September 01, 2014

Bunjee. We gotta go now.

Wide-eyed and well-educated. That was me, supposedly.

That was me when I first camped in an Aboriginal community. I was there to learn about “the other”. Except now, I was “the other”. If the community was a billabong that never dried up, I was a fisherman. Transient. Sitting on the bank, optimistically dangling a line, seeking a gift, a prize, some sustenance.

But on this day – the day I got my simplest and most effective Kriol lesson ever, I wasn’t a lone fisherman. Me, and - “them” - were an awkward “us”. A handful of people lining a creek, at 100 foot intervals, semi-hidden from each other, each in our own quiet space and solitude. Optimistically dangling that line.

Except my line was tangled and taut with my own anxiety. I was the outsider, observing “the other” yet being “the other”. How do I act here? How do I speak to these people? How are they gonna accept me? How do we interact? Can I keep my feet on the ground, outta my mouth?

I kept fishing, kept that line in the water, kept my fears tightly wound round the cheap plastic handreel inside my own self-consciousness. I waited for a bite.

The sun sank. There we were. A handful of people and a watercourse, whose relationships were bound by a history older anything I’d ever encountered before.

My fears, I discovered, were unfounded. I found them willing to fold me into their world, ever so slowly. Fold me in like an origami artist making deliberate creases on expensive paper. The sun sank and it was time for a Kriol lesson.

The instruction. ‘Yu jingat yu banji jeya’ – call out to your newly-adopted brother-in-law over there.

And no further meta-discussion, just a demonstration: ‘BANJI! WI GARRA GU NA!’
‘Bunjee. We gotta go now.
‘Nomo lagijat’. – not like that. ‘BANJI!’, yu la…
‘BANJI!’
‘WI GARRA GU NA!’
‘WI GARRA GU NA!’
And that was my lesson. It wasn’t hard. It wasn’t long. It wasn’t grammar or vocab. It was intonation. Prosody. And what us linguists call pragmatics. It was an essential lesson. A basic lesson: how to speak to someone who is far away.

In my culture, I was shouting. A sign of anger, distress. In their culture, it was purely pragmatic. Greater distance = greater volume.

This was a lesson absorbed very easily, and very permanently. Catch of the day on my day of fishing.

But that lesson was 10 years ago. And that riverbank is far away in space and time. Traded in for town. K-Town. Woolies. Commerce, business, retail. Small talk, pleasantries, acquaintances. Dinner parties and the detritus of Facebook gossip. And what they like to call ‘antisocial behaviour’. The us and them that fosters and festers when shared experiences aren’t experienced.

Why can’t they behave? Why are they so noisy? Why can’t they be more like us? Why can’t they keep their voices down? Keep their voice down. They They They. Why Why Why.

The ‘they’ of ‘our’ rhetoric, of our pronominal problem… ‘they’ are just fishermen and fisherwomen. Disrupted by the sinking sun. Needing to move to escape the impending darkness, but no longer sure where to go.


[The above is something I wrote for a little Open Mic Night we had in Katherine last weekend. The occasion was a visit by the brilliant Omar Musa who was travelling around launching his first novel 'Here Comes The Dogs' (spectacular website, btw). 

I decided to try my hand at some writing that's more creative than my usual blogging and thesis writing. Oh, and then stand up in front of 40 or so people and say/perform it. Definitely a first for me, but I enjoyed the exercise.]