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Writing gave me a method to not go insane

nandini nair | Updated on January 24, 2018

I am a survivor Eckermann in Delhi before heading to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: S Anand

Too Afraid to Cry: Ali Cobby Eckermann Navayana Memoir ₹295

Aboriginal poet and writer Ali Cobby Eckermann on being a stolen child and finding home

Ali Cobby Eckermann is an Aboriginal poet and writer from Australia, with six books to her name. When the Pittsburgh University, US, introduced her as a ‘Yankunytjatjara writer from Australia’ she was especially delighted. When the lazy and careless call her an ‘Australian writer’, she makes her displeasure evident. “It is nothing really, but it is everything,” she says, “Once they [Australia] treat me and all of my family equally, then we can proudly say that we are Australian.”

Eckermann (52) knows a thing or two about being treated wrongly. Too Afraid to Cry is a searing account of child abuse, drug and alcohol misuse and domestic violence. It opens with the most withering lines: “When Aunty went to sleep, Uncle would sit next to me and rub my chest. I think he was looking for my bosoms. Fat chance! I was only seven years old and hadn’t grown mine yet.”

Written in prose and interspersed with poems, the lines run short but cut deep. This is ultimately a narrative of loss and healing. Like countless children of the Stolen Generation, Eckermann was taken away from her birth family and raised by a white one. Her son was given for adoption when she was an unwed mother at 19.

Too Afraid to Cry tells of a girl seeking an anchor, but struggling to stay afloat. She recounts an incident where the girls in her school used a felt marker pen to paint her face dark brown. Eckermann writes, “I watched the clouds. I watched trust disappear. Finally, I got up off the ground. The humiliation had been successful; I could hardly walk from the shame.” The ‘icy wind’ within her soon became an ‘icy block’ and she found that the tears had evaporated.

In Delhi recently for the Navayana Annual Lecture “The Kangaroo is Dead at the Waterhole,” Eckermann comes across as a woman of measured words and long silences. Her experiences have strengthened, not embittered her. But she is severe in her criticisms of Australia, a country where many of her Aboriginal family have never been inside a café or restaurant. In places like Alice Springs, they are often stopped at the door, because of their skin colour. She adds, “It is a racist country. Many of my Aboriginal family have never been invited to a white person’s home, never made a friendship with a white person outside of the public service…”

Eckermann wrote Too Afraid to Cry back in 2005 while staying in Titjikala (an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory) and never intended it to be published. The story, her story, would wake her up every day between 3am and 5am, and the form dictated itself. The chapters are short and episodic, the drama comes from the content and not the telling. The writing proved to be a release, and while she was hesitant at first about publishing it, she realised, “It was such a healing process for me that I wondered if other Stolen Generation people read it, if there would be a healing for them.” She adds, “Writing gave me a method to not go insane.”

As a girl, Eckermann always wanted to be a writer and published her first poems — about purple skies and snails, she can’t quite remember — in grade three. An avid reader, she found that writing helped her make sense of her experiences and allowed her to move forward. She enjoyed studying English, but had heard the Yankunytjatjara language in the womb. The challenge was to translate a language of kinship and nomads, community and traditions into a more ‘square’ language that is English. She explains, “Aboriginal language is language of music, happiness, and filled with inherent song and poetry. English is a brutal lessening down of that.”

In the minimalism of poetry she found that English often reached its potential. For Eckermann, however, writing not only proved to be a catharsis but also a way to illuminate her community. She says, “Most of my family in the bush, they don’t have a voice. The government keeps overriding things.” In the book, she details the abuse she faced as a child, a love affair gone wrong at 17, a son given up for adoption and learning that her stillborn baby girl had been thrown in the bin.

Unable or unwilling to feel emotion, she fell into a spiral of drugs and alcohol. Her process of healing started only in her 30s, once she found her mother through the Aboriginal Link-Up Service. A few years later, she located her 18-year-old son. When she first sees her mother and her son, she glimpses herself in them. Reuniting with her birth family, she concludes that the ‘white man’s world’ is square, but the Aboriginal way is the circle of the campfire. And she had learned both ways of life. As Eckermann writes in ‘Bird Song’: ‘Guardian birds / Circle the sky / Watcher birds / Sit nearby / Fill my ears / With bird song / I will survive.’



Published on February 06, 2015

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