Non-fiction – paperback; Echo Publishing; 252 pages; 2022.
Debra Dank’s We Come with This Place is a love letter to Country and family.
A brilliantly evocative memoir about place and culture, it explores Australia’s dark history and the special connection First Nations people have with Country — that is, the lands, waterways and seas to which they are connected.
It takes us on a wondrous adventure out bush, but it also shows us the terrible injustices inflicted on First Nations people and the violence that underpins Australian history. And yet, this is not a misery memoir. It’s hopeful, even joyous in places, and it brims with an intense love for Aboriginal culture and traditions.
Our story is etched into the rocks and it whispers through the trees and with our kin who are more than human. The wind tells it, sometimes strolling gently, sometimes bellowing from cavernous, dark, felt places, where eyes do not see, and only our goodalu can feel.
Warm and generous
Based on Dank’s PhD in Narrative Theory and Semiotics, We Come with This Place is written in a spirit of generosity and is warm-hearted, tender and humorous.
It mixes autobiography with intergenerational family history and First Nations storytelling. (The dreaming tale of three water-women “who came out of the salt water to the north-east of Gudanji Country” is a recurring refrain.)
It gives us a glimpse of another way of life, one in which relationships — with plants, animals, landscapes and ancestors — are crucial and grounded in reciprocity. And where family ties and kinship are key.
As a child I sat with my two sisters and our mum and dad at the fire, watching the gidgea logs burn to coals that could cook a nice, charred edge on a goanna. This night, though, it would be chunks of the recently killed bullock charring on gidgea. The gidgea burned and its dry heat worked its way under our skin and smoothed the dryness already there from the sun, becoming an extra layer of warmth. There was often a chill in the air at night in this place. We sat in company with our old stories, living our new stories and speaking our place into them where they came together. Our dad didn’t often waste air with words, he practised a silence that let other stories be told, so as we sat with the gidgea, we learned to hear and feel those stories waiting in the gaps between the noise.
The narrative is not told in chronological order; instead, it comprises a mix of vignettes, stories and anecdotes which move back and forth in time and cover Dank’s upbringing on remote Queensland cattle stations, her parent’s troubled but loving marriage, her own marriage (to a white man) and the ways in which her grandparents guided her and passed on traditional knowledge and how she, herself, is doing the same with her own grandchildren.
Her father’s story
Much of the memoir focuses on her father, Soda, with whom she has a close but complex relationship. She details his brilliant skills as a horseman and station hand (he could fix anything despite never being trained) and his deep knowledge of Country.
But she also reveals how the trauma of racist violence runs deep. The hardships and horrendous experiences he endured throughout his life (he witnessed, for instance, the brutal rape of his mother by station men when she stood up for herself and refused to return to her place of work), using this as a prism through which to view so many injustices experienced by First Nations people.
As a memoir about resilience, identity and family, We Come with This Place — which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize — is heartfelt and honest. It should be required reading for all Australians. I adored it.
Debra Dank is a Gudanji/Wakaja woman who has almost 40 years of experience as an educator. She has worked in schools and universities across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.
This is my third book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. I also read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page.