‘Too Afraid to Cry’ by Ali Cobby Eckermann

Too Afraid to Cry

Non-fiction – paperback; Ilura Press; 212 pages; 2012.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, a poet of indigenous heritage, was not a name familiar to me until she won the international Windham-Campbell Literary Prize for Poetry in 2017.

Five years earlier she had published her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, which I purchased on my recent trip to Australia.

It’s a rather brave and beautiful book, one that charts the very personal impact — both good and bad — on a young child taken from her aboriginal family and raised within a white one, what we now know as the Stolen Generations. (You can read more about that shameful part of Australian history in this Wikipedia entry.)

In stripped back, almost skeletal (and sometimes pedestrian) prose, Cobby Eckermann tells us what it was like to never quite know where she belonged, how she buried her problems in drink and bumbled her way from one disaster to another until she decided to trace her birth mother and reconnect with the aboriginal family she never knew.

While detail is often scant and the reader is left to fill in the blanks — Too Afraid to Cry is very much a broad brushstrokes type of memoir and some chapters are only a page long — it’s a wonderful tale of perseverance and hope.

A search to belong

Cobby Eckermann was born in 1963. She was adopted as a baby and grew up in a loving family with three other adopted siblings on a farm in northern South Australia. But she was molested by a family friend and later abused by her foster brother’s friend, secrets she kept to herself and which clearly took a toll on her psychological well-being.

At school she was bullied and suffered racist taunts, but she was a promising athlete and a good student. As a teenager she succumbed to drink and was prone to violent outbursts. She left with no qualifications aged 17, moved out of home and spent the next two years in an abusive relationship.

When she returned home she found out she was pregnant. She gave birth to a baby boy, whom she adopted out, and then she spent the next decade working a series of often manual jobs, until she retrained as an office manager and found work managing an arts centre in outback Australia.

She found her birth mother, Audrey, in 1997 and her son, Jonnie, in 2001.

Her writing career, which took off in 2009 when she entered a poetry competition, is not detailed in this memoir. But her poetry is dotted throughout. This poem is possibly my favourite and a good one to end on:

Circles and Squares

I was born Yankunytjatjara my mother is Yankunytjatjara her mother was Yankunytjatjara my family is Yankunytjatjara I have learnt many things from my family elders I have grown to recognise that life travels in circles—Aboriginal culture has taught me that.

 

When I  was born I was not allowed to live with my family I

grew up in the white man’s world

We lived in a square house we picked fruit and vegetables

from a neat fenced square plot

we kept animals in square paddocks we ate at a square table

we sat on square chairs

I slept in a square bed

 

I look at myself in a square mirror and did not know who

I was

 

One day I meet my mother

 

I begin to travel I visit places that I have already been but

this time I sit down with family

 

We gather closely together by big round campfires we eat bush tucker feasting on round ants and berries we eat meat from animals that live in round burrows we sleep in circles on beaches around our fires we sit in the dirt on our land that belongs to a big round planet we watch the moon grow to a magnificent yellow circle that is our time

 

I have learnt two different ways now I am thankful for this

is part of my Life Circle

 

My heart is Round ready to echo the music of my family but

the Square within me remains

 

The Square stops me in my entirety.

This is my 8th book for #AWW2018

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18 thoughts on “‘Too Afraid to Cry’ by Ali Cobby Eckermann

    • It is powerful. The thing that resonated most was how important it is for children to recognise themselves in others, to see the same eyes, the same colour skin, especially in their parents, in order to create a bond and a sense of belonging. The moment Cobby Eckermann sees her birth mother for the first time the recognition and identification is immediate, because she realises she has her mother’s eyes and they are looking back at her 💖

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      • God that’s really tough, isn’t it? Reminds me of reading today about the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland and all the poor mothers looking for the children who were also looking for them

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        • Ah yes, me and the (Irish) Other Half have had this discussion before; about the similarities between the Stolen Generations in Oz and the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Heartbreaking.

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          • The racism motivating the Stolen Generations was particularly shocking but as you both imply there are other and continuing waves of mothers forced to give up their babies – teenage baby boomers and south east Asian women for the Western market are two other examples.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. Lovely review, Kim, I’ve added a link to it on the Indigenous Lit page at mine – will you be joining us for Indigenous Lit Week in July this year?

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  2. I reviewed this book last year too kimbofo. A very interesting and moving read, particularly because it attacks so many issues – the ongoing trauma of children being removed from their homes (for whatever reasons), racism, and abuse, to name three. They are both separate issues but so often interconnected when people find themselves in an alien situation. Her adoptive parents clearly loved her, but they didn’t understand her needs, and that made her so vulnerable to so much else.

    Great poem, btw.

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    • I must go find your review… I’ve since seen this book described as a “prose memoir”, probably because it has so many poems in them. I have one of her collections here which I might save up for Lisa’s indigenous literature week.

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      • Do you mean “poetic memoir”? I think she calls it that herself. I’ve read three of her books now. Have you read Ruby Moonlight? A great read. BTW, love that you are planning for Lisa’s week. I am too – appropriately I’ll be in Arnhemland at the time, so am not sure how posting will go. Unless I can schedule in advance,

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        • Hmmm… maybe I do 🤣. I’ve not read Ruby Moonlight as it hasn’t been published in the UK. I’ll add it to my list of Australian books to buy next time I place a Readings.com.au order; I still have a dozen Oz books to read that I bought on my trip in March to work through first! I need to give up the day job, I think 😉

          Liked by 1 person

    • She really only came to my attention via her Windham Campbell prize so I bought one of her poetry collections (still unread) at the time. Then, when I saw this book in a shop in Australia on a recent visit, I thought I should buy that too to learn more about her. She’s a fascinating woman… been through so much and yet has made a success of things, often against the odds.

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  3. Pingback: 2018 Indigenous Literature Week – a Reading List of Indigenous Women Writers | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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