Wednesday 22 April, 2009
Katherine is 300 km south of Darwin. There can be severe floods there in February/March - in 1998 and 2006 there was great devastation - and the folks at the NT Writers Centre sent me cheery emails along the lines of only once having had to helicopter an author out. But, while there was much talk of rain, and recently flooded roads, the town felt hot, bleak, and dry. Katherine is famous for the gorge which is, indeed, an extraordinary place. Now known by the aboriginal name Nitmiluk, it winds 12 km and its walls are more than 70m high. The gorges (there are 13 of them) were formed 23 million years ago, a fact it is a struggle to comprehend. The effect of spending time there is to fall silent - it's a profound landscape. Those of you who have seen the Australian film Jedda (made in 1955 and the first Australian film with Aboriginal stars) will recognise the ridge below as the location of the film's final scene.
To see the gorge in the wet season you need to do a cruise - swimming and kayaking can lead to being munched - and you do that through the Nitmiluk National Park which is run by the Jawoyn people. When I visited twenty years ago the cruise had been run by white locals and had been all about croc watching. This time round our Jawoyn guide was much more interested in explaining the history of the place. The freshwater crocs (smaller, less dangerous) were given wide berth so that we didn't disturb them.
That bit of travelogue is, in a way, beside the point. I was there not as a tourist but to run a workshop and to give a speech at the International Women's Day afternoon tea (I'd been listed on posters as a 'performer' which I found alarming). They sure can cook up that way, and the baking was exceptional - but the speeches were better again, with the first speaker talking about the history of women's rights and the importance of contraception to women's liberation. It was old school, unironic, and spot on. I spoke after the town's mayor, an impressive woman called Anne Shepherd. I can sometimes be an awkward public speaker but I had no trouble at all talking to this group of women about the importance of women tellling their own stories. And the stories of the women I met were extraordinary. I had my longest conversation with Toni Tapp Coutts a woman who'd grown up on a large station in the area and, so she told me, not heard of The Beatles until 1972. To make up for her slow start in pop culture she'd gone to embrace it with some enthusiasm, and was, the day I met her, dressed in lame in honour of the Sydney Mardi Gras, which had been held the day before.
Toni was one of five people I ran a workshop for the next evening. The group were very tight and have been editing and workshopping each other's work for some time. Erotica, travel, crime - these writers were willing to give anything a shot - but the emphasis was on autobiographical writing because these writers realized - correctly - that they had gleaned experiences from living in such a remote community (though only Toni had been born in the area) that were striking.
No indigenous people joined the workshop and in general I got the sense that the black and white communities lived their lives separately. While all the whites I met were respectful of the indigenous people there was also an awkward sense of competition. That is, the white people I met felt very connected to the landscape but felt that their connections to the place were lost amid focus on indigenous connection to the land, and land rights. There was a lot of talk about white people's right to assert a relationship to the land. While people like Toni were aware they had got that sense of connection, in part, by growing up among indigenous people who told the land's story there was enough friction (well that was my perception) to mean that there was to be no sharing of black/white stories at a writing workshop. The situation was totally different down at Tennant Creek, where I taught a couple of days later: there indigenous women travelled 300 kms to attend a workshop of 15 or so people. More on which, another day.