Dreaming Inside is a powerful and important project brought to fruition by the hard work and vision of Aunty Barbara Nicholson. Aunty Barb has coordinated a partnership between The Black Wallaby Writers’ Group, the South Coast Writers Centre (NSW) and the Junee Correctional Centre to establish ongoing writers’ workshops for First Australian inmates of the Junee Correctional Centre. One outcome of this work has been the publication of six volumes of poetry, short stories and other micro texts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands inmates and their tutors (both First Australian and other Australian). In 2017 there was enough excitement gathering around this project for Aunty Barb to collaborate with the South Coast Writers Centre to produce a fifth year anniversary edition. For the purposes of concentration, this review will focus on this fifth year anniversary edition, though the ideas I raise are equally valid for the whole series.
The fifth year anniversary edition of Dreaming Inside includes more than 200 pages of writing by inmates as well as contributions by such tutors as: Uncle John Muk Muk Burke (Mukky), Aunty Barbara Nicholson, Jim Everett, Bruce Pascoe, Judi Morison, Ken Canning (Burraga Gutya), Denika Thomas, Friederike Krishnabhakdi-Vasilakis (also the manager of the dynamic South Coast Writers Centre), Jack Baker, Ron Pretty and Simon Luckhurst. With 300 pages of astounding writing this is a major anthology that should be highly prized in every public and private library.
At the start of the fifth year anniversary edition of Dreaming Inside Aunty Barb explains in her essay, ‘It’s Not Our Place to Tinker: Language Use in the Dreaming Inside Series: Volumes 1-5’ that ‘self determination is a key principle of Aboriginal cultural maintenance and in accordance with that principle the inmate writers assert their right to the continued use of Aboriginal English’ (pp 20-21). For these reasons, Aunty Barb explains, the editors retained the spelling and grammar of the original handwritten manuscripts. This principle does much to empower new voices and also facilitates a more authentic reproduction of these voices onto the written page.
In her introduction to the fifth year anniversary edition of Dreaming Inside Aunty Barb explains the power and importance of this writing. She argues that:
The work in the Dreaming Inside series opens up that secret landscape (of prison) and lays bare the full scope of the inmate writer’s innermost thoughts and feelings. There is raw, undressed honesty in everything they have to say, an honesty that takes the reader on a perilous journey, sometimes from as far back as their early childhood, throughout their youth and into adulthood. Their recollections are littered with harrowing stories of hardship and discrimination, of welfare and justice interventions into their families and communities, of their descent into the netherworld of crime and punishment, and so very often of the terrible hardships endured within that razor wired secret country. The work is not uniformly about the darker side of life though. Often grim humour spills over and takes their thinking in a comic direction; there are many humorous offerings here too.
These thoughts give a great insight into why these anthologies are so necessary. They empower First Australian voices and allow the humanity of offenders to shine. As readers, it is our duty to listen.
In ‘Untitled 5’ Jason Fong uses rhyme and vividly evocative language to capture the anxieties and guilt caused by family separation during incarceration. The unconventional use of upper case letters adds a particularly dramatic effect which underscores Aunty Barb’s thoughts about the importance of Aboriginal English to this project:
The wind whirls and swishes
Thunder Strikes And Hisses
All the while My ex-misses
doesnt Believe in Visits
Specially for my Son who transitions
Without his dads grand wishes
As I listen Softly
I can hear him jostling With an object
Before he toss-slings it
Distractin him To-day
Where me dada, is he lost
Or did he run away
ive gone and got myself locked away. (p 53)
In ‘Aboriginal History Australia Told By An Aboriginal’, Robert Taylor writes with great pride in the continuity and resilience of First Australian Culture while also confronting the history of colonial massacre and dispossession. The use of upper case letters is dramatically assertive and uncompromising:
WE ARE THE OLDEST CULTURE IN THE WORLD YET
THEY SAY WE COME fROM SOUTH AFRICA WHY DON’T
THEY BELEAVE OUR SIDE off THE STORY, THAT IT IS A
POSSABILITY THAT WE WENT fFROM HERE TO THERE,
DO THEY RELLEY KNOW LOOKUP IN FAR NORTH
QUEENLAND THEY FOUND BONES DATING BACK 10 000
YEAR AGO, AND STILL FINDING MORE BONES ALL
OVER AUST DATEING EVEN MORE BACK IN TIME YOU CAN
60 000 YEARS WHO KNOWS HOW FAR BACK YOU CAN
GO, THE KILLINGS off the ABORIGINAL PEOPLE FOR THE
LAND, WE THE ABORIGINAL PEOPLE off AUSTRALIA
STILL DON’T HAVE A SAY THEY TO DO WHAT THEiR
TOLDED? (p 57)
Educational disadvantage is evident in these works, but the power of this project is in overcoming these obstacles, and allowing such important voices to speak on their own terms. Robert Taylor is challenging non-First Australian readers and he — quite rightly — expects to be listened to.
