Letters Home #4 "Interrelated"

Notes
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Letter #4 “Interrelated" 

On the night before I left Sydney I sat with my mum in her living room. My mood was depressed. Hers was a typical mix of ease and angst, comfortable in her own skin yet tortured by the fear that her children might be suffering. She asked me a question I’d been asking myself. What did I hope to get out of this trip? I said that for as long as I can remember I’ve been searching for the sound of my own voice. That I hoped to discover which of the contradictory stories I tell myself about who I am and what I’m doing is true. That it would save me a lot of time spent turning down paths for the sake of strangers who scrawl their directions on the inside of my head. At which point she seemed a little less at ease. But to her credit conducted no further investigation. Instead we simply sat together, in the silent wake of my confession.

Early in the piece there were times I’d wake from a restless sleep full of frightful dreams to a feeling of intolerable dread. Periods of hell that lasted several days. At first I suspected a delayed reaction to so rapidly adjusting my diet and climate. Then I suspected a virus or some other contagion. But neither diagnosis accounted adequately for what was not an unfamiliar feeling. In fact I knew it well, felt it for as long as I could remember and most acutely in my stomach. As the phantom pain of a severed cord that once nourished and nurtured me. Only this time it wasn’t food I was going without. It was nourishment of a kind sought by the soul. That voice beneath the surface we take for self. By now I’d run far enough to know that this time I’d do well to turn around and listen. So I did. And there I found a dreamer, holding a pen, longing to tell his story. I gathered him in my arms and carried him to a desk and chair. While his fingers tumbled sentences I made him cups of tea. And when he finished a page I read it back to him and listened for his suggestions. We sat together, the way we’re sitting now, grateful to have found a way to be heard.

And I’ve made progress on other fronts. I set up a new workshop space for high school kids who aren’t managing regular attendance, called it ‘Young Artists’. We meet Monday and Tuesday afternoons to hang out and paint whatever’s on hand. And there’s plenty on hand. I chose an area of the school formerly occupied by discarded building materials. Sheets of corrugated iron, concrete boards, pieces of timber and decommissioned wheelbarrows. There’s also a picnic table for those preferring to sip cold water and shoot the breeze. I seek out the kids who’ve taken to scribbling insolent tags on walls and doors. I say to them, "Practice here as much as you want, because honestly, the way you write 'Fuck You’ is pretty amateurish.” They laugh. We both know I’m not going to solve the graffiti problem, but at the very least I’m hoping to improve the graffiti standard. And deeper than that, I’m hoping to provide a space for these kids to play out the tension between the kind of individualism they see on the internet, and the kind of interrelatedness they’ve inherited.

Since my official adoption by a Yolngu family I’ve caught a glimpse of that interrelatedness. Before I describe it let me just say, I am by no means an expert in Yolngu kinship. My only hope for this incomplete account is to communicate something of its staggering sublimity.

"Ngarraku gnama dhuwal R—.” 
“My adopted mother is R—.” 

Strange as it may seem, that simple phrase connects me to a living system of information so complex that comparing it to the whole of the internet is an oversimplification. When I tell it to someone that person knows immediately by what familial title I’m to be called. Examples include Wawa, which means uncle; Mukul, which means aunty; Yapa, which means sister and Wakū (pronounced wa-ko), which as it turns out, means son. Confused? I was too. But then I learned about an important aspect of the system. That is, upon adoption I was assigned one of eight possible skin names. You can think of a skin name like a tribal affiliation. But children are not born into the same tribe as their parents. Instead they’re assigned a skin name on a rotating basis. And marriages are predestined by lore and custom to take place between particular tribes. So assuming I were to marry according to lore and custom, its effectively possible to know the set of people who would make up my kin and in-laws. Hence there are people in my network that call me Bapi, which means father. Again, its worth emphasising that we don’t really have English words for the kind of kin relationships that exist in Yolngu culture. But for the purposes of this account I’m going to talk about the relationship between Gnama and Wakū using the English words mother and son. As in Western culture, mother and son interact in a customary way. Son is nurtured by mother, who in turn fulfils an obligation to guide and instruct. That includes passing on specific knowledge that son needs to know. And the way that knowledge is passed on is through song, story, dance and ritual. In Yolngu culture as in Western culture, there are songs that mothers traditionally sing to their sons. However, where things differ is that in Yolngu culture the songs that mothers sing are not generic. To understand what I mean you need to know two details about Yolngu personhood. First, every Yolngu person is related to a specific geographic location, determined by the moment during pregnancy when the spirit of the person is said to have entered the body. Thus, when a mother sings to her son, she sings from one specific place to another. Hence the term ‘songline'. Her songs may include information about the history of the place, where it is, how to take care of it, and the kinds of things that might be sought there. Second, every kin relationship is mapped onto specific parts of the body. For example, Gnama relates to the heart and belly. Thus the songlines weave psychosomatic connections between people and places. So much so that sons relate to the land of their mothers in the same way they relate to the mothers themselves. Mind blown? I hope so. Its a lot to take in. So Yolngu people keep track of it all through a host of rituals and ceremonies. For example, they might paint colours and patterns that symbolise particular kin relationships on specific parts of the body during ceremony. Along with other kinds of information, such as relationships with totem animals, elements and groups of people. But I’ll leave that for another day. For now its enough to consider what it might be like for a teenager born into a network of cosmic interrelatedness to listen to songs from the canon of Western pop-culture. Its no wonder they’re responding well to the offer of a space to hang out and paint the walls.

