In memory of Alf Taylor
Vale Alf Taylor
(18.11.1945 – 29.7.2023)
Last weekend brought sad news of the passing of Alf Taylor. Alf, a Yuat Nyoongar man, brought his unique perspective to bear on the fields of Aboriginal literature in particular and of Australian Literature more generally for nearly three decades. He produced a substantial opus which has impacted on many different audiences and will long continue to do so.
I first met Alf at the launch of Winds in 1994 at Dumbertang in Perth. I remember he was cracking jokes and put me at my ease. Later when I was compiling the material with Rosemary van den Berg and Angeline O’Neill for the anthology, Those Who Remain will Always Remember, I asked him if he would be interested in doing a piece about how he started writing. The work he produced for our anthology became the seed of his astonishing autobiography, God, the Devil and Me.
Taylor was a member of the Stolen Generations. He grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the Benedictine Monastery at New Norcia in Western Australia. His writing opens a door for many readers onto this troubled period of history, giving us a heart-felt personal account of someone who lived through it. In an interview with me he said that in the mission the children were told that ‘our Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal language was a mortal sin.’ He recreates the world of childhood in his short fiction, poetry and memoir, bringing alive the resilience, intelligence and creativity of children – their care for each other, their love of Country, their ability to heal, the weight of memory, their penchant for playing tricks, and their strong bonds as young Aboriginal people. He also brings to it the piercing vision of the adult – the clear-sighted and uncompromising critique of empire and of the dysfunctional elements of the church.
He describes life in New Norcia in God, The Devil and Me. The book is characterised by his very fluid sense of humour which became a tool of survival for him both as a child and an adult. In the interview he said: ‘without humour … I would have been dead’. He loved writing about ‘clowns’, joke-cracking characters who laugh above all at themselves and made other people laugh along too. Alf would always make people chuckle. His writing is infectious but thoughtful as well, and often pointed.
Taylor was a master stylist; he’s a deft satirist, sharp but generous, and a careful observer of people. His poetry and fiction bear evidence of the skilful use of Aboriginal English and the Nyoongar language. His writing gifts us a rare and precious glimpse of the living language of Aboriginal people. He was fortunate to benefit from the expertise of Magabala Press who were able, for example, to provide an editor such as the Nyoongar writer, Rosemary van den Berg who edited Long Time Now. This relationship nurtured his work and allowed it to flourish.
Taylor was a master storyteller. Much of his work bears the trace of the spoken language(s) and the embodied encounter of storytelling. This included his skilful use of humour and irony which always kept me guessing as a reader.
Alf will be remembered by his writing. A versatile and inventive writer, He wrote two books of poetry, Singer Songwriter (2000) and Winds (1994), a book of short stories, Long Time Now (2001), a memoir/autobiography, God, the Devil and Me (2021), and his selected poems and short stories, Cartwarra or what? (2022). His work also appears in the anthology Rimfire (2000).
Taylor and his work are a bright star that mesmerizes us, captures our attention and holds it. As a non-Aboriginal reader and teacher, I’ve seen him enthrall students across the world, in Australian classrooms and lecture theatres, and in Germany, France, Spain and China.
It has been a great privilege to read and teach Alf’s work; a privilege that students all over the world have shared and will continue to share. Many of my non-Aboriginal colleagues who read, teach and write on his work have talked to me about the sense of great good fortune they feel in coming upon his work and the responsibility it engenders in them. His passing makes the gift of his writing all the more precious and pressing.