Ali Cobby Eckermann is one of Australia's finest poets. In this interview, she talks at length about Ruby Moonlight, her massacre verse novel exploring colonisation in Australia.
Ruby Moonlight received the black&write! kuril dhagun Indigenous Writing Fellowship and the Deadly Award Outstanding Achievement in Literature in 2012, as well as the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize and Book of the Year Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary and History Awards in 2013.
ALI: Hi, my name’s Ali Cobby Eckermann. I’m a Yankunytjatjara poet from South Australia. I was adopted as a baby, that’s why I have two surnames. Cobby is my Aboriginal family name, Eckermann is my adopted family name. I love both my families, they’re both South Australian.
I’m thrilled that you might be studying Ruby Moonlight. It was a very important book for me to write. I felt I wasn’t the only one writing it. I can’t always explain that, but it’s a really important story for me. I was expelled from school in Year Eleven for standing up against racism at the end-of-year school social. I was really disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to do matriculation or Year Twelve as it’s known now, which back then was really the only entry into University. I think there’s lots in this book that represents challenge and emotion and I remember my teenage years being really difficult. I’m hoping that firstly in the gentle reading of Ruby Moonlight before studying it deeper, that you’ll just remember that life goes on beyond school. I hope you have a good time at school, but don’t be defined if school’s a struggle because life can be a struggle.
Ruby Moonlight is a lesson to all of us. I think you’re at the age where you’re starting to know that there’s a voice of guidance. And even though there’s a lot of peer pressure and a lot of influence, you’re just at the point of starting to really understand the personal, individual being. Hang on to that. Trust it. Be the Ruby Moonlight.
ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret Ali.
ALI: Thank you for having me again.
ASTRID: Now we have spoken before about your storytelling career and today we find ourselves back in the writing house in RMIT University where you are an Adjunct Professor, and today we’re going to discuss Ruby Moonlight. How would you describe Ruby Moonlight?
ALI: As a writer, the text of Ruby Moonlight arrived like a gift. I had left the desert—I was living in the mid-north of South Australia on Ngadjuri country at Koolunga where I established Australia’s first Aboriginal writers retreat—and in the loneliness of being away from traditional family, I found the place in the bush where the sun first hit the ground and I would go and sit there with my dog and we would meditate in the morning. And Ruby Moonlight was born from that place. I might be so bold as an Aboriginal woman to say that this story was given to me, and I love Ruby Moonlight. I see her reflected today in many young women—Aboriginal women and other women—that I meet of this quiet strength and resilience that we often as a busy society overlook.
ASTRID: Ali will you read us the first poem in Ruby Moonlight?
ALI: It’s called ‘Ambush’.
the clan slaughtered
ASTRID: That is a brutal poem and yet it looks so beautiful on the page. Every word almost is on a different line.
ALI: It’s a really important poem because I think a lot of people think with the massacres that that was the end of us, and sadly sometimes in Australian dialogue we hear about the end of Aboriginal people. It suits the dialogue of the oppressor. And yet we are still here. And I think people are really confused and a little afraid that aesthetically we’ve changed so much in our survival—we’ve even changed colour. That hasn’t diminished our cultural belonging and obligation to land, our custodianship, the culture that resides so strongly inside us that can’t be seen by our doubters. So, I think the book needed to start there because we weren’t all massacred, and Ruby is the pinnacle of survivor—it’s telling the story of one young girl who survived the massacre of her entire family and it’s not easy. I don’t think most survivals are.
It’s really important for all Australians to know that we are still here doing what our forebears did. I used to say that Aboriginality today is contemporary, all those of us who were taken away as in my case is contemporary. But I don’t think so anymore, because the same effort and reasoning and struggle and love I think is exactly the same as our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived those years before modern society swept over us. I don’t think we’ve changed—the society that we live in is the thing that’s changed.
ASTRID: Ruby Moonlight is set in about 1880 which is about 140 years ago. It is poetry, it is a love story, it is a verse novel and I’ve heard you describe it before as a massacre verse novel. It feels timeless in ways, particularly the love story element, but also the past continues to be present and the past continues to impact the present and the future. What was it about 1880? Why pinpoint it in that time?
