If the sadness of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s prose grabs you by the throat and chokes you and leaves you gasping for air, it is her poetry that tells you to remember to breathe.
On March 1, the Aboriginal writer from Australia, Ali Cobby Eckermann was among eight writers who won the Windham–Campbell prize (in the poetry category) instituted by Yale University. Combining poetry and prose, Eckermann’s powerful memoir Too Afraid to Cry is the story of the Stolen Generations of Australia’s indigenous people. On receiving the award, Ali told The Guardian that she “pretty much cried a lot” and that “It’s going to change my life completely.”
An Indian edition of Eckermann’s memoir was published by Navayana in 2015 with an introduction by the poet, novelist and translator Meena Kandasamy.
Entering the world of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too Afraid to Cry is like embarking on a journey of distilled pain where I had to constantly pause to salute Ali’ spirit of resilience. Writing in the aftermath of Bringing Them Home—a 1997 report that studied Australia’s Stolen Generations to “conclude with confidence that between one in ten and three in ten Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970”—Ali sets herself an immense task. In the process, she manages to completely shame a country that observes National Sorry Day to remember and apologise for the mistreatment of the Aborigine population.
Even as she inhabits a nation where the practice of such removal programs is justified with recourse to a surreptitious, sophisticated terminology of “child protection”, the lived experience of Ali that she puts out in blunt prose smashes such lies. Her testimony is not the first, but Ali’s oeuvre as a poet ensures that when she packs the punches, there is no escape. One incredible facet of this poetic memoir is that instead of challenging the racist state policies head-on, she moves them into the backdrop making sure that the reader does not miss the forest for the trees.
An adult looking back, writing the journey she has taken, Ali manages to retain a childlike worldview as she narrates nightmare after nightmare of a “muted heart that hammered in a world of black and white”. Another poem, that follows up a vignette about the sexual abuse by a visiting relative, asks, “What does a father feel/ After his child is abused? Kill hit hide deny/ Speak to the men, even that one?” About the burden of skin colour at school, she writes of an incident where the white girls test her: “Someone held me while other hands pulled my underpants down. . . They said they wanted to know if I was the same as other girls.” The humiliation continues: “They used the ink from inside a felt marker pen to paint my face dark brown, and drew dark brown blotches on my light brown skin. I watched the clouds. I watched trust disappear.”
Damaged by relatives, bullied by schoolmates, running away at seventeen with the first person who would take her, Ali enters an never-ending spiral of self-destructive behaviour that she sets down in the starkest tones. The survivor’s account of a childhood lost gives way to the greater horrors of domestic violence, alcoholism and substance abuse. Seeking to escape the stifling stillness of home, she enters another grim world looking at it with “Dead Eyes”:
bruises on my face
yellow with sunrise
until the shadow blocks
out the sun.
black eyes listen
to scratchy words
of a drunken record
that does not stop
his shadow falls over
releasing the sun
I stare at him
it is my only way to let him know
I will kill him if he pushes me
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. She neither embellishes her prose, nor does she complicate her poetry. She does not build a complex narrative. She does not introduce an extremely vast cast of characters. The tragedies flow from home ground. They remind you that just as all struggles are personal, they are simultaneously universal too. In these poems her work meanders away from biography, and it begins to speak for a collective, for those who undergo similar tragedies. It is not one traumatic incident that upsets her life, she is at the storm center of misfortune and ruinous circumstances. Some of these show the sickness of society in general, but some, very specifically, are born out of the racist policies of the state and the enthusiastic way in which the wider population has embraced these policies. Patriarchy within the racist society further victimises someone in Ali’s position.
