CRANKY LADIES OF HISTORY: A story about the story you won’t see (and why that’s okay)

Cranky Ladies logoWelcome to Women’s History Month 2015, which has the theme “Weaving the stories of women’s lives”, which fits perfectly with our Cranky Ladies of History anthology project! After 18 months of work, including our successful crowd-funding campaign in March last year, we are proudly releasing the anthology on March 8. To celebrate, our wonderful authors have supplied blog posts related to their Cranky Lady, and we are delighted to share them here during the month of March. 

To get your own copy of Cranky Ladies of History, you can buy from our website, order your favourite real world bookshop, or purchase at all the major online booksellers (in print and ebook). 

A story about the story you won’t see (and why that’s okay) by Liz Argall

In December 2013 I saw that Fablecroft had sent out a call for proposals for their Cranky Ladies Anthology. I’d been stuck in a creative quagmire and depressed and one thing I had learned was that if you feel stuck do something in service of people or things you like. Then it isn’t about you, it is about the work, it is about service and you will push yourself harder and won’t give up. I like Fablecroft and I liked their concept, so I checked them out.

Scanning through the list and thinking about what wasn’t on the list I swiftly decided that Oodgeroo Noonuccal needed to be in the anthology. I had fallen in love with her poetry in high school, its ferocity, tenderness and politics. She had an unflinching power that created space for all the motions, space for anger, despair, fighting spirit and a wry sense of humour. I feel like through her work I experienced one of my first role models of a balanced fighter. She was someone who was an activist, but did not let the consuming nature of the fight tear her apart. She was a whole human being.

As a teen I had come to know Noonuccal through her poetry, now as an adult I wanted to get to know the person behind the pen. I was pretty certain I would find some interesting stuff to draw upon. I did not anticipate that in 1974 Noonuccal (then Kath Walker) was on a plane that was hijacked by Palestinians, held on that plane for days during which time one person was executed and everyone was almost blown up by a lot of explosives. Talk about a powerful moment in history! A powerful moment for anyone, but especially powerful given it would be a meeting of people who cared about land rights and dispossession but were fighting for it in very different ways.

By coincidence I’d always had a fascination with the interstitial nature of planes. I used to have strange dreams where time would shift and become fluid, we’d land in the past or become stuck on a loop in a plane that was perpetually crash landing. I am sure Stephen King and the Twilight Zone was in part to blame for this.

An idea came to me of a sort of Christmas Carol plane trip where Noonuccal would be visited by ghosts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists of the past present and future.

At this point I paused and thought about what I was doing. Who was I to be telling this story? Was there a person in a better position? As a white person from settler society benefiting from dispossession would this be an act of taking? I thought about it carefully, wrote in my journal a little too and decided that it was such a weird take that, if done carefully, wouldn’t be stepping on someone else’s storytelling space. Perhaps, if done correctly it increase people’s knowledge, empathy and understanding. It might encourage more stories, greater knowledge and engagement.

If there was a risk that the story would steal oxygen from an Indigenous author I would step back, if there was criticism I would gratefully listen and it was my duty to research this story to the best of my ability.

I also decided, given the nature of this story, that I would not keep any of the money for myself, but would donate it to something Noonuccal would support, a non profit in on Stradbroke Island or some other worthy cause selected by her descendents.

I reread the Australia Council’s Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian writing, although I was so fatigued at the time it was hard to parse all of it. Drawing on panels and discussions I had listened to back in Oz I decided I would do the best I could and just keep returning to the protocols and rereading them as I went as more would sink in each time I read it, stumbling try fail cycles seemed the only way forward (for this story and in general).

I swiftly typed up my proposal and sent it in. Part of me hoped that they would reject my idea and I would not have to work so far past my comfort zone.

They accepted my story and the real work began. I often cursed my luck that I’d chosen to write this story so far from Australia. I live in Seattle now, although weirdly enough that distance means that the Australian landscape has emerged more strongly in my work since I moved. There is an Australia in my bones that longs to get out, filled with tenderness, longing and a grief for our sun burnt land. Back in my home town I could have camped out at AIATSIS  and worked with the librarians there. I could have seen if friends of friends of friends with stories to tell.

