I was in Adelaide when the reality of COVID-19 struck Australia. Melbourne had been my home for the previous year when I accepted an Adjunct Professorship with RMIT. My adopted mother had passed three days prior to Xmas and I was travelling back and forth between the two cities, spending time with my adopted siblings and finalising her affairs. It was a surreal dilemma. All my possessions were in the suburban home I shared in Doncaster. I tried to rationalise my decision before the state borders closed. In recent years I had suffered two severe bouts of pneumonia. I considered the risks had I caught the virus, and ultimately chose to stay in my home state with family. After a few weeks, as lockdown continued, I returned to my old residence in the mid-north of South Australia, to Koolunga, where I had established Australia’s first Aboriginal Writers Retreat in 2010.
I (re)enter an empty house. Every furnishing and trimming has been removed. Of course, the basic structure remains and I spend hours walking slowly through the maze of empty rooms. Echoes of my footsteps are the only noise inside. It is outside where the symphony of life sits, the constant trilling of birds that exist here, drawn by the narrowing neck of water that wraps around this tiny town, the dying visage of the Broughton River, once one of South Australia’s finest. Ambling, I retrace my steps from before. Walking old paths is restorative to my soul. I feel somewhat reassured in my decision, removing myself from the busy metropolis and returning to a natural place. The future of establishing a new life, with new networks and opportunities I so eagerly sought in Melbourne, drifts past like a cloud on a clear sky day.
I sit on the only chair in a large empty room. It is almost cinematic: polished floorboards covered with a sprinkling of dust, a frieze of cobwebs along the cornices of the 14-foot ceilings, all curtains removed from the grubby windows, a dead starling lying awkwardly in one corner. Outside the sun shines its beauty over this land, the land of the Ngadjuri, the land on which I was raised. I know this beauty in my heart; I witnessed this beauty as a little girl. Old memories dance like the dust particles that drift in filtering light. And I am drifting too, between the past I knew and an unknown future of pandemic. Days begin to pass and I have barely moved. My thoughts are idle; I am unable to define where my attention will land.
Family arrive, like a restorative faith. Their murmurs of love are all I need, all I ever needed. Social distancing is heeded, because together we cherish life. Too young, we have all become the matriarchs and patriarchs of our individual families. We are grateful our parents do not have to suffer the confusion of this time, to suffer more risks than they already faced every day as Aboriginal people in Australia. We are grateful they are at peace. And in their peacefulness, they guide us. Standing at the window I watch the silhouettes of birds in the dawn. Always they seek the highest branches, as if to honour and welcome the day. The syllables of a poem arrive like a sunrise, soft and soothing, settling my fears and emotional uncertainty in this strangeness of pandemic time. My thoughts begin to centre. Gently I rise to attentiveness.
In solitude, an open computer screen becomes a murder scene. The killing of George Floyd by the thuggery of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, USA, is screened to the world, the footage captured by distraught bystanders who were prevented from intervening by other police officers. Protests erupt around the world. The Black Lives Matter movement intensifies the ongoing Black Deaths in Custody protest in Australia. Hundreds of thousands of people rally in our cities. I remain in quarantine, after a quick trip interstate to gather my possessions. My sister live-streams the speeches from the rally held in Adelaide. The past and the present stand side by side, as the names of Aboriginal people who died in custody are remembered. Whilst I am isolated from my community, my heart is not. I am aggrieved and fearful. In the lull of the virus, a larger mirror appears, emulating disparity based on race. Our Prime Minister continues his catchphrase that we are all in these times together. His voice is silent as three inmates die in Western Australia. His choice of priority is evident. The increase of police presence on the streets is not a reassurance to us.
Not much happens in Koolunga. The everyday activity in this farming region continues, seemingly unaffected by COVID-19. I stay indoors, except to walk alone along the river. I have no social need outside my family. This is my priority. Weekend visits are my joy. Parcels of food are gratefully received, reciprocated with home-cooked meals. Our conversations centre on caring for family. We are the primary caregivers, responsible for our younger family members, as our parents and grandparents were. All attention is given to the sanctity of our homes. We must keep our children safe from the threat of the pandemic. The threat of police brutality is of equal measure. We encourage our children to stay at home. I stand inside, watching from the windows. My siblings and cousins ring in almost every day. Our emotional health is paramount. We are united in our effort to protect our young. My thoughts wander to the caregivers who work on the frontline, providing essential care during the pandemic. Again the computer screen reveals heroic stories from overseas, amid the deaths of so many. I begin to question my comfortable security.
Joy Harjo is the current US Poet Laureate and my friend. As a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, sister Joy published a response in The New York Times to the announcement of the recent McGirt v. Oklahoma decision: ‘because of an 1866 treaty that the Creek Nation signed with the United States much of Oklahoma is still sovereign tribal land’. In her article she shares a poignancy from her Elders, that ‘justice is sometimes seven generations away, or even more. And it is inevitable’.
These words remind me that as an Aboriginal woman my comfort is not secure; it is as fleeting as any reflection. My family story over the generations has always been filled with conflict and uncertainty, from the testing of atomic bombs on traditional land at Maralinga in my Grandmother’s years, to the Stolen Generations’ removal episodes as experienced by my mother, myself, and my son. There will always be doubters and distractors to our story; the current retelling of Aboriginal history in Australia has always failed, short of our truths.
My decision to share my personal story through literature has been paramount to my emotional and holistic health, the cathartic telling guided by many senior healers and law-holders from my traditional land in the central desert. The thought that justice is inevitable is overwhelming to me, although I like to think I’ve always held that hope.
I find the mirror of COVID-19 challenging. The abuses of racial injustice seem more prevalent, as isolation reduces human contact and we are reduced to the media and online screens. When police in Sydney assault a young Aboriginal teenager, his parents speak out. I know them; I call his father Uncle, and his mother performed with me on stage at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Every week I hear about racial abuse inflicted on people I know. I hate when I cop it. This country is filled with so much prejudice and unresolved sadness. My tactic to escape this idiocy in Australia was to travel. Over the past seven years since closing my Writers Retreat, I travelled extensively nationally and overseas. I stayed close to social circles where I felt safe. I copped a few racist comments overseas, although my friends were always quick to defend me. Mostly in Australia, there is a silence, and we are perceived negatively if we defend ourselves. It is tiring and I was tired. My time overseas allowed a necessary respite from the incessant hurt. It is a wonderful feeling to live without fear of reprisal in the everyday.
The pandemic has allowed me good time to rest in my isolation. I slept for twelve hours every day for the first month of lockdown. I cleaned my house and began to renovate. It became essential for my living environment to reflect my mental state. Slowly I built my fortress, a new place of safety for my family. Our role as caregivers is with us for the rest of our lives. The virus will continue to grow as an intense mirror. It will reveal disparity based on caregiving. We all have this role despite the difference in our stations. I know a silence will exist between the givers and takers, evident even when united in death. The sun will continue to rise even if we are looking outside from our windows. Many tears will be shed. Many more prayers will be spoken with love toward the sky. My attention will be focused there. And on the road, waiting for generations of my family to arrive.
Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal poet Ali Cobby Eckermann is the author of seven books, including the verse novel Ruby Moonlight, and the poetry collections Inside My Mother and the memoir Too Afraid to Cry. In 2017 she was awarded Yale University’s Windham Campbell Prize in Poetry. In 2018 she was awarded a Literature Fellowship by the Australian Council for the Arts.