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

Friday 23 November 2018

Guest Post: Sue Lawson on Nganga: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Words and Phrase

Award-winning children’s book author Sue Lawson has co-authored Nganga: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Words and Phrases with Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir, Elder of the Boonwurrong and Wemba Wemba Clan. 

Sue’s highly successful Freedom Ride revealed her knowledge and understanding of the Aboriginal people and their way of life. She furthers that knowledge with this exemplary publication, of which we will hear more about as Sue speaks to Anastasia Gonis.


Sue Lawson, you are the co-author of Nganga: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Words and Phrases. Nganga (ng gar na): to see and understand. Can you share with us the genesis of this children’s book, its significance, and how you were chosen to co-author?
Nganga, like so many books, started as a conversation. After I wrote Freedom Ride (my young adult novel) my publisher, Maryann Ballantyne, and I were talking about Australian's fear of asking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about their culture, for fear of being disrespectful. From there we developed the idea with Aunty Fay, of producing a book that answered many of these questions in a respectful and genuine way.

Aunty Fay, Maryann and I, who I call the Nganga team, believe that through knowledge, we develop understanding. Perhaps Nganga, along with other fabulous resources, will become a tool that helps our nation move towards a better understanding of our incredible Indigenous cultures. 

We see Nganga as a work in progress. Already we have a list of words and phrases to add to our collection and more notes to add to our existing list. 

Nganga is written in accessible language for ages 10 and upward. But it is not only a book for children. It is highly informative, educational and gives an overview of the language and its historical origins. Why in your opinion, was it graded for children?
Thank you. It's fabulous to hear you see it as being informative and educational as well as an overview. That's exactly what we were hoping for.

Aunty Fay and I both have a background in education - Aunty Fay with early learning children and me as a primary teacher - so it seemed the perfect fit to aim this book at school children. We also believe that so far, Australia has failed to face and resolve so many complex issues surrounding our First Nation people. Our hope is that the new generation will do a far better job than previous generations. 

Both our dedications in Nganga reflect this hope.

This is an unusual and historically valuable book aimed at widely educating non-indigenous people and bringing to light and knowledge the language, culture and customs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. What do you hope the outcomes of these teachings will be?
I'm a firm believer in knowledge leading to understanding, so my hope for this book is it will spark a thirst in readers to seek out sources to teach them about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture and people. While more non-indigenous people than before have respect for, and know about our First Nation people's history, culture and people, many more, still know little.

Reclaiming the ‘sleeping’ languages and guaranteeing their safe-keeping for current and future generations through language and literacy was one of the goals. How were the words and phrases researched and resourced for Nganga?
First, Aunty Fay and I nutted out exactly what we wanted to achieve with this book. We decided we wanted to create a book which would be accurate, easy to understand and respectful. Ambitious, but we wanted to create a book that would be in every classroom so words could immediately be explored, thus teaching students the meanings. Once we had that sorted, we created a list of commonly used and commonly confused words and terms. We went away and researched them, then came back to put them together. There was much adding and subtracting! Luckily for me, Aunty Fay is the most generous and patient woman. She coped with all my questions, misunderstandings and bad pronunciation.
Once we were happy, we then turned to others for help to make sure we had the best and most accurate explanations.

Our greatest challenges were and continue to be, that First Nation languages are oral, so there is no written record of meanings and spellings, and that is complicated by the fact there are over 600 different languages across Australia alone.

The impressive layout of Nganga is easy to understand. The language is well-defined and concise, with insight into a lot of history and information. What do you hope readers will gain from this publication?
My dream is that these words and phrases will become second nature to our children, and that Nganga will give them the courage to ask questions and learn more. 

Nganga is the beginning of knowledge and education for non-Indigenous people, who can now through this book, ‘see and understand’ the culture, customs, language and spirituality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people. Have you plans for further books of this kind, as this is only a scratch in the earth in comparison to what remains? If so, can you share any future plans for expanding this project of learning and teaching?
As I mentioned earlier, we are both collecting new additions and extra bits for the current entries for when Nganga is reprinted. Our dream is for this book to remain in print for a very long time. We are also talking at conferences, encouraging participants to learn more and ask questions of Aunty Fay. As we keep saying, knowledge brings understanding, and understanding brings change.

Can you share with us what work you presently have underway or are planning?
Aunty Fay and I are working on a number of projects, both fiction and non-fiction. All deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander topics. I think we have five in the works…maybe six. I’ve lost count. Our brains are in overdrive! 

I’m hoping through our partnership we will be able to help highlight the incredibly rich and complex Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture to all people.