Far from home I did the best I could, reference librarians, no matter what country they are wonderful and I treasured every resource they could throw my way.  “Oodgeroo” by Kathie Cochrane was my most important text ( The first time I read it from cover to cover I got increasingly nervous as I got closer to 1974. I had a very broad picture of what had happened on the place, but of her involvement all I really knew was that she wrote two poems on airsick bags and one was about one of the hijackers and was called “Yusuf”.

Her experience on the plane was told simply and sparely, providing the details and avoiding sensationalisation. I was pleased to note she kept her sass and empathy. When she woke up on the plane to find a gun in her face she said “Is this a hijack?” and later while being questions said that “she was sympathetic to the Arab cause, but believed actions such as this would not further it; that he and his associates would be better employed working for the World Black Festival for Arts that was to take place in Nigeria soon.”

I was ready to begin writing, my playlist has a lot of Fairuz in it, my browser full of activist history, dusty photos, conflicting statements about what happened during those days scattered around me (mostly small conflicts of choreography, enough to mean I was constantly correcting and recorrecting small details in the timeline).

I reread the protocols and found a note that had eluded me the first time in the Australia Council’s Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian writing “If writing about a deceased person, speak to the family or language group representatives to seek their permission and consult on issues of representation.”

How was I going to do that? How had I not properly registered it first time round? How would be the best way to do it? How would people’s time feel valued given I’m not a famous author and I’m so far away? I decided the best approach would be to write the story and then send it some of Noonuccal’s relatives for critiques and veto power.

Ideally I should talk to them beforehand, but that felt like asking them to write a blank check for something unknown and I didn’t want them to feel like they had to sign off on something site unseen. Through some earlier Facebook brainstorming I had chatted to someone who passed on a message from Noonuccal’s niece and god-daughter. I told them about the story I was working on and my intentions, and we had a pleasant back and forth…I think…it was an emotionally intense time for me on many levels so memory is hazy and I am unable to check the written record (more on this later).

I wrote and rewrote the story. It was hard work to get going. First person felt way too arrogant, I could not write the “I” of Noonuccal! Third person was the next obvious choice, but I couldn’t decide how to describe her to the omniscient eye? Somehow third person felt too voyeuristic and intimate. I tried second person and everything clicked into place. She was herself but she also sort of became an everywoman, the poet and the reader becoming one created both intimacy and appropriate distance. I felt like I could write to her story without overstepping bounds, every reader would know it was a work of fiction because every reader would know that they were not Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and yet, immersed in her world I hoped they would go on to learn more about her and be carried by an experience.

I finished the story, the first story I’d felt good about in months. It was hard work, but steady work I attended to every day and I felt good about what I’d done. I polished the story, polished it and reworked it again, nervous about sending it to Noonuccal’s niece. Finally I drummed up my courage and went to my Facebook messages folder where her contact details were… and I could not find a single trace of the messages. I couldn’t believe it. I searched, searched again. I spent hours manually scrolling though my archives and thinking of every possible search term. Nothing came up. I searched my messages the next day, and the day after, hoping some algorithm had changed.

I cursed my stupidity, a lot. Always take a copy for yourself! Would it have been so hard to copy and paste into the notes section of Scrivener? I felt really really dumb. I did a shout out to Facebook. I knew the person the intermediary was a friend of a friend, so I asked likely friends if they knew who this person might be. I couldn’t remember the intermediary’s name. A few suggestions were made, but none of them were the right person.

I sent a panicked email to my editors. They did not reply (you’ll find out why later). I wrote to universities and professional organisations that might have contact details for her estate, no reply. I asked a reference librarian friend if he could write to organisations on my behalf, maybe he would get better results. He got a reply saying, “we don’t know, try these other organisations.” I wrote to those other organisations and did not get a reply.

A sort of paralysis set in where I would think of organisations or friends or former colleagues who might be able to help, write these long and sprawling emails in my imagination where I burned with shame and embarrassment at the whole messy situation… I almost sent a few, but after so many people not replying and given how busy those people were and how stupid I felt I mostly just collapsed inwards, that was not the story’s fault, that is another story. The editors had still not replied to my frustrated updates.

