Kim Scott interviewed for the City of Cockburn Aboriginal Oral History Project (2001)
The City of Cockburn Aboriginal Oral History Project records and summarises the oral histories of eleven indigenous people with a custodial or cultural connection to the Cockburn district. In this interview with Dr. Leonie Stella, author Kim Scott explains how he came to write his novels Benang and True Country, and he talks about his ideas on community participation and explains his reasons for living in Coolbellup.
This is an edited transcript of the interview with Kim Scott, speaking with Dr. Leonie Stella at Coolbellup on 27 August 2001.
Leonie Stella (interviewer): Kim, could you state your full name, and date and place of birth?
Kim Scott: Kim John Scott, sounds like morse code – I was born on the 18th of the second, ‘57, and I was born in Perth, Bassendean somewhere, Midland or Bassendean.
LS: I thought I would start by just asking you how you came to be living in this Cockburn area?
KS: I have only lived here for a few years, I came here when my kids started school, one in year one and one in year two. I was living in Beaconsfield before that, for a couple of years before that. So I moved here for my kids schooling which is a bit unusual, I think.
LS: Mmm, I don’t think it is that unusual, really.
KS: No? I thought it was a bid odd.
LS: Mmm, which school are they going to?
KS: They were at Beaconsfield Primary, and now they are going to the little one here, Coolbellup Primary.
LS: And was there a particular reason for that move?
KS: Yeah, it was mainly that there are more Nyungars at this school, there was a few at Beaconsfield, but only two, or one other family in the same sort of year or grouping as my kids, and at Coobie about 50% are Nyungars. So I thought that there was a better chance of their getting language happening at this school, which has happened. They introduced it last year, so yeah that is the reason, yeah.
Language at school
LS: Who is doing the language at the school?
KS: Charmaine Winmar Hayden I think she is calling herself now, and she was doing it at Hammie [Hamilton Hill school] as well. And that is a passion of mine also, you know, to regain culture and so on.
LS: And for the tape, would you like to explain why ?
KS: Um, language?
LS: Yes, because this tape is going onto the local library shelf for the people of the future.
KS: Yeah, well for me it is mainly personal. I am reasonably adept at English, because I work as a writer, but a lot of close work with language makes me think about the importance of language, and I am really committed to the cultural regeneration I suppose. And it seems to me that language … what interests me is not only accessing ways of thinking of ancestors and trying to get beyond the damage of the last few generations, or going back in the interests of continuity but I am also really interested in sort of belonging, if you like. And it seems to me that if I can learn to …, if I can once again remake the sounds of Nyungar, then it is like one remakes oneself from the inside out in the language of this country.
And I try to think about dialect as well, you know? There is an old lady out at Armadale who is really important to me now, psychologically and in all sorts of ways, we are the same people – she has told me this – and she has got a direct …, she was on a farm until the 1970s when equal pay came in and people were thrown off, you know, along the South Coast there. So yeah I think about remaking, and I mean obviously we have got to work with language and we have got to fuse all those dialects and everything together, but for me it is really – and this has only been in the last 5 years I suppose that I have had any access to like old songs and that dialect thing, anything other than just archives or just bits of swearing basically – so that is the sort of stuff I want to get into. And I can’t do it on my own, so somehow … And I haven’t really got enough of a powerful presence as an individual to make things happen, so the only way I can do that is … I want to be a participant I suppose.
So that is to do with moving to a suburb like this, and the kids going to this school, and trying to do something. I am on the District Education Office committee, whatever it is called – Aboriginal Education Advisory Council, which is mainly [consultative] and not a very creative role, but it is a step towards being a participant in these sorts of things that should happen. You know, I think. So maybe it has a really personal dimension to it but I write about those sort of things I suppose – personally. And I don’t know how I share that on a local level really.
LS: No. I was going to suggest, if that is OK, that if this goes on the library shelf and people haven’t read your books, or know who you are, you might like to tell me how you came to write True Country?
Writing and teaching
KS: True Country? I came to write that one because when I started teaching was when I started writing. Because I had a lecturer who said if you are teaching people to do things, you should be doing it yourself. He actually meant Action Research, but I misunderstood him for a couple of years. So I started trying to write fiction, and poems and stuff for publication getting really serious, and to understand how the publication system works, and you know? And then with True Country, well in the early days of teaching I went to the South West , and I grew up thinking of myself as being of ‘Aboriginal descent’, I didn’t know Nyungar or what, you know? But my Dad had said that is the best part of you and so on, so all these things started coming together.
LS: So there was a clear and open acknowledgment of your Aboriginality in your childhood?
KS: Yeah, but a very … ah, it was strong and important, but also very weak – my Mum is not Indigenous, and my Dad was an only child born to a woman in Ravensthorpe which explains how Benang opens up in that epigraph [published after True Country]. So with True Country, I found this family name, my grandmother’s name, and I saw it connected with Benedictine missions – New Norcia, and my Dad had been in New Norcia for a while, I knew that, and I found this name in the Kimberley, co-incidentally, so I went and taught in this place, thinking I was … well maybe this was what it was all about, but True Country comes out of that mishmash, you know, and so that’s sort of fiction but you can see that in there. But it wasn’t the link.
