Mark Heyward: Launched Turn Left at the Devil Tree, and Tammy Damulkurra
Lombok, 11th January 2013
Derek’s books, Turn Left at the Devil Tree, and Tammy Damulkurra, are Australian stories. But they are about a part of Australia that is foreign to most Australians.
Australia is a big country. You can fit all of Europe in there – probably two times over. But nearly everyone lives in the cities in the south-east corner where the land is green and fertile. Most of Australia is not like this at all. It is a dry and dusty desert; scrubby land and remote settlements. We fly over it on our way to Lombok. And in the far north of Australia – the Top End – where Derek’s story is set, the country is different again. Here is how he describes it:
“Arnhem Land covers all the land east of the East Alligator River and north of the Wilton and Roper Rivers. That’s about 80,000 square kilometers of coastal floodplains, near impenetrable sandstone escarpment country known as the ‘Stone Country’, endless forests of stringybark, woollybutt and ironbark trees, mangrove swamps, flood plains and wetlands. It’s an area which is home to a dozen or more Aboriginal tribes, as it has been for millennia.”
I grew up in the south – about as far south as you can go. Tasmania is an island state, a comfortable place with small towns populated by old settler families. A long way away from the troubles of the world. I grew up wondering about the ‘mainland’ as we Tasmanians call the big island to the north. I wondered especially about what we called the ‘outback’ and the Top End, the remote north of Australia. I wondered about the environment and the people who lived there. The bushmen who pioneered the country – and the native Aboriginal people who had been there for ever.
When I was a beginning teacher I thought about going to the Northern Territory. The Government was advertising for teachers to work in remote Aboriginal communities in the Top End of Australia. It seemed like another country, another world. And in many ways it is. But by the time I had finished my teaching degree I was already married and starting a family. My adventure to another country would have to wait.
Derek did what I dreamed of. His book, Turn Left at the Devil Tree, is the story of a young teacher who went to work in remote northern Australia. Derek had some experience of the place before he started teaching. He had worked for a time in the Kakadu National Park. But when he arrived in Maningrida, a big bloke with a silly grin and a little cross-poodle called Turkey yapping at his heels, his new colleagues must have thought ‘What the bloody hell have they sent us this time!’
Derek soon settled in. Turkey become very popular. And within a year or so, Derek became a ‘visiting teacher’, camping out in the remote outstations during the week and returning home on weekends. I’m not sure if this was because he had proved himself to be a competent teacher and an independent person – or because his colleagues couldn’t wait to get rid of him! Either way, he was obviously in his element. When he asked for directions, he was told ‘Turn left at the Devil-Devil Tree’. And in the end he spent twenty years living in remote parts of the Northern Territory. Derek was welcomed into the Aboriginal communities that lived in the outstations and, although he admits to being a failure at learning their languages, before long he was given a ‘skin name’. This meant that wherever he went in the bush, people would know who he was and how to treat him. One of the girls Derek taught was called Sabrina. Sabrina referred to Derek as ‘my Big Son’ as a result of his skin name and their tribal ‘family relationship’.
Now I’m probably a sucker for this kind of thing, but I had tears in my eyes as I read Derek’s story about the class of teenage Aboriginal girls he taught, and how he worked with them to write a novel.
‘Suddenly I was the teacher for a group of 15 opinionated, strong, beautiful young women,’ Derek writes. ‘They were undoubtedly the most highly literate group of girls the community had ever seen. They were the crème de la crème. At least that’s what I told them and their egos blossomed.... Very soon, Sabrina... and a couple of other girls came and saw me.
“We don’t want to be Eagle Class any more, my Big Son, we want to be The Sunshine Girls,” she said.
The book Derek wrote with The Sunshine Girls was called Tammy Damulkurra. It was first published about twenty years ago. No one had done what Derek and the Sunshine Girls did. Tammy Damulkurra is the first novel written about Aboriginal kids and their world, by Aboriginal kids. It is a great book for teenagers. It has all the right elements: the tensions of growing up, teenage love, betrayal, and ultimately salvation and the chance of a better life. But what makes it special is that it is set in the Aboriginal community of Maningrida. I reckon it’s hard to overstate just how important it is for kids to have stories to read that they can relate to. Their stories. The book was described as a ‘landmark in Australian literature’. It quickly sold out and became a standard in school libraries across the Northern Territory. Now it is being re-released and today we are launching this new edition.
