` Span

Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

Writing About Talking to Other Women

Mari Rhydwen

Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little the despair of his fate but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor. Kafka Diaries 19.10.21

Earlier this year I submitted my doctoral thesis in Linguistics and I shall write about the thesis because, in the end, it wasn't about the topic at all, but about thinking and writing and being a woman and being white (the shock of seeing myself reflected in the water, pale like a worm, a deep-sea creature, a ghost) and living in Australia.

I started off planning to examine, from a linguistic perspective, what happened when an oral language was written down. I worked in Kriol-speaking areas, one of which had a bilingual Kriol-English programme in the school. Although Kriol, an English-based creole spoken as a first language by many Aboriginal people in north Australia, is a relatively new language it had, until the early 1970s, always been an oral language. It therefore seemed to meet the criteria I needed in order to investigate the changes which might occur as a result of the introduction of literacy. John Sandefur, a linguist with the Summer Institute of Linguistics had created an orthography for Kriol in which he was carrying out a Bible translation and he was influential in the establishment of a Kriol Bilingual programme in school. 1

I had read Ong and Goody (in the days Goody wrote about savage minds and not about flowers). 2 I read the men on the topic and it was seductive. It was fascinating. It was intricate, dazzling, it made my head spin with delight. Maybe I had washed too many nappies, kneaded too much playdough. Reading 'Orality and Literacy, the Technologizing of the Word' 3 because I'd found it lying around when I was a full-time mother and wife, as well as part-time ESL teacher, was like discovering a new world. I'd forgotten that people used words with more than one syllable and Ong used words I'd never seen before. I listed them and looked them up in the dictionary, words like, 'apophatic' and 'boustropedon'.

I was also interested in finding out more about Aborigines. Apart from an old man in a park in Parramatta who had told me that television was rotting our brains, I had not talked to an Aboriginal person since arriving in Australia. I never met them at friends' places. I never saw them. Not anywhere. I wanted to talk to one. The only people I knew who had any contact with them were academics who studied them, so I decided to enrol in a part-time degree in Linguistics.

Well, one thing led inexorably to a thousand others and I found myself writing a PhD full-time and in receipt of a grant to do fieldwork. I went and did fieldwork. That's where the trouble started. It was all very well having grand theories about orality and literacy, but fieldwork meant going up to people and talking to them and asking them questions and suddenly the whole edifice crumbles and it seems as if the objects of our study are like pictures in a pornographic magazine, people we make up, fantazise and build our make-believe texts around.

I could not do it. I tried to ask questions and write it all down in a little book. I carried my tape recorder around and turned it on and off. I wrote notes in the evenings. I looked like a kind of expert, blundering around, unable to catch fish or fix a Toyota, scribbling and sorting. I felt sick inside.

A year later, after my first fieldwork trip I had a dream that made it very clear how I felt about the whole enterprise but my upbringing and education had conspired to ensure that I had no interest in my dreams, except as curiosity. I did not think I was supposed to act on them. It took several years to come to the realization that I hated what I was doing and that I did not want to do it. I decided to abandon my thesis and, instead, to write what I knew and felt about my work and submit that for examination. To some extent I bowed to convention, to mastering a conventional referencing system and including linguistic analysis, but I included my dream and I wrote it at the beginning of the thesis, a warning flag.

In retrospect, I am amazed now to find that there have been many works that deal with many of the dilemmas I faced. Ethnographers, and ethnographic filmmakers who, perhaps because the technology of film is more evident than the technology of writing have been acutely aware of the construction of their representations, are concerned with what Clifford terms 'Western visions and practices.' (1988:9) 4 The point is, that such works were not available to me. It was only after I wrote as I did and people began to read what I had written, that I found a world full of other voices, speaking alone in chorus. I realized that it was only when I spoke in my own voice that I could hear, and recognize, other voices.

During the last times I was living in remote communities in the north I found myself increasingly blurring the boundaries between participating and observing so that my fieldnotes and personal diary converged into one text. This journal, in which I recorded conversations as well as my reactions to them, formed the basis of the narratives I recounted in my thesis. Whereas in the early stages of my research I spent much of my time recording talk on audio-cassette or with pen and paper in the latter phase I used to just stay at people's camps, sometimes for days on end, and my notes on conversations were (re)constructions, memories, after the event.

"I spend a lot of time with Dora. We seem two of a kind, she spends much more time alone than any Aboriginal woman I have known and she wants to find out about me. At nights, when she's alone, I sleep at her place, on the verandah next to her, and in the cover of darkness we swap our stories, women's talk, about our first sexual experiences, 'But don't put that in your book!'" I don't. But I remember how we laughed about our lost innocence, lost ignorance. We talk about men. Funny, it's the one thing you can talk to women about anywhere and laugh, or cry, at the same things.