So Benang was the next one along, following on from those things, but I was going into the archives trying to work out family history in a different sense. So Benang is about a collision between me and the archives, I think, a little bit, you know. And then since then Hazel Brown has helped me consolidate some of my family research. I did the paper trail, but she has got other resources available to me. So living here come out of all that sort of stuff. It is close to where I have been living, because I came to Perth originally to go to Murdoch Uni…in the seventies, so I have been bouncing around the State, nearly all of it in fact.
LS: So have you decided to stop teaching full time?
KS: No, I haven’t decided to stop, but I resigned from … I was with the Education Department for 10 years, and I resigned because I had got a grant to write, and also it is a little bit frustrating sometimes, working in the [system or Department?]. I mean teaching is a good honest job and all that, I know, but it can also be quite frustrating in all sorts of ways, and also I am older than my Dad was when he died, and I have had this sort of writing thing happen which is, well for me, it gives me a chance to think things through and have a go at articulating my thoughts, so yeah, I resigned, But teaching is my fall back, it is my trade, and I rely on it for a job sort of thing. How are we going?
LS: We are going quite well… what about Awards you have earned? When I interviewed Joan Winch she gave me a profile which was very handy to include with the transcript.
KS: I have got a CV you can have.
LS: Good, yes …
KS: And in regard to awards, well True Country was short listed as Premier’s fiction – I remember that well, oh no, I won’t digress…
LS: Why not?
KS: Well, alright, I will, because I would like to. It was my first sort of literary thing, you know? I went to a literary dinner and the government at the time – the Arts Minister, and the Premier couldn’t make it to the presentation. This was about ‘94 I think, and whoever they had making the speech – I think it was the chauffeur! [both laugh] – I can’t remember, but whoever this clown was, he got up and said things like ‘well I don’t read very much myself, don’t read books’ and he was given the job of making the bloody speech! Oh, parochial, and Hicksville, that was what I thought. God, anyway, so True Country didn’t get any Awards but it got short listed for that, I remember that.
Benang got short listed for lots of things, and won the State Premier’s thing, the Fiction Section in the overall category. But I had a funny feeling when I was up there accepting that Award and I looked across to where they had previous winners or something I think on the wall – it was a funny thing because it was in the State Library, and it was about the archives, Benang, so it was a very ambivalent sort of, not really a full on pleasure, you know? Even though I love any sort of praise! But on the wall, yeah, they had Jack Davis, who was a great writer, a literary man to be grouped with, by implication, and they also had Colin Johnson which you know, there was all that tension there, and so yeah it was an ambivalent pleasure winning awards like that. I love it of course, but it is also … I remember reading some South American colonial writer saying we learn to mistrust applause because it may mean we are being too innocuous,[laughs], but you know, so I feel all those sorts of things. And when I sort of shared winning the Miles Franklin, last year I think, that was a similar sort of thing. Especially because Miles Franklin said something about ‘we need an Indigenous literature in this country’ – I am not meaning to get stuck into her because she was in a different time, but she was thinking a very different thing and so that made that very complex too.
LS: Yes, and sharing it too…
KS: Yeah, and what does Indigenous Literature mean? Am I just handing stuff over, handing understandings over in a passive way? I don’t think that is what I do, but you know, you wonder about whether you are that convenient face of Aboriginality, and all that sort of thing. And then just this last weekend I won the RAKA Award, Kate Challice RAKA Award [University of Melbourne, Koori Award] which is an Award given to Indigenous Artforms, the different Artforms or Artwork by Indigenous persons. And this year it was for Indigenous writing. So it was great. It was very flattering to be in that sort of company – Doris Pilkington was one of those previously recognised, and I value her a real lot. And she has been very kind and generous to me in other ways, and I know with her writing one of the things – I have seen her speak and write very eloquently about how legislation and policy in the twentieth century made this big divide on skin colour. She talks really powerfully about a division between her and her sister, I think, her sister being much fairer, and the pain of that. So it is very flattering to be with her, and Boori Prior, was on the short list, and he is a very generous big hearted man I reckon, and Melissa Lukaschenko, and Alexis Wright – now I have got to make sure I get all the names! Steve McCarthy, who I don’t know, Bruce Pascoe was on the short list, and because I value all those people, and because it is an Indigenous Award, it means a lot – and some of those other issues I was talking about [aren’t a problem], so it matters, and they have Aboriginal representation on the panel, so yeah, that’s gettin’ there. I don’t know if you can ever be completely full on – you know, a one hundred percent pleasure, but that probably speaks as much as anything about my own paranoia, and stuff like that.
LS: And about your individual personality and how you feel about praise and achievements and that sort of thing?
KS: Yes, and also that whole business about those with whom you identify are a minority of your readership, you know. And sometimes, maybe a book like Benang becomes like a sort of artefact I think, and the sort of talk that happens around it becomes of equal significance. And how I present myself locally, at the same time as I am getting this sort of praise – well I don’t know how that sort of works out eventually, but that is sort of part of the funny prickly ambivalence or whatever you say. Yeah, so that’s about the Awards, and that all matters to me. That book, Benang, is written in the context of fraud, hoax and appropriation really, I think, and about also the context of certain sorts of posturing, and about culture and stuff like that. That is very much why it is written, but to begin with a very small position and give away a lot of ground I think, and to acknowledge my own lack of cultural authority, although at the same time there is no ground zero – we can’t get it like it was, so it becomes really necessary, I think, to just speak from where you are.