Phillip Ballangarry, however, writes more lyrically and quietly of his love for country and family. Here there is such delicate expression, and this seems juxtaposed to the realities of an offender’s life:
Have you ever thought of what takes place when it rains? Our
rivers fill and our fishs can swim freely and then, it flows on a
great trip washing rock clean itself, vine dip in there roots for a
drink and hold mother earth to still, then a beach trip to swim as
we approach upon soft hands, then look up to cloud start
to swell as it beging.
culture / freedom
family / children / wife
freedom / peace
Land / my land / home
Love / life (p 60)
Of all the writing by offenders though, the group of poems written by Robert Campbell (RJAY) are especially memorable. He uses rhyme, hip-hop and humour with such vivid and dramatic results. He is proud, rebellious, challenging and caring. In ‘Untitled 2’ he pirouettes, slyly, with such style:
Hit it up
lyrics i spit straight tight
Don’t you know you the dead do bite
Mic check im in flight
Im talkin nicks an nips.
Believe me when you see me on the block
I made the new sarnereo.
You never here my shit on the stero.
I say keep on hatin
Ya givin me a passion of a rhyme
Never to decline.
Only to define.
Listen scream to god he can here you
Believe in ya self stay true
Bitch’s lovin my sex appeal
I got it so narattic
Static a lettrical
feel hip-hop came to kill. (p 141)
In ‘Untitled 3’ Campbell perfectly captures why the Dreaming Inside project is so empowering for the inmates. Having a voice, maybe for the first time, is about self-respect. It allows energies and frustrations to be channelled into positive outcomes. Voice is a prerequisite to physical and mental health. This poem is a declaration of the project’s essential worth and I can only join with Robert Campbell in expressing my admiration and thanks to Aunty Barb, and to all the other tutors, for facilitating such powerful and necessary work:
Cloud my judjement
As I sum up my budjet
Hip Hop i love it
I gotta exspress what i feel on a track
So i come in hard with a lyrical attack.
Most thik it’s sardistic.
I’m never givin up with shit.
There’s a better way
Exspress how you feel on a page
Live another day
Let stress out through lyrics.
Let people here it
You’ll feel better in yourself
thik about your health. (p 142)
Dreaming Inside: Voices from Junee Correctional Centre, Volumes 1-6
Barbara Nicholson (ed.), Wollongong: South Coast Writers Centre (2013-2018)
RRP $20. The anthologies can be purchased through South Coast Writers Centre
Phillip Hall is a poet, reviewer and essayist working as an editor with Verity La’s Emerging Indigenous Writers Project and as a poetry reader at Overland. From 2011 to 2015 he lived in the Gulf of Carpentaria where he ran sport and camp programs designed to re-engage and foster emotional resilience, cooperative group learning and safe decision-making. He has been adopted into the Gudanji family, where he is also known by the skin name of Jabala and the traditional or bush name of Gijindarraji (given to him because it was the bush name of his nana’s pop); he is a member of the Rrumburriya clan; and is a Jungkayi (custodian) for Jayipa (Catfish Hole). His Mother is the emu and goanna though his nana jokes that his real Dreaming is the curlew or ‘Worry Bird’.
In 2012 Phillip established Diwurruwurru (The Borroloola Poetry Club). Diwurruwurru means message stick and is used by permission of the Traditional Owners. In 2014 he published published Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press) and in 2015 he published Diwurruwurru (Blank Rune Press), a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. His latest publication is Fume (UWA Publishing), a collection which celebrates First Australians in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Phillip now lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine, where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club.