"I reckon you only need one man. If you got the feeling," she touched her stomach, "and the commonsense" tapping her head, "if you got the feeling and the commonsense for that man, you only want one. Too many girl now, they only got the feeling. No commonsense. That's no good. They running around everywhere now, like munanga way." It's reassuring, familiar talk under the stars.

Other times our talks range over a number of topics. One day Dora is evidently very frustrated with me, with my stupidity. She has been telling me she can't understand munanga and their attitude towards cars and money. "They still floating round when we six foot deep." I am perplexed. After all, haven't I been raised to see this as a benefit of money? Isn't this how dynasties are made? Yet evidently, for Dora, the fact that people's possessions, the ones they gain from mining her country, will outlast them, is evidence of munanga stupidity. (I recently came across Ivan Boesky's maxim, quoted in The Australian 6.11.93, "He who owns the most when he dies, wins," which seems to encapsulate Dora's view of munanga psychology.) "Oh, you mean when we die, it doesn't matter how much money we've got, how many cars, how many houses, when we die we die with nothing, naked?"

"You got 'im, you got 'im!" she cried with relief. So, that was it. Somehow I'd been looking in the wrong place for my understanding. After that things got easier. We talked about culture. Dora tells me that all Aboriginal people have one culture. This came up because I read her a David Uniapon story. I often read her books by, or about, Aboriginal people, and when I asked about food rules and some people not ever eating totemic animals she told me that food prohibitions only applied at specific times, before ceremonies, saying, of the story, "No that's different way. We all got one law, but different way."

I, on the other hand, am munanga, along with other Whites, Japanese, Chinese and Africans and she tells me we have no culture, only rock and roll. I feel a bit offended at this. I hasten to point out that I have more than the rock and roll, so she challenges me to tell her, "What gives your life meaning?" I talk about my Buddhist practice, our precepts and practices, and about Dharma.

Dharma. In its literal meaning this word refers to something that maintains a certain character constantly and becomes a standard of things. In Buddhist teaching it signifies the universal norms or laws that govern human existence and is variously translated as "Law" or "Truth." (Yuho 1976: 202)

I was not suggesting, as Elkin (1945: 64) 5 did, that there may be any direct connection between Aboriginal law and Buddhism but rather, that when Dora talked about Law, thinking of Law in the Buddhist sense, rather than the Western secular sense, made it easier for us to exchange ideas. I could understand, "We all have one Law, but different ways," if I thought of Dharma, and the various Buddhist cultural traditions for upholding it. Moreover, it is understandable that she thought we had no Law, very little information about munanga that permeates remote Aboriginal communities, would point to a knowledge of Dharma. We talked about our respective "Law," our responsibilities towards it and the universes it encompasses, the impossibility of defining or describing it in words or grasping it in its entirety and the fact that it is maintained by the actions of an interrelated web of life. We had found a way of talking to each other.

In the thesis itself, I made it explicit that Dora is a fiction. I have constructed her from my recollections of a woman who in my imagination is very similar to Dora. Dora cannot write an account of herself, she does not exist. Dora's words are sometimes based on those of a real woman, but that woman, if she were to present/represent herself to the world in written text, would probably read very differently from Dora. What then is the point of creating Dora?

Amongst other things, I wanted to provide evidence for my argument that the role of missionary linguists in gaining recognition of Kriol in north Australia raises questions about the concept of cultural identity, how it is defined and, more particularly, by whom. "Kriol" is the name by which numerous dialects of English-based creole as well as some dialects of Aboriginal English spoken in northern Australia, are known. The name itself was coined by John Sandefur, a linguist from the Summer Institute of Linguistics who has written extensively about Kriol and advocated its use (1979, 1981, 1982, 1984). John Harris, writing about Kriol, states:

the Christian church is often a significant institution in creole-speaking communities throughout the world. There is certainly no intrinsic or linguistic reason for this. It is more that the rise of creoles in colonial contexts usually occurred where traditional cultural life is damaged. Christianity has, in many places, replaced traditional religions. The subsequent recognition of creole languages by the church, where this has occurred, has often been the biggest single factor in the growing pride and acceptance by creole-speaking people of their own linguistic and cultural identity. (Harris 1988: 413)6

My conundrum was to illustrate my view that the definition of Kriol-speakers' "linguistic and cultural identity" is problematic, whilst not myself falling into the trap of claiming to define Kriol-speakers. Made unquiet by the inexorable flow of bureaucratic decision-making that requires researchers to produce neat categories like "Kriol-speakers", defined according to the simulacra of scientific criteria that are the tools of linguistic analysis, I decided I would jot down what I saw. Dora may be a fiction but she is no more a fiction than "language", "cultural identity" or "reliable informant" (see also Clifford and Marcus: 1986 for a discussion of anthropology and fiction).

