Stories of Influence Review, 2018

‘Stories of influence fosters storytelling in multiple forms, weaving over three days and two nights into an overall message of country and community whose aim might be as large or as small as asking us to create new ways of being as Australians’.

It can be challenging to organise and market an event of unknown content, to honour the emergence of stories that emerge from imposed silence, maintained through language that marginalises, through myths that reinforce inferiority and disadvantage reinforced through legislation that benefits some groups at the expense of communities and environments.  Yet the response to this year’s Stories of influence the fourth annual gathering of writers, storytellers and thinkers sharing untold stories was outstandingly a message of affirming connection, of opportunity to work together, to share the reshaping of past knowledge and set a new agenda for the future.

Beginning on the Nowa Nowa Gorge in 2018 the event moved to Lake Tyers Beach Hall and  embraced walking books, film, stories stitched in textiles, spoken word performance, songs, even gum leaf playing as well as insight into the journey of researching, writing and publishing affirms the richness of the approach that offers connection across difference.    Local stories of people and place connected with international presentations both in the art of storytelling and content. These stories have previously been known only by small groups of people being largely hidden away in memories, diaries, letters and reports.

In previous years Gippsland writers of untold histories, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Aboriginal agriculture or accident(2016) ‘[It is] essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what Australia once was, or what it might yet be’ ( and Eileen Harrison and Carolyn Landon: Black Swan: a koorie women’s life (2101) are stories giving insight into the impact of assimilation policies.  These authors shared the journey of writing stories that were emotionally difficult to research and craft into a style of engagement that goes beyond grief and anger. They are transforming as they invite conversation with readers and thinkers – a dialogue to share the impact of knowing. Stories of influence provides a forum to contribute to this process.

A comment following the weekend summed it up: ‘I went home and thought I have to unlearn what I know, strip it back and start again’.

The event continues to attract interest and this year sold 600 session tickets and ran over three days. As in past years, highlights of the event came at different points depending on who you were and your own life experiences.   As the original motivation for beginning as Gorgeous Yarns in 2014 was to raise awareness of the historical, cultural and environmental significance of the Nowa Nowa Gorge a highlight for me was the Friday fringe invitation by Wayne Thorpe to walk along the Nowa Nowa Gorge. To observe nature and craft this into a personal story.

The meeting place was advertised as ‘Gilligan’s Island Nowa Nowa (Pony Club Reserve). Word spread and interest grew.  I was running late and turning down the road to the boat ramp was surprised to find parked cars and people standing about.  Wondering if the meeting place had changed I stopped and discovered that despite being local these folk who had come to Stories for the first time didn’t know where to go. There was laughter on all sides when the procession following me turned into the reserve to be welcomed by relatives, friends and others more familiar with the landscape.

Maybe it was inevitable that a festival inviting writers and storytellers to share hidden histories could be tricky to find once it moved into the landscape.  Names of places change over time reflecting events or past residents that escapes official knowing.  Gilligan’s Island, Nowa Nowa wasn’t on Google, nor the pony club.  Both are recent names. Nor were the older names of Bung Yarnda and Nukka Kowirra that come before Boggy creek, or Lake Tyers.

The mesmerising sound of gum leaf playing by Uncle Herb Patten bought people together to listen to Wayne Thorpe speaking about his book, A story of Bung Yarnda aka Lake Tyers, (2016).   A small boy sitting in front of me dug a hole filling it with water watching it seep – as he listened to the story of Bung Yarnda, how the freshwater invites the salt water for a rest – the need for the lake to open naturally after freshwater spreads across the land, feeding the plants and making habitat for fish, food for birds and insects and humans and on opening the sandbar takes food out through the entrance to the ocean.

Wayne spent extra time with the children from the Nowa Nowa School explaining how this had been a camping place, fresh water and fish for those not welcome at Lake Tyers under past policies that turned away those seeking family or safety.  In limbo, they camped here: Gilligan’s island.

Some like Isabelle Poole whose family has a cabin at the Nowa Nowa Camping and Caravan Park sat quietly.  In her final year of a Bachelor of Environment and Sustainability (RMIT) she chose to look more closely at current governance implications of Lake Tyers from the perspective of the FLOAT project. A Small Towns Transformation arts project that is inviting interested artists, scientists, fishing folk, plant people, writers…well anyone with an interest in the waterway to take stock of this culturally and environmentally significant landscape: to become environmental stewards.  The opportunity to hear  ‘A Bunga Yarnda story’ gave a cultural and environmental understanding to contemporary thinking of moving away from a fragmented approach that leaves such landscapes vulnerable to an inclusive bio-regional approach championed by Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA).  Workshops introducing people to creating a catchment blueprint to enable interaction to become visible are scheduled for April 2019.

For others, the screening of Warrigal Creek Massacres made by Andrew Dodd, Lisa Gye and RMIT film students was shown at the hall – attracting similar numbers to the Walk (80+) gave this thoughtful audience an opportunity to ask questions of the filmmakers and historian Peter Gardner and author of Our Founding Murdering Fathers, Kurnai tribes of Gippsland (1987) Gippsland Massacres (1993) and Through Foreign Eyes (1994).  Elizabeth Balderstone who had welcomed the filmmakers onto her family property in Warrigal was at Stories as was Doris Paton.  In the film, Doris spoke of the silence surrounding this story being similar to the impact of the Stolen Generation on families. These are painful stories to speak of – a responsibility that extends beyond the Aboriginal community.

At every break there were groups of people, some old acquaintances catching up, others making contact for the first time began to say maybe we could work together, could I visit, would you come…maybe we could … and at the Q and A near the end of the weekend Uncle Herb Patten spoke simply and emotionally saying that this was the first time he had heard the white side of living on site of Massacres – This is a turning point and gives meaning to reconciliation and healing/ sorry day can be advanced to an equal opportunity for Aboriginal people…I will tell people about this….Libby Balderstone responded and welcomed involvement in next steps of recognition. Some spoke of ceremonies… the conversation is open..

