Singing the Coast – by Margaret Somerville and Tony Perkins

Risky business, writing from the space between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal voices and identities. But what I found when browsing the local library was a total find, one of those op-shop gems, a treasure much loved, freshly shelved. And I hear a voice say ‘risk exists only in relation to reward’.

Recently published, Singing the Coast flows between oral stories and written text, unfolding the research undertaken over ten years by Margaret Somerville interviewing and spending time with many Gumbaynggirr people (northern NSW, around what is known on the printed map as Coffs Harbour). She collaborated with Tony Perkins to record his substantial body of cultural knowledge as a Garby elder. Stories of creation and rebirth, massacre, crying songs and landscape as language are told and retold, sometimes opening into faceted and fractal visions, and sometimes emptying into the unknowable histories of dispossession and lost opportunity. Or into what won’t be spoken.

The Introduction says “While Tony can read and write, he has never wanted to become a writer  or reader of written words, so in seeking feedback on what she’d heard in conversations she read his words back to him and recorded his responses. Still the English language had to be bent to hold traces of the Gumbaynggirr meaning.”

Margaret writes “For Tony it was a process of continuing his grandfather’s work of cultural translation, of working out how best to pass on the knowledge of this coastal country in a rapidly changing world.

I spent so much time with my grandfather and grandmother, and I think what I’m trying to do is to carry that role, and times are changing so fast, and we have to speak out now. A long time ago, we keep it all in our heads and we pass something on that way. Now, where better off research in everything, recording every, getting it all down. I know this is a new way of doing, putting it down on the tapes or  the video, and keeping it like that.

It is very sad that we can’t wait around for the right person to pass things on.  It’s been a hard decision to make because our Old People couldn’t see what we are doing today – the video camera and computers. They wouldn’t know we had to make up our minds to go that way. (Tony Perkins)

Margaret Somerville is author with Tony Perkins, of Singing the Coast (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010) – described by Deborah Bird Rose as “one of the most beautiful and important books to enter our world in recent time”.