Recently a student approached me. He was about to embark upon writing a thesis about Aboriginal language use. Whilst I was flattered that he sought my advice, and touched by his innocent eagerness, I struggled to find an appropriate response. I envied those of my colleague who truthfully say, "I don't worry about politics, I just do linguistics." since what I wanted to say was, "Don't do it!" In the end I steered him (fairly) gently towards some reading. I thought he might otherwise attribute my remark to post-thesis-blues or, even worse, a kind of possessiveness that seems to afflict some ethnographers.

The text I have written here is a continuation of many others, written and unwritten, those of the Aboriginal people who told me their stories, of other academics who spoke to me or whose work I read, not only the tales I liked and tried to emulate but those which (and here I include some of my own earlier writing) seem to transform people and their languages into objects of investigation and which I now write against. Gloria Brennan (1979) said that a non-Aboriginal translator could in a written report, 'reduce an expression of someone's deepest feelings, presented in the best 'poetic' oral tradition to one bland, uninteresting English sentence: "Harry X spoke about his desire to return to the land." 7 In the same way cultures and languages can be substantially reduced by being written about, by being translated. There is no way those of us who continue to write and speak about linguistic issues can do so without translating, despite experimenting with different genres and pushing against the boundaries of what constitutes valid research, though it might be possible to reduce the number of bland, uninteresting English sentences.

And here, very simply, I reach for the core. There seems, amongst many ethnographers, to still be an assumption that, if one could only discover it, there is a way to depict the reality of a culture. Johnson refers to the debate between practitioners of quantitative and qualitative research and the complaints that ethnography is "too subjective, too value laden, not replicable" and "neither rigorous nor systematic" which are countered by claims that quantitative research "there is little correspondence between measures and 'reality'" (1990:11). Culture is something we experience, mediated culture is always an act of translation and no matter how rigorous and scientific nor how imaginative and creative, there is always a gap, an abyss to bridge or leap.

My experience resulted in a slaking off of certainties, of any sense that I was doing anything other than telling another story. I had started with an agenda of sorts, revolving around the invisibility of Aboriginal people in my experience of Australia and my dismay at the way linguistic researchers are implicated in the institutional maintenance of that invisibility through, for example, defining the identity of others. I continue to be concerned by such issues, they appear to have a kind of reality despite the fact that, in Taussig's words, "postmodernism has relentlessly instructed us that reality is artifice." (1993:xv). 8 Yet, as Taussig continues, "We act and have to act as if mischief were not afoot in the kingdom of the real and that all around the ground lay firm" (1993: xvii). Taussig does appear to have magically captured the spirit of the problem, so lately appropriated by the West despite 2500 well-documented years of Buddhist philosphy, awareness of which has sometimes kept me hopping from foot to foot on the shifting sands of apparent unreality. And strangely, knowing that my writing is a translation of a reality that is/is not there, it became possible to keep writing, realizing that what is written will itself become part of that unreal ground on which we sit and laugh and tell our stories.

University of Western Australia


1 Sandefur, J. 1981 'Kriol - an Aboriginal Language,' Hemisphere 25.4

Sandefur, J. 1982 'Extending the Use of Kriol', Paper presented at the Second Annual Workshop of the Aboriginal Languages Association, Batchelor N.T.

Sandefur, J.R. 1984 Papers on Kriol: The Writing System and a Resource Guide. SIL-AAB Series B Volume 10, Darwin: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Sandefur, J. 1979 An Australian Creole in the Northern Territory: A Description of Ngukurr-Bamyili Dialects (Part 1) SIL-AAB Series B Volume 3, Darwin: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

2 Goody, J. 1977 The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3 Ong, W.J. 1982 Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

4 Clifford, J. and G.E. Marcus, 1986, eds., Writing Culture. Berkley: University of California Press.

5 Elkin, A.P. 1945 Aboriginal Men of High Degree. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

6 Harris, J. 1988 'North Australian Kriol and the Kriol "Holi Baibul",' in T. Swaine and D.Bird Rose (eds.) Aboriginal Australians and Christian Missions: Ethnographic and Historical Studies, Adelaide: AASR.

7 Brennan, G. The Need for Interpreting and Translation Services for Australian Aboriginals, with Special Reference to the Northern Territory. Canberra, D.A.A. 1979.

8 Taussig, M. 1993 Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge.

New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 20 April, 2015