there is love in the wind by the singing rock
down the river by the ancient tree
In this powerful memoir, in language shorn of all embellishment, Ali Cobby Eckermann, ‘whose spirit was damaged a long time ago’, tells us about her abusive childhood, aimless youth filled with drugs and bad decisions, and finally, the discovery of the ancient anchors of her people. The anchors are also wings, for her story is the story of the Stolen Generations of the Indigenous people of Australia. It is a testament to their ancient knowledge, the ability to locate a route, even a life-route, with their songs, the power of healing and hope, and the wisdom of Dreamtime: every moment contains an eternity of possibilities.
Creating a new form by mixing poetry and prose—the circles of Aboriginal culture with the squares of whiteness, the circles of bush ways with the squares that whitefellas fix—Ali builds a new home for her astonishing story. This is a brave book, written by a woman who has faced her demons, transformed her suffering into a work of art, and found her true sitting place in the world.
Ali Cobby Eckermann is a poet and writer. She identifies herself with her Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha family from the North-West desert country of South Australia. Her works include little bit long time, Kami Love, Dreaming and Other Poems, His Father’s Eyes and Ruby Moonlight. Her poetic memoir Too Afraid to Cry has been published by Navayana. Eckermann delivered the third Navayana Annual Lecture in two cities—Kolkata (13 January 2015) and New Delhi (17 January 2015).
‘Her writing and her new book reflect the plight of her people who are waging a war over land rights’—The Hindu
‘A hardboiled memoir for Australia’s Lost Generation’—The Sunday Guardian
‘Too Afraid to Cry is her way of coming full circle, from one who loses her mother to becoming a matriarch of her tribe’—Indian Express
‘Eckermann comes across as a woman of measured words and long silences. Her experiences have strengthened, not embittered her’—The Hindu Business Line
Watch a video of her session at the Jaipur Literature Festival ’15 here.
On my days off I drove to town. I never tired of the trip; I still felt the magic when I looked at the hills, a presence I couldn’t describe. It was always there, and it was always strong. Every time I expected to see something new.
Sometimes I would amble through shops, sometimes I would send a postcard to Mum, sometimes I went to the cinema. But I always ended up in the pub.
The pub was always packed.
The town was in a building boom and was filled with newcomers. I made friends quickly. Most of my pay ended up in the till behind the bar. It was there that I first saw full-blooded Aboriginals in a pub. I would watch them from a distance, and never spoke to them. There was commonality inside that pub: people just wanted to have a drink and a good time. Sometimes fights broke out. And the bouncers always threw the Aboriginal people out onto the streets. No one seemed to adjudicate, to find out who started what—no one cared about justice, and no one batted an eyelid. I never talked about my Aboriginality to anyone. I didn’t want to be thrown out onto the street. I wanted to belong.
I felt lonely.
I didn’t understand my shyness towards other Aboriginal people in the pub. They always smiled ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼when they caught me glancing their way. But inside the hotel there were certain rules; you sat here or you sat over there. I didn’t want to lose my popularity. So I drank more and pretended I was happy.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼~ ~ ~
I drink in the street
Ask for money each day Intolerance is free.
If you pass away
Alone under the bridge
Weeds will grow in your mouth.
A pauper’s grave-site
Dead flowers bent backward Broken by neglect.
~ ~ ~
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼I lost respect for my upbringing.
I lost respect for my family. I lost respect for myself. I lost my job at the outback resort because of my drinking, and I moved into town. At the pub some people, who were squatting in an abandoned building, invited me to stay with them.
The squat was an abandoned block of flats in the middle of town. I was given my own room. It didn’t have any glass in the window, but at least I could lock the door. One of my friends gave me her sarong for a curtain for the window. She handed me a spray can to leave my mark on the graffiti covered walls. It took me hours to clean the room and furnish it with stolen milk crates. I didn’t have much, a few clothes, some books, and a pot plant named Phoenix. On cold nights I used my clothes like an extra blanket.
The kitchen was the dirtiest I had ever seen.
The benches were black with grime, and the cupboards were filled with rubbish. I had never seen such huge cockroaches, and they crawled everywhere. Each morning I gathered wood from along the river to cook on an open fire in the front yard instead of using the kitchen. Sitting around the fire we watched the local traffic pass by. The bathroom was putrid, ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼with mould growing everywhere. I had to wear thongs on my feet in the shower, and we only had cold water. The Water Authority came every Monday and turned the water off at the mains. We would roll a joint, sit and wait for about thirty minutes, then go out and turn the water back on. It was a regular ritual. We didn’t care because we didn’t have to pay rent.
~ ~ ~
It was early evening, and I was walking along the track by the river. It was my favourite path back to the place I was staying. The trees seemed to emit subtle messages. I walked out onto the sandy bed of a river that rarely held water, and I sat quietly among a clump of trees, feeling the age and wisdom of the trees. I could almost feel the artesian water gurgling, protected and safe deep underground. I often enjoyed the intensity of this different place.
I saw glimpses of movement through the trees, and I heard soft voices carried on the breeze as I dawdled among the trees. A family were camping in the creek. I smelt the fragrance of their cooking on the fire. Carefree laughter bounced from the children as they teased their father, who jumped to his feet amid squeals of delight. He grabbed one little girl and held her high into the air, laughing out loud with her, while the other children squirmed around his legs.
A beautiful moment captured by my prying eyes.
As I moved away I saw the man’s arm raised, waving, bidding me well. His smile lit up his handsome face. I could not meet his eyes. He turned quickly back to the children and their play.
In that second of silence I heard other words. Words and whispers of hatred trapped inside my head, forcing me ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼to listen: ‘Aboriginal people are like animals; Aboriginal families don’t care for their children.’ Where did those words come from? Where had I heard them before? Who had put that shit in my head? I knew Mum and Dad had never said those words.
I sat among the safety of the trees. I began to realise most of my life was a lie. It felt like the stone inside me was growing. I suffered silently with the pain.
Back at the squat I got very drunk that night.
~ ~ ~
I never spoke much about myself, or my family, to my friends.
No one did. We never talked about our feelings either. Maybe everyone was pretending to be happy? I mastered the wit of sarcasm, and hid behind humour. As long as you can make people laugh you will always be invited to parties.
A few of my girlfriends started going out at night without me. I didn’t know why. I wondered if they had worked out I was Aboriginal.
One night they told me they were working for the escort agency. They were prostitutes; their drug addiction had forced them. I pretended I didn’t care, but inside I was feeling shocked. Some of them had toddlers; I worried about the kids.
I babysat a lot. But I could only babysit kids over the age of three. Every time I got close to children younger than that I felt like vomiting.
The boss of the escort agency offered me a job as driver.
It paid well, and I got to hang out with my friends. I drove around town all night, dropping them off, picking them up. They always shared their drugs with me. And they always had money now.
One night no phone calls came in, so I knocked off early. I knew some of their new friends were looking after the kids. At the squat I stood in the doorway. I watched as the adults injected drugs into their veins. I watched the children watching. I went off my head.
I moved out the next day. The stone in my guts got heavier and heavier.
‘As Ali’s prose chokes you, her poetry tells you to remember to breathe'—Meena Kandasamy
‘It is not long, this book. It can be read in a sitting. And it may change the way you think, about Australia, or about Aboriginal people, in ways more sophisticated literary exercises would not’