Tyson Yunkaporta on writing right and wrong

Tyson Yunkaporta on writing right and wrong

Tyson Yunkaporta is an Aboriginal scholar and founder of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab at Deakin University in Melbourne. He is the author of Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (2020) and Right Story Wrong Story: Adventures in Indigenous Thinking (2023). His work focuses on applying Indigenous methods of inquiry to resolve complex issues and explore global crises.

Tyson Yunkaporta on writing right and wrong


ASTRID: You are a beautiful communicator and a beautiful storyteller. I wanted to say a personal thank you for choosing to share and to put out into the world Right Story, Wrong Story. I read a lot. I am a person who has always placed great value in books, and value and love, I think, for the people who write them and create them. I often read a lot on deadline, and that is not a good way. That is not a good way to read anything. I feel like, Tyson, that I came to read Right Story, Wrong Story at the most perfect time. It rarely happens with a book, but I was recently I recently did a residency at Bundanon, which is in regional New South Wales on Dharawal and Dhurga country. It was facilitated by this environmental justice organisation called Julie's Bicycle and Song Woman, Ruth Langford. And it was an incredibly meaningful time for me. I went burnt out, and I came back, lighter. I came back rejuvenated, and when I came back I read your work.

TYSON: You're the first person I've talked to is read the book, I haven't talked to anybody else who's read it. And I'm so worried that it's going to hurt people. That just makes me really just relieved, I'm relieved to be happy.

ASTRID: I think that I will end up reading my Right Story, Wrong Story again, not immediately, I mean in a few months. I want to sit with this for a while and then go back in. It's wonderful, it's amusing, it’s funny. It is lighthearted joke funny. But it also is intellectually rigorous and lie discerning funny, there's different types of humour in here. And it's a challenge in a positive way. I found myself reading something, and then having to immediately evaluate whatever response or preconception that I had of myself. I wanted to talk to you about that, because that doesn't happen often to me, and I deeply enjoyed it. But I now do find myself constantly questioning myself in this safe and generous space that you have allowed me to do that.

To put this in context for those who are listening to us – and they might come across this podcast episode at any point, not necessarily with the book anywhere near them – can we go into the introduction, how you welcome the reader into what you are attempting here with Right Story, Wrong Story. The introduction, which is called ‘The Wrong Canoe’. For those listening, you pulled the rug out from under my feet, deliberately so, Tyson, with the this beautiful story that you are telling and it is about an extended family and kinship network building a canoe and spending the day together. And you know, here I am, Western mindset, reading along the story thinking, ‘Oh, this is a nice way to start the book’, and then you literally deconstruct why that was a terrible way of telling the story and why it didn't really have any relationship, because the story was forced into that Western construct, a beginning, middle and end, a narrative that has to get to an outcome or a conclusion.

For those listening, I would like to talk through how you do that throughout the work for the reader, take things that we might be used to or that maybe we've never interrogated before, and show why they're not that great.

TYSON: Okay. That's really hard, because we have to go deep metaphysics there. You know, in terms of time and space, and we don't have separate words for that, it's just like time, place, is what one thing? I mean, I didn't know that it would do that to you. So sorry about that. I put that in there just to reassure any other Blackfellas who were reading that was seasonal things out of place there. Because the story took time, it took place over a longer period of time, it's mostly about – the canoes are not important, nobody really gives a stuff about them, except for someone who wants to collect it and turn it into capital or cultural capital or whatever. Yeah, the canoes are not the thing. It's the connectedness, but not just for the sake of having relationships, it's the informatics that travels along those lines of connection. It's keeping those intergenerational exchanges and flows of informatics, cultural knowledge flowing around 1000 things. So, the canoe was just one thing that was done that day that was ostensibly the main thing. And I guess, I wrote it in a way so there's tension of task. In a Western story it's a hero's journey, almost, except the hero is the group. And it's like, well, the group is the hero. But that's still not how the group works, because we're not indistinguishable from all those species that I talked about, from the water lilies to everything else. We're embedded in that system and, things are shifting as we go along. It's hard to get that across. But there's a beginning, middle and end and this tension of tasks, because we've got to get everybody like, it's so annoying, because people keep stopping and wanting to go fishing, you know, so it takes all day just to get there. Is there going to be time to cut the canoe, you know? So you've got that dramatic tension in there that just doesn't exist in our world at all. We could just talk all day about that. We could do a thesis on that, on why that story is wrong. But that's the idea, that wrong story about the canoe, but then go further and go, the story gets wrong, you know, not just me representing this story the wrong way, but then me making a canoe on my own, and so there's no relation, and there's no flows intergenerationally of knowledge to keep Black knowledge right across a whole landscape and all this complexity, to keep this knowledge, that's not happening, because I'm making the canoe on my own. It's really hard work, and I have a really good neoliberal work ethic. I'm a good neoliberal subject. I'm a high functioning mourner. I'm all these things. And that's what makes me valuable. That's what gives me value. And I guess we can get into that later. But that's… I managed to maintain that as a writer for the first half of the book. And then the second half of the book is where I just completely fall apart, and I can no longer hold that together.