ALI: It’s the same age as the house that I bought, the old general store at Koolunga. So I guess because I was living in this town which is a very old, iconic South Australian village. And I was thinking about the time when it was thriving once—now it’s a shadow of itself. And there were so many metaphors there: it’s close to the farm where I was not allowed to live with my Aboriginal family and grew up with my adopted family, I push-biked all around that place when I was a girl. So I knew that land quite well, but we didn’t know anything about Aboriginal history. So going back after that long journey of meeting my Mum and finding my son and meeting the family—ten wonderful years out in the desert with traditional family. It was quite a journey to go back to where I was raised. The one pinnacle realisation was that the past couldn’t hurt me anymore and I think in that realisation maybe the spirit, the story spirit of that land came and sat next to me when I was sitting in the sun most mornings at that patch. Some mornings I could almost smell campfire. Other mornings it was like the whisper of voices just around the corner. It was very exciting. And it was also there that I sort of became a little recognised as a writer. There was a couple of articles in the local newspaper reporting about my achievements. And because I’d grown up there a lot of the old people knew me as a little girl or knew my adoptive parents who were always held in good regard, they were good people. So sometimes when I was sitting with the oldies—old white people, old farmers—and they would just say things and sometimes I don’t know if they meant to say them. But there was memories like my grandfather remembers the last time he saw the silhouette of an Aboriginal man walk along the hilltop. And that’s ninety years ago. And as writer those remarks are remarkable. I remember someone else told me, quite oddly, randomly, ‘Yes, over there they cut down all the trees so they could see if blackfellas were camping there’.
I think I was also influenced by those number of years living in the desert. Your eyes see differently in that environment. So coming back to the farming environment, where so much destruction had been done on the natural world, I felt like I could see small glimpses of what was once there.
ASTRID: You dedicate Ruby Moonlight to Kami. And I wanted to ask—Kami is the name of one of your previous collections.
ALI: Kami is the name for grandmother. My grandmother went missing around there in 1976 so I never got to meet her. And I went to the coroner’s archives to read the report of her missing. I don’t know, when a family member goes missing for any reason and is never found it plants a question inside you. And I guess when I was thinking about the question of my grandmother, I was staring at the question of land. I think I’m a little complicated, that I can’t do one task at one time. As a writer I think I’m a little complex in that I can’t do one thing at one time. Sometimes things are intertwined.
ASTRID: Maybe that’s what makes your words and your poetry so beautiful. You also dedicate the work to, and I quote here Ali, ‘mob who died innocent brave in true spirit.’ I just wanted to highlight that before we go and look at all of your poems because no one listening to this podcast, no one in Australia should ever forget the legacy that we still haven’t resolved.
ALI: Yeah, and I think it’s important for me to define what is a massacre. A massacre is people, like in the book, that are sitting, having a meal, doing what they always do, some are at church, some are at work creating essential tools that they need for hunting, and someone rides in and kills them. It’s not a resistance, it’s massacre. So those that died in true spirit were just on their daily quest, not knowing it was going to be their last day. Massacre’s very brutal.
ASTRID: Ruby Moonlight has been out for a few years and I’m interested in, over that time, the reactions and the responses you’ve got from readers both Aboriginal, but also maybe other Australians and from abroad. Are the reactions different?
ALI: You know when I first wrote I didn’t think it would ever be published in Australia? And I guess part of that was that really personal connection that I felt with that story from that place where I sat in the mornings. One of the funniest years when I was in Alice Springs and I was sitting on the wall where you all sit and chat, catching up who got married, who had babies or whatever. One white lady came and she grabbed my hands, and she was crying and she said, ‘It’s just like Homer. It’s just like Homer’. And she walked away. And after a few seconds Uncle down the end said, ‘Who? Homer Simpson?’ That’s one of my best memories. Not taking away the effect from the white lady who was obviously quite moved and couldn’t put much more into words, that moment was quite a compliment.
And I think there hasn’t been much commentary shared with me, it’s been the looks on people’s faces, or them holding hands because I wanted to write the brutal story without tainting the beauty of Ruby Moonlight the young woman. And in my own life I had to find a way to get brutality and beauty to sit together inside me, and that took several years. So I think people’s first reaction they can’t articulate. But the compliment is knowing that it’s moved something, and it’s found its place inside them. I think Ruby Moonlight was the book that taught me the importance of planting seeds and not to expect much more. And just us having this conversation now, you know, suggests that some seeds are growing.
