Book review: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) by Anita Heiss

(cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

One of the enduring deficits of our modern age is the inability of people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and appreciate life from their perspective, a great irony considering the supposed hyperconnectivity of the digital era.

This lack of empathy is nothing new, of course, having bedevilled humanity through most of its oft-blighted history, and you come to appreciate how much damage it has done, and sadly continues to do, when you read the wondrously heartfelt new novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) from Wiradyuri woman and noted speaker and writer Anita Heiss.

It is movingly evident from page one that the author has poured her heart and soul into this novel which is the first to have an Aboriginal language title on the front cover with the English translation on the back cover (the usual back cover blurb has been relegated to the inside front cover).

Sprinkled liberally with Wiradyuri words, all of which are allowed to connect with readers via context alone – there is a glossary of words at the back of the novel but it’s rewarding beyond measure just to let the words roll over you and figure out what they mean as you go along; this is immersive language appreciation at its most gloriously illuminating best – Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a revelatory work that speaks with insight, life experience, and eloquence to the way in which a sense of self is always bound up for Australia’s Indigenous people with an enduring sense of place.

“She [Wagadhaany] wonders if the White people understand that most Wirayuri men know how to work with the river and the land, even in times of flood. That the Marrimbidya is not something to be afraid of. Rather the bila is to be respected and relied upon for food, for transport, for life. That the men have been brave and smart.” (P. 62)

While Australia has made slow, faltering and long-overdue steps in recent decades towards making peace with its rampantly unjust colonial past, it’s simply inadequate when you consider a history rife with callous, unthinking mistreatment of its First Nations inhabitants who, at the time of European colonisation (more akin to an invasion if we are being totally honest), were dispossessed from country that they had been faithful stewards of for more than 65,000 years.

By telling the story of mid-nineteenth century Wiradjuri women, Wagadhaany, who begins her journey in Gundagai as a mightily destructive flood ravages a town built on land that belonged to her miyagan (clan, family), readers are given a soulful accounting of a period of history so brutal that its effects are still being felt today.

The great strength of Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is that Heiss allows the great beauty of Wiradyuri culture to shine through at every turn in a story that is epically intimate, cruel but heartfelt and which never once surrenders to hopelessness though there are a million reasons to do so.

There is a lyricism and poetry that accompanies each and every word in this luminously superlative novel which speaks lovingly and with great affection of a culture which values the intricately interwoven connection between family and country, which celebrates a rich culture that shepherds the land through good and bad, and which understands that connection and belonging is everything.

That is clearly evident as we accompany Wagadhaany on a life journey where she is forced to work for a white family, the Bradleys, sheep and cattle farming colonists, who like almost all their contemporaries, view Indigenous people as lesser in every conceivable way, dismissing everything about the rich and storied culture of Australia’s Aboriginal people as inferior and hardly worth the comparison to the supposedly more lofty hallmarks of British civilisation.

Anita Heiss (image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia (c) Kate Bryan, Ruby Olive)

But in ways quietly nuanced, emotionally intimate, and yet powerfully honest, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray deconstructs any idea of superiority, making it beautifully and persuasively clear that Aboriginal people, in this case the Wiradjuri of south-central New South Wales, are possessed of a culture that has endured precisely because it was so sophisticated and so intricately well connected to the land, and that it understood the importance of country to its people who in turn acted as custodians of a world that very much belonged to them.

With warmth and vivacity, we see through Wagadhaany’s eyes how Wiradyuri culture sustained its people with a nurturing, sharing culture that knit each person in mutually beneficial ways, ensuring they were always there for each other in ways material and emotional and how the diminution of this culture through colonialist rapaciousness by British occupiers forever affected Indigenous people.

What is most remarkable throughout this immersively encompassing novel which seats itself deeply within your heart, is how Wagadhaany sustains her hope in the face of a multiplicity of grievous challenges.

In short order, the Wiradyuri are dispossessed of the land upon which they depended for food, spiritual and familial sustenance, are effectively enslaved by a white culture that sees them simply as animalistic possessions to be traded and ruled over, and find themselves treated as second-class citizens or far worse in their own country.

“He [Yindyamarra] feels helpless, disempowered. He wants to control his own life. He wants Wagadhaany to be able to control hers, and he wants Wiradyuri people to have a say in how and where they live. He wants to go back to life before White people came to their land and took it over. A time when his miyagan said his people were healthier and happier.” (P. 256)

Wagadhaany witnesses this all firsthand, and weeps at the horrors perpetrated on her and everyone in her nation and beyond, but remarkably and tenaciously, holds onto a hope that she can reclaim independence, that she can be reunited with her family and that the love of a man she meets, Yindyamarra, will make all the difference to a life that is often marred by what is lost rather than what is gained.

Suffused with a true humanity that is affecting deeply and enduringly profound, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is one of those landmark novels that dares to pull back the veil of history and tell things like they were in the hope of helping people understand why things are and why they must be changed.

Reading this magnificently well-written and emotionally-rich novel which you cannot help but fall in love with, you come to realise how a lack of empathy and understanding can have tragic and far-reaching effects, an instructive lesson for every modern non-Indigenous Australian who thinks this country was built on the benign version of history taught in our schools and not on the blood, dispossession and grievous loss of a people who were not simply here first but who had every right in the world to be left solely in possession of their beloved country.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a heartfelt gem of a novel – expansive, rich, beautifully told and awake to history’s truths and present consequential realities, a tale of resilience, love, hope, and belonging that calls us to pay attention to the real dark lessons of history and thus educated and with our empathy revived, to work towards a future where the hope of people like Wagadhaany has not been expended in vain.

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