Yamaji writer Charmaine Papertalk Green has won this year’s Australian Literary Society (ALS) Gold Medal for her collection of poetry, “Nganajungu Yagu”, which was released through Cordite Books in May last year.
Green told the ABC the Gold Medal is “an honour” and hopes her win will compel other storytellers from regional Australia to tell their stories.
“I’ve had a few non-Aboriginal people come up and say, ‘This really hit me, when I was reading this it reminded me of my mum and the relationship I had with my mother’,” she told ABC’s rural reporter Michelle Stanley.
Her collection of poems, written in English, Wajarri and Badimaya, was inspired by the letter correspondences the poet had with her mother that “honours ancestors, language centres, language workers and those Yamaji who have been and remain generous in passing on cultural knowledge,” Green said.
The ALS Gold Medal is awarded each year to an outstanding literary work, and was judged this year by La Trobe University Professor Sue Martin, Newcastle University Professor Paul Salzman and Dr Emily Potter from Deakin University.
This year’s shortlist for the Gold Medal was an all-female lineup, including Charlotte Wood, for her novel “The Weekend”, Favel Parrett, for her novel “There was still love” and Jordie Albiston, for her collection of poems, “Element”. Last year’s Gold Medal was taken out by another female poet, Pam Brown, for her collection “Click here for what we do”.
As a teenager in the late 70s, Green was living in an Aboriginal girls’ hostel in Bentley, Perth, where she began writing letters to her mother.
“Nganajungu Yagu was inspired by Mother’s letters, her life and the love she instilled in me for my people and my culture,” Green describes on Cordite Book’s official site. “A substantial part of that culture is language, and I missed out on so much language interaction having moved away.”
Green held onto the letters over the last 4 decades and told ABC’s Michelle Stanley that it was only in the last 10 years she’s been thinking deeply about how to respond to them.
“I just think it’s incredible, the journey from those letters 41 years ago to where I am today and where we are, so I celebrate that,” she said. “I think the really important thing about this collection of poems is that it offers an insight to outsiders on an Aboriginal family, a Yamaji family, in rural Western Australia in the 1970s and drawing on a lot of the issues affecting the family and the community, and it was really quite personal.”
As poet and critic Felicity Plunkett described in the Irish Times earlier this year, “Papertalk” refers to the poet’s forebears delivering messages for the same colonisers who “tried so hard to empty this land.” Now, “We are our Ancestors/ Descendants/ Messengers” and paper restores shredded histories: “Paper talks everywhere now.”
Wiradjuri author and activist Anita Heiss described Green’s poetry in the collection’s Introduction as “eloquently powerful, respectfully challenging and true to her role in life as a Yamaji Nyarlu.”
Papertalk Green’s collection “Nganajungu Yagu” also took out the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry. As well as being an award-winning poet, Green is a visual artist, curator and social sciences researcher. Her previous collection of poems include “Just Like That and Other Poems,” published in 2007, “Tiptoeing Tracker Tod,” published in 2014, and False Claims of Colonial Thieves, which came out in 2018 and co-authored with Australian poet and critic John Kinsella, who was also born in Geraldton, WA.