And I think that is really important too, that is not to say I am weak or anything, and it is certainly not to talk about being ‘part’ Aboriginal. But I think it is to talk about, I don’t mind saying something like ngaitj Nyungar minditj – I am a sick Nyungar man, or a damaged Nyungar man. I don’t mind saying that, you know. And that’s a very different thing than saying ‘part’ Nyungar, or ‘part’ Aboriginal. And then starting from there well then I will tell you what I reckon, you know – that’s what my writing … that is what I try and do. And it is a cultural thing, I equate that with things like from a limited cultural understanding, where in old days people would get together and they’d … they wouldn’t say, but it was something like what is your Nyungar sound? You know? Natj Noonak Nyungar mai, something like that, “give me your Nyungar sound”, “give me your Nyungar song”. So I think of it like that. So they’d get together and they’d talk their way, their dialect, and it might not be the same as another Nyungar’s, and you show who you are. And in Benang when I have that bit about speak from the heart, that’s what that’s really about, in a coded form, you know? And the difficulty of speaking from the heart using the archives, that’s why I write literary stuff, you know? It is all prickly … and that is also my interest in Indigenous language, it is a very different thing to say in Nyungar something about who you are, as it what it is using English, or the language of the archives. It is very powerful I find, to be working towards speaking Nyungar, which is what my own situation is. Whereas it is quite tricky to be or speak powerfully in English because of all the stuff that is in it. I am getting a little bit …. well [laughs]
LS: Well we can change tack if you like?
LS: Just want to watch the end of the tape… The local community – and community is a funny word I know – but the people who live in Cockburn, and Coolbellup, Aboriginal people who you have met and know, are there particular people who you could inform me about, not speaking for them, but in terms of this being a project where we are identifying community leaders and what they have done?
KS: Yeah, there is one woman lives locally, Heather Vincenti who I really value, we are sort of half doing a collaboration that she wanted to do but it is partly just yarning and talking about stuff. She is a sort of archetypal stolen generation sort of person. There are big issues about where she fits in and belonging, and there has been a lot of damage and pain in her family, so she is a neighbour, she lives a block or two away. Who else locally?
LS: When you mention her that is because of a personal connection?
LS: Does she have a particular role in an organisation?
KS: Oh, well we are on the ASPA committee. It is like an Aboriginal P & C, I am not sure of the acronym but it is for students and parents…
LS: Did you meet through the school?
KS: Yes through ASPA… sort of like a P & C and they try and promote an awareness and engagement of parents, and to help, like with homework classes and stuff like that. So I think that is how we met or just through walking to school. And there are other people on the committee that I know and work with but she is probably the closest because we share similar issues, I suppose, I suppose. And sometimes when she hears things that I say, publicly or privately, she will be very supportive of them, and so that is nice, you know? And there are others on the Aboriginal Advisory Council, I work with and there are connections there with AEW, or AEIOs [Aboriginal and Islander Education Workers] that I participate in. And language classes that go on locally, Nyungar classes at the Meeting Place, and there are people from the TAFE belong to those, and as part of their education, I suppose. And one of the AIEOs teaches at the moment, previously they had someone else teaching it. And I think there is one or two others that just rock along like I do because we are in to it, rather than it being part of a course we are doing, but its a community sort of thing. What else do I do locally? I don’t know. I mean most of my linkages are like that, because of how I have come into the community, it is through writing, or education. An infrastructure that is part of their – I am in Yorganup – that’s a division of Family and Children’s Services. I – it is a lovely title, I don’t know how accurate it is, because I am just a – I am a registered community care giver, or community carer or something, funny term …
LS: My understanding of Yorganup was that it was founded so that more Aboriginal parents could be the foster parents of Aboriginal children…was that it?
KS: Yeah, so we – my missus and me fostered a couple of little kids for – I don’t know how long, under a year I think, earlier this year I think. They moved onto closer family I think, they were not family of ours as such. So yes, I am on their books and it is really just being available. I mean it all has to fit in with our family circumstances as well, so it is not a carte blanche thing but I make myself available those ways. And of course I have got some involvement with some of the Universities, and that’s a sort of linkage thing. I used to work fulltime at some of the Unis but now I just do little bits, and those sort of things. I try and be useful, and I am on the Arts Council as well but that doesn’t really spin off as yet, I am just on the little Committee thing. But I would like to think that some of those activities of mine might be a building thing, scattered around, what you can do. but I am not really someone who makes things happen, I am not a mover and shaker, like Lennie, for example.
LS: Could you name a few others in this area who make things happen?
KS: Well Lennie Collard makes things happen! And I think someone like Sue Pickett, I call her Auntie when I am talking to her, but Mrs. Sue Pickett, and Mrs. Heather Vincenti who I also call Auntie when I am talkin’’ with her. They have the potential to make things happen, but they aren’t really in on the infrastructure. Auntie Sue has been involved through birdiya and all that sort of stuff, but she has great potential to make things happen, as I think Margaret Wynne who is the AEIO at Hammie High, she makes things happen. And that is partly through her credibility at a community level, and then with Lennie it is also that being in the infrastructure, and being much more confident, or assertive or aggressive or he will take people on, much more than what I am able to I suppose. And the Wynne’s make things happen locally. Some of the Wynne’s like Dean, and Eric Wynne who is the ATSIC Commissioner. They have the potential to make things happen. But I think Lennie is a major man, I mean obviously you attract flak for being like that as well, and I think Margaret Wynne is a major one too, she has had Bands – musical bands and dancing – happening at the school level, and it would be nice to have some of those people working together but it doesn’t always happen, for whatever reason. Saul Garlett is obviously someone who can make things happen…
LS: Saul, is that Sealin?
