We Come With This Place by Debra Dank review – a jewel to rival Australia’s great desert memoirs | books

Debra Dank is a Gudanji and Wakaja woman and a mother, grandmother and educator. These are important biographical notes, because this book is about all those qualifiers that not only make the author who she is, but root the overall story and guide its purpose.

Part memoir, part bush guide and customs manual, this is a book to lean into and take time with. Foremost, this is a story to learn from. In her introduction, Dank calls it “a strange kind of letter, written to my place”, and yet that strange weaving back and forth through time and dimension adds to the reader’s experience.

We Come With This Place is a jewel of a book, one Australians in particular ought to read and refer to. In this way, it belongs alongside iconic desert memoirs, like Ninu Grandmother’s Law, by Nura Nungalka Ward, about the life of a Yankunytjatjara woman from the Central Desert; and Two Sisters, the story of Walmajarri siblings Ngarta and Jukuna leaving the Great Sandy Desert.

Dank takes her time at the opening of the story. She tells you about the land she grew up on – a character in itself, and all its dust and broken rock – but that’s just a small part of the whole: there’s so much more to that stretch of country in far-west Queensland, across the Barkly Tableland and to the Gulf of Carpentaria. She was born the black kid of a black stockman, which is an omnipresent fact in her family’s lives, and the threat of Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland in the 1950s and 60s hangs overhead. The invisible menace is wrought in the imagery of a sudden locust cloud that engulfs their van out to Oban station, and the fish-filled sky that rains writhing perch all over Camooweal’s barren streets.

There is a heaviness felt throughout the book, of being stolen, going missing, and accidental death too – Dank’s was a childhood of discovery and keen observation, both of the beauty and the brutality of rural Australian life. Hungry and thirsty people and animals litter the pages; the emancipated cattle gathering around a dwelling, or the extreme rationing of fresh water.

This is also the story of family – of Dank’s, of her siblings, her parents, her grandparents and her ancestors through time; of Bungmaji and the three Mararamana, the water women, and others. Many stories center on the fascination, forgiveness and adoration of a troubled parent. Notably of Dank’s father, Soda, whose story follows the timeless tracks as he escapes station owners and mission priests, and traverses hot country with a small stone or hard seed where “the presence of the foreign body produced water in his mouth”. We see him as he dances, jokes with his children, works endlessly, and suffers too. There’s his reunion with his birth mother, Lucy, and the unspeakable crimes he witnesses in that moment before they are separated once again.

Dank is particularly skilled at showing the outback through children’s eyes and hearts: the magical fish, the things that can poison, the mangled yellow bodies of grasshoppers, the farming accidents – in this case, a man sucking the tip of a carbine light, and ending up “without his brain”. The red-meat ant bite and the unexpected and confusing kindness of white strangers are stories told side-by-side; everything, it seems, has beauty and pain intertwined. There’s the food and drink that binds time, place and joy into their broken hearts – the story of the conkerberries (bush plum), mamugujama in Gudanji language, “so favored by us all, including the turkeys”. And the gorgeous story of Dank’s grandfather plucking five perch from a secret hole in the desert, where she discovers “how we could take fish from cold water in arid places”.

There are quiet revelations found in fresh and saltwater, and the melding of each in her marriage to a white fella, and in returning with her adult children to the country where her son is so eager to remove his shoes, for his feet to breathe on the bank; as he puts it, “my feet have felt all those things here before”.

In the end, Dank reckons with the violence that was never meant to enter her family tree, but did, and she overcomes it. It’s as if these enormous heartbreaks have lodged in her own mouth dela as a child, unwilling to say so many things aloud. Here, in the privacy and the communion of the page, Dank’s voice her is heard clearly and courageously, and we, readers, fellow inhabitants of this country, are all the more enriched because this book was written.

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