Warning: This article contains images of people who have died.
Reading the poetry of Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman Ali Cobby Eckermann is like receiving a story bit by bit. She will draw you in, take you around, invite you to sit down on the ground with her, then sit with you in silence.
Indian poet Meena Kandasamy once said, “As Ali’s prose chokes you, her poetry tells you to remember to breathe”.
When I met Ali for the first time she was not alone. She arrived at Adelaide Botanic Gardens with four of her sister-cousins, Annette, Trisha, Mungi and Alison.
I was expecting to meet the poet who won the Windham-Campbell Prize, one of the world’s richest literary awards. But Ali was quick to explain that this was not the story: that there was not just one person behind her award-winning prose and poetry.
“My poetry journey has never been a solo career and it's never been a singular voice,” she explains.
“The reconnection with my family to nurture me to the place I am today was the result of so many loving members of my family."
I learned quickly that the women sitting next to me make up a new line of matriarchs in the Cobby family, and they’ve come here to share their story.
“Every time we sit down like this I learn a little bit more, and it makes me a little bit stronger, and that's the origin of storytelling in our culture, of always passing story.”
For tens of thousands of years a soak above the Nullarbor, in South Australia, provided a permanent water source to people who passed through the area in times of drought. The land was traversed by the many tribes, including the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra and Aṉangu. For them, the soak was an important site and often used as a meeting place.
For Europeans, the water made it a useful area to camp, especially during construction of the Trans-Australia Railway, and between the 1930s and 50s a mission was erected called Ooldea Soak. During this time, many of the Traditional Owners of the surrounding lands moved off their homelands to Ooldea permanently.
This is where the story of Ali and her sister-cousins begins.
In 1942, a Yankunytjatjara woman called Ngingali was born at Ooldea Soak to May Cobby.
“That’s our grandmother,” Annette explains.
“Her tribal name was Walyingka, and her given name was May Cobby.
“I remember her and my mum talking in language all the time.”
Annette says before the mission came, May Cobby and her family lived in the sand hills; walking across the land, eating bush tucker. And in some ways this continued when the mission was erected; many could still visit country from Ooldea Soak.
The mission would also bring grief.
Three of May Cobby’s four children were taken away to separate homes in the early years of their life. Ngingali was taken to Koonibba Lutheran Mission Home near Ceduna.
In the time that Ngingali was away from her birth mother, the soak at Ooldea had all but dried up, and the British were preparing for nuclear testing at Maralinga, north of Ooldea. The mission was shut down and many were moved to a new reserve at Yalata, miles away from their ancestral lands.
Years later, Ngingali – who had been given the name Audrey - was able to track down her birth mother and brothers and sisters. It’s at this point in the story that Ali learnt something that would change her life.
While Ali grew up not knowing the names or faces of her sister-cousins, Trish grew up hearing the story of the sister she was meant to have; a child that would have been called Penelope Rae Cobby.
“My aunty Audrey, Ali's mum, is my mum's sister cousin. I grew up knowing the story of when [Audrey] was expecting Ali, and my mum helped her through the pregnancy,” Trish explains.
Trish’s mother was going to be the ‘promised mum’ – or kinship mother - to Ali when she was born.
To ensure the family could raise Ali, or Penelope Rae, her uncles set out to create a trust fund. They went away to work in the shearing sheds, sending back money that would support Ali’s upbringing.
“I remember my entire view of the world changed when I had the proof that I'd been wanted."
But the day Ali’s promised mum and Uncle Archie Barton went to the hospital to pick her up, she was gone.
“And my mum said Aunty Audrey just cried. She couldn't say anything but she just cried,” Trish says.
The story is bittersweet – while it caused years of heartache for Ali and her family, hearing what really happened gave Ali a new lease on life.
“I remember my entire view of the world changed when I had the proof that I'd been wanted, to the extent that these uncles went away working and sent money back for my upbringing. It was life changing,” Ali says.
While Ali’s family went through the grief of having a child taken away, Ali grew up on a farm at Hart in South Australia, adopted by a German-Lutheran family. She describes life on the farm as ‘happy’: she was loved by her adoptive Eckermann parents, and she loved them.
