Review by Sarah St Vincent Welch
If a title is the doorway to a book, Too Afraid to Cry, seems to open with a warning, but the reader soon realises that the title of this memoir is an invitation (with a truthful framing) through which to enter an experience. It is an invitation from Cobby Eckermann, a Yankunytjatjaral/Kokatha writer and poet, to those who have known this state of being and to those who have not.
Some of the traumas in this memoir are all too common, but some are especially relevant to indigenous people and those who have been torn from their families and country through government policy and the complicity of the wider community.
‘She asked my birth date and tried to guess who my mother might be.’ The sense that this statement is commonplace is shocking to those who have not experienced the forces of dispossession as closely. But memory, knowledge and connection, reclaim. The words of this review are inevitably from a settler culture wrangling with its past and feel inadequate. But Cobby Eckermann’s memoir shifts words at their edges, while having great clarity; the counterpoint of poetry and short prose sing. Its narrative of loss and abuse, love and healing, is joyous, elegant and political.
Cobby Eckermann’s skill in crafting voice, moving from a cautious child to a rebellious and equally vulnerable adult to a maturing woman, is impressive. This is a quality sometimes lacking in autobiographic works, finding ways to evoke former selves and former sensibilities.
‘I felt the icy wind inside my head begin to blow,’ introduces the cold imagery of fear. ‘My family did not know my secret … , ’ a secret that might have defined her. But the memoir traces the sharing of secrets, and is part of the fear melting away. ‘We laugh til we cry at the efforts we made to fit into a society that wasn’t ours.’ Shared pain flows.
In Too Afraid to Cry the poetry acts as another voice, echoing the narrative but also creating a sense of timelessness.
A lavender bush has died
in her eyes
the bitterness of lime
flavours her tears
It burns to blink
Observation through imagery and rhythm leaves the prose to speak in a gentle and powerful vernacular.
Morning time arrived on a beautiful sunrise of pink and gold.
The characteristic humour of indigenous writers (and in this reviewer’s opinion, all of the best writers) lifts the text so the reader smiles through their journey with the author.
We compared scars. I showed him the fresh scar patterns on my lame legs. He showed us the hole in his skull, where his head had been crushed. He won.
She gave him a flock of parrots
He wanted her to peel the carrots.
The icy imagery that evokes the silence of shame recalls Kafka’s ideas of the role of a book. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
Too Afraid to Cry offers us the relief and healing of warm tears comforted by loved ones that goes beyond Kafkas’s conception, and allows the reader to enter the experience with hope. And we remain close, without a sense of voyeurism.
As the small chapters progress from One to Ninety Two the reader relaxes and listens. The decisions made around the structure of the memoir are fascinating, and eventually the poetry and prose touch, the form reflecting the developing understandings of the author and reader.
Part of a reviewer’s pleasure is to slide back into the past and sink into an author’s oeuvre to find added context. The title Too Afraid to Cry is also an echo, a poem from Little Bit Longtime, Cobby Eckermann’s acclaimed first poetry collection. She has also written two verse novels, His Father’s Eyes and Ruby Moonlight (a translucent evocation of love, country and human connection). Voice, lyricism and narrative are meshed in Cobby Eckermann’s work, but Too Afraid to Cry marks a step closer to self and identity and a new experiment in form.
There is no life but family.
How can the story of a life be told when parts of that life have been hidden? How can a life be given meaning if its beloved country, culture and family are stolen? Cobby Eckermann shows us a way, as have other indigenous writers working in memoir, like Sally Morgan and Anita Heiss.
Nana yells over the campfires
Wiya wanti, whitefella wiya
This my family, they bin taken away
This my family, they bin come back now
We gotta teach them proper way
She laughs holds my hand
Is right now she smiles
Sit down on the munda
And the learning begins.
The beauty of Too Afraid to Cry is that it always moves towards circularity and unity, and we rejoice that the story continues.
Too Afraid to Cry
Ali Cobby Eckermann
218 pages, $28.95
Note: this review was produced through the Reviewers of the Future masterclass program, an initiative of the Gorman House Arts Centre, Canberra.