Books

Charmaine Papertalk Green
Nganajungu Yagu

In this collection, which stands as an ode to the matriarchy and reinvigorates the art of letter-writing, poet Charmaine Papertalk Green imprints her multilingualism into the Australian consciousness through a trail of correspondence between herself and her mother. Nganajungu Yagu acknowledges the horrors of Australia’s colonial past while staying true to the spirit of the Aboriginal women who have carried the weight of this nation on their shoulders. Papertalk Green explains early on, “I always look back because my Ancestors lived back there”, and this theme remains consistent throughout.

Papertalk Green is adamant that the correspondence she details “are not just letters”. In “Paperbark”, she writes, “Paperbark bundle / wrapped stories / handed down / ceremony of time”. It’s not the specific message of her mother’s letters that is important to Papertalk Green, but rather the underlying meaning: the love, the maternal connection, a mother’s sacrifice. In “Letter on 6 April 1978”, the Badimaya word gulydyirrabaya (“getting hungry”) is repeated – only it’s not food that Papertalk Green seems to crave, but cultural connection and a hunger for knowledge. As she writes in “I Understand I Know”, what she understands about herself – culture, connection and ceremony – does not match what she knows of the world: discrimination, genocide and grief.

Her hunger for knowledge is poured into poems such as “Tea Leaves Stains” – “You know slavery / Poured through generation eyes”. In “Cultural Genocide”, questions from the 1944 West Australian Natives (Citizen Rights) Regulation Form are given hard-hitting responses: “I am not sure what white standards are, but our women have cleaned your homes … Our people made sure you could survive on our land.”

Nganajungu Yagu comes full circle with “We Can, We Do, We Will!”, a poem where Papertalk Green celebrates the strong Aboriginal women she has known, including her mother, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Faith Bandler: “Long line women many energies”.

Throughout Nganajungu Yagu, Papertalk Green uses the language of her ancestors to tell her mother’s story and to piece together and drive her own narrative. Letters, poems and archival material come together to create a culturally informed, generous collection.

Raelee Lancaster

Cordite, 86pp, $20

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Charmaine Papertalk Green, Nganajungu Yagu". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Raelee Lancaster