ASTRID: I would like to talk about that with you. But I feel for those listening, it might be good to go into Right Story and Wrong Story, and why for the Western listener, fwhy making a canoe by yourself is a terrible way to do that, to approach that or any other task.

TYSON: Right Story, Wrong Story is the title of this work. But it is not just a catchy title to you know, slap on the front of a book cover or whatever it is deeply meaningful. Story gets verified or falsified by the other stories around it, and all stories sit in an ecosystem of stories. It's like a web, people think about song lines, these lines in the landscape like a map that are storied. There are narrative lines as well, and songs and all these other things. It's not just a few lines running, they're intersecting and overlapping, there is a massive web network of stories, and all the stories verify or falsify Right Story. Right Story has to fit in with the context and with the reality, and that's your landscape talking to you, your land is everything, it's not just this idea of nature, like you've got to go to a natural place, there's cars there, that's part of creation there. All these things are moving together, everything is creation. So, there's all these stories moving through. The problem is there's a lot of Wrong Story.

Now, what used to be known as Wrong Story is still known as Wrong Story, and this is usually stuff that's done unilaterally like that canoe story that I wrote. That sounds lovely, but it's Wrong Story because it's just one recollection. And you know, that encouraged an attempt to do a massive communal process just on his own. I flagged through that story, a few examples, like you might just see bits where I mention wrong story that comes in and does not match up with all the other stories we're looking at. There are probably 1,000 species we encountered in that story. One of them was…  I can't go into it because it's women's business, and I can't even know it really. But I do know that these have been used since forever for birth control. But then there's that noise, that's the signal from Country. From the old ladies that I see showing the young women stuff, I know that business, women's business, is going on there. So, all the men and boys know that they're going to turn away from that, you know, so from seeing that, that's Right Story. Wrong Story is not that signal, it's the noise that comes in, like, you know, ‘Very recently, since the 1970s, women have been freed for the first time in human history due to the miraculous technology of the birth control pill’. It's wrong story. It's just wrong story. Like, yes, it's a miraculous technology, but it's the meaning that people assigned to it. So, it can be true. The birth control pill has freed up a whole heap of women in the industrialized era, you know, from communities that have been forced into cities over the last century and into a system of nations, because that's only a century old. Yeah, their birth control pill has been handy, to help women be able to step up and be slaves equally, to work and grind, and get their grind on, learn and earn at the same pace as everyone else. That's awesome. That is true. That is a fact. Doesn't mean it's a true story in origin, it is Wrong Story to turn around and say that's for the first time in human history, and therefore women have been just wretched, wretched beings for the last half million years. It’s ‘Wrong Story’.

ASTRID: In this work, you model wrong story. You know, we've been talking about that initial story about the wrong canoe, but it happens throughout the work. In every chapter you engage in making practices and like your previous work, Sand Talk, you do create for every chapter.

TYSON:  Yeah, that's how I compose, that's how I write by carving objects first, and then I translate from the objects into English print.

ASTRID: I don't quite know how to phrase this. You know, I'm limited by my language choice, and I'm grasping here, but that almost feels like you did a violence to yourself having to put yourself through things that are wrong.