Helen Ing Nellie’s telling of her story charts a life that is often harsh and marked by tragedy, part of the larger tragic history of the cultural and literal dispossession of her Noongar people. But it is also, remarkably, full of joy, compassion and good humour. Forcibly removed from her family on the reserve where they lived on the outskirts of Borden to a Baptist Mission in Gnowangerup when she is five, and again when she is nine, she struggles as an adult to recover her Noongar identity. That struggle is captured in her name. Born Ellie Nellie, her parents called her Ing (meaning spoilt), while she was called Helen at the Mission.
‘Because of Her, We Can!’ was the theme of the 2018 NAIDOC Week, celebrating both the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women and the continuing role they play in their own communities and the wider society. It could also be seen as the theme of Simply Ing, as Helen Ing Nellie recounts her life story, itself not dissimilar from that of