Review: We Come With This Place by Debra Dank

Kujiga, goodalu, mankujba — this book opens with these Gudanji words. Kujiga and goodalu are related to the European idea of soul, Debra Dank shows, but indelibly bound to place; at a beach away from her country Dank writes that the sand feels “discordant with the rhythm of my goodalu and of my kujiga”. Mankujba is the “way of knowing, listening, seeing, thinking, believing and feeling” country, and in We Come With This Place Dank recounts some of the history of her family and country while demonstrating what it means to know, listen, see, think, believe and feel the land.

We Come With This Place, Dank has explained, grew out of her PhD on “the ways narrative exists in Gudanji community beyond vocabulary”. She describes how she didn’t want chapters “because that is not how these stories work”. So instead this is a constellation of stories, skipping from past to present, sometimes interlinked, sometimes on their own, but always adding to the picture. It is partly lived, partly reimagined; partly historical, but unconfined to any one time; it is never one thing. She begins with “a beginning”; a story, or parts of it, of the three water-women who came out of the ocean and created Gudanji country, the gravel and dust country, part of the south-west Gulf Of Carpentaria where the flat coastal land rises into the Barkly Tableland.

She recounts her childhood moving around to different cattle stations with her father Soda who worked as a bore worker. She tells some of Soda’s traumatic upbringing, born “under the act” at one of the stations, where his mother was victim to unspeakable crimes and he was perpetually at risk of being taken into “protection”. She goes further back to her grandmother fleeing her country in advance of white men on horses, when wells and flour were poisoned (although not so far back as may seem; later Dank’s daughter describes this “big massacre” in the 1920s). “The fear was not the immediate ending of their life,” Dank writes of the leader Bungmaji, “rather, it was the possible end of his yet-to-come family and to their future”.

Throughout Dank returns to the present introducing her kids and grandkids to country, passing down the same lessons she received from her parents. There’s a warm repetition in the warning Dank’s mother gives her about playing with fire at the campsite; the same lesson she later passes to her granddaughter. Another two stories describe Dank’s son Jabanbi’s instincts for living on country, catching and cooking a snack of fish when he was hungry at five years old, and later repeating the same trick in front of bewildered non-Aboriginal companions when he’s older.

The Gudanji’s first movement off country is echoed in Soda’s as he flees the station he grew up on for Wakaja country across the border in Queensland where he meets Dank’s mother. As the Gudanji leave:

the dust tried to cling to the moving heels but slid back onto the stones and dirt, into the soft indentations left by the hurrying feet. Prints faded to almost nothing and the slight morning breeze moved the dust to hide the tracks.

Dank explains understanding country through sound and quiet. When the white people arrive, it is their noise, the alien pounding of metal horse shoes on rock, that disturbs first:

it would invade the ears of those near enough to hear and stay there safe within the body of its carrier like a small insistent parasite, living covertly, protected. It would be difficult to ever cut the terror out and it would continue in the bodies of those who came after.

Camping around the fire with her parents, Dank describes how “through the strange new noises that didn’t have a story here, we heard the quietness of the old stories drawing near”. In her writing Dank conjures not just country but the way families, animals, spirits, wind and dust move through it. It’s already changed the way I look and listen to the land around me.

Gay rating: not gay.


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