Feeling country: Debra Dank’s award-winning ‘We Come With This Place’

June 8, 2023
Debra Dank Stella Prize
'We Come With This Place' was also long-listed for the 2023 Stella Prize. Photo: stella.org.au

We Come With This Place
By Debra Dank
Echo Publishing, 2022

It is easy to understand why Debra Dank’s 2022 book, We Come With This Place, from Echo publishing, won several categories in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It is an important book in these times when Reconciliation is on the political agenda. It is also a challenging book, sometimes amusing, often confronting but always surprising. Above all, the mode of the telling is faithful to Indigenous ways of understanding and storytelling. It presents windows to a world which ought not to seem exotic to any Australian, but which should open minds.

As if it is not enough for readers to be told that it is important to read country, Dank goes one step further and asks us to feel country. She is gentle about this. When teaching her husband, Rick, to “see” turkeys in the shadows for example, she tells how his instinctive relationship to the surf he enjoys provides a link between them. Reciprocity is an important concept in Indigenous thinking.

In chapter after chapter we are invited to come down out of our heads and to feel our way. There is a powerful pull leading us through time and space to unite with our own ancestors. A young boy seems to have a mature attitude to his life and learning and we read that “he lived humbly through the generosity of country and the wisdom of the old people”.

The narrator advises us that “I know that the essence of who I am, my kujiga, and where I belong, come from the shadows and whispers that I see and hear and feel when I am on country”. This is a two-way relationship, as people sing their spirits into the country as well. Her Mimi’s voice “was almost physical in the way it surrounded you and touched you from your skin through your ears to your heart”.

She thanks animals when they provide food for people. There is a deep respect for everything contributing to her life. There is also a caution about ensuring that key features such as waterholes are not left uncovered in ways that allow people who might not appreciate them to find them. Knowledge about such sites is protected but the elders have special access. Colonists think they can read country but their inability to feel it limits their perception.

Dank tells a specific narrative of her Gudanji and Wakaja heritage and does not try to speak for all Indigenous peoples or to describe their experiences. She begins with a creation story about three mermaids. In his foreword, Dr Tyson Yunkaporta says that “we are our stories”. The Water-women told the first stories and so “grew the country”. Gudanji people became one with the land not by sitting back and listening to stories so much as by feeling the very sand and earth with their feet.

Dank reports the impacts of invasion powerfully. There are vivid descriptions of the barbarity suffered directly by the Gudanji — beatings, rapes, murders and exploitation — and indirectly through destruction of country, which continues today. There are stories of the alien bureaucracy which imposed a heartless definition of humanity while driving people into missions and breaking ancestral lines through stealing generations.

As the Gudanji could not be separated from their country, the songlines have survived. This is a deeply spiritual book, generous in its sharing and brilliant in its narrative style. Just as we consist of our stories, we also consist of the places which the stories permeate. If more of us appreciated that we are a crucial generation who must maintain our own songlines, perhaps we would leave our descendants a future with genuine options and a healed earth, rather than a world closed off by global warming, species extinction, wars and inequality.

Everyone should either read or have read to them We Come With This Place.

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