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Listening to Country, by Ros Moriarty.

May 11, 2014

Listening to Country, A Journey to the Heart of What it Means to Belong, by Ros Moriarty.   Allen & Unwin (2012).  Paperback, 232 pages.


A sympathetic account by the white wife of an Indigenous man honoring his family and their practices and sharing their pain.

Ros Moriarty was born and raised in Tasmania in a rather liberal and artistic family. After college she worked in a research position in Canberra assessing Indigenous programs. There she met and fell in love with John Moriarty, an Indigenous man who lead the agency. He was one of the “Stolen Generation” who had been taken from his family and homeland when he was four. More fortunate than most, he later re-established contact with his family. When he and Ros married, they traveled with their infant son to his home country near Borroloola, in North Australia near the Carpentaria Gulf. For over twenty-five years, they kept returning there whenever they were able. Ros came to feel accepted as John’s wife and even was allowed to be a participant in a week of women’s rituals, known as the Law. Stories of her time during that week are interwoven with her and John’s personal histories and the histories of his Yanyuwah people.

As a white woman, Ros Moriarty is an outsider as she tries to understand about Indigenous life.  She never pretends otherwise. She marvels at their ability to remain calm and happy in the face of circumstances she finds horrendous.  Surprisingly, she is accepted unconditionally accept by them.  She is placed within their hierarchy as a wife and sister-in-law as if she were herself Indigenous.  Because sse is permitted to observe the rituals but not to write about them, she focuses on the women who were attending and her own responses to the rituals. She is consistently open to the goodness she can learn from the people and angry at the ways in which they have been treated. She is aware that much of the government assistance they have been given was not spent wisely, yet her own solutions offer little new. Her book is meant to expand appreciation of the Indigenous people living so close to the edge of disappearance. Her goal is to honor her Borroloola family; not to appropriate their secrets but to hear their songs.

Before reading this book, I had abstractly disliked the strict separation of the sexes in Australian Indigenous cultures.  Yet Moriarty’s description of the camp where the women gathered for a week to perform their rituals was very positive and healthy. It reminded me of good times when, for a time, I was alone with other women.  Their retreat was not a permanent one, but a respected break from daily responsibilities and interaction with the men. It was honored, just as times for men to gather for their rituals was respected.  Perhaps more of us could benefit from such times.

The Yanyuwah with whom Ros interacts are an isolated group near the Gulf of Carpentaria. They are not the Indigenous people who have integrated to a greater or lesser extend that we find in books by authors like Anita Heiss or Melissa Lucashenko, but people trying to hold on to land that once sustained them. Now ranching and mining have devastated the land’s meager resources. Today the mine near their homes is accepted because it provides possible jobs. Young people are leaving, some to succeed in Europeanized society and others to flounder into lives of drink and unemployment. The tribe understands that either way, the rituals that structured their lives for centuries are not being learned by the next generation.  Moriarty shares their grief over that loss.

The practice of white people writing about Indigenous ones is controversial, but necessary. Whites may distort and appropriate Indigenous history, but they should not ignore it. The histories of Europeans settling on the lands of others must be stories of interaction that includes both sides. Whoever sets out to write about the relationship must work to understand the others; it is their ethical responsibility to do it well. A recent post by Sue at Whispering Gums  examines the problems of whites writing about blacks and quotes Margaret Merrilees, saying that “the best thing I [we] can offer Aboriginal Australians is to shut up and listen to them, actually find out what they think.”  That is exactly the work that underlies Moriarty’s book.  Above all she has listened.

One of the practices Moriarty learns is “listening to country,” a variation of the meditation practices of other groups. The practice reappears throughout the book. As she describes it,

It is a time and place to sit down, absorb, reflect, see how things are in the place you come from. A place in the mind, a place in the family, or a physical place where the mind is free.

Moriarty’s book is valuable because it is her attempt to tell what she gained by listening to the country and its original inhabitants.

I whole-heartily recommend this book. It should be a “must-read” for all Australians and for others everywhere who assume that racial issues are the same the world over. This is a particularly Australian book. Its story is very different from the stories of blacks brought to the Americas as slaves.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 12, 2014 7:40 am

    Great review Marilyn. This is a book I’ve known of for some time because a good friend and ex-colleague knows the Moriartys. They are a fascinating couple. Ros Moriarty is of course in a particular situation where it would be hard to argue that she shouldn’t write about indigenous people – but I agree with you of course that we can’t not write about the subject, no matter where we are on the settlement spectrum.

  2. May 25, 2014 6:45 am

    At university we examined the past practices of white people telling Aboriginal stories and the injustices that were perpetrated through the distortion and use of the stories for the personal advancement of the researcher. “Shut up and listen” is great advice for any non-Aboriginal person who is visiting Aboriginal people. We can have an unfortunate tendency to fill silence with words, to crowd out the words of Aboriginal people with our busy thoughts and presumptions. Every time I spend time with Aboriginal people I say to myself, “shut up and listen, shut up and listen”.

    I agree with Whispering Gums, we should not use the recognition of these past injustices as an excuse to cease the telling of the stories of our interaction altogether. It is a matter of finding that balance, a balance that it appears from your review Ros Moriarty has found.

  3. May 27, 2014 11:34 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Listening is a lost art and one we all need. I think what is wrong with the writings of outsiders about Indigenous peoples or any other group is that they sometimes restate their own stereotypes and instead of listening to those about whom they write.


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