Interviewed by Pamela Leach for the Australian Friend
AF: Anne, tell us something of your background.
AB: I was born and raised in Melbourne and have lived in Melbourne and various parts of rural Victoria for most of my life. In the 1960s we spent four years in Papua New Guinea where two of our five children were born. Howard and I had been married in 1962 and had forty-one full, eventful years together. We lost our then youngest child in a tragic accident when she only a toddler. Years later we adopted a second son who came to us as a troubled ten-and-a-half-year-old. As a family we traveled a good deal, led by a keen sense of adventure. Perhaps this has contributed to making us the close family we are. I still strive to live with openness to the unknown. This, among other things, draws me to Friends: they are willing to live adventurously.
I was a primary teacher for 30 years before my career took a new direction. Having begun a degree in Archaeology and Aboriginal Studies I went to work at Victoria Archaeological Survey. My work gave me an opportunity to get to know many of the Victorian Aboriginal communities, spending time in their country, listening to and recording their stories, and importantly returning cultural resources to their rightful owners. It was a fruitful and rewarding time of my life. Much of my work involved compiling cultural heritage kits. Researching and writing material for schools I felt that I was contributing in some small way to righting the shamefully neglected history generations of Australians had been denied.
AF: What particular events or circumstances drew you to Indigenous people?
AB: My father was very accepting, always wanting to know about people and places. This influenced me a great deal. When I was about ten years old, we were traveling in northern Victoria, when we stopped to offer a man a lift. He didn’t want one, but we sat together under a tree and talked. The respect that my father showed to this black scruffily dressed man made a deep impression on me. Not only was this the first time I had been close to an Aboriginal person, but also the first time I heard myself referred to as European. Until then Europeans were the New Australians who were filling up the spaces in my western suburban neighbourhood.
AF: What inspired you to write Wimmera Journeys?
AB: While preparing Wotjobaluk Dreaming I spent a great deal of time in the Wimmera District in western Victoria. A case study of the Wotjobaluk people and their country, the book aimed to demonstrate to senior students just what rich resources are available to those who would seek to know that other history and its relevance today. The many hours I spent with my friend and mentor Uncle Jack Kennedy as he walked and talked his country are among my most precious memories. It was at this time I first encountered the stories about the boy known as William Wimmera.
I have always been fascinated by the interconnectedness of truth, history and story. A kernel of truth is retold with all kinds of embellishments. I wanted to find out the truth about this boy, a nineteenth century part of the stolen generation. But in addition to William’s story, it is a story of time, and of place and of the men who had such a profound effect on his life – Horatio Ellerman, the squatter, and the Anglican minister, Septimus Chase. These men did not fulfill our stereotype of wicked hard men intent on destroying the blackfellas and their way of life. That is too simple. It is my whitefella story as well. I wanted to somehow catch those disparate voices in retelling this story. Hence the book is a mixture of fact and fiction. For instance when living in Reading I had William live for a short time with a Quaker family. This allowed me to unpack some different ways of understanding Spirit. On the other hand archival letters record that when shown pictures of angels, the youngster had responded by describing the angels he had seen and that Jesus was his brother. Anglican Christianity had little understanding of this Wotjobaluk boy’s spiritual experiences.
AF: Has your own Spiritual life been shaped or altered by your closeness to Indigenous people and cultural heritage?
AB: Very much so. One of the reasons I was drawn to Quakers was that this group of people could accept that I found the Spirit in an ancient gum tree, or the bush. Once, when I was about 20, I was walking across a dry lake bed in the Mallee. I was suddenly stopped. I felt, streaming up through my feet and suffusing my body, an indescribable warmth. It was a very powerful Spiritual experience that has stayed with me ever since.
These days my spiritual life is very important to me. In 2015 I went on a journey through Quaker country. I undertook a silent retreat at Swarthmore Hall, spent two weeks with Bamford Quaker Community and did two short courses in Ministry at Woodbrooke College. I was trying to discern what I am required to do in the next stage of my life. I felt clear that, with the help of the Spirit, I could contribute towards a positive, harmonious future for the new Victoria Friends Centre. I find this prospect very exciting and already such good things are happening. We have such a great opportunity for outreach while enriching the life of our Quaker community
One of the liberating things has been that ever since I had come to know Aboriginal friends I have been envious about their sense of Country and belonging. One of these friends was astonished. She put her hand on mine, and said “It is not just ours, it is yours”. What a gift. That is where much of my Spiritual life lies. David Tacey gave the Tasmanian Peace Trust lecture in 2016 (see the review in this issue of AF) touching on precisely this treasure that Indigenous people want to give non-Indigenous communities.
I am doing Meeting for Learning this year. It is a wonderful experience. One of my projects is “Meeting Meister Eckhart in the Australian Bush”. Each week I go out in the bush to ride my bicycle or walk. I take a sandwich, a thermos, my camera, and my copy of Meister Eckhardt. I take pictures, read, write and reflect. It is very rich. I write in a rough notebook, a little diary, telling what I saw and experienced. I take lots of photos. When I get home I compile my scrapbook, with quotes from the chapter I am reading and my diary notes.
AF: You question the conventional understandings of “salvation” that are imposed on the boy William in your book. Do you have thoughts about where the cultural and political “salvation” of First Nations people really lies?
AB: My initial thought is “Who am I to say”. We each need to find our own journey. We whites have made decisions for Aboriginal people for 200 plus years; we never should have been involved with them in this way. We can assist as far as supporting legislation they want to see go forward, but we must stop presuming that we know what is good for them, such as the Intervention. This is partly why I have laid down my activism. I don’t feel called to politics at this time. I certainly hope all my friendships flourish. We can no longer impose our will on other people. This does them violence and hurts our relationships with them and our own wellbeing too.
Anne Brown’s Wimmera Journeys (2015) is published by Xlibris. Orders@Xlibris.com.au It is a powerful account of a boy whose path takes him from western Victoria to Reading, England in the 1850s. It is dedicated to William, or Warranook, and to Uncle Jack Kennedy.