ROBBI NEAL After Before Time. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks
Robbi Neal has captured a truthful, no-holds-barred and deeply sensitive range of Indigenous Australian experience.
For seven years from 2008, Robbi Neal and her family lived and worked in a Cape York Aboriginal arts community. There, Neal heard the narratives of six community members, which she elaborated into incomparable intertwined stories. Through the yarns of Elsie, Alice, Elaine, Barney, Meg and Joseph, she has exquisitely crafted a truthful, no-holds-barred and deeply sensitive picture of the suffering, resilience, and, despite all, persistent humanity of those who became the characters of her book:
The stories in this book are inspired by real people and real events. Some of the events happened exactly as described, some are an intermingling of events; others I’ve made up to describe people’s experiences of similar events and to make this a story that might compel you to keep reading.
There is no doubt that Neal has achieved what she set out to do. From her characters’ painful and deeply personal experiences she has captured the horror inflicted on Aboriginal people by the tyranny of white colonisation and its ongoing destructive effects on subsequent generations. The scale of loss in all aspects of her informants’ lives is breathtaking, encompassing expulsion from their ancestral lands and alienation from their powerfully spiritual communities and age-old connections. Their cultural ties through language, art, kinship and community, value and belief systems, vital to nurturing and sustaining identity and life’s meaning, were systematically undermined.
The facts in these stories have been known for a long time. Through the characters, however, we enter into the lived reality that lies behind the facts, which confronts us in ways that information alone cannot. Januarrie writes in her introductory chapter ‘Before’:
For too long now, some of our most respected Elders in the community have been silent, aching to tell their stories. They have shelved their pain and despair, the times of never-ending heartache, to now tell how their lives were impacted by colonisation.
The diversity within this small community is reflected in its characters’ various ages, genders and experiences. Elder Elsie’s story started as a life embedded within the loving security of traditional family values and culture, but this life was eventually torn apart by white colonisation. In the story of Elsie’s teenage great-grandson Barney, we witness the intergenerational destructive legacy of these events. Generations later he experiences a disconnection between his own inner yearnings and the expectations of the white educational system, whose demands he cannot meet. This creates differences with his father and relatives, who believe Barney’s opportunities rely on mainstream white education.
Each character in the story is an accomplished narrator; the language is filled with graphically expressed and, at times, lyrically beautiful imagery. Here is Elder Great-Gran Elsie talking of life Before and After Time:
Three things happened on the day I was born. I didn’t see these things cause I was safely cocooned inside my mother, but I knew, even from those warm waters in her belly, what was happening and after I was born, my grandmother yarned the story of my birth day over and over so I would always know and never forget. Now I am an old, old lady.
This is how Elsie expresses her deep love of Country:
My story started while all my mob was sitting on the beach. It was our beach – the beach and its coral-filled seas and all the land alongside the beaches, they had belonged to my father and his father and all the fathers before him since the beginning of time … It belonged to us and we belonged to it. This was our Country and we were Sea people.
‘After Before Time’ starts while Elsie is still a young child and has her first contact with life at the mission. With her kinship group she had walked for two days from their traditional home by the beach. Tired, confused, and hungry, she and her group are given their first mission meal. The food is nothing she has ever seen or tasted before:
Us kids all ate and then all the adults got their mayi and I looked at my aunts and my uncles and Father and Grandmother and they were all silen — just eating and they didn’t look like the people I knew no more, they didn’t look like they did yesterday. They looked propa sick.’
She describes the heartbreaking impact on her father of losing his place as head of the family and tribal leader:
My father stopped in a space where the ground was flat and empty and he stood straight and formal and I didn’t know it, but it was the last time I was to see him stand straight and proud. This place is our Country but we cannot call it by language name any longer.
Three generations later, great-grandson Barney is standing on the beach with his father, who, intent on imbuing his son with a sense of cultural pride, gestures to convey the extent of their traditional lands. Barney thinks:
My dad was saying blah blah blah on the beach, and I was nodding my head like I’m listening propa but really I’m thinking besides Nintendo DS I like Michael Jackson … and I wish I had an iPod so I could listen to Billy Jean whenever I wanted.
Barney’s mornings frequently begin with school detentions for lateness. His teacher will not accept that he has to wait his turn for a morning shower after 12 other people since he refuses to go to school dirty. Finally Barney explodes with: ‘Fuck this I don’t have to stay here,’ for which he is given a week’s suspension. He spends more time in detention/suspension than in class. When in class, he gazes out the window, thinking:
I’d really like to be down the beach practising with the spear that Mukas Joseph made for me. Its a real good spear, my muka showed me how he carved the wood thin and straight.
Barney thinks the spear will go through crocs: ‘But we don’t kill crocs cause they might be our ancestors.’
Reading After Before Time is a total heart experience. Be prepared to experience a whole gamut of feelings, as there is no soft-pedalling here. The characters disclose the depth of their anger, sadness, grief and pain, directly and bluntly. But there is also great love, warmth, and generosity of spirit towards each other and towards those whites who, over the generations, have loved and tried to help them. The book is rich with insights into customs, traditional beliefs, practices and culture; and humorous observations of what the protagonists regard as absurd white behaviour and demands.
Finally, this book would greatly enrich any high school reading curriculum. It is educational, informative, interesting and entertaining, a cultural must; and it challenges the prejudice, arrogance and misunderstanding that has dogged black/white relations in Australia. It has enough power to transform our society into a more compassionate and harmonious one.
Robbi Neal After Before Time Fourth Estate 2016 PB 320pp $29.99
Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights and conflict resolution.
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