Pip Newling reviews Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson
Song of the Crocodile
by Nardi Simpson
Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
To read Song of the Crocodile is to immerse yourself in an unfolding relationship to place. You may not recognise it immediately but the profound connection to place shared by Simpson through this story is a slow build to love, yearning, recognition and respect for Country. The novel is a confident and accomplished debut by Nardi Simpson, a Yuwaalaraay woman best known for her singing and song writing as a member of the Sydney band the Stiff Gins. It is a profound intergenerational Australian story of family and Country that deserves to be as celebrated and well-read as Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.
The novel illuminates a way of thinking, of loving and of living. Simpson’s musicality, the fluid way she uses language, both English and Yuwaalaraay, throughout underscores the narrative by creating landscapes of emotion. It reveals connectedness and relationship across time and place, allowing language and Country to breathe. Song of the Crocodile is a lyrical achievement of story, language, and heart.
Set in a time resembling the 1950s, the book opens with Simpson walking us into Darnmoor, a small regional town in the north-west of NSW with the tag line ‘Gateway to Happiness’ on its welcome sign. We see the early morning quiet streets, the shuttered shops and the war memorial in the centre that provides the focus for the town. We walk through the town, leaving the ‘inoffensive, modest and calm’ façade of Darnmoor, to the Council tip, a bora ground now covered in the town rubbish, and then on further to the Mangamanga, a great river near where the local Aboriginal people live on a place called the Campgrounds located at the end of Old Black Road.
This introduction sets the foundation for all that will follow; the demarcation of bodies, dreams and knowledge, and what happens when boundaries are pushed. Powerfully, the story is told only through the experience of the Aboriginal characters. The white characters are significant actors, changing hopes and lives, but they are not the emotional or narrative focus.
The story is of three generations of women, Margaret Lightning, her daughter Celie Billymil, and Mili, Celie’s daughter.
Living on the Campgrounds and working in Darnmoor, Margaret is quiet and hardworking, navigating the white town with caution. She works at the hospital, doing the laundry and walks into town each day using side streets to reach her destination. The demarcation of race occurs in the hospital too, with Aboriginal patients installed on a side verandah with Margaret acting as their nurse, cleaner and counsellor, and conduit to the white management. Racism is ever present, in the demand that the sheets used for the Aboriginal patients are burnt rather than washed and re-used, in the level of care for the Aboriginal patients, the amount of information Aboriginal patients are provided about their health.
Celie is a kind, calm constant energy in the story. She suffers loss with dignity and determination to provide a future for Mili, her daughter, and she uses her knowledge of the town to create opportunity.
Mili is the future generation. She lives in change, where her newly fashioned hopes are regularly pushed down and obstructed by the white systems of power in the town. Mili becomes a bridge between the Aboriginal and white worlds, a burden of much weight.
Ancestors feature too, some being stars, trees and dust. They are ever present and active, guiding and preparing the earthbound people for the future while drawing on the old ones for advice and support. The sky-bound observe from the ‘the roof of the plains’ and move across the Milky Way, called Warrambool in Yuwaalaraay language.
Some ancestors that drive the story are Jakybird, the Songman who brings the choir together for the song of the crocodile; Garriya, the malevolent single-minded crocodile who lies in the earth far below the town waiting for his chance to return; Margaret and Celie’s lightning kin who herald the rain; Murrudhi Gindamalaa (Laughing Star) who protects and provides for the newly dead; Malawildhuulmuranga (the Littlest Shadow at the Darkest Time Before the Dawn) who disappears into dark nights hiding diamonds, stars, within her; and Burrenjean, (the featherless bird) the human form of magpie lark who ‘makes the country sing’ despite being name-called as mudlark. Her feather father reassures her of the significance of her earth-bound origin when he tells her:
‘The mud is the beginning of our connectedness. The beginning of our responsibility, the reason we are needed…
What is mud but the joining of all that is above and all below?’ (p210)
Simpson seamlessly conveys the world above, on and below the plains as one. Her telling of Aboriginal philosophy, of Country, belonging and lore, details consequence and relationship for all creatures, not just human. In Song of the Crocodile, all things are elemental and connected; all things are in fluid relationship to each other, including the writer and reader.
Her inventive way of weaving Yuwaalaraay words and meaning throughout the English without direct explanation, creates space and invites the reader to read in a different way, from a different angle. There is no singular understanding or story in this novel. It is layered and readers will find different connections within it.
The characters experience connections, often surprising themselves. By the river, when the women gather to comfort Margaret, who has been disrespected and disappointed (again) by white townspeople actions, Idy, an older Aboriginal woman, begins singing. Margaret joins in. She knows the words, and the power of the song, but can’t remember when she learnt it. Celie and Mili both, find comfort from tragedy in the Double D, an ancient coolabah tree by the river that saw the boras, long before the town was first laid out.
Another tree, where Celie’s husband died, along the Old Black Road, draws Celie, newborn baby Mili and Celie’s young nephews:
‘Aunty Ceil, Nan told me about the trees, how they remember everything. How they hold memories for people… But here, around here, is where he lived too. Aunt, sit down.
