After a forty year absence Amanda Webster returns to her hometown of Kalgoorlie in the hope of reconnecting with former school friends – Aboriginal kids from the local Kurrawang Mission. In doing so, she confronts her racist blunders, her cultural ignorance and her family’s secret past. And so begins her journey of reconciliation and friendship.
In 2012, after an absence of nearly four decades, I returned to my birthplace, Kalgoorlie, to reconnect with Bronwyn Newland, a Wongi woman, and Tony Ugle, a Noongar man, both former school friends. On the plane with me was Gregory Ugle, a Noongar elder and Tony’s older brother, whom I’d found through Forced Exile, Greg’s memoir.
Long before that trip to Kalgoorlie, the story I’d concocted as a child, of orphans rescued by benevolent missionaries for a happy-ever-after in Kurrawang Mission, had revealed itself to be as riddled with holes as the ground on which the gold-mining town stood. I wanted to know the truth of my former friends’ lives. I wanted to personally reconcile with them. And I wanted to figure out my responsibilities as someone who had grown up in that time and place, and who had, as I was to discover, a family history of racism. Through it all, Greg was to be my guide. My original meeting with him took place in Perth’s Kings Park. Tall with a heavy beard and a silvery nimbus of hair, he arrived late and, from the outset, seemed wary of my intentions.
I rang me brother Tony and said, ‘One wadjula yorga wants to talk to us about you.’ Wadjula means white; yorga means woman. So I agreed to meet Amanda. I wanted open country. Didn’t want to be blackfella meeting wadjula yorga because that might be jail, see. She come along and I looked at her and thought, ‘Oh shit, she’s only a little yorga.’ We yarned. She asked a lot of silly questions, about me and my family, about my story. If things would have got too hard with us, I would have just changed me phone number, changed everything and just walked away from it.
Finding out that an Aboriginal man had considered me a potential threat came as a surprise to me, but then there were so many things I had to learn, such as that asking direct questions is not the Aboriginal way. ‘We beat around the bush,’ Greg said a few years into the partnership that would make writing A Tear in the Soul possible. During that Kalgoorlie trip, Greg took me to Kurrawang.
The population in Kurrawang was made up of Wongi families that spoke a different language. We were invaders in their country. We were Noongars. We didn’t belong there. The missionaries didn’t see the behind-the-scenes torments and taunts. We had to defend ourselves. The missionaries treated us as if we were nothing. We were there to serve their Christian belief. We became children that were basically lost.
Brothers and sisters lived separately at Kurrawang, unable to speak to each other. Robbie, the youngest, taken at eighteen months, lived in the kindergarten unaware for years of the presence of siblings nearby, unaware even of his Aboriginality, until a white kid at school called him ‘black.’ The missionaries ruled by the stick. The children never saw their mother; their father visited once.
My reunion with Bronwyn took place in a bush camp, one of many she’d lived in since becoming homeless a few years earlier. We sat in folding chairs around a smoking fire under washed-out winter skies, Bronwyn’s grandson toddling in the red dirt, her brother stumbling from person to person, his alcoholism doubtless related to unresolved early trauma and a subsequent unraveling of his life. Despite the contrasts in our lives, Bronwyn and I resumed our friendship, but it had its difficulties, negotiating our vastly different financial circumstances being one of them.
You were connected because you were seeking two old friends of yours. I wanted to get the book. I wanted to put our story out there. When I think about it, I was only the link person.
A link, maybe, but a link is a vital part of a chain. Early on, I suspected that our friendship would become one of the most significant in my life; first we had to overcome misunderstandings and my cultural missteps. But why put the story out there? The answer, I’ve come to believe, is because in Australia the past co-exists with the present in the places where Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures intersect. In particular, the pain and trauma of the Stolen Generations reverberates to this day, and lies at the heart of so much that is still wrong. To understand what happened is to begin to understand what is happening today.
Most Australians will be aware of recent trouble in Kalgoorlie, following the death of an Aboriginal boy, run over by a white man. Town Mayor John Bowler and state premier Colin Barnett held a summit to address racial tensions and social issues within the community. The photo of Bowler outside the Town Hall reveals a fundamental flaw in approach: on a weekend, he’s suited up for a meeting in the confines of a white man’s edifice.
Authorities tend to talk above us. They’re not talking to the right people. They’re talking to Aboriginal people who are not selected by the community. They need to talk to the ones whose children are trespassing, whose children are stealing, whose children are running around causing trouble. Otherwise we’ll always have our backs up against the wider white community. They don’t have the answers for us. We have to work on the answers. Only the Aboriginal people can do that.
‘The government people should visit our camps and sit on the ground with us to talk and find out what it’s like,’ Bronwyn said when we reunited. Her sentiment holds true for any non-Indigenous Australian who wants to know, and to become part of a solution. But not everyone has a connection to an Indigenous community. Our hope is that for those people, A Tear in the Soul becomes a link.