Fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 156 pages; 2022.
Cartwarra is a Nyoongar word that roughly translates to “silly” or “crazy”.
In the Foreword to Alf Taylor’s book, Cartwarra or what?, the academic Anne Brewster writes: “You’ll understand the power and reach of the word by the time you finish the book.” She’s right.
This is a truly remarkable and engaging collection of poems and short stories from a widely respected and prolific First Nations writer. Despite some of the heavy themes — alcoholism, poverty and prejudice, for instance — that underpin his work, Taylor writes with a sense of mischief: humour and wry wit are never too far away.
Take the short story “Charlie” in which a 60-year-old man is arrested for being drunk and disorderly in the WA gold mining town of Kalgoorlie. He’s thrown into jail for the night and then released without charge, the sergeant warning him that he shouldn’t pick a fight with Paddy Hannan and think he can get away with it. Paddy, it turns out, is a statue! (This one here, in fact, of Irishman Patrick “Paddy” Hannan.)
Many characters in his other short stories enjoy ribbing one another — or taking the piss, as we might say, cadging money from whoever’s lucky enough to have a few dollars and chasing others for a charge (drink). Indeed, his ear for dialogue and (sometimes crude) vernacular is spot on, bringing conversations alive and making them crackle with repartee and wit.
This humour shines through in some of his poems, too. “Nyoongar Woman and a Mobile Phone” is an example:
No more reading smoke signals
pick up mobile phone and talk —
to who? She might say
the Kimberleys, the Wongis, Yamitjis, Nyoongars,
or to any blackfella’s
got my number;
she scratches her head
in eager anticipation:
‘nother ‘lation on the line
‘Yes, my dear. Oh hello’
‘How are you?’
‘You want twenty dollars?’
‘But I got fuck-all!
You got your money today.’
‘Um not a big shot
’cause I work for A.L.S. [Aboriginal Legal Service]’
‘No, I got nothing!’
‘Um wintjarren like you.’
‘Yeah and fuck you too!’
But the flipside to the laughter isn’t far away. In the opening story, “Wildflowers”, Taylor gives voice to the pain and fear of a mother whose daughter is stolen by policemen on horseback while out picking wildflowers:
It all happened within a split second of fierce movement. But to Ada it would come to seem a slow-motion replay in her mind. Ada had just barely touched the flowers when her daughter was snatched from the ground, and the troopers held her tightly. Queenie screamed and screamed for her mother. As the troopers rode off with the screaming child, the dust lingered high in the late morning. All Ada could see were the beautiful petals falling aimlessly to the ground, amidst the red dust.
Taylor is, himself, a member of the Stolen Generations and was raised in New Norcia Mission, Western Australia. As the blurb on the back of this edition states, his work “exposes uncomfortable truths in the lives of his Aboriginal characters”.
In Cartwarra or what? we meet an underclass of Aboriginal people, many cut off from Country and culture, struggling to get by. But Taylor also highlights the strong bonds between Aboriginal Australians, their tight-knit family and kinship groups, their love, care and kindness towards one another, and their enduring resourcefulness and resilience.
I much enjoyed spending time in their company.
I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. It’s also a contender for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here.
Please note, Cartwarra or what? is only available as an eBook outside of Australia. If you would prefer a paperback edition, you can order it from the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.