Young Artists is a refuge. And so far its working. As are my formal classes. I’ve made sure to focus them entirely on place, using maps as a scaffold for various kinds of learning. As you might expect given what I’ve described in this and previous letters, nature and arts based education are no brainers out here. That anyone considers it remotely appropriate to apply a national education standard in a place so self evidently unique is at best an absurdity. At worst it runs the risk of repeating the mistakes made by assimilationists in the early part of the twentieth century, who lined people up for a standard mix of force-fed information and washed it down with some superficial accolade. If we only turned around and listened, we’d realise that a disinterested child is more likely the result of inaccessible content than an inability to concentrate. That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever put down a book and said something like, “I just can’t get into it.”

To which I’d respond, “If that’s the case then one of two things is true. Either the writing is of a quality incapable of conjuring sufficient depth of field. Or you don’t have the cultural capital to turn the descriptive language into a meaningful reality.”
Then you might say, “What do you mean?”
And I’d say, “Well, to find a text interesting, its not enough to simply know how to read. The author’s words create a world that you can actually get in to. But the author can’t describe every aspect of that world. He or she assumes you’ll bring a certain amount of prior understanding to the table. To fill in the gaps. If you don’t have that prior understanding, the world the text creates will remain out of reach. It will lack meaning.”
“But some books are read by lots of people across cultures and contexts. How is that possible?”
“Because people are far more alike than different. There are lots of things that overlap cultural boundaries. The more boundaries a thing overlaps the closer it gets to being universal. But the list of books that approach universality is a lot shorter than the list of books per se.”
“Okay, so what you’re saying is kids need to read and write about things they’re interested in. And their interests have a lot to do with culture?”
“Yes.”
“So, what are Yolngu kids interested in?”
“They’re interested in place. They love being on country, making things with their hands and physical activities like sport and hunting.”
“Great. So we should get them to read and write about that!”
“Not so fast.”
“Why?”
“Because they’re not used to reading and writing about those things. They’re used to dancing, singing and painting about them.”
“Does that mean we need to consider alternative approaches to teaching literacy in a Yolngu context?”
“Yes.”
“Sounds challenging. Where do we start?”
“We start by understanding what literacy is at the deepest possible level of interpretation. That way we can create the substructure on which a contextualised form of it can be built.”
“I’d rather not think so deeply about things.”
“I know.”
“So what is literacy at the deepest possible level of interpretation?”
“Its the abstraction of meaning into recognisable symbolic representations arranged relative to one another in space and time.”
“Please explain.”
“Okay. You can’t read a sentence if you don’t know what the words mean. But you also can’t read it if the words aren’t in the correct order, with adequate space between them.”
“So we should begin by teaching kids to abstract information into symbols?”
“Yes.”
“Then arrange those symbols in ways that make them readable?”
“Exactly.”
“And to make things meaningful we should relate everything to nature, art and physical activity?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“If only there was an art form that used symbols to represent features of specific places in nature. Something that also lent itself to physical activities. Wait a minute… maps!”
“Yep."
“We could create maps of this place! Then add symbols to represent its features and inhabitants. We could go places and visually represent our journeys. Eventually we could even write stories about them, turn them to into maths problems and science experiments! And we’d end up with beautiful artworks that reflected our learning. Would that work?”
“I don’t know. But I’m going to try it. Because the price we pay for dumbing down our language to the point where it can be understood by people we’ve not sought to understand, is a lack of depth. And I’m tired of teaching the dazed and confused."

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Postscripts
Since writing this I caught wind of a program called Learning on Country, which uses 'both-ways' education. It looks really interesting. I'll find out more and write a post about it soon.