'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Saturday 21 August 2010

Interview: Author Christobel Mattingley

Maralinga: the Anangu Story is an Honour Book in this year's CBCA Book of the Year

What do you know about Maralinga? And what do your children know about it?

Whether you’re eight or eighty, if you’re not a native Australian, you probably don’t know a whole lot. You may recall it was something highly controversial. You may know it had something to do with atomic bombs and the terrible carnage left in their wake. What many of us don’t know is that the effects of Maralinga, some 50 years later, continue to wreck devastating havoc on the lives and land of the people of the Maralinga region – and beyond.

In Maralinga: The Anangu Story author Christobel Mattingley brings to light the story of Maralinga – its horrors and injustice and continued desolation. The book, released by Allen & Unwin in April this year, was written for children and is a collaboration between Mattingley and the Yalata and Oak Valley aboriginal communities of far west South Australia.

Mattingley is a long time advocate of the Aboriginal people of Australia, and has spent her life with a vested interest in their welfare. It was an enormous thrill to speak with her recently on the drive behind her latest book.

“Since I was a child, I have always been interested in the Aboriginal people,” said Mattingley. “I have always had a very strong sense about people in the landscape, and when my family moved near the Hawksbury River, there were a lot of caves and aboriginal rock art that caught my imagination. As a child, I used to spend all my pocket money on books about aboriginal culture.”

One of Australia’s most respected and admired writers, Mattingley carried her passion for Australia’s first inhabitants into her work as a writer. She has written over thirty books in several genres including children’s picture books, and her compassion and commitment to social justice is legendary.

The author’s groundbreaking book – Survival in Our Own Land: ‘Aboriginal’ experiences in ‘South Australia’ since 1836 (Wakefield Press, 1988) – covers the lives of Aboriginal people in South Australia from the arrival of European settlers to the 1980s. The book features extraordinary stories of survival and pain by one hundred and fifty Nunga people, as well as an extensive range of photographs, providing graphic insight into the history of a people that is so often ignored.

Asked how Mattingley became involved with the people who contributed to Survival in Our Own Land, she admits the story goes back a long way.

“I did some tours on the west coast back in the 1970s and I liked going to remote areas. I went to the school at Yalata and to Coorabie, which had only a handful of kids back then. In the late 70s, I was asked by these people to write about their stories for their sesquicentenary [150 years] of European settlement. Of course, they had nothing to celebrate so they wanted to tell their story.”

At the time, Mattingley had been completing an Aboriginal Studies course at the South Australian College of Advanced Education, one of the very first courses on Aboriginal studies in Australia. She had also began travelling extensively all over Australia with the Arts Council, so many Aboriginal communities began to know and place increasing trust in her. The people she met and the stories she heard were so moving, she knew she had to write about them.

“I was writing Survival in our Own Land during the royal commission into the nuclear testing in South Australia and although the results hadn’t yet been published, I was given access to the transcripts of the Aboriginal evidence. That was how I came to write the chapter on Maralinga in Survival in Our Own Land,” said Mattingley.

“After Maralinga, local Aboriginal people were relocated from a major permanent water resource – Ooldea – a source that had been grossly depleted by the East West railway line. Ooldea had served the Aboriginal people for 60,000 years and its depletion occurred with in 10 years.”

Increasingly distressed and angry at some of the things she had heard during her time with South Australian aborigines, Mattingley dedicated many years of her life to discovering the truth through Australia’s most direct source – the voice of the Aboriginal people themselves. During her projects, Mattingley says it’s taken many years to gain the trust of Australia’s indigenous communities.

“I’m trusted pretty widely now, I think. The people came to see they could trust me with their stories.”

Since that time, Mattingley has written extensively on both Aboriginal issues and beyond… her stories have travelled the world from Nagasaki to Sarajevo, many on them touching on the human condition and the social injustice suffered by so many.

With Maralinga: the Anangu Story, Mattingley hopes to bring increased awareness on this horrific time in Australian history by speaking to our country’s future consciousness – our children.

“I hope [the book] brings into recognition the terrible injustices against these people. The Maralinga land is a poison chalice and they are still suffering. The land is heavily contaminated and the health of the Aboriginal people both in and around Maralinga is still very badly affected.”
“Until people understand the deep spiritual relationship that Aboriginal people have with their land, we can never understand the pain and the suffering that our occupation of this land has caused.”

The British nuclear tests at Maralinga took place between 1955 and 1963 at the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands in South Australia, just over 1000km northwest of Adelaide. Seven major nuclear tests were performed and the site was also used for hundreds of minor trials in an effort to investigate the effects of non-nuclear explosions on atomic weapons.

The site was horribly contaminated with radioactive materials, and several cleanups (the latest in 2000 at a cost of $108 million) have failed to give assurance that the area is clean. In fact, debate still continues today over the safety of the site and the long-term health on traditional owners of this land.

Whatever the case, the psychological, spiritual and terrible health effects on the area’s Aboriginal people have been so great, cancer has been genetically inflicted in some communities, according to Mattingley.

“The people of Maralinga suffered horrific cancer deaths and continue to be genetically stricken, with appalling cancers found in unusual places on the body. Children born today continue to be stricken with terrible deformities.”

Mattingley felt so impassioned by the plight of the people devastated by Maralinga, she knew she needed to add Maralinga: The Anangu Story to her impressive collection of children’s books. The author believes it is of enormous value to teach all Australian children both the historical and dreamtime tales of the Aboriginal people.

“I think it’s incredibly important because until people understand the deep spiritual relationship that Aboriginal people have with their land, we can never understand the pain and the suffering that our occupation of this land has caused. It’s the root of so many sicknesses and dysfunction in these people – both individuals and communities,” she said.

“When I went to Yalata last year to share how the book was progressing, I began talking about the part involving the forced upheaval and removal of their people. When the subject arose, they broke into wailing. Some of them were second generation anangu of Yalata, and this event was not part of their first hand experience, so the grief is still very much there.”

And this is their grief-stricken but hopeful story – as told by anangu, a word which essentially means ‘us’.

“Anangu is not an Australia-wide term, but is used by the Pinjarra speaking people of the west desert of South Australia,” said Mattingley.

The resulting compilation of Maralinga: The Anangu Story is a picture book rich with stunning, traditional paintings, photographs and stories from the mouths of the local people, lovingly formed into a book overseen by this experienced and insightful author. It is essentially a visual and emotional feast that will educate and enlighten both children and adults alike.

Its chapters include compelling information under such headings as ‘Bush Tucker’, ‘The Railway Comes’, ‘End of Ooldea Mission’, ‘Expelled’, ‘Fallout’, Clean-up, and ‘Homesick’ – intensely touching topics that are eye-opening and very poignant to read. Indeed, the entire book was a highly emotional journey for its storytellers, according to Mattingley – from a people who really need to be heard.

“My hope is that the young people of Maralinga will find a way forward out of the despair grief and dysfunction and will find ways of coming back and serving their communities. I hope it helps make them strong in spirit and in health,” said Mattingley, whose deep compassion and commitment to these people extends beyond her written works so much, it is even apparent in the tone of her voice.

“We non-Aboriginal Australians can learn so much from the Aboriginal people,” she said. And Maralinga: The Anangu Story is a great place to start.

Maralinga: The Anangu Story by the Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, is published by Allen & Unwin and is available now at book retailers for AU$35.00 (recommended retail price). This book is an extraordinary illustrated history for children told from the indigenous perspective and created through a series of workshops, extensive research and community consultation.

This interview was first published on Australian Women Online.