In Turn Left at the Devil Tree, Derek writes about the country, the culture, the art and the music of the people he lived with. He tells stories of secret 20,000 year old rock art galleries and of modern Aboriginal art, pieces of which sell for many thousands of dollars and hang in national and international galleries around the world. (One such piece apparently includes a patch in the corner painted by Derek and his class of primary school kids).
And he tells us the history of European involvement over the last couple of hundred years. I was intereseted to learn that Australians of European descent are called ‘Balanda’ by the Aboriginals. This is the same term used in Indonesia for Westerners. When they don’t call us ‘bule’ (otherwise used to refer to an albino buffalo), they usually call us ‘Belandar’ (or sometimes Londo in Javanese). Terms which come presumably from the Dutch ‘Netherlandar’.
The history of white settlement that Derek tells is not a happy one. It is not a happy story for the settlers (whose attempts to establish ranches, missions and businesses failed one after an another) or for the native people (who were the victims of massacres and mistreatment on a grand scale).
But while Derek’s book paints a wonderful picture of Aboriginal culture and the people he lived with, he doesn’t romanticise the place or the people, or politicize race relations. This is an unforgiving country. The people are poor. It may be ‘a land of plenty’, as he says, and people do live well off the land, eating fresh fish, crabs, wallaby, and magpie geese along with bush apples, plums, fruit bats, mud mussels, mangrove worms, tiger prawns, goannas, and the occasional snake, dugong or crocodile. But, even though they have all this good stuff to eat, the Aboriginal people he worked with are very poor by western standards, and, in many ways, they are caught between two cultures. Caught between a 20,000 year old history and a period of perhaps fifty years in which they are learning to live with the Balanda.
The first bush schools Derek established had no walls (just a tarpaulon on the ground) or, sometimes, a tin roof, a couple of picnic tables and a cupboard to lock away the school supplies. He writes about the challenges of teaching a class while a threesome of wild pigs fornicates in the playground, or while mangy dogs roam through the class at will. There were other distractions too. Sometimes, the assistant teacher forgot to cover her ample breasts after feeding her baby in the classroom, and on one occasion one of the student’s had his baby brother with him at school. This was fine until the baby crapped all over his exercise book in the middle of the lesson. But these stories are told with such humour, and with such a fondness for the people and the place, that they don’t sound belittling or demeaning at all.
Over the last few years Derek and I have had many conversations over many beers about writing. As a result, we have formed The Lombok Writers’ Guild. Initially it was a bit of a joke. But it is becoming something more serious. A few months ago, Derek launched my book, Crazy Little Heaven, here in Lombok. In his speech he reminded us of something the actor David Niven, wrote in the introduction to his autobiography, The Moon is a Balloon. David Niven began by saying that there is little more egotistical than writing a memoir.
Maybe. But I look at it like this. We humans only get a few years to live on this planet. And what is the purpose of this brief life? Different people will tell you different things. But I prefer what a mate of mine once said:
‘The purpose of life is to do a lot of great stuff, so that when you get old you can sit around on porches, and tell stories about all the great stuff you did when you were young.’
Maeve Binchey, in her foreword to Tim Bowden’s book, Spooling Through, asks a related question: ‘Who are the right people to do a memoir?’ she asks. And this is the answer she gives:
‘[The right people to do a memoir are] people who remember everything, see wonder and entertainment everywhere, and who take their work, but never themselves, seriously.’
Based on this assessment, Derek is just the right person to do a memoir. It’s not about being famous, or anyone special. It’s not about being egotistical or big-noting yourself. its about telling stories.
Everyone has a story to tell, and Derek’s book is packed full of great stories. He writes movingly about an ancient japi ceremony he attended, in which boys (the boys he was teaching) were initiated into their tribe, the old way. He tells of the wonderful characters, the friendships he made with both Balanda and Aboriginals, and the great kids, who may have been grubby, snotty, and no doubt confused like all kids, but were often keen students. He tells stories about nights under the stars, about bush tucker, about teaching, hunting, fishing, and journeys in the bush. He tells funny stories. He tells sad stories.
And best of all, Derek writes like he is telling you these stories over a beer at the bar, or sitting by a campfire on a beach, or perhaps talking to a group of kids in a classroom somewhere. Its a great book. A great yarn. A great read. Congratulations, Derek.
And with that I officially launch Derek’s two books: Turn Left at the Devil Tree, and the second edition of Tammy Dalulkurra.