KS: Yeah, Saul…
LS: Yes, I have been trying to interview him but it has been impossible, he is so busy.
KS: Yeah, but I haven’t been involved in the stuff he has, but he has language happening recently, I think. So I am aware that there is lots of potentialities for how things could really get going, but they don’t happen I s’pose because of the different sorts of damage that has been around, you know, at the community level, and also personally. So those are some that I am aware of in the area. And I think all of the AEIOs are really powerful…
LS: It is a really important role isn’t it?
KS: Yeah, and it is amazing for me from my perspective that that doesn’t happen better. And I can think of things, and plans and that where they could get better but like I said initially, I am not in a position to really get that going, other than as a participant, being part of something that is going on… And I have great hope and faith – possibly – [laughs] that you can get things happening, that things will get happening, given that it has been so recent that there have been opportunities for this sort of stuff to happen. And there are all sorts of cross faction, or cross – and there are so many different energies, and different pulses bouncing around at the one time that might settle down I think and consolidate. And in fact all of this stuff that I am talking about, one of the things that really interests me, and why I suppose I am sometimes … Sometimes, you know, when we first started talking about writing and how there is an ambivalence, or a perverse sometimes pleasure in terms of who am I working for, or who am I being useful for.
One of the things that I like to be involved with is the consolidation of culture – whatever that means – in community, and community is a funny thing, but that’s what I like to be in on, that’s what I like to be participating in – language is part of that – and different sorts of cultural forms, I suppose. And through writing, in a funny way that is something I like to talk about, as someone who is pretty well damaged, disconnected, all that sort of stuff, but not weak, not anybody’s sort of kick around victim fella, you know? So on that level what I am talking about is consolidation of culture, and spirituality, and return to community. I try and do that sort of stuff myself, I think that is important. Then from that empowerment that comes from those sort of processes then start sharing it with a wider community – that’s what it is about.
Consolidation is about working out little things like who you are, what land and what country you fit in with, working out your own family history, understanding other people’s histories, on a really local level – starting off from a really small thing. And then just a funny thing that I do ends up being a public sort of way [things are done] I suppose. And then when I am speaking, sometimes I feel as if I am speaking over people’s heads to other audiences, but that doesn’t mean you are ignoring or indifferent to those closer audiences – if that makes sense? So that’s the difference with living in Cockburn too, I think. So any different groupings that you are working with you can try and be useful with the sort of tools and talents that you have available, eh?
LS: Yes. I will just turn over the tape here…
On identifying as Nyungar
LS: When you were growing up did you know any of your Nyungar family?
KS: No not really. There were people that must have been close, known where we fitted in, like the old fella over the road used to bring kids to stay with us while their parents were in trouble, so the kids wouldn’t get taken away, you know. There was some family that I knew about but they don’t identify as Nyungar. They were caught up in …
LS: Your ‘runaways’ [referred to in Benang]…?
KS: Or whatever, whatever, you know? Um, and so that is a really tricky little thing to talk about, and there are very few forums to talk about that. But I think it is important, because I think in many Nyungar families there are … people will give you a Nyungar name, well known Nyungar name, often – in my understanding anyway – and they will talk about who the white such and such name is and who the black such and such name is, and that is not always to do with skin colour. And there are also issues, like I talked about before, about fraud, hoax and appropriation. There are issues about, you know, what are some of the terms that are used? Like those who are “crawling out of the woodwork” now, or those taking advantage of “the gravy train”, and I think it is worth while and useful to talk about that sort of stuff, but I am not sure what the forums are, other than the fact that it is in the context of abuse.
And the same with some of the stories and myths that are around about being Nyungar, for instance it can be about the warrior – and the warrior story is a very attractive one because it is a readily available one about who held the line and so on. But I know a lot of older Nyungars who are quite ready and open to talk about that, and who was identifying as Nyungar, and who was knowing Nyungars, you know? Who knows Nyungars now, and who knew Nyungars through those decades, and I think that is worthwhile talking about. And it is also worthwhile talking about the circumstances in which that was going on. And the efforts that were undertaken to fill people with shame, and the ways of articulating what it was to be Nyungar, especially when you lost your language for instance. I think all of those things are really useful things to talk about once you can get the appropriate forums, I don’t think those forums exist, not in any sort of adequate sense – for me And they would be Nyungar only forums,
LS: So do you think you can only do that informally, one to one, or …?
