By Alexis WrightNon-fiction Giramondo
Alexis Wright returns to non-fiction in her new book, a collective memoir of the charismatic Aboriginal leader, political thinker and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth, who died in Darwin in 2015 at the age of 62.
Taken from his family as a child and brought up in a mission on Croker Island, Tracker Tilmouth worked tirelessly for Aboriginal self-determination, creating opportunities for land use and economic development in his many roles, including Director of the Central Land Council of the Northern Territory.
Tracker was a visionary, a strategist and a projector of ideas, renowned for his irreverent humour and his determination to tell things the way he saw them. Having known him for many years, Alexis Wright interviewed Tracker, along with family, friends, colleagues, and the politicians he influenced, weaving his and their stories together in a manner reminiscent of the work of Nobel Prize–winning author Svetlana Alexievich. The book is as much a testament to the powerful role played by storytelling in contemporary Aboriginal life as it is to the legacy of an extraordinary man.
In honour of her friend and colleague, Tracker Tilmouth – a man who had, as well as his many other qualities, a wicked sense of humour – Alexis Wright has stitched together a wandering and complex story, one that has all the qualities of a good yarn.
Wright opens the book by asking a question that is pertinent not just to this work, but to much non-fiction in general. ‘How do you tell an impossible story, one that is almost too big to contain in a single book?’
Her answer is a book which presents dozens of versions of Tracker: Tracker the small boy on Crocker Island, saved from despair by the presence of his brothers and Sister Bartram; Tracker, the camel racer; Tracker the cattle man; Tracker the mediator and politician; Tracker the linguist, Tracker the savvy politician; Tracker the smartarse.
Wright carefully pieces together dozens of interviews to create a mosaic, not just of one man’s life, but also of the experiences of the Stolen Generation, the traumatised history of black/white relations in this country, and the work of a few brave men and women to find their way through the labyrinthine politics of land and place over the last 50 years. And, despite giving voice to a kaleidoscopic range of friends, families and witnesses to Tracker’s life, this is clearly a book with a single author – one with a keen ear for the rhythms of story.
Tracker should have had a personal secretary taking down all of his ideas and patenting them, but he gave them away freely in conversations, with the action plans for projects that were on an enormous scale, or small community projects to create income from commercial activities. All of these ideas depended on the understanding of people from government, professional workers and developers; and mostly, his thinking was more advanced than theirs, and they would not have the willingness, or ability, or resources, to put plans they had not thought of themselves into action, with the paperwork they required.
Some of these ideas can be seen in the opportunities he created for thousands of Aboriginal people. But the full legacy of his work and thinking lives with the people who heard his stories, experienced his wit, or worked with him. He always left the details for others, those who listened to him, and in the work they did with him. You could say that his visionary ideas will be missed by Aboriginal people, but much of his work still lives in the minds of some of the best thinkers in the country. Tracker’s legacy is in this archive, his filing cabinet, the minds of other people. The road maps or blueprints of the vision splendid, el grande plano, are spread among people of all walks of life around the country – the politicians and political thinkers, economists, resource and land developers, media representatives, Aboriginal communities and their leaders, and the everyday people who were Tracker’s mates. Some of this rich tapestry of knowledge has been drawn from the vaults of these other peoples’ minds, and told in this book.
I have always thought that all stories are important, but stories only come to life and stay alive when they are being imagined and remembered, and then in the telling, how they are retold to make sure they are being heard. The problem with creating this book was the question of how you would write a story about someone who challenged all expectations? Tracker used to say, I want you to write something for me, Wrighty. But how could you do the imagining on behalf of someone who was impossible to keep up with, who could never be contained, who never wanted to sit still long enough to go through the details time and again, as a writer would need to do to get the story right. Instead, he expected you to know exactly what was going on in his head, and to drop whatever you were doing, and get his stuff done at once! He was never going to sit around long enough to let other people define him, or to allow himself to be compartmentalised in somebody else’s smaller orbit of thoughts.
Wrighty, I just want to bookend this. Let others tell the story. Let them say what they want.
This was how Tracker envisioned this book, which he wanted to call The Unreliable Witness. He was simply saying what our mob say time and again, Let people have a say. Let them tell their own stories. Let people speak for themselves. This is a reasonable response to a lifetime of confronting the legacy of our stories being told and misrepresented by others, as has been happening since the arrival of the First Fleet. Tracker made stories happen in reality. For him, stories were for changing reality at whatever level it took to make something happen. These were not stories that could make people live happily ever after, they were stories to make peoples’ lives better by making a difference, and along the way, to create amazing memories.
The stories in Tracker are told from many points of view, including Tracker’s own, when he was well enough to do so and found space in the last years of his busy working life. The book helps to explain some of his ideas and his significance as a leader of his times. There are many voices in these pages. The contributors were all chosen by Tracker. He wanted them to tell their parts in the story. They include his two younger brothers William and Patrick. Patrick sadly passed away in 2016 from cancer. The book also includes many of Tracker’s oldest friends and closest colleagues.
Sometimes it is the little stories that people tell that are the most potent, and when fragments of remembered stories are placed together, they combine to create a truer and fuller portrait than a single story on its own. Yet this is not what we generally teach one another, or practise in our story-making and our literary endeavours. We like to create our own versions of the story. The author or the biographer interprets and selects, decides what will be told to the best of his or her ability, and writes on behalf of the subject. But the biography can only offer a fraction, the fractional stories, snapshots, flavour or sense of the whole, and relies more on what is unsaid sometimes, than said. Tracker attempts to follow an Aboriginal tradition of storytelling practice for crossing landscapes and boundaries, giving many voices a part in the story. This blessing of stories and voices was very much Tracker Tilmouth’s way of creating stories for others to expand and make use of in creating the vision splendid.
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