ASTRID: As they should and as I hope they do Ali. So Ruby Moonlight is a story told through individual poems—each stand by themselves and tell us something, make us feel something, shine a light on something that maybe the reader hasn’t thought of or experienced. And the poems are a linear narrative. No poem goes over a page. How do you want Ruby Moonlight to be read? Do you want somebody to sit down and read it like a novel from front to back? But once somebody knows the story can, like any collection of poetry, a reader jump in and find the places that appeal to them?
ALI: I think the form of Ruby Moonlight is my attempt to show a little about traditional Aboriginal storytelling. So in my experience—and I’ve been removed from my family and it took me a long time to find them, so I’m talking more about when I was spending time and sitting with the traditional family—there was a big story that they wanted to share with me, but they gave it to me like one page poem at a time. And oh, it used to annoy me because in the Western world stories come fast and entire and it took me a while to realise that this slow place was a blessing because memory could no longer be marred. I guess that’s the physical appearance of what I wanted to achieve with Ruby Moonlight—that every page actually gets a title, and every page represents a day that I went and sat at that place, and every page could represent a week or a month, because there are big stories. These are the stories that live in the land. Now, of course, within the structure of western schooling, time’s limited, you want to get out of school and get onto more exciting things probably. So I wrote it as a verse novel so that it could fit into modern literature as well.
I think sometimes when I was at school the definition of chapters was always chunky, and I think in Ruby Moonlight I wanted to par that down—that every page is a chapter, but it’s quite small. And maybe a little bit of hindsight in life has let me know that some chapters in my life were huge and others almost slipped by unnoticed.
ASTRID: You write in English and occasionally use Aboriginal words like lubra and jin with no explanation and so the reader has to learn or figure it out. But there are a few words in here that you actually include a footnote for, and I wanted to ask about the words that you chose to include and essentially define for the reader. There was kumuna and kumunari. Did I pronounce those vaguely correctly?
ALI: Kumuna and kumunari—they are the names that are given to people who’ve passed away and that comes from deep culture. The words lubra and jin are derogoratory to Aboriginal people, especially women, today and have been for some time. But I wanted to use the coloniser’s language. And that was just the way that they would’ve been talking then—mob wouldn’t have known any English; this is first contact time and so I just used those words.
Going back to the mid-north where I’d grown up and where I had reclaimed my identity as an Aboriginal woman. Going back and sitting with my younger self who had been expected to assimilate into white society, I really wanted to sit back in that view of whiteness and write from that because I realised I knew it quite well. And I think in the process of writing that from an Aboriginal viewpoint and the white viewpoint of my upbringing, the best thing for me personally was there was a lot of healing going on and that was like the hard and the soft becoming more comfortable inside me.
ASTRID: Ruby Moonlight is the heart and soul of this tale, at least in my reading. She is also really the only female. There are quite a few males who take action that changes the course of the poem, but Ruby is the only woman. Why is that?
ALI: It sort of represents parliament (laughs).
ASTRID: (Laughs) Yes it does.
ALI: We live in such a patriarchal world, that we forget that not long ago we had access to matriarchal governance and the wisdom of that and I guess she just embodied that for me. I know it was men who made the decision that I wouldn’t live with my family and I guess, again, there was that parallel that this is this young girl back in the mid-north reclaiming a place.
For students reading this and learning the story of Ruby Moonlight for the first time, you may have already reached the age where you look back over your childhood and there was lots of aunties and uncles and family friends around and whatever. But you might already know that there will only be one or two that will really have had a significant impact. Everyone else has had the impact of care. Sometimes there’s just stuff that sticks. And I guess in the writing I wanted Ruby to stick out.
ASTRID: Ruby is the heart of the story, but Ruby is alone. She is the sole survivor of the massacre of her family so she’s alone, she’s grieving, she’s traumatised and lonely. And in the poem, in the chapter ‘Dream’ we first come across the spirit—the shadow familiar that later on in Ruby Moonlight gets a name: Kuman. And I was struck—the spirit’s actions change the course of the narrative and in my reading, there is solace there for Ruby. Can you talk to me about the spirit?
