Addiction is like another university. I was always curious, seeking something.…. the honesty of addicts trying to change their lives, it’s profound, and it’s a really intense learning time. I was in my early thirties thinking how did I not know this stuff beforehand? One of the sayings that sticks with me is, ‘hurting people hurt people.’”

Towards the end of the book there’s a sense of reconciliation between the many strands of Eckermann’s fractured life. ‘My family teach me bush way, and I teach them the whitefella ways. We grow smarter and stronger as one,’ she writes. There is resilience, but also wisdom. I ask whether she ever judges her younger self? The addiction, the running. What does that dialogue sound like?

Eckermann sighs. It’s been a long day. The rest of the writers are heading towards the same bar we were at the night before, where we will stand around drinking and talking as if we were any place in the world. “If life’s not full of challenges,” she says, “You’re not living.” She talks about nurturing her inner child, respecting her, allowing her to evolve. “We’ve all had challenging times but that doesn’t define us. We can keep growing. We’re not going to be the dead flowers in the vase anymore. We’re going to bloom.”