KS: Oh I think one of the ways you do that is you put yourself up as a bit of a target – to get knocked down, and get those words used against one. And when it comes, then you talk about it, and certainly… well once again, Benang – I may well be the first born successfully made white man in the family line! One way of presenting like that is to allow those things to be said, you know? But not overt, because it is like a subtext, ‘cause you don’t talk about that sort of stuff. I mean, I am doing it now, and maybe making a mistake in fact! But within the context of what we were talking about – Nyungar community I think, I don’t think this stuff necessary should get talked about in that big mainstream arena but when we are talkin’ local community level, these issues that are really important for all of us … And from an Aboriginal, not a Nyungar context, people come up to me, as a result of my writing and it is very gratifying to have Aboriginal people on a National community level say things like, ‘oh, we really like what you are doin’ there’, and I had Gary Foley say to me at this Award the other night, and he is a firebrand, I know him well through the media previously, a firebrand, wild sort of man, you know, different style to me altogether, saying a lot of us are listening to you, and really like your writing, and it is great what you are doing’. Those sort of things. And Hazel Brown in Armadale says to me things like ‘you make sure people know you are Nyungar, and you be proud of being Nyungar, and we are proud of you’ – she is talking from quite a thin strand of community I suppose, family – and “you just be who you are” – and I think they are really, for me, they are really really powerful confirmations to have. Especially from Aunty Hazel, but also from people like Gary Foley, and others. And some of the people on that short list, you know.
And I always hesitate to use names but people like Rosemary Van den Berg have been very supportive of me previously. And Aunty Judy Jackson, who passed away recently – her funeral is today – she has been really really lovely. And some of those people, Ralph Winmar who passed away a couple of years ago – I didn’t know him well – I only knew him a little bit, but he was very good to me too – as some of his family have been. So I mean that is why I think it is important to talk about all those things other than that other ‘dirty talk’ that I was talking about before you know. And that started with me talking about family, I know who are not … I mean I would think they are Nyungars but they don’t think of themselves [as Nyungars] and there are various reasons for that. Some of them are full of the available discourses, they are stuck in working class socio-economic situations and they know the racist talk and they have learnt to think that way, because that is all that is available to them. There are others who are probably full of shame, I think, that is part of the …. I think, because I am guessing, there are only a couple that I know about really, who would think, you know, that ‘gravy train’ talk, that to identify as Nyungar or Aboriginal would only be for financial benefit, that that’s all its about, you know. But I reject that stuff myself, but that is all they know, you see. And they’ll think, oh, we’ll get that flak, and they don’t know about history, and they don’t know much at all. And I think although it is not my place to be a spokesperson, I suspect – it sometimes seems to me – that for Nyungars generally there is a great paucity of ways of saying what it is to be Nyungar. And for many of our young people they think what it means is what the social indicators give ya’. You know?
The empirical evidence – and all that oppression stuff – it means going to prison, damaging yourself, and stuff. And as against that I look at heroes I have found in my research, and amongst people that I know too. I think that Aunty Hazel is a hero of mine, but people … I mean if we look at the stats., I reckon, that within 50 years of invasion 5 % of us survived. Five of every hundred are still standing up, and then as we know – I suspect you know – that 20th Century Legislation, that 1905 Act cuts in, and Benang is a lot about – in a fictional way – ancestors stuck in a place like Ravensthorpe where it would seem that people who were your kin – and this is what Aunty Hazel talks about to me – because we are the same family, she knows her grandfather was around and that they were all killed, and what are you going to do? In a post holocaust situation? You know? You stand up and you take ‘em on. You take ‘em on. There are even stories like in Albany, this fellow Mokare – [a leader who shared space and information with Europeans] its about being really really proud and really talented. Mokare’s story is that he is sitting there talking with a soldier in one of the little huts there, talkin’ with him, and another soldier comes in – a Scottish soldier – and Mokare looks to his Nyungar brother and sings a little Scottish song, which is a song that this fellow sings – and see how that connects to that Nyungar mai? This is my Nyungar sound – you sing your song, but so he was identifying … it is really Post Modern – and that is a powerful story for me. As is some of that stuff in Benang, it is not about shame. There is a story about someone else (who was a guide of John Forrest,) who was a very generous man and helped set up a few pastoral leases out around – a guy called Magill – and old Bobby Roberts who was an ancestor of mine, and of Aunty Hazel’s, was a guide for Roe, and there are all sorts of stories about him which are not in the archives so it is not for me to get into. But this fellow Magill, as he was known, was a guide for Forrest, one of them, from around about … traditional country of mine, I suspect, from around about Gardener River somewhere to about Israelite Bay, but then he stopped [wouldn’t go further], that was the finish of the circumcision stuff – thus the name Israelite Bay, in a coded way. He also helped set up pastoral leases, and then he was writing letters to the Coolgardie Miner in 1901 talking about justice.
And it is in a funny language, he is using the language of the English that he is stuck in, like many of us are now, and he is saying, ‘some of the black fellows, they are wild’, – he is not meaning they are savage wild – then he goes on, ‘they are wild because white people are comin’ in and shooting in the camps’. And then he is talking about who doesn’t give them proper change – the shop keepers – and elsewhere he is talking about ‘we really need some land, a little pocket of land left aside for us’. And that is a really sad story of betrayal I think. Great generosity, it’s not stupid, it is generosity and confidence, showing people things, and helpin’ them out, and then you are stuck in this little box they are putting you in, you know? And then he is still using them, the newspapers, and putting on dances, organising corroborees for a cash economy, really like tourism – in danger of being a performing monkey of some sort, but this is again some of my ambivalence about being a writer, and at the same time he goes out and lectures the townsfolk – saying ‘gees, you are stingy, we could do with a bit more money’ you know? That sort of thing, and this is our land, and you know for me that is a heroic way to be, and they are the 5 % – and having to take on the whole gambit of cultural sources available to you.