… Nan taught me all about it. They hold life. The bad stuff they take away through their roots and release it into the ground.’ (p67)
For Malawildhuulmuranga, her connection is planetary, as her Dhaa explains, ‘You are a daughter of dawn, the only thing separating darkness from light and the only thing that joins them.’ (p82)
Jakybird assesses and marvels at Paddy, Mili’s son who is in deep despair:
‘He watched Paddy sway into town, messy, loose, stumbling, but erect. This must have been powerful magic, remaining upright when all conspired to pull him down’. (p344)
Paddy reminds Jakybird of Garriya, now crocodile but who was once a friend, and the connection is made again between the ancient and the now.
The connection of life and death is always close too. At one point, Wil, Mili’s husband who has died, tries to reach Paddy his son, to induce a flicker of hope in Paddy’s heart:
‘High in the star, Wil moved memories into his son. They were only colours: the deep blue of a uniform, the bright orange of a council hat. Flashes of smiles, places they’d been, or the feel of a fishing line or the ruffling of his hair.’ (p350)
Connection is everywhere in this story, connection to all creatures, to the past and to the future. Even when the characters feel most alone, the reader knows they are not.
Demarcations and boundaries
The town geographically delineates between Aboriginal and white clearly. Darnmoor, as most real Australian towns did, corrals the local Aboriginal people outside the white perimeter, past the rubbish tip at the end of the Old Black Road. The history of this practice extends back through to the first settler fence-builders and town planners on this land. For instance, the town I grew up in, Taree on Biripi Country on the NSW mid north coast, pushed/ took/stole/drove local Biripi people to a reserve, Purfleet, south of the town across the river.
Song of the Crocodile reveals these practices as oppressive, common and complex. Some Aboriginal people are allowed inside the unspecified fence, but this comes with negotiation and always a cost. We see the cost to Margaret first:
‘When the purple bush blooms began to thin then disappear and the edge of a tared road loomed ahead, Margaret’s voice began to soften. At the street sign, she pushed the notes further into the back of her throat, constricting their flow and burying them within her body once again. As her shoes hit the asphalt of Charity Street, she fell completely silent.’ (p11).
In the novel, just as in the real world, Aboriginal women use their intimate knowledge of the white world strategically, while the white characters have no insight into how little they understand of – or are required by – the Aboriginal world. This considered and deliberate reveal, of how an oppressed people know their oppressors intimately while the oppressors have no clue, was a highlight in the story for me.
White actions have impacts on the Campgrounds community. These impacts are frequently dismissed – or even unimagined – because white people believe they hold the power and can choose not to notice, not to listen. We see the impacts roll down the generations affecting people and land the same. The white settler idea of progress – unsustainable growth through exploitation of land and people – clashes fundamentally with the integrated, cyclical nurturing and honouring connections to past, present and future that most of the Aboriginal characters carry in the story.
The Darnmoor inhabitants praise the achievements of white men above all else. Like many real Australian towns, the townspeople invest in appearances not community, in short term thinking, unsustainable futures and ignore or decry other ways and other people. The town rubbish tip placed on the bora grounds is just one example. Another is the construction of a levee around Darnmoor to hold back flood waters.
The town celebrates the completion of the levee, but the levee creates further demarcation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of the area. When Mili’s tears begin to flow, and all the travesties of humanity she has had to endure come to fruition, the danger of ignoring Country is clear. Garriya gathers his energy and slowly surfaces, the sky inhabitants dance the old bora grounds, which never disappear or age no matter how significant their apparent destruction appears, and:
‘… the townspeople watched the levee, holding their breath, waiting to see if the mound would breach, wondering if all they had created would be destroyed and washed away.’ (p401)
These practices of demarcation – white choices – are damaging and shamefully long-lived ones. They are still present in many towns across Australia. Through fiction, Simpson powerfully writes the truth of the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Jakybird warns the sky inhabitants, sitting around icy fires in Warrambool, the Milky Way, that the singing of Garriya ‘… is a hard one; some of you will die a second time in its singing’. (p354).
Darnmoor is not a generative gateway, and certainly not one to happiness as that welcome sign states. Warrambool, the literal heavens, is a gateway to the next place, for some a return to the earth, for others to sing again, others to sleep and wait some more. The act of singing is also a gateway, for it is part of culture, of belonging, of the turnabout of the world. It leads us to another place, another future.
The novel itself is a gateway too. Its landscape is wide and considered as Simpson tells the truth of our ongoing relationship with First Nations people of this Country. She details the changes to landscape that compound negatively and highlights the lack of accountability and short-sightedness of our settler society.
While Song of the Crocodile is a local, family saga, it speaks to our national story, and Simpson, with heart, attention and tenderness, shows readers a perspective that most of us will never have imagined before. This is what great fiction does, implicates and expands the reader’s emotional and philosophical terrain.
Towards the end of the novel, Malawildhuulmuranga asks one of the old ones ‘… why do you want to destroy it?’ and he answers, ‘How do we begin again, if, first, we don’t let go?’. (p365)
These are powerful cycles of renewal. We know change will only be made if we learn the lessons of the old ones. There is hope here, in this story, if we listen and learn.
PIP NEWLING was born on unceded Wirrayaraay Country, grew up on Biripi Country and lives and works on Dharawahl and Gadigal Country. She thanks all Elders from these lands, past, present, emerging and future, for blessing her with the health Country provides and the opportunity to benefit from their custodianship.