Monday, 12 March 2012

Mamang

We emerged from the house of sickness just as the region's festival fever was subsiding, having missed two weeks of culture as the local arm of the Perth International Arts Festival this year coincided with the launch of Write in the Great Southern. Most of the performances, readings and writing workshops were off limits to a mother with three little ones in tow, but I did take my eldest boy to listen to some Noongar storytelling before he took to his bed for the week.


Lewis has been immersed in Noongar culture from an early age - as much as it is possible for a white, middle-class boy from the city to be. More than half the kids at his pre-school were from Aboriginal backgrounds and Lewis would slip into the playground vernacular as soon as he walked through the gate. "'Ee ma brudda," he would say to a classmate when showing him the family tree he had drawn. His speech was peppered with Noongar words - things weren't just 'cool', they were 'daardi' - and took on strange grammatical twists and turns, the odd sentence rounded of with "unna?"

He started to talk like himself again as soon as we moved, then started mimicking the speech patterns of someone else in his class. The irony was that, in this whitest of middle class towns, Lewis was now learning Noongar as a second language at school. Taught this time not by his peers, but by a white, English speaking teacher who incorporated different Noongar words into songs, stories and school activities.

 
It was incredibly moving then, to hear the language spoken and stories shared by their traditional owners as part of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project. Dual Miles Franklin literary award winner, Noongar writer Kim Scott, who considers the project his most important work, was on hand to help project the pictures on to the screen. But he took a back seat to his countrymen and women, with whom he has worked for nine years reclaiming the stories of their elders after they were uncovered in the notes of an American linguist who visited these shores in 1931.

 Mamang, the story of a Noongar man who dives inside the blowhole of a whale, was the first of the stories to be shared, first in Noongar, then in English. Lewis sat quietly amongst the Noongar families and town literati and listened to the story through to its end before turning to me and whispering: "That was a great story!" We bought a copy to bring home and share with his brothers.


We are a house without religion, but I realised I needed to provide some balance to the Noongar rainbow serpent creation myth when Lewis asked how the first living creature had been made, reassuring me "I know how the land and the sea was made - that was the Wagarl." We brought home an illustrated edition of the Jesus Storybook Bible from the op-shop, and the children dived head first into the stories. Their favourite was Jonah and the Whale.

 

It is a great story, in any language.

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