And that’s what I think we Nyungars … that consolidation and regeneration stuff needs to go on as well as doing all this other stuff as well. And the so called white ways can be accommodated within that big big long cultural background which is what has been imposed upon us, you can see what it has done to us, you can’t fit what ‘white society’ – to use these clumsy phrases – has said, or as the archives – like I said in Benang, have said, Australia’s Coloured Minority: their place in our community, [A O Neville’s words] – that is the language of the archives, you gotta fit in this little box, you gotta die, you gotta become white, and it just can’t be done. But I reckon if you put it the other way round, which is what some of these old time Nyungars were doin’, you can do it that way. And that is what I mean by regeneration, and Yagan, too, if I can talk about him. You know, everyone talks about the warrior thing, and he was a warrior, and a proud man, but there are stories of him earlier on where he attended a piano recital, and he is sitting there in his kangaroo skin cloak, presumably, with a cup o’tea, and I bet he had his little finger out, I bet he did [chuckles as he imitates a ‘gentleman’ raising his cup with little finger extended], and he is talking and there is a piano and it is in someone’s little room, you know? Was it his own people? I don’t know, that were feeding the farmers along the Canning River, otherwise they would’ve starved to death? I mean, they are sort of sad stories as well, but it is also about being really talented, and flexible, and adaptable and doin’ everything. They could do everything, you know. And again , Yagan’s story is one of huge betrayal. There are many stories I could tell of betrayal. And also, Salvador, or whatever his name was – sorry to keep going on, but these are heroes and I would love to …
KS: Salvado, yeah, I am bad with pronouncing names, I write too much, don’t speak enough, maybe! He talks in his diaries about a couple of Nyungar kids, and he showed them the alphabet, the Spanish Alphabet it must have been, yeah, and within – I don’t know the time, but I think it was ten minutes or something they were writing in the sand the alphabet! Writing it forwards, and writing it backwards, visual acuity – that is a cultural strength! And he talks elsewhere about showing someone a sextant, and he had been trying to show this sailor, white bloke, non-indigenous bloke, this sextant, for three months and they were getting somewhere, but he showed this kid, a ten year old boy, Nyungar boy and within the day or within the hour or something – I am probably exaggerating, but he remarked upon how quick these Nyungars could learn, you know.
And […]that’s what I am interested in thinking about, thinking about talent…. To think about what being a Nyungar is about where we are now, you know? And I worry about things like “Reconciliation” – “Aboriginal Reconciliation”, how come it is Aboriginal Reconciliation? What should we reconcile ourselves to? Does it mean we should reconcile ourselves to the status quo, and weep in public – I would hope not. I would. I think it means … about truth and justice, like South Africa, and if we were to whip up … I like the idea of bringing up those stories, those hero stories, and there are warrior stories amongst them, but I think a way for the future is … well some of the warrior stories seem a bit to me like they fit in too neatly with the Gallipoli story, you know? Noble warrior, go up there and get knocked down and fail, you know? And it is like they’re too convenient in some of those stories. I know the noble stories, and the heroes and powerful adversarial conflict but I think some of those other ones offer a much – for me anyway – offer or help me keep doing the sort of things I do, and aim at a future.
I am a bit tired today, that’s why I am rambling on – my brain is not working too well.
LS: Well, I think we have pretty well covered enough for this sort of interview, well just about, but what I like to do at this point – and if I ask anything inappropriate please say so – I like to include a biographical profile sheet because as a researcher myself I hate to go to the library, find a transcript and someone says my sister was a policewoman during the war, and then doesn’t name her sister – you know, that sort of thing. So I like to do this – I will fill it out and ask you the questions and you can see what you want to share or include on it. So your full name is Kim, just Kim?
KS: – yeah, Kim and John and that’s why I say it is like morse code – dot dot dot, Scott! I called my eldest boy Sebastian Christopher Oliver Scott, so there is a beat on every third syllable!!
LS: Yes, I interviewed Augustine Lindsay Oswald Hart!
KS: Ah,ha, beautiful eh? There is a Catholic influence there isn’t there?
LS: Yes, and I forgot to ask him about the Augustine…
KS: Yeah, I think that’s a Benedictine thing, I know that’s why in True Country I talk about that Benedictine mission stuff, there are lots of Augustine’s there.
LS: Your mum’s name?
KS: Barbara, her maiden name is Powell, and her name at the moment is Beckerleg, she is a widow now.
LS: And your dad?
KS: Tom Scott – my children are Sebastian born January 16, 1991 and Declan October 8, 1992.
LS: And Declan is Irish?
KS: That’s right, one of his grandfathers is Irish.
LS: And your partner?
KS: Reenie – Her maiden name is Kearney – Ms Scott in public, teaching.
LS: I would like to do a little bit about where you have lived – you said you were born in Perth?
KS: Yeah, but I grew up in Albany, we moved to Albany before I started school, I was about 3 or 5, three I think.
LS: What was your dad doing?
KS: Oh, God, I don’t know what he was doing –
LS: I was just thinking that you probably moved because he moved for work?