ALI: I think survival is really lonely. And what I remember from teenage years is there was a lot going on I didn’t share with anyone, so I was quite lonely in that even if I was surrounded by friends. There was a part of me that was really lonely inside because I didn’t trust to tell anyone what I was feeling. It was really sad; I couldn’t even tell my adopted mum and dad. And then I removed myself from there and my story is that I ran away at seventeen and I was sitting in the desert, so all of a sudden there was no one. So I was physically, should’ve felt lonely. I was alone, but I didn’t feel lonely because… I don’t know. The spirit to me was the sky, or the spirit to me was the peacefulness of no longer being bullied and that harsh voice or presence that I was always trying to avoid. That harsh, prejudice voice was gone and that allowed me to hear differently: listening to birds, listening to my own thoughts. Spirit can come in doodling. Spirit can come in the repetition of learning to skateboard. I think anything that gives us a sense of peace or calmness can provide a little bit of spirit, because I believe that we know all the answers inside us, and that’s sort of what life is about. I think life is about the challenge to know who we are, so there’s much wisdom inside us and it’s the external that squashes that. The more time we can spend with our internal, we’ll find that voice. I’ve chosen to call it spirit voice—that guiding voice.
ASTRID: So after a time Ruby meets Jack. He’s a loner Irishman and we meet him in ‘Smoke’ and ‘Bunyip’. And Ali, I couldn’t help but laugh the first time Ruby is watching Jack and she describes him as, ‘its face galah pink’. That did amuse me I have to say. Why did you call that poem ‘Bunyip’?
ALI: The Koolunga is the home of the bunyip if you go through the mid-north of South Australia, so there is a bunyip story there. Again, first contact, he’s a different colour, she’s traumatised and might not even realise—she would remember the horses more than the murderers. And then there’s this odd-looking creature that she’s never seen before that gives her some relief because she giggles. And all she knows is nature from her cultural life with her family and so that’s the only comparison that she has to describe this strange man who is acting in ways, walking in ways that she’s never seen before. She doesn’t understand the smoke coming from the pipe from his mouth. He’s just a really curious thing. And the reference to bunyip is that when white people came out and were clearing the land of Aboriginal people and clearing the land of trees and whatever, there was a world out there that they didn’t know and Aboriginal people know the stories of bunyips and other things that we choose not to talk about so much now. And the fear of that would prompt the farmers to do more killing. Often their first reaction was always so brutal. So at Koolunga—it’s in the newspaper, it’s in Trove—when they thought they saw a sighting of the bunyip with two little ones. And their reaction was they went and dug pits and sat there all night with flaming torches and rifles waiting for it so they could shoot it. It’s all this conquering, it’s all this domination, it’s all that rubbish—there’s no consideration in these actions. And I think they could hear it and their fear, or whatever, just mounts, so they dynamited all along the creek. Ruby probably had the skills to murder Jack, but she comes from a completely heart-place—she’s curious, she found some joy in difference, in other. Ruby represents all Aboriginal people. We’re not brutal, we’re very kind. We’ve suffered the brutality. That’s another really important part of the story.
ASTRID: The poem ‘Merger’ brought home for me the weight of history that Ruby and Jack found themselves in. The ending of that poem. Actually, can you read that poem for us? ‘Merger’?
She is glad Jack is a man of few words.
Jack is glad she is a woman of few needs.
In their remoteness they are heaven.
In their remoteness they are Earth.
Remoteness is essential in their merger.
It is forbidden for Europeans to fornicate with blacks.
ASTRID: So Europeans invaded, attempted to conquer, they massacred. And in addition to that brutality you were just talking about Ali, they also brought a whole pile of rules and regulations and things that weren’t supposed to happen—including relationships between black and white. The next poem ‘Visitor’ brings that out even more.
ALI: This is a really good time in the study of Ruby Moonlight to take an aside and go and research these policies and how recent they are. And some of you—your grandparents might remember this. Cause that’s another thing that confuses me—so many people claim to have had friendships with Aboriginal people. I think our grandparents’ generation did so more through the trade of food and labour and it must be hard for young people to imagine a world without social media. And so there was a lot more personal contact. And in today’s evaluation of that time it might look wrong and it probably was. But there was this human contact. So when I sit down and talk to older Australians, they gave me the stories at Koolunga about the memory of the last Aboriginal walking over the hill, which is at the back of the book. The removal of trees. Just little snippets because they were all aware that we were here. They worked alongside. It would be interesting if they remember the inequality of these policies.
