In February 2021, Bruce Pascoe published a new book, Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia, co-authored with Vicky Shukuroglou. In the course of our Green Library series, we were lucky enough to chat to the acclaimed author of Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture about this earlier book and his work cultivating Aboriginal farming methods on his farm in eastern Victoria. This is the second part of the interview, find the first one here.
Lucy Gasser of poco.lit. (LG): One of the things that I found made Dark Emu such a compelling read was its register: it encompasses an almost breath-taking array of research across multiple disciplines, but it isn’t jargony or academic sounding. How do you see or frame yourself and the work that you do: you describe yourself as a writer of fiction, but you also seem to be a researcher, a scholar, a story-teller, an activist and a practitioner… Is there a driving motivation that unites these pursuits for you? Or would you frame what you do altogether differently?
Bruce Pascoe: I had a huge desire for justice, which once again came from my mother and father, who are the most just people I’ve ever met. That became the standard for me. But also I’m a writer; I’m a fiction writer; I like to write as well as I can. I love words. If you can’t tell a story about important things without using jargon, I don’t think you’re a writer. There has to be artistry. Just as in Aboriginal life, where stories are told with such compelling detail and with such beauty of language, there’s no excuse for using bad prose. But universities seem to revel in it.
LG: In Dark Emu, you describe an aquaculture complex on the Darling River at Brewarrina that is possibly amongst the oldest human-made structures on earth. Could you tell us more about this, and are there any communities using these designs today?
BP: The fact we can’t say for sure that it’s the oldest human construction on earth is because the government withdrew funding for that study. If you could prove that – and it will be proven eventually – you could buy ten jumbo jets as an enterprise, fill them with Americans and Chinese and bring them to Australia every day of the week just to observe the world’s oldest human construction. But such is the power of religion and colonialism, that we refuse an economic benefit. We withdrew funding when it seemed obvious that this was a very important world structure – whether it’s the oldest or not, it’s a very important structure. But because of colonialism, you could not drag an Australian to that structure with ten horses, because we are so resistant to the idea of Aboriginal excellence. Colonialism is a powerful tool, and religion is even more powerful.
LG: And are these practices in use today?
BP: We’re trying to reinstate them culturally. Just three weeks ago, we were at Wallaga Lake and looking at a structure that was absolutely ingenious – the building for humans without steel machinery, to move stones ten times the weight a human could lift without a device – a device was created to move these stones to create a weir in the water. It’s primary advantage was to use the power of the sea, so that fish could be caught in that way. We are trying to reinstate that, so that we can put the stones back in place that have been bulldozed out of the way. And we want young Yuin men and women to be able to use that weir. Things like that are happening all over the country now. Aboriginal people are reasserting their rights to practice. Our ambition is that we can set that fish trap to work again, and that Aboriginal people can catch fish in that way and sell that fish, and at the same time, tell that story of the fish trap to Australia and the world. And once again the world will likely take up that offer much more quickly than Australians.
LG: Could you tell us a bit about Dark Emu’s first publisher, Magabala Books?
BP: Magabala Books is an Aboriginal publishing house in Broome, Western Australia. Google that, you’ll find that’s in an inconvenient part of Australia, very remote, beautiful town, wonderful people. It’s an Aboriginal-owned enterprise. Two of the biggest publishing houses in the world knocked back Dark Emu before Magabala picked it up. I’m so proud of that. Magabala was very quick to take it up. The book has been very successful, and Magabala, after having looked after my first five or six novels, and not made any money from them, suddenly had a success. It’s been very good for us. I now don’t feel guilty about how Magabala looked after me in the early days, and they are able to expand their operation. But what Australia needs to know, and what the world needs to know, is that this is an Aboriginal publishing house. They’ve produced some incredible books and are preserving culture, promoting culture, creating new writers, new artists. And, as with Young Dark Emu, creating designers.
LG: Did you, and did Magabala, anticipate the enormous success of the book, or did it come as a surprise?
BP: Well, I did, and I told them. When Dark Emu first came out, I told them: You’re going to have to print 10 000 of these. They said no and printed 1 500, because they’re cautious; they’ve got no money. But I knew it was going to be successful because I knew the reaction I was having from Australians. It might sound like I’m being harsh to Australia, but Australia has changed its mind. There are thousands of Australians wanting to investigate the past, who are sick and tired of being told drivel about the history of the country.
A lot of Australians are now investigating the truth, and that is what is driving Dark Emu: it is being driven by the curiosity of Australians. And if we are ever to do anything in education, we must save curiosity.
LG: My impression of one of the larger arguments that Dark Emu makes is that a better understanding of history could help to make a more just present and a more sustainable future. In what specific ways, related to what you do in the book, would you go about producing a more just present? And what might a more sustainable future look like?
BP: Well, I think: we promote curiosity. So people aren’t believing the unbelievable. What this farm is doing is, we’re growing the old grains, that those ‘explorers’ saw the Aboriginal people growing. We’re growing the old tubers. As soon as I finish this, I have to go and harvest seed because that seed is gold for us. We’re growing plants from this seed in order to show Australians that we can grow our vegetables in a far more sustainable way.
We also have an educational purpose. We’re not here to read out the bible, or to read out a textbook. We are here to talk about ideas, to inspire curiosity so that we might have a better world, have a more just world – this is what it’s all about. The fact that we’re growing that grain is to produce a better world, a more sustainable environment and agriculture. But really, it’s about people and justice, so that Aboriginal people can again become part of society in this country, both economically and spiritually.
I think there are sites in this country – and I don’t want to brag – within twelve months people will know, that the oldest village in the world is in Australia, and that means that Australians invented society, along with architecture, the canoe, and art. What it also says is that it is possible for humans to develop a society where they do not go to war. If we can show that in this country, there was a different philosophy that insisted that you do not go to war for land, it changes everything. It makes land more sustainable, it makes our population come under control because we can’t just keep stealing land and growing more people, because if we’re responsible for a portion of the land, we’re also responsible for the people on it.
The Green Library series was supported by the Berlin Senate, and sought out authors who write about nature and the environment, while reflecting on colonial contexts and power structures.