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I've just been devouring Andrew ('Yakajirri') Stojanovski's 2010 book Dog ear cafe: how the Mt Theo program beat the curse of petrol sniffing. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers. It's a terrific read (you can download a sample from the publisher's webpage).

UPDATE: 2/9/2010:
This book is being launched "in conversation with Rachel Perkins" on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 6.00 for 6.30pm.
Venue: gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe
Cost: Free
RSVP: gleebooks - 9660 2333 or request a place via the gleebooks' secure server
Or you can buy it from gleebooks here.

As a portrait of life among the Warlpiri, it's up there with Yasmine Musharbash's Yuendumu everyday: contemporary life in remote Aboriginal Australia. She talks about Yuendumu from the point of view of an anthropologist living in the single women's camp; he does it as a community worker trying to balance his marriage with throwing himself into helping Warlpiri people work with petrol sniffers. (For other earlier excellent ethnographies see the list David Nash maintains.)

In its astonishing honesty about the author's feelings and actions (the good, the silly and the dangerous), Dog ear cafe is up there with the honesty of Neil Murray's autobiography, Sing for me, countryman (Rydalmere, N.S.W.: Sceptre 1993)* (and see my blogpost).

Here are some of the many things I liked about Stojanovski's book:

  • the reflections on the intercultural teamwork needed to create Mount Theo outstation as a place to allow petrol sniffers to regain their lives.
  • the recognition that intercultural misunderstanding works both ways - most notably in the incident where a young Warlpiri boy says in shock when criticised for upsetting Andrew: "Kardiya [white people] don't have feelings".
  • the suggestion that compassion is a defining Warlpiri characteristic (as exemplified by the ubiquity of the "poor thing" wiyarrpa) word in modern songs). At the same time he recognises that of course not all Warlpiri show it.
  • the discussion of humbug (demand sharing) as mutual obligation, as 'teamwork'.
  • the account of how to reconcile everyone's need and desire for vehicles with the need for an emergency vehicle at the outstation.
  • the discussion of how hard it is for Yapa (Warlpiri people) to reconcile the obligations of family life with the impartiality demanded of workers in most Australian organisations. (He argues that whitefellas are seen as neutral like Switzerland- I'd go for 'maybe more neutral' rather than 'neutral').
  • the importance and difficulty of having D&Ms (deep&meaningful conversations) with petrol sniffers, and the generous recognition that another of his associates, Karissa Preuss, is very very good at this - in fact the book is filled with the generous recognition of the skills of his associates. No wonder the team worked well.
  • the breathtaking exuberant desire to Get Things Done, save petrol sniffers from themselves. This led the Government to award OAMs to Stojanovski and his colleagues Japangardi and Peggy Nampijinpa Brown. It also led to all sorts of things that would have him hung, drawn and quartered by all but the most enlightened ethics committee and government agency. He knows this, but justifies it from the fairly unarguable position that the alternatives would have been more harmful. (Read the book to find out more...)
  • having a glossary at the back which contains many accurately spelled Warlpiri words

The book leaves me with a great deal of admiration for what Nampijinpa, Japangardi, Stojanovski and their associates achieved, a lot of sympathy for the women and the managers and Government people in Stojanovski's life, and above all with gratitude to him for telling the story his way.

See Neil Murray's webpage for how to buy Sing for me, countryman.

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