And assistant professor at AIUB, Barendra Lal Tripura, and I had gone to Alice Springs in Australia on 17 August, at the invitation of First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN). Baren is a Tripura language poet and writer.
The conference lasted for three days from 18 to 20 August. On the first day, there was a poetry recital session in a hall room of Alice Springs. The stage was very basic and surrounded by people of all ages, including the elders. They were enjoying poetry, standing around, leaning the coffee shop or even sitting on the floor.
Almost all of them are involved with writing, some way or another. Some had their books published already while, some were waiting for their books to be published and some others have received awards for their literary work or poetry. Amidst a gathering of such people, the two of us invited from Bangladesh were ‘international delegates’, in their words.
Young Australian poets there recited poems of love, separation, sorrow, joy, rebellion, screams and emotions. The older writers recited in a softer voice. Most of these poems were in English with a few in the language of the aboriginals or the First Nations. The reason for the First Nations’ language going extinct is that this ancient nation from 60,000 years ago has lost a lot including their land in the course of history.
Initially upon listening to several poems, I had formed the notion that their poems would only trace out their agony, sorrow and lamentation of losing their lands, identity and culture. But no, I heard them reciting, ‘My country sings songs’. They speak of hope and dreams. A book of poetry titled ‘Kuraka’ was given to us. I found a short poem titled ‘Country’ written by Brenda Gifford in the book. She wrote, “The country is like music to me, so let’s all sing together.”
FNAWN chairperson, Henry Yvette Holt moderated the poetry session in a very easy, simple and lively manner. On a banner hung right beside the stage was written, “You are not just related to people, you are related to the country. And you look after that country you are related to just as you look after the people.” The quote has been borrowed from MK Turner. I refrained from converting these lines into Bangla for I might not be able to explain their inner emotion and sentiment properly.
Majority people in the First Nations Australia writers’ conference we attended were white people. They come from third to fifth generations of aboriginal people. They are talented and established in different fields. Some came from the Melbourne University, some from Sydney University, some from Adelaide or some others from Brisbane. Some of them are involved in filmmaking or in the media, some in publication or other businesses.
From Brisbane came a woman who writes novels. Her first novel will be published next year and she was extremely excited. Her name was Angie Fey Martin. She told me that after working as a government employee for 14 years, she is now concentrating on writing. Her husband is a university professor.
In Australia, stories of the aboriginals or First Nations, especially biographical stories are now popular and valuable in the publishing industry. Going to the event, I realised how important and joyous it is to write literature and poetry as well as to be involved in creative work, being within a developed culture in a developed country.
We stayed in Alice Springs with the people of First Nations for four days in total. Their struggles and their way of speaking, their culture of listening to others in pin drop silence, their spontaneous participation in humor, respecting and appreciating others’ opinions, mentality of helping others, high thoughts and values of the poets and writers- it all invoked a different sort of likeness and learning in me.
Even after the century-long injustice and deprivation, aboriginal people have opened horizons of possibility before them.
On 13 February of 2008, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology to the aboriginal people on behalf of the whole nation for their ‘past mistreatment’. In fact, special allocations as well as new plans have been adopted for the development of the first nations.
Let's end the article with an incident on our Qantas flight. We flew from Sydney on 17 August for Alice Springs. It was 3 hour 20 minute flight. In the afternoon when we were about to land, the pilots made an announcement: “Dear passengers, we will shortly be landing in Alice Springs, which is the ancestral land of the Aranda people.”
We found out later, at the beginning of any significant event in Australia, public or private, tribute is paid to the contributions and traditions of the ancestors of the First Nations. Four days later when we took the flight from Alice Springs to Darwin, the pilot again announced that we were landing on the ancestral land of the Larrakia First Nations.
No matter how formal or small this recognition is, it’s in no way trivial for the community which bears the brunt of century-long deprivation and oppression. That’s how paths of new possibilities are opened in the world.
*Sanjeeb Drong is a columnist and cultural activist