This is an important poem. It shows that not everyone back then was a murdering bastard and that in any society there will always be an extreme of behaviour. It’s really difficult for Aboriginal people today to properly read this poem and not disassociate it from the black deaths in custody.
ASTRID: Will you read it for us Ali?
A soft neigh warns of an arrival
She slips into shadows of willows along the riverbank
The carriage rounds the last bend
Men touch hats in silent greeting
The billy boils
The carriage rounds the last bend
Men touch hats in silent greeting
The billy boils
Tobacco pouches are passed
Cigarettes rolled thin are lit
Shadows under hats block out all eyes
‘We need your help mate’
The words hang on reality without suspense
‘There’s sickness going on across the river’
Jack knows the remainder of the conversation before it was spoke
‘You see any blacks roaming, best you kill ‘em disease spreading pests’
After the departure dust settles
She brings him river water
He sips then spits distaste from his tongue
ASTRID: There is so much in that Ali. Firstly, the inhumanity that colonisers demonstrated, but also then the tenderness and love between Ruby and Jack. And neither one of them have an answer.
ALI: I think the kindness in this poem, the action of kindness is the loudest thing. You know, I try to remember if I don’t know what to do just be kind. There’s many memes about that. I overshare on Facebook.
ASTRID: (Laughs) Maybe we all do.
ALI: Yeah. But you know, all of these poems fit into the modern day. Now the media is saying can you please stop the prejudice against Chinese people with Coronavirus? It’s the same. It’s the same. You know the external, the situation might look different, but human behaviour, human nature I think is basically the same. It just looks different: different clothes. Here, they don’t even have cars—they’re riding horses and carts and living in houses built in the riverbeds, which if you go to Burra in the mid-north the remains of those houses are still there. Like I said, I grew up in the mid-north, so it was a little bit of what we explored on Sunday afternoons with the family that is my collective childhood memory of the mid-north that came to life here, because people really did live every bit of these characters. I have seen it and heard these stories.
ASTRID: One of the most menacing characters in Ruby Moonlight is the man with no music. Can you tell me about that epithet? That way of identifying him and what he does in Ruby Moonlight?
ALI: I didn’t know quite what to call that character. But I remember there were certain times in my life where I felt I’d lost my music—I felt I’d lost any sort of song that had ever existed in me. I guess they were the times where I was saddest. Sometimes that isolation and that sadness can allow some people to do horrific things. If the music’s gone, if there’s no other voice of conscience asking you inside ‘are you sure?’ monitoring that, I think sadly some humans are capable of really horrific things.
ASTRID: So he comes across as menacing, this man with no music. And we follow his actions through several poems. But I’d like to talk about the poem ‘Memory’, because in ‘Memory’ we know that he is a murderer and I quote here, ‘he carries the mummified hands of the boy with him’. And that is such a horrific and painful thing to contemplate, but also that is a very specific detail that I think most Australians don’t necessarily know. They might know massacre, but they might not know this perversion and brutality that also happened.
ALI: Yes, that’s true that a lot of people might not know that, it’s a very hard thing to talk about. Sadly, if you google ‘Queenslander collects Aboriginal ears’ a story will pop up. So that was another trophy, with the ears cut off. And the bizarre behaviour of nailing them to a wall in your house for display.
ASTRID: That is such a violation.
ALI: As a child I was always raised on the black and white Cowboys and Indians movies. And it was a shocking relief to learn that the scalping that Indians were so recognised for within Hollywood was not their first behaviour. The first behaviour came from the people that were slaughtering the Indians. And in their trauma they adopted that.