But something was missing.
“I couldn’t control my behaviour,” Ali explains.
“And I didn't know how to change that. So I ran away, because I didn't want to see the hurt in my adoptive parents’ eyes.”
At 17, Ali ran away to a place above the Nullarbor Plain to work on the rail line. To a place called Ooldea: unwittingly, Ali had stumbled into the birthplace of her mother.
But her search for her mother didn’t begin for another year, when she was 18, and wouldn’t end for more than a decade.
By then, the Bringing Them Home report into the Stolen Generations was being tabled and Ali was able to access documentation that told her who her birth mother was. She found her name, and made plans to meet her.
At 34, Ali flew from Adelaide to Canberra and met Audrey Ngingali Cobby. She says it was like looking into a mirror.
“It was... Meeting mum was the first time that I'd ever seen that. I don't know if people can imagine what it's like to live 30 years with never seeing another replica of yourself.”
The years after Ali found her birth mother, life began to fall into place.
The son she had to give up when she was young came back to her. He was 18.
And significantly, Ali met her wider Yankunytjatjara family – including her promised mother, and Uncle Barty, who had fought for her so many years before.
Trish says she still remembers the day Ali came back.
“My daughter was still in primary school, and we got all excited because we knew she was coming, and my mum was really nervous,” she says.
“And on the day of her coming back, all of these stories came back to us: that secret story about this girl being taken away from us.”
“So that was a really special day of Ali coming back into our house. There were a lot of little tears being shed.”
Ali says meeting her family “changed her life”. But the reconnection also brought pain, for so many uncles and aunties and old people had passed before she could meet them.
“I'm so grateful for poetry, because before when I didn't know what to do it was drug-use or alcohol or suicide ideation."
And so the process of learning her family’s story and history began: these experiences of country and kinship, language and culture, formed the backbone of the poetry which would eventually resonate across the world.
She wrote about the injustices of the Intervention in ‘Little Bit Long Time,’ for the men she met in Alice Springs. She wrote a lyrical novel, through verse, called Ruby Moonlight, about colonisation and massacres in South Australia. A novel Ali says, ‘she had to write.’
And then her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry: a testament to the sorrow and triumph of a stolen child who found her people and country.
But the year Ali’s memoir was published, her heart broke again.
Her birth mother, kinship mothers, and her mentors from the desert died within 12 months.
“What the hell do you do?” she asks.
“I'm so grateful for poetry, because before when I didn't know what to do it was drug-use or alcohol or suicide ideation, and now I can just - I need the time to catch up with my emotions, to sit on my milk crate, to watch the trees and look at the sky, and get things back into perspective, and to write that poetry – for myself.”
And that’s what Ali did. She wrote Inside My Mother, a collection of poems she used as a vehicle to give voice to the pain of the continuation of the Stolen Generations.
It helped to heal not only herself, but her family who were also reeling from the loss. Trish says one poem has always stayed with her.
“Ali wrote a poem and brought it back to me to read. It was about dolphins and it just took my breath away.
“I could not comprehend the connection, and how you could pour your words out on paper after we lost her.”
Almost two years after her last book was published, in February 2017, life changed again for Ali.
“Well I was just enjoying my simple happy life and I noticed an email on my phone, and it said, 'We've just judged the Windham-Campbell Prize,'… can you please give us a call?” she says.
“And I was thinking, 'Oh you know, I've heard about these scams,' and whatever. And my brain couldn't accept that, literally Yale was ringing 'we've got great news,' I couldn't work out what that meant.”
It meant something significant: the Windham-Campbell Prize recognises English language writers from anywhere in the world.
Awarded by Yale University, winners receive $215,000 in recognition of literary achievement, and to allow them to focus on their work without burden or constraint. This year is the first to include poetry as a category.
A few months have passed since Ali received the news, and there are still months ahead until the prize will be awarded at Yale University in September. But the impact has not lessened.
“My mother and her siblings, and the strength of my generation with my brothers and sisters: the essence of that is in the poetry. And amazingly, it granted me a Windham-Campbell award.”
“It felt like a reparation that I won't receive from my own country.”