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An aerial photo of Erub Island in the Torres Strait, with a plane wing in the corner of the image, sand visible through the water in the foreground and the island in the mid-distance

Erub from the air. Image: Supplied

Often specific smells at certain times of the year take me back to where I grew up, in Weipa.

Weipa is a remote coastal community on the traditional lands of the Alngith people situated on the western side of Cape York, overlooking the Gulf of Carpentaria. A place where keeping the red bauxite dust off freshly washed white nappies was a challenge my Mum faced when my siblings and I were younger.

That dank but great earthy dirt smell just after a thunderstorm brings back memories of swimming in the storm water drain outside my house. I’d take my time walking home from primary school because I wanted to get absolutely drenched by the warm cold rain that would inevitably pour from the sky when the bell for home went.

The sweet distinct smell of the tropical beach almond fruit, found in the nature strip directly behind my house, reminds me of home and interacting with the natural world. When the fruit breaks down on the ground under the tree, you collect what becomes the dried-out nut case, and then crack it open for a nut. The trick is finding one which doesn’t have a houseguest (a wormy kind of grub which burrows inside and spoils the fruit) so you can eat the soft, somewhat astringent, mouth drying multi coloured flesh. When I was younger, I thought all almonds tasted as divine as this little nut did.

Three large, leathery dark-pink almond fruits in the palm of a person's hand.

Almond fruit on Erub. Image: Supplied

Sometimes certain citrus scents take me back to squashed green ants, which would shower down on me when I jumped too high on the trampoline under the mango tree in our backyard after hitting my head on an unsuspecting green ant nest. I’d be left trying to get them off my head before the bites and stings came.

When I notice these smells of my childhood, I feel lucky that I knew a different way of life before the big city lights took hold. While I haven’t been back to Weipa since I left as a 10-year-old, my memories of that time remain strong and I feel grateful for the grounding it gave me.

Memories of this earlier life came flooding back while on a trip back to Erub in Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait) after more than a decade away. The trip was for a project I’m currently working on, which allowed me to ‘sit’ in just being me as a mainland Torres Strait Islander. It was a different but welcomed experience being able to meet community and visit relatives without pressing deadlines each day. I haven’t had an experience like that since my first media job at an Indigenous radio station.

As a kid, I was pretty much allowed to do anything but most of my time was spent on the bike tracks which crisscrossed my town of about two thousand people back then. I’d ride to swimming training, to dancing, to Brownies (or Girl Guides as it’s known these days) and to anywhere else the neighbourhood kids in my cul-de-sac travelled. There were few places off limits to me. Although, everyone knew who you belonged to and they knew if you were up to something you shouldn’t be.

When I notice these smells of my childhood, I feel lucky that I knew a different way of life before the big city lights took hold.

The weekends would take my family to spots that my Dad just seemed to know about. No GPS needed, although I’m not sure it would have worked even if they existed. I only knew of maps and refidexes (street directories for the non-Queenslanders reading this).

At Mangrove Beach during low tide, I’d sometimes help my Dad find large oyster rocks and we’d hoist them on the back of our trayback, drive them back up to a higher part of the beach and smoke out the oyster rock with pine needles collected from nearby. Then we’d sit there for hours just finding all the oysters and eating them. That smell of the smoke from the Australian Pine Tree is another reminder of those weekends up north, but I don’t miss stepping on the seeds that always seemed to be around as soon as you took your shoes off!

I look back on these times, my early years on Napranum to then moving into ‘town’, and I feel lucky I got to grow up where I did and what that experience instilled in me—an appreciation for country and for the chance to be surrounded by other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Even though I’ve now spent most of my life in a city, I still find I’m much more at peace when I’m back in the bush or up in the Islands. The remoteness, the lack of feeling ‘busy’ is what refills my spirit in a way I can’t describe. I just feel at home.

During COVID, my Dad has been talking more about growing up at Bamaga, near the tip of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula. He’s been reflecting too on what he used to do as a kid and the things that he learned not only from his father but also from the Aboriginal traditional owners who also lived there.

It never occurred to me until we had these COVID conversations that his knowledge of bush food and what he knew about the area was also what he learnt growing up remotely in Bamaga so some of it wasn’t from Torres Strait Islander knowledges.

When I reflect on the country I grew up on, I naturally think about where my bloodline comes from, the connections I have to Mer and Mabayag through my late grandparents and the connections I have to my clans on those islands and the totems associated with them. I feel connected to Zenadth Kes, but I’ve also come to realise, as a mainland Torres Strait Islander (that is, one who grew up not on an island in Zenadth Kes but on the mainland of Australia), that while I appreciate where I’ve been able to live, I’m acutely aware that I too, am a visitor.

Even though I’ve now spent most of my life in a city, I still find I’m much more at peace when I’m back in the bush or up in the Islands.

I grew up knowing that I lived on the lands of other Aboriginal nations something my Dad often reminded my siblings and I about. He remains fiercely staunch in these conversations that the work we do as Torres Strait Islanders living on Aboriginal lands should be for both the betterment and advancement of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities together. He believes quite strongly that as the Indigenous peoples of this country, we’re stronger together because of what we’ve endured and survived alongside each other, and that history should never be forgotten.