Lynne Kelly, author of The Memory code (2016) and a science writer of 17 books primarily about animals and insects told of how her world changed when encouraged to explore ‘orality’ ‘the dependence on spoken rather than written communication.  A way of knowing before google, before computers, before print, before books.

Her search to find out how oral societies remembered detailed knowledge of insects, plants, animals, complex genealogy, lunar activity over generations, seasonal changes determining planting and movement of animals, navigation….everything that determined survival, belonging and identity. Her dynamic presentation offered groundbreaking insight into the lives of ancient cultures across the globe.  While the techniques were different the existence of visual memory triggers, symbols, carvings, songs, rhythmic stories were evident in cultures as geographically distant as Stonehenge in Briton, or Stones of Stenness in Orkney, or Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, or Carnac, France, the Polynesian Islands, Mexico, Africa or the song-lines of Australian Aboriginal people.

Lynne has taught herself to store knowledge in the environment, in built structures, in art, songs and stories.  She is a dynamic presenter, keen for others to access these practices that connect all elements of life- to ‘know’ in ways that respect connections rather than specialise and separate.

For a gathering of writers, storytellers – many of whom are visual or textile artists, or sculptors it was an affirming revelation. Doris Paton spoke of her mother Aunty Rachael Mullet, artist and educator and her father, Uncle Albert Mullett whose stories were told in visual images of time and place.  Doris had stitched the story of the dream, the existence and demise in 2012 of Woolum Bellum, the Koorie Open Door Education (KODE) School in Morwell onto three quilts. Images and words that resonated with others who have experiences of creating structures that worked brilliantly for a time, but operating outside of hierarchical and bureaucratic processes existed only for the life of personal relationships that facilitated their existence.  What worked and why was rarely understood by new decision-makers, so the world became meaner and less welcoming.

Knowing that such stories don’t emerge fully formed, emerging writers are invited to speak of their works in progress, to gain a presence and advance their status as writers.  The stories of recovery from abuse and the role of writing connected with listeners, crossing divisions of race and Aboriginality, as did the story of Edna Gale and Pat Orma, two independent and resourceful businesswomen, artists, activists living together for 70 years in a rural community influencing the lives of generations of young women and challenging the norm of the place of women was received with nods and smiles.  The publication is eagerly awaited.

Inevitably an invitation to speak of hidden histories in Gippsland involves stories of the impact of policies on Aboriginal families.  Aunty Phyllis Andy spoke of her ancestor Bessy Flower being sent to Gippsland as a young girl from Western Australia to Ramahyuck Mission where she was an outstanding educator to Aboriginal and European children. A story known from her letters and diaries researched by Sharon Huebner and Ezzard Flowers to reinstate a place for Bessy’s memory within the culture of her family.

Over the weekend there were so many ah hah moments: ‘Greatly improved my knowledge of indigenous history in Gippsland.  All speakers shared their knowledge and it was infectious.

The need for more stories and truth-telling. 

Inspiration! Hope! Wanting to be more involved.

Opportunity to hear from a variety of presenters the wonderful comradeship and discussion and learning that was shared. Networking with Aboriginal elder’s artists and authors. 

Writing techniques.  Historical oral memories. Memory aids. Networking with authors and likeminded people. Sheer enjoyment of the program.

Jan Wositzky’s Art of Story telling reminded listeners that family memories vary among siblings. Locating his family within the European landscape of war, he spoke of the absent father (grandfather) who some believed to be a hero while others dismissed as a womaniser and drunk…Jan is skilled at bringing characters to life through voice and song using minimal props.  He introduced would be writers to the underpinning cycle of storytelling through the voice of Bill Harney (who he first heard on the radio) on the experience of going to war, the futility, the horror and cost. His journey to Aboriginal cultures that settled disputes without this slaughter contrasted to these horrific experiences.

Saturday night moved into performances with The Waltz for Wairewa – a dialogue with music written and produced by Elizabeth Bakewell is a story of settlement.  Crafted from recorded interviews into music, one a wordless lament played on didgeridoo by Nicky Moffatt and ‘sung’ by Bobbi Woffenbuttle took each of the contributors into new artistic territory as well as a re-imaging of their history.  At the close of the night, a tired but appreciative crowd left the hall to find their beds in local camp parks and homes with the piercing sound of John Lennon’s Image played by Uncle Herb on gumleaf.

The weekend wound up with those present enjoying songs by singer, songwriter Todd Cook whose album Silent Boat brings to life the experiences of the first Australian Indigenous Cricket team to tour the United Kingdom.  No permission, no money, no legitimacy the cricketers from Harrow in Victoria – left the reserve to ‘go fishing’ with cotton tents and few provisions on carts pulled by horses, facing bushrangers and the challenges of illegally boarding a boat …. To play 28 games of cricket in 28 days – 14 losses, 14 wins….earning their keep by performing boomerang throwing, ball throwing, running backwards…at interval at each game….

The rich mix of published authors, playwrights, singers, poets, and emerging writers – some local and some global at Stories of influence has attracted attention.  Melbourne City of Literature Regional Literary Presenters Roundtable at the Wheeler Centre is keen to showcase regional events in their 2019 calendar and map of literary events across the state.  Lake Tyers will be on the map, not as an area of poverty,( or high crime rates…/nowa-nowa…crime…/story-e6frf7kx-1225914500980?… 

but for its fragile beauty and habitat, its artistic community that is seeking to develop a new economy that has integrity for this vibrant community and the environment. In this goal ideas shared through stories, poems, songs and the creative arts has an important role.

March 23, 2019
Stories of influence