By Charmaine Papertalk GreenPoetry Cordite Books
Forty years ago, letters, words and feelings flowed between a teenage daughter and her mother. Letters written by that teenage daughter – me – handed around family back home, disappeared. Yet letters from that mother to her teenage daughter – me – remained protected in my red life-journey suitcase. I carried them across time and landscapes as a mother would carry her baby in a thaga.
In 1978–79, I was living in an Aboriginal girls’ hostel in the Bentley suburb of Perth, attending senior high school. Mum and I sent handwritten letters to each other. I was a small-town teenager stepping outside of all things I had ever known. Mum remained in the only world she had ever known.
Nganajungu Yagu was inspired by Mother’s letters, her life and the love she instilled in me for my people and my culture. A substantial part of that culture is language, and I missed out on so much language interaction having moved away. I talk with my ancestors’ language – Badimaya and Wajarri – to honour ancestors, language centres, language workers and those Yamaji who have been and remain generous in passing on cultural knowledge.
Charmaine Papertalk Green’s Nganajungu Yagu is a textured, personal, poetic exploration of maternal love, and the relationship between epistolary forms, poesis and documentation. At the heart of the book is a series of letters Papertalk Green wrote to her mother; but it also encompasses lyric, concrete poems, lists, documents and prose poems that weave her mother tongue Badimaya and Wajarri with English. What does a meditation on maternal love look like from someone whose people’s maternal lines were deliberately broken and erased by the state? What does it mean to be an educated Aboriginal woman in the 1960s and 1970s? Papertalk Green’s poetry reconstructs these questions in a range of forms and voices. Nganajungu Yagu is a moving, revelatory and utterly unique landmark in Australian poetry.
Letter on 1 November 1979
Dear Charmaine … I am proud of you it uplifts me when I am down and worried it gives me strength to carry on working to know that I have something to work for … love from all at home … Love Mum and Dad.
My heart bursts
thinking about you
floors laundry sweating
you carried and carried
I am trying to let you know how proud of you I am, your words gave me strength and inspiration to move ahead as a teenager into the wide white world. Just like when you wrote that I as a teenager gave you strength.
I now know life was extremely hard for you as a woman and a mother back home, when all I wanted was to go and explore a world beyond what I knew. I have come to understand a lot about you, Yagu, through your early-year teachings, the stories shared and now the files I read about you and your life. The challenges you faced as a pre-teen, having your mother pass away, you had to grow up fast and fend. Your first job was being a tray maid at the Mullewa hospital. There was a group photo including a teenage you on the hospital wall. I don’t know where that framed photo has disappeared to. I asked at the Mullewa hospital last year where the photo is now, nobody seems to know. Wish I had a copy. Mum, you knew the meaning of hard work from an early age, and you taught me well about ethics. I know that you were proud of all your kids because in one of your letters you wrote:
… I never had the education but you, Charlie and Alex made up for that, proud of that for that proud of you all … never let Mum down but the others made it up in other ways ...
Sadness and grief surrounded you. I know you never spoke of your babies passing, but you did make sure we knew of their burial sites in the Mullewa cemetery, and I, in turn, have passed this information on to younger family members. I continue to make sure memory of their existence remains – they are our brothers and sisters. They are your children. I often think of what it would have been like if they had survived and were here with us, especially the twin brothers ten months younger than me. Then, when you lost your eldest son … well, that was the hardest thing for me to ever do, giving you that sad news, and I don’t believe you ever recovered from that sadness. I don’t know how to understand this type of trauma. I don’t even understand how you survived losing five babies in a seven-year period. Yagu, you were a strong and courageous woman, and it is me who is so proud of you, all the struggles and challenges you endured over your 73 years. I now understand why you and Dad gave me a Bible for my first birthday. A present never carried in RJS. I don’t remember how it found its way back to me. Yagu, maybe it was in your box when you passed or I picked it out of possessions when relocating you back to Mullewa?
Letter on 6 April 1978
Darling Toots, with me working again has been a godsend to us at home no more worries about food the kids are not wanting for anything like before … Your forever loving mother Margaret
Each letter spoke of food
The need for food spoke
through each letter
Mother’s food worries never seemed
to end when eating dry Weetbix
butter or vegemite is all
When food was scarce
when food was plentiful
the words flowed like a pot
stew bubbling on
To feed the family
no one was hungry
no one was going to starve
The bookups will be paid
The family and friends
food cadging can rest
There will be no more
worries about food
when work is here
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist