Review: Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green

Nganajungu yagu means “my mother” in Wajarri, a language of the Yamaji peoples of mid-west Western Australia, and this beautiful, profoundly moving collection revolves around Charmaine Papertalk Green’s relationship with her mum. As she writes in an introduction, in 1978 Papertalk Green left her family in Mullewa for school in Perth, staying in a boarding house for Aboriginal girls with only her RJS, her “red journey suitcase”. It is a separation common to many children and parents, but it speaks also to the separation of Aboriginal children from their mothers and culture through various machinations of the colonial state. She and her mother traded letters; she kept her mother’s but hers on the other end have disappeared. In Nganajungu Yagu she reinvents her replies in the present, filling in the years that have passed.

These letters frame the collection, introducing series of thematically linked poems. In the first Papertalk Green reflects on the many meanings of paper and letters (the word papertalk itself derived from a derogatory term for an Aboriginal messenger). She envisages her mother writing:

on a late-night table when everyone’s demands

stopped and went to sleep (Messages)

The letters keep her connected to culture:

Paperbark bundle

wrapped stories

to be etched in a mind

like a rock carving (Paperbark)

Later she writes of her Badimaya father whose family left him at a mission (“a sadness that flowed onto me”), the work her mother slogs through to support the family (she “would not allow her kids to starve/when money did” – Not Just Letters), the legacies of colonisation exhibited through Western Australia’s genocidal policy of assimilation. A poem that answers the questions posed by the state’s Form 2 of the Western Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Regulation is startlingly effective:

Question 8: Has the Applicant adopted the manner and habits of CIVILISED LIFE? If so, for how long to your knowledge?

My answer:

We have lived a civilised life for over 60,000 years on a land with advanced fire-stick farming, traditional knowledge, no ocean plastic floating islands, abundance of foods without plastic wrappings, foot energy, no fuel pollution, seasonal harvesting on land without heavy fertilisers to poison rivers.

In leaving Mullewa, Green escapes the “slavery system” of menial labour her mother is trapped in, with wages paid to the government to fund “Aboriginal welfare”:

Our mothers the tea tray girls

serving cakes, tea and coffee

white uniform in white spaces

station house or town tearooms

but not their space to domesticate

Domestics were slaves (Tea Leaves Stains)

She also finds powerful tools of resistance, such as the glasses (gurugilaaji) that “made me see and recognise the hardness/life for Yamaji, family and mob right around Australia/unfair treatment handed out by a colonial cruelty”. Writing (walgajunmanha) too is a form of resistance: “We write about our connection to country / and that challenges theirs” (Walgajunmanha all time).

My favourite poems are an exquisite trilogy about the rituals where culture is passed on. In Wanggamanha: Talking: Listening: Nganggurnmanha people come together wanggajimanha (“all talking together”):

In this cover darkness cover the

storytellers would emerge

we would scream, cry,

laugh, reflect, be silenced

fight for storytelling rights.

Dust at Dusk brings to life “a woman’s daily dance”, the ritual of sweeping the yard with a bush broom in the evening, “ground sweeping for a healthy mind… spiritual resisting town life”. Finally in Bushbroom, entirely in Wajarri, we are given the words for women, broom, sweeping, evening, dust, repeated over and over like a mantra until it thrums through the ground.

These are poems that speak directly and urgently, that tell you everything you need to know. For those who enjoy learning something of the concepts encoded in other languages, this collection is a gift. I particularly enjoyed Wajarri verbs like ngardunggayimanha, “getting dark night-time”, murdiyimanha, “becoming cold winter”, concepts for which English lacks single words. Green makes the most of the interplay between Wajarri and English, as in Journey Beginning things, which starts:

Suitcase red girl teenager together

New space time moving thataway

Farewell waving family people mindset

Later the same scene is transformed into Wajarri:

Biliyarra thaga

Warlgura

Gagurlimanha

Biliyarra thaga

Before finally be re-transformed into English again:

The teenage girl

leaving on her own

with her red coolamon

These are poems about leaving, but not leaving behind. Wherever Green goes, her mother, her people and her culture are with her:

On a flight to Abu Dhabi, I watched the longest sunset I have ever seen in my life – like you, it lasted forever.

Gay rating: not gay

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