It’s also like the museums. When the people were slaughtered, when the families were slaughtered the artefacts were removed. All of a sudden that knowledge or those possessions belonged to someone else. We’re still fighting today for the repatriation of them, you can google the British History Museum. There’s a wonderful meme going around that if they returned everything it’s just like an empty warehouse. Because most of everything that’s in there has been stolen. Heads are stolen. Learn about Truganini and her pleas that her head remained intact. That’s just one story. There’s so many stories. And my wish would be for everyone who’s reading Ruby Moonlight to know that this is not an isolated thing, this happened everywhere. I should imagine in areas where there’s lush grass and water, that at least every fifty kilometres there was a massacre. The fact that they’re not recorded on paper because they were so commonplace is not us making up stories, because our stories live in the land. We can feel it, we can still feel it. One of the proofs of that was one year of centenary of Australian history and families were donating diaries from their parents and grandparents and all this Australian paraphernalia was coming in and it was the celebrating of two-hundred years of British arrival. And then families freaked out and started sneaking back into these libraries and these memorial halls that had all this stuff and were tearing out the pages because they’d forgotten that their grandparents and their grandfathers would go out after Sunday lunch shooting blacks.
ASTRID: Contemporary Australia has such a dark history. When I think about Ruby and Jack—and Ruby is the centre of this tale and she chooses to be near and with Jack—the relationship between the two of them is not approved of. It’s not approved by colonisers, by white people and it’s not really approved of by Aboriginal people either. Talk me through that. I don’t think everybody will have realised or thought about the fact that no one really wanted a white guy turning up and being in a relationship with an Australian woman.
ALI: I think it’s the quintessential teenage story, that we fall in love as teenagers and mum and dad are going ‘Oh my God, no, no,’ and that’s the modern day parallel. And here we are, with quite different cultural and religious understandings and it’s difficult. I think the bravery of Ruby to enter this relationship and the disapproval of Jack is very similar to the modern day. I’m sure everyone’s aware of young people getting together where it’s not approved and it’s probably even more widespread in Australia now as we’ve become so multicultural. I hope that one of the strengths of Ruby Moonlight is that this story played out 140 years ago and this story is still playing out. It is the Homer tragedy. The love tragedies will continue as long as there is human life. Sometimes love wins, sometimes it doesn’t.
ASTRID: So it was in the poems ‘Murmur’ and ‘Shame’ where Ruby introduces Jack and it doesn’t go that well. But there is an elder man of another family, of another tribe, who dances and makes it very clear that he doesn’t approve of Jack. But then later on we find out that he actually goes and kind of spies on Ruby and Jack. And I wanted to touch on that a little bit because that might make some readers question his motives. I mean, he honestly doesn’t want Jack there but spying on a couple is also discomforting.
ALI: Yes, that old jealousy that happens in love. And again, I think many teenagers might have observed it if they haven’t experienced it. Jump to the modern-day world: Australia has a horrific rate of women that are murdered by their partners. Men are now coming forth and saying that they are physically abused in their relationships. Some relationships are really fraught. Some people act in ways that we don’t understand or don’t want. Love is all we should strive for and it is one of the most confusing things to aim for as well. I think part of the story was also, again, repeating that some men have too much say in our affairs—the men that decided that my mother and family weren’t going to be suitable for my upbringing. That’s been proven to be so wrong. It always was, but they had the power of that decision making and sometimes it’s taken a little far.
ASTRID: Yes, sometimes it’s taken way too far. Now, Ruby and Jack are very much in love and Jack comes into a bit of wealth. And that is an unforeseen result of some of the actions of this elder gentleman who doesn’t approve. But with this newfound wealth, Jack in his own way is trying to shower Ruby with gifts: he buys her a dress, he thinks she’s beautiful and maybe too good for him. But that draws attention to the fact that there might be an interracial relationship that everybody, particular white men, white people, are going to come and destroy. So that puts them at risk as well. And I find myself looking at Jack’s actions but thinking about Ruby and what she was thinking of this man she was with who might be endangering them both.
ALI: I’ve had to do a lot of rebuilding of myself, so I’ve spent a lot of time watching people and human nature and reflecting that. And reflecting those observations back to my past behaviour and trying to turn that into positive change for how I behave now. And I know this example is of a man who risked everything because his ideal of what was necessary became more prevalent; he forgot to think about what would be perfect for Ruby. And Ruby had her perfection: she had the freedom to be totally herself and remain unchanged in her association with the bush, with the natural world that she knew. She didn’t need a dress; she didn’t need jewellery. And his perception overrides hers, he didn’t ask, he took that as what he needed. He put his needs above hers and a huge risk came.
ASTRID: And Ruby can sense that risk.