Finding herself as an unwed mother, Ali writes, “At eighteen, I would be the first unmarried pregnancy in our small country town, and I knew Mum and Dad were ashamed of me. The younger siblings looked at me like I was the devil. I felt like I was carrying the devil inside me.” She gives away her son in adoption and what follows are “nameless days.” It is at this time that she begins to wonder about her real mother and what her own feelings would have been when Ali was adopted out. What follows this loss of her child is a series of problems: a near-fatal accident, a failed marriage, more alcohol dependence, more drugs, more depression. She flees but the tormented mind does not leave her at peace. “The suicide thoughts would not leave my brain. When I went for walks, I saw myself hanging in the trees. One day, when Mum went to the shops, I rang the Crisis Line. I booked myself into rehab.”
It is at the rehab where every inmate is asked to maintain a journal that Ali enters the world of writing and quickly realizes its therapeutic powers. “Writing is allowing me a new clarity of mind, and I have begun to worry less about my future. Writing allows me to define my dreams. Writing allows me to discover who I truly am.” Writing not only helps Ali come clean, but it sends her into a deeper search.
The succession of heartbreak and tragedy that she has faced puts Ali at a point in her life where she undergoes counselling to heal herself. She is referred to Rosemary, who runs a counselling service for Aboriginal people, and it is from her that Ali learns about the Aboriginal Link Up service. This clearly takes place in the months following the release of the Bringing Them Home report and the documentation that surrounds it. This enables Ali to find her birth mother’s name, get in touch with her and take a flight to Canberra to meet her. Her birth mother works for the public service, is clearly political, and works as a co-chair of National Sorry Day. It is through her that Ali gets in touch with a larger circle of relatives. It is here, in getting back to her roots, in reclaiming the many fragments of her family that Ali finally finds the healing that she has been seeking.
Ali finds that her mother was also adopted out similarly, she is also later the mother who signs the papers to find her own son. In her words, “I was born Yankunytjatjara my mother is Yankunytjatjara her mother was Yankunytjatjara my family is Yankunytjatjara I have learnt many things from my family elders I have grown to recognise that life travels in circles—Aboriginal culture has taught me that.” In a chapter she calls “Circles and Squares”, Ali suggests about the framing in which cultures operate. It is no easy transition for Ali to adapt to the ways of her people, and when she meets her niece Minya, she encounters the hardship for that teenage girl who grew up with her people to adopt to the ways of the city. Running through the text is a subtext that underlines the loss of culture, and of a hegemonic process in operation that wishes to render the indigenous people white, their histories subordinate to absence and erasure. “My heart is Round ready to echo the music of my family but the Square within me remains”. Her book mourns this loss even as it celebrates the resilience that keeps the indigenous ways alive.
Suffused with romanticization of the Aborigine way of life, Ali for the most part resists the simplistic format of reducing the narrative into binaries and sharp contrasts of Western/Indigenous, Individualist/Collective, Material/Spiritual. “My family teach me bush way, and I teach them the whitefella ways. We grow smarter and stronger as one.” She is perceptive to see a difference beyond mere material conditions: another way of life, that is, at least to this reader, as transparent as it is opaque, that is as accessible as it is remote: They look into my face and into my eyes. They dance and sing around me. They welcome me back to my traditional country. They give me my skin name. They rub me with their healing powers and heal me using traditional medicine. They rub me again and remove the ice block from inside me. Then they heal the hole in my guts.
Throughout the book, Ali imbues her words with the wisdom of the elders, with the words of her culture that refuse easy unpacking, presenting us a language of beguiling simplicity. As she strips language and parades it bare, she unmasks society, its prejudices, its racism, its ugliness. If the story she narrates was any less stark, language would turn a traitor and the prose would appear to be feeble.
Too Afraid to Cry is a book that will help you battle your own demons. Ali as a poet-memoirist uses her craft to brilliant effect: her spare poems let the reader pause, foreshadow her recollections, let you ponder, and help you move on. If the sadness of her prose grabs you by the throat and chokes you and leaves you gasping for air, it is Ali’s poetry that tells you to remember to breathe.
Meena Kandasamy is the author of Ms Militancy and The Gypsy Goddess. Her new novel, When I Hit You: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is forthcoming from Juggernaut Books