KS: No, he moved to get away – I think he moved to isolate my mother, keep her under the thumb in fact, he was a bit of a bungi man as we say! You know, but he worked for the Main Roads for a long time, in Albany, and I think it was an Aboriginal gang. I think so, because I know a lot of the fellows that worked on there – I think Clem Riley who is in ATSIC worked with him, or he knows him, and Glen Colbung worked with him, and Keith Wynne, and then after 10 years he went over to the Shire Council and Glen and Keith came with him as well. So I like to think that although my dad was really disconnected because his mum died when he was 10, his Nyungar mother, and he was, you know, brought up all over the shop, I like to think – I think he was going through his connecting work himself … Yeah yeah
LS: So a nice way for a man to connect is on the job?
KS: Yeah, yeah, and also that would have been in the sixties, quite early days of people moving into the work force I think, and I think it probably was that they put all the blackfellows in the one gang, and that would have been a tricky little thing he was doing there as well as connecting and stuff.
LS: Do you know Mr. Hart who I just mentioned?
LS: He lives just around the corner from here and for 34 years he has been employed with the Cockburn Shire building roads, he has just retired, but he told me he built all the roads around Coolbellup.
KS Yeah, so he [my dad] would have been moving onto the roads in a similar sort of time. So Dad used to be away for 10 days of every fortnight for quite a while until I was about starting High School, and then he died a few years later – he died when he was 39, you know. So where were we?
LS: Oh, High School – Albany?
KS: Yeah, so I was at Lockyer Primary School which was a good thing to mention because it is one of those socio-economic things,
LS: Working class suburb of Albany?
KS: Yes, very much the same sort of thing as Coolbellup, and the local pollie here – Alan Carpenter went to that school too, and I think he is a good man to have in Indigenous Affairs, yeah. Then I went to Albany High School, and I got a Commonwealth scholarship, so I am very lucky to have lived through that time in our history I think. Then I went to Murdoch University here.
LS: Did you do a teaching degree at Murdoch?
KS: Well I did Literature first up, I didn’t … I started at Murdoch in its second year of operation – 1976. I finished school and then I had a year off, working at the Shire where my Dad was the boss! And not working a fair bit in fact! Then I did a degree in Literature, didn’t come intending to do Literature, but ended up doing Literature because I thinkyou could spend a lot of time on your own. I think that’s what it was about. I was a little bit out of my depth a lot of the time, I was always very fortunate there that they had such a tiny student staff ratio and they had a lot of mature aged students, and they had Pass Fail only in first year. And they were quite flexible or sort of tolerant or something, you know? It was a different system to now. And that is again part of the window of opportunity stuff – being able to get through, you know? Moving away from home, and all that stuff was quite … And when I look back to that they are the formative years of being a writer, like working with paper, locking yourself away, and also failure … It is important to me not to fail, which is a funny thing. So anyway, that’s digressing again, I think.
LS: But still very useful for this project to have on tape. And after Murdoch you taught …
KS: Yeah, I taught at Kalumbaru, Community School, I taught at Narrogin High School – and that was a bit of a politicisation for me – I taught at Lynwood first up, Lynwood High School, and I taught at Melville High School – that was the last place I was teaching. Then I taught at Curtin, I ran a Course at Curtin University for a couple of years after that. I was seconded there, and I helped set up that Aboriginal Art Course at Curtin as well with my good friend Terry Shiosaki who did the cover for Benang – he is Yamatji.
LS: Can you spell that name for me ? And your other friend Heather Vicenti?
KS: [spells the names] There is a video about her and her son …
LS: Oh yes, I remember that.
[short piece edited here] How long did you say you have been in Cockburn?
KS: When my kids were in year 1 and 2 we moved here, so about 3 years I think.
Learning Nyungar language
LS: And you have learned Nyungar?
KS: Well I am learning, working on it, you know, Auntie Hazel is helping me with it, and I have gone to different sources when things are happening and I hear about it. And even sometimes when I am not invited, it depends who it is.
LS: Do you speak any other languages?
KS: Oh, I have had a bash, one time I learned French enough to read it, and dream in it, but that was only because I was at Uni and you don’t do it until the very end and they had an exam – I remember dreaming in French then. And I did Indonesian for a little while, or Malay in fact, and enough so I could have a bit of a conversation. So I think I am probably reasonably decent at working with language, I think.
LS: I have never done it but I have always felt that it must be really useful to learn how to learn a new language it helps with your own …
KS: yes, I did a Teaching English as a Foreign Language Course in London once, which I failed at – I passed the course but I didn’t succeed in getting a job or anything very well. And that was really interesting for that, see your grammar … I really, like with Nyungar I love working the grammar out, […edit] and I have heard some Nyungars say, oh it is simple language, you just … but it is not in fact, I don’t think … I think it is just so bloody gorgeously complex, and the suffixes do a lot of the work, like Latin – like they reckon Latin is, I don’t know Latin, but you know, subject object, perhaps even gender are indicated by the suffixes, it looks like – and it is just so bloody gorgeously musical ..
LS: Can you give us an example of that?