ALI: But Ruby wasn’t the danger, everyone else was the danger because all of a sudden, he was acting in a way where he couldn’t be secretive anymore. He had revealed himself and society could see that he had broken the law.
ASTRID: In the poem ‘Torn’ Ruby is and I quote, ‘Torn between companionship and seclusion’. Did she have a choice?
ALI: When you live out in the bush your instincts are pretty honed. It’s quite different than living in the modern world or the city where there’s always noise, there’s always something moving, there’s always something happening. It’s like when you go camping: after a while you feel a little bit different, you feel a little bit relaxed, you’re sort of maybe not recognising that you’re getting in tune with the river or wherever you’re camping, the forest. You’re just a little bit different. So, Ruby’s instincts, for a traditional woman who had remained alive in that natural environment, her instinct would’ve been quite honed. Danger has quite a presence. I think anyone that’s been abused or bullied, they can feel it coming. Even today danger has a presence and it has a feel. From fear comes trauma often, and I recognise my trauma when I can’t decide shall I go out today? Or maybe I should stay inside. When I can’t make what should be a simple decision, then I know that I need to do something really caring for myself because a little bit of trauma is there. Sometimes a lot of trauma, but I’m constantly working on my trauma so most times I live a good life now. I’m very aware if I hesitate before walking out what I need to fix today. Because sadly wrongness stays with us for a long time, it takes a lot of work and again that’s one of the challenges or reasons of our lives, is just to constantly keep working at different ways of knowing ourselves. Ruby is torn between companionship and seclusion. You know that can be read in a negative tone, but companionship and seclusion can both offer good things.
ASTRID: At the end, Ruby and Jack are no longer together, and Ruby I guess finds a new family. But it’s not the man she would’ve chosen, or it is a man she once laughed at or rejected.
ALI: I think, part of her decision was there was a bigger thing happening. This was survival of more people than herself and back then community was very much community—that you weren’t often able to have individual thought. Today we’re so very individual, it’s another example of how things have changed. Out in the desert and I’m sure some of the other areas where there’s a lot of Aboriginal families still living on country in that lineage since creation, their sense of community is very strong. And less is seen in the cities, although the Greeks have a club, there’s an Italian club, most cities have Chinatown. In Adelaide, near my brother’s place there’s a big place and the temples are there where the Sikhs and other religions can gather, the Mormons have a church. Aboriginal people, yet, in any of the main cities, we still don’t have a gathering place. I really mourn that, living away from my family and off my land for the work that I choose to do, that on Sundays there’s nowhere that I can go and trust that Aboriginal people will be there where we can sit together, where we can learn a song, trade a song, share some food, pray in whichever way we want to, celebrate our survival in any way we want to. That’s still robbed from us. Yes, we can get together under the umbrellas of universities and under the umbrellas of Apology Day Breakfasts and everything else, it seems so corporate. Australia has never given us the freedom to have our own church or the equivalent of our own school or university. We’re very clever people, we hold a lot of wisdom; we’re sick of it being stolen. And probably the one place that we’ve claimed is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. You can research the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. If your school’s got money, go there. Be horrified that we still don’t have an embassy and that we still don’t have really the voice in Parliament that we want, that speaks truly for us and isn’t warped by the influence of others.
ASTRID: Ali, will you read the final poem ‘Sunset’?
ALI: It’s very hard to read this poem.
The old dancer
Two young warriors
One lubra looking back
Hurry against the skyline
The silhouettes of four will not be seen in this land again for ninety years
In this country, there is sadness
In this sunset, a Ruby Moonlight
ASTRID: What is the reference to ninety years?
ALI: That old person in Koolunga said it was ninety years since their grandfather had seen the silhouette of an Aboriginal man walk over that hill.
ASTRID: When you think of a student picking up Ruby Moonlight and sitting down to read it, what would you like them to know?
ALI: Please know that this story is true and until it’s healed it will keep repeating every generation. And it might look different every generation, but the basis of this story will continue. We don’t want to lose any more family members unnecessarily in the prisons, in the hospitals, on the street, through our own traumas. We want to rise like the bravery of Ruby Moonlight and encourage friendship, enjoy our differences and yet remain strong and be granted the strength through the freedom to embrace our culture and identity without assimilation and be respected for that.
ASTRID: Thank you Ali and thank you for reading your poems.