In more recent years, I’ve asked myself what this all really means. What does it mean to be a visitor your entire life on country which does not belong to you or your bloodline? What does it mean to never really be ‘at home’?

Most of my working career has either been working with Aboriginal people in Aboriginal led organisations or advocating on their behalf internally in the mainstream organisations I’ve worked in. But in recent years, I’ve found myself searching for where my community is in all of this, in telling our own stories, and been left wondering how we reclaim our narrative like Aboriginal peoples have been doing both here and around the world.

As part of my work on an upcoming project, I’ve realised that although my Old People fought for a better way of life and an acknowledgement of who we are as a people, these ‘wins’ have also benefited the wider Australian community. Many on Australia’s mainland might be unfamiliar with these events. But while our population may be small in number, Torres Strait Islanders have managed to make significant change.

In recent months, Torres Strait Islanders have set the national precedent for recognition of traditional child rearing practices in State Law and could set a global precedent as the first Indigenous group to take a government to task on climate change, if the Torres Strait 8 case to the UN is successful.

But Torres Strait Islanders have a long history of standing up for ourselves and our own affairs.

The 1936 Maritime Strike not only saw better pay for the Torres Strait Islander workforce on luggers controlled by the Chief Protector, but also led to the formalising and setting up of self-governing Island Councils in 1937. This paved the way for separate Torres Strait legislation and inspired the strike by WWII Torres Strait Islander soldiers who demanded an end to discriminatory practices in the army.

What does it mean to be a visitor your entire life on country which does not belong to you or your bloodline? What does it mean to never really be ‘at home’?

The challenge I see going forward is how we build capacity within our own community so that we become more visible in the mainstream places we currently aren’t seen in, such as, Australian literature.

After 30 plus years of the David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Manuscript from an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writer and similar competitions, Aboriginal literature in this country is coming into its own. Aboriginal authors are winning mainstream awards and finally being recognised for what they bring to the literary sector. But out of that initiative and the flow-on it created in the industry, Torres Strait Islander writers are still missing.

For the last 4 years, I had a monthly Australian Young Adult (YA) Fiction segment on my national radio programme on the ABC. Once a month, a panel would review and discuss the latest Australian YA releases in an effort to support the industry and shine a light on Australian stories. Over the years, I’ve seen the growth of Aboriginal authors in this space but as yet, have not read an Australian YA novel from a Torres Strait Islander author. This isn’t the only category either where Torres Strait Islander experiences or stories are invisible. While there are a few memoirs and autobiographies from Torres Strait Islanders, we’re still missing books from fiction and poetry. The only Torres Strait Islander author of adult fiction I know of is Terri Janke—her debut novel, Butterfly Song, was written in 2005 and there has not been another traditionally published Torres Strait Islander to follow this.

A small bay in the late afternoon, with palm trees in the foreground. On the far side of the bay is a metal shed under large poinciana tree and next to a telecoms tower. Next to the building is a wharf protruding out into the ocean. There are two small boats in the bay.

Erub, December 2020. Image: Supplied

As a majority of Torres Strait Islanders now live on the mainland and on Aboriginal country, conversations like this can be tricky and complex to have because, in part, you’re on country which is not your own so therefore have to navigate the conversation in a way that respects where you are. These conversations can often be misunderstood as Torres Strait Islanders wanting to separate ourselves from the Aboriginal community.

But that is not what it’s about.

It’s about being able to build capacity for our community so that our future generations can see us in these spaces. It’s so they might grow up reading their own histories from a Torres Strait Islander point of view or reading a novel which has their own experiences and lives reflected on the page.

It’s also a wider conversation about Australians really understanding the cultural differences between the two Indigenous groups in this country which are often grouped together for policy purposes.

It’s about reminding the wider community that like Aboriginal peoples, we too have many clans, have our own unique culture, traditional languages and own cultural protocols, which while similar, are also different and need to be learned by those who wish to consult and understand us properly.

As Torres Strait Islanders, we have a strong sense of place and identity, but rising sea levels could lead to more of us moving to the mainland. These conversations about connection to place and our representation in this country are at the forefront of what might be coming.

I grew up seeing my Uncle on ABC TV news advocating for the Torres Strait and hearing my cousin reporting news stories on ABC radio. But I want to be able to read a Torres Strait Islander history book by a Torres Strait Islander. I want to read a Torres Strait Islander protagonist in an Australian Young Adult Fiction novel written by a Torres Strait Islander, and in general, I want to see my community pushing into the Arts spaces we currently aren’t visible in.

If we don’t do this work now, where will the next generation of Torres Strait Islanders see our stories, and where will they see themselves reflected in the places they call home?


This piece was commissioned and edited by Jasmin McGaughey, KYD’s 2020 First Nations Editor-in-Residence, in partnership with State Library of Queensland’s black&write! Indigenous Writing and Editing project.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers can submit pitches to 2021 First Nations Editor-in Residence Allanah Hunt here