KS: Well I am not very good with language, not very good at speaking it – so to speak: wang or wangke different people say it differently. You know? But if we are speaking together: wangelanginy, wankelangainj, different people will say it differently. So I am not an expert, but a suffix like ang, [pronounced as ung] it seems, as in Ben-ang, Bennung, is light, or with light, or tomorrow, or future tense indicator Ben, Benang. Wangelanginy, which ever way you say it something like that, you use it for we are speaking together, – wang, wangk is speaking, wangel – I think the el, I think, I think, – ‘cause I am not a noted expert – is active. Like the thing, that’s you doing, is the wangk the thing is being done, sort of, its the active subject, wangel, wangelung is active, speaking active subject, with ‘we are speaking together’, and then some people would say wangelunginy, [ee] and some people would say wangelungainj, [i] and that’s sort of present tense continuing on, see? But isn’t it so pretty, isn’t it so pretty, – pretty- pretty, beautiful, and singing, you know?
LS: Yes, it is.
KS: Yeah, but there are many people around with much better Nyungar language than me,
LS: So, would you mind just repeating for me, what you said about the bird?
KS: Ah, yes, … in some dialects – in a dialect – if you are talking about a bird flying – different people say it differently – woorl kooliny like sky moving – or wa wa kooling I have heard people say, and its like birds’ wings moving – kwent-kwent, kwent-kwent, you know, kwent-kwent [links his thumbs and moves his hands as a bird flies] and you hear …, like when I talked before about the land talking, and you learn to make these sounds which I have done so inadequately, you re-make yourself from the inside out, in the spirit of the land, you …with the sound of the land, you reshape yourself – so for me it is a very spiritual and very powerful powerful thing. So I walk around talking Nyungar to myself, which is a very strange alienating sort of thing to do in many ways, but it is part of this. And I try and find opportunities to speak Nyungar. But I am not confident at all, and I write little poems – I write Nyungar now, and this comes partly from … ‘cause I am a writer, with pencil on paper, and I have to make up my own alphabet to get the sounds right.
And I met a Navaho Indian at the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of years ago, we were doing a reading together, and he talked about the importance of writing in his own language. And I think that’s a really – methinks – [laughs] that is a really really important thing to do. And you have to work out your own alphabet, I am trying to work out my own alphabet to make it fluent. And then I write songs in Nyungar. I am starting to write songs, I have got about four songs, because I play guitar and that. And I make up little poems, and stuff like that. It is not for publishing, but it will, I am sure it will inform my writing when I publish, but I wont be doing much of it, because I think it is an inappropriate process. Like Ben-ang again, that one word, finding the name of an ancestor, which is Benang, which is one name I found on a bit of paper – one spelling given to a name – Pinyarn [Pinjarn?] somewhere else. It means a real lot as against the archives, so language, and the ways of thinking contained behind it, and like I said before, the difference between saying I am part-Aboriginal, which is what English leads you towards saying, and it is a falsity, I think, versus you know ngaitj Nyungar minditj- I am a sick Nyungar [laughs] – I am a damaged man – but as soon as you say that you are healing I think. I think you are healing. And the profundity of saying something like – and again I am not real confident with the language, but ngayn yaarl kooling waam — I am coming towards you as a stranger, and to say that in Nyungar as a disconnected, dispossessed Nyungar, is really a deep thing to be saying. And nadjel, why? Whatfor? How come as a stranger? How come I come to you as a stranger? You know, so I think those sort of things in terms of negotiating a way back into community, to use that funny expression, and for me community includes ancestors, and includes that 95% that are not here, never got here, you know. And it includes a future, and it includes US damaged ones now, that are hanging in there. And so the language is really really, really important.
And the songs, when you hear songs – so Auntie Hazel says to me you’re wilo, you know, she knows what language is – and I don’t think she’ll mind me saying this, when she is saying wilo that’s us, wilomen- we are wilomin – but that is also the deathbird thing which is in Benang too – if you know it, but it’s a spiritual thing too. That’s how I am using that in the background somewhere, and just to start thinking all that through, and saying that in language – that is who I am. And [I ask] what does that mean? And you are chasing all that down, and it starts to … it is a different process you are doing, and it is just – and to sing a song, someone taught me an old song that’s got wilo in it, you know, and I hear that sound of that wilo, [and I ask] is it singing for me, is it calling for me – and I wont sing it now, but I like singing that, and getting that waa – and just keeping that going in my head for a while and it is a really powerful text ‘cause people say there is that deathbird business in there, but there is also your – that’s you, you know? That is your spiritual self, and how there is all sorts of contradictory forces going on in there, how we think about – in a contemporary sense the wilo, oh that’s that deathbird thing, but there is a whole different thing surrounding that. So it is about cultural literacy, they say. Like all the things you need to know and understand so you can make sense of just those few words of that song, trying to work all that out becomes really … you know, that is what I am about. That’s what I am about. And I would like to find ways of sharing those processes, but it has to be – little bit, little bit, you know, because of various factors, mmm.
LS: Does that feel like a good place to stop?
KS: I think so, I saw you looking at the tape and I thought, gees, its getting on, and I have to get to this funeral in a couple of hours.
LS: Alright, so unless there was something else that you wanted to add…
KS: No, I was relying a lot on your questions, and you saying whatever, but I think that’s probably ok.
LS: Alright, well thank you very much for your time this morning, Kim.
KS: Well that was nice, I hope it is what was wanted for the project.