“This is the first time I wrote a story about myself… I think it’s good to let people know
about our stories—they’re true stories.”
– Freda Sing Poo
Maya Haviland: In July of 2008, Jalaris Aboriginal Corporation gathered together a group of seven Aboriginal women living in Derby, Western Australia for a two and a half-week documentary workshop. The organization was interested in women’s stories of learning and education, and the women were invited to share their experiences through writing, interviews, and photographs. The workshops were held at Jalaris’ Centre down on Burinunga, a part of the old Aboriginal Reserve in town.
Biddy Morris, the chairperson of Jalaris, and her cousin-sister Lorna Hudson were the first to raise the idea of community-based research about the different experiences that Aboriginal people in Derby have had with education and learning. Reflecting on their own lives, and stories of other people in their family, they suggested that a better understanding of the personal histories and perceptions of local Derby people might be useful in ongoing efforts to improve Aboriginal kids’ participation and success in education. Biddy and Lorna felt that people working in education and policy concerning Aboriginal children would be helped by understanding how past experiences still impact what is happening now.
Rachel Breunlin: Maya had been working with Jalaris since 2002 on the topics of education and representation. In 2005 she created a project called “Photo Me,” which worked with young people in Derby to document their own communities. On the other side of the world, I had been working with different community-based organizations to create books about their neighborhoods through the Neighborhood Story Project. Maya and I developed an exchange around our work in two very distinct places, and Jalaris’ invitation to run a documentary workshop allowed us to come together to share our backgrounds in storytelling.
There were many different formats that a project on learning could have taken, but we decided to follow the Neighborhood Story Project’s (NSP) model and work toward a book, which, as a piece of literature, we hoped would find a place in schools, libraries, and homes not only here in Derby, but perhaps in other parts of Australia as well.
Maya: We wanted to challenge common stereotypes about Aboriginal education in the Kimberley by both telling stories of people’s actual experiences and making a book written by local women. The group who came together to work on this project were all willing to push the boundaries of personal comfort zones to make the book—writing when writing was unfamiliar, and sharing personal stories and experiences with each other in anticipation of a larger audience after their publication.
Rachel: The NSP writing workshop, or studio, model consists of free-writing, sharing stories with the group, receiving feedback, writing again, and only then worrying about editing. On one of the first days, as we read our stories to each other, Freda asked, “Am I doing it right, or what?” We told her if it felt right to her, and she was happy with the direction her stories were going, she was on the right path.
One of the great things about the studio is that, to borrow the words of Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” The seven writers from different parts of the Kimberley and two facilitators from Canberra and New Orleans created our own ethic of care that allowed for a collective creative and emotional space during our weeks together.
By the last week, the studio had a life of its own. I remember coming into the writing room and feeling the hushed quietness of writers lost in thought, their pens moving at their own pace. Michelle and Rosita said afterward that the time had gotten away from them—they hadn’t expected to get so pulled in.
Maya: Early on, stories of place and country became a common thread in many of the written pieces. As women moved around the Kimberley and beyond, their experiences were shaped by a deep commitment to country, while also experiencing learning from new people and places. We brought maps into the studio to understand these places and the journeys between them, and to help Rachel, who had only ever spent a handful of days in the Kimberley before we began, with orientation.
The writers asked for dictionaries, and we poured over translations of Bardi, Walmajarri, and Nyikina to check translations against word lists and writing already published. In these books were more maps, and the places that appeared in the writers’ stories were tracked with fingers and memories.
Rachel: As I began my crash course on the physical and social geographies of the Kimberley, it was humbling listening to the stories of migration and displacement that many of the women shared. I began to look at Derby, this small town on the edge of King Sound’s mudflats, differently. It suddenly seemed like a cosmopolitan place, a crossroad of different languages and cultures. The women in our workshop came from saltwater, freshwater, and desert countries. Their stories of learning were not only around their own families and the missions, hostels, and other government schooling, but of acquiring cross-cultural knowledge of other tribes.
A great deal of this cultural diversity is obscured when we look at Derby in a binary of Aboriginal and white settlement, as it is often reported in census data. I thought back to my first trip to Derby, in 2006, when I read Lucy Marshall’s autobiography with Colleen Hattersley, Reflections of a Kimberley Woman, where she points out this problem:
Government says, “They all go under one umbrella.” Well, they never did that. Never under one umbrella. Aboriginal people, they had their own little umbrellas… In the olden times people used to meet for ceremony and then go back to their own country. The saltwater people and the freshwater people would meet and go back…Just like the tide covers all the freshwaters soaks, but then goes back and allows the soak to operate again, so the people would meet and go back. [Marshall and Hattersley 2005: 94]
Putting everyone under one umbrella not only diminishes the experiences of Aboriginal people, it also sets up divisions between white and black experiences that history reminds us were never so cut and dry. In Singing Out, the women write and talk about experiences working on cattle stations, living on missions and government-run Aboriginal reserves, and developing relationships with gudia later in their lives, which also shaped their personal geographies.