I sent my story as it was to my editors, months before it was due, explaining that I had not fully followed protocols, but I’d done the best I could and did they have any contacts that could help? I got no reply.

I got kinda cranky myself, I was feeling isolated in many ways, struggling in many ways at this was just icing on the cake. “Well, at least I’ve written it. Maybe they haven’t replied because there are no problems, because they don’t care, maybe I don’t care. Australia felt very far away at that time, and so did Seattle in some ways.”

After the final call for stories was over I got a polite email from Tehani asking after my story, was I close to finishing it?

What had happened??? I sent what I recall to be a lengthy email (I cannot quite bring myself to reread it, I just remember it being frantic) where I spilled my guts about what had happened and a followed up with a twitter message to make sure it got through.

You see, after some sleuthing and arguing with my network provider, it turns out that an ancient email of mine that I didn’t even know I had (who knows, perhaps they had hacked me and implanted it) had been sending out revolting quantities of spam without my knowledge. I knew I had issues with Comcast blacklist where things would bounce, but my provider had always fobbed me of and given me run arounds and said it was Comcast’s problem. Whenever I got a bounceback message I’d have to resort to an unwanted secondary email, but at least I knew things weren’t getting through. Gmail had dealt with the issue differently. It didn’t give me a bounceback message that let me know there was a problem, it had just silently dropped my email into nowhere with some but not all of my emails that were sent to gmail hosted accounts. Silently and inconsistently dropped I had no idea my emails were going nowhere.


Anyway, problem resolved and the story went through to my editors, we liked it, I felt so happy to be having people talking to me again and it was all good.

It was my bad at this point, I was tired and I kinda softly worded that I hadn’t quite followed all the protocols, but I’d done the best I could. I put myself in their hands and kind of relaxed when I probably should have freaked out more, but with company.

The table of contents came out to much publicity, and this is where the goodness of it taking a village and people looking out for each other came in. Other people had a quiet word with my editors and said, “Do you have permission for this story? Have you followed all the protocols? This is really serious business.”

They consulted with experts and agreed this story could not be published without permission. They told me this was the case and I agreed. I said that sometimes people can be shy of giving frank feedback directly to a person, but maybe as a third party they would have better luck and to please assure any relatives they could get in touch with that I was absolutely open to any kind of feedback.

I felt a bit helpless and a bit like a whiney git living in Seattle. I so desperately wanted more people to know about Noonuccal but I also knew it was better to not have it published at all than have it published improperly. My editors did a great job finding contacts that I never managed to find and reached out to several family members. At this point however we had a lot less time.

I’m really grateful to all the work and effort my editors put into reaching out, especially with the mangling of communication that threw everything out, I hate to think of the layout and going to print difficulties having a story in limbo would bring.

In the end they had to pull the story and that was absolutely the correct thing to do.

The story has neither been approved nor disapproved, but the absence of a no is not consent. I would be failing the story if I didn’t go for free, informed and prior consent (I did not seek consent to write it, but it will not be published and remain a private thing unless there is consent in advance).

Maybe it will be published. My dream scenario is that it gets published, but friends and family write about her too and there is a multitude of stories and perspectives that educate and inspire a new generation. There are too many great activists and storytellers that are forgotten and with them we lose wisdom, the burdens of change are too large to be carried by a few icons.

My backup dream scenario is that my story is never published, but this whole weird adventure means that one of Noonuccal’s descendants has a story in Cranky Ladies #2

This is a very long essay and I feel like I’ve truncated parts; I’ve only scratched the surface of what it taught me. I’m grateful it deepened my understanding of my own country’s history and events I thought I already knew, revisited many events in Australia’s history of dispossession and reconciliation (a process that must be ongoing). Writing this story made me a better writer, it made me braver, it challenged me, it made me read more closely the biography of a woman that inspires me and I hope she inspires you too. I wish I could have got through this journey with a little less fail in the try-fail cycles, but I did the best I could.

Thank you Cranky Ladies for this opportunity, thank you for listening, now go read Oodgeroo by Kath Cochrane.


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