Ali Cobby Eckermann at The Saturday Club (Anindya Shankar Ray)
A few months back, Ali Cobby Eckermann of South Australia became a grandmom. Now that’s hardly remarkable, till you hear that the little boy, River, is the first in four generations with no risk of being taken away from the family. “It’s had a very powerful effect on me,” said Ali, who was taken away from her mother as a baby, as was her own mother and Ali’s son, Jonnie, who was born when she was a teenager.
Ali is an Aboriginal Australian poet who visited Calcutta earlier this month for an International Translation Autumn School at Jadavpur University. The Aboriginals are the original inhabitants of Australia, who lived in the continent for some 60,000 years before the Europeans colonised it from the late 1700s.
Sitting in the balcony of The Saturday Club, Ali told Metro about finding her family after decades and why her poetry is both a mission and a therapy for her.
“Being a relinquished child and also being a mother who relinquished a child, my poetry was a way for me to heal. But it also became an avenue to share with Australia not only what I felt but what the rest of the family felt,” explained Ali, who has won numerous literary awards since she published her first collection of poetry Little Bit Long Time. This book, and her first novel in verse, My Father’s Eyes, deals with the Stolen Generations and issues of dislocation from family.
Stolen Generations is a dark phase in Australia’s history when Aboriginal babies were taken away and placed in “White” families for “assimilation”.
Born in 1963, Ali was placed in a mission and then adopted by the Eckermanns. A wild child in her teens, she tried to find her birth mother when she was 18 “but the paperwork wasn’t accessible”. That came about when Ali was 33-34 and she located her mother in Canberra.
“When I walked across the airport, it was very powerful because for the first time I was seeing someone who looked like me. It was like walking into a mirror. And in that one little moment it also made me so much aware of my loss.”
“We had may be one week when we were definitely mother and daughter. After that time, we were two women,” Ali remembered.
Four years later, she got her son back. “Jonnie was eighteen-and-a-half. There’s an organisation called Link Up and the government funded a department to help all these adult children find their way home. When he flew into Alice Springs airport, I got my life back. I had waited eighteen-and-a-half years. I’ve written about this in my poetry — it was like living with a hole in me gut. And then the hole was filled.”
As big is the joy of finding a parent or a lost child, the reunion brings home a huge sense of loss, Ali pointed out. She wants to use her writing to “fast-track” that healing for her son and other Aboriginal people going through the same turmoil.
Being in Calcutta and speaking about her life, her loss and her joys has been healing too, she said.
“Even now right here in Calcutta, meeting the students and faculty in the Autumn School is still more healing for me. Because out of Australia, there’s a different way of enquiring, about sharing my personal journey, but also my Aboriginal culture. Here people have a culture. I think one of the difficulties of Australia is that mainstream Australia doesn’t know what their culture is,” she said.