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Kayang and me, by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown

May 7, 2013

Kayang and me, by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown.   Fremantle Arts Center Pr (2005), Paperback, 432 pages. The more recent edition contains photographs.




A superb history and memoir written as a dialogue between an Australian Indigenous elder and a prize-winning novelist who share some of the same ancestors.  A history of the Noongar and a discussion of issues around who should tell their history and how.

Kayang and Me is an example for others to follow in the collection and sharing of Indigenous stories.  The book is organized as a dialogue between two individuals and reflects the real conversations that occurred between them.  Hazel Brown lived most of her life among the Noongars of the southwestern Australian coast.  Kim Scott’s branch of her family stayed in the same area, but moved into the white community.  He approached her in his search to learn more about his own roots.  As he recorded her stories, their collaboration turned into a book that captures the best of different perspectives on Australia’s Aboriginal past.  More importantly the book places their accounts in equal, dynamic, respectful dialogue which should be at the core of any inter-cultural understanding.

Hazel Brown is a storyteller of highest merit.  Scott calls her “Kayang,” which means elder or grandmother.  Echoing the language of her people, her unique voice makes this book an utter delight to read.  She is sure of who she is; sassy, opinionated, and capable of making enemies of those whom she challenges. She has no patience with those who advocate inequality. “If God wanted one man to be boss of another man, well, he would have let them be born with crowns on their heads, now wouldn’t he?”

Pride in her bush education runs through her stories. “We learned the essential things in life, you know, like respect, common sense.  We knew how to feed ourselves.”   She and her siblings learned to live in the bush and “From the old people, we learned the rules.”   When offered the hope of a better life working in town, Brown rejected it.

Look, I said, If I can only make something of my life by staying away from my people, I don’t want it.  I don’t want a life without my family.  Without my mother, or my black father, or my black relatives, because life wouldn’t have any meaning at all for me.

In carefully crafted stories, she also proudly tells how she has spoken out bravely to help others in need; seeking decent medical care and fighting for clean water so that so many children would not die needlessly.  “I’ve always stood up, I‘ve always told it how it is.”

Kayang also retells less polished stories of older generations of Noongar people, back to the great grandfather that she and Scott share. It is the history of her people in their first encounter with the English soldiers and settlers.  Some of this story, Scott retold in That Deadman Dance.  At first the whites seemed no threat, and the Noongar cooperated with them, often serving as their guides and helping whites find good land.  The grandfather that the book’s two author share was a figure, a hero or a man who turned traitor on his own people.  White men took Noongar women; sometimes casually and sometimes willing to care valiantly for their wives and mixed-blood children.  This didn’t last, however.  “Within a single generation an unequal partnership had been confirmed as a master/servant relationship.”

Kim Scott won the 2012 Miles Franklin prize for his fine novel, That Deadman Dance.  His voice breaks into the narratives that Kayang tells.  It is more distant and analytical; Scott tells his own experience learning and interacting with his aunt.  He describes his relationship with Brown and the differences in their perspectives.

Her emphasis was on the authority of the old people’s word and their sense of the importance of place.  I respected that authority; I liked that belief in the significance of being descended from a specific and Indigenous tradition, of being part of a community of descendants, and I wondered at the possibility of more meaningful than a simple biological kinship.

Yet Scott also liked “genealogical diagrams and sheets of paper,”  Although basically a novelist, he has the instincts of a professional historian carefully assessing the “facts” while interpreting the evidence from a clearly personal perspective, always making clear to readers his own involvement with his subject and sources.  In addition to working with Brown, he spent time burying himself in archives, white people’s account of their settlement of the Noongar lands, relating what he finds there alongside Brown’s oral traditions.

In a particularly insightful section, Scott explores the meaning of Aboriginal identity for a lighter-skin person, like himself, raised outside the community.  He wrestles intensely with some of the same questions that Anita Heiss raises in Am I Black Enough for You?   If being Indigenous means being poor and uneducated, as it does for many blacks and whites, then why anyone would chose to claim that identity.  While Heiss claims that image is simply unfair, Scott’s thoughts are ambivalent, nuanced, and touch on the darker side of such identity.   He confronts the issue of who has the right to speak for Aboriginal people and his own “particular, anomalous ‘place in the community’—the apparently flimsy basis of my own Indigenous identity, and to question the role of an Indigenous writer.”

For both of the authors learning involved much more than words.  For them language, culture and land are all connected.  A sense of place runs through the writings of both of them.  Brown describes carefully where the events of her life and the life of her tribe took place.  Some of her stories focus specific locations such as Dog Rock where dogs turned into seals.  Although Scott is obviously a person skilled in the use of words, he minimizes their ability to tell the story of his people.  Learning the Noongar language from Brown, he saw his people’s past differently.

As if, in making the sounds, I make myself an instrument of it.  As if in uttering such sounds and making such meaning, I not only introduce myself to ancestors named Winnery, but beckon them closer to me.

In addition, he describes his own reaction to the places where Kayang takes him.  For him the spirit of the land is potent and still has much to tell.  “Even in colonized, southwestern Australia there are messages left in the rocks, and stories to be read from the land itself.”

Scott is sometimes hard on those who would trivialize Indigenous history and use snippets of its art and culture causally.  But he also has a sense of mission in seeing his people’s stories shared.  He believes that this can only be done by those who share respect for each other and the shared stories that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have with the land.  What he envisions is “shared heritage,” “a nation state fused to its continent by Indigenous roots and blossoming arrivals.”  For such a future to be possible, people must take “that liberating leap from polemics to story; that right to imagine and act on possibility.

Although only one of the authors of this book is female, I am including it in both my Australian Women Writers and my Global Women of Color.   I did this partly because Hazel Brown’s voice is so fine and distinct, and in part because of the insight with which Scott deals with the whole issue of insider-outsider collaboration which is important in assessing gender and writing as well as the colonist-colonized relationship.

This is a must-read book for all individuals interested in the Australian Indigenous past and present.  In fact, it is a must-read for all who care about inter-cultural understanding and all who want to explore the changing awareness of historians, professional or personal, with their subjects.

The experience of being an Indigenous Australian is very diverse, and I am glad to see an increasing range of individuals now writing their own stories.  I am partly heartened to read a book like Kayang and Me in which the authors are gifted with the particular insight and skills to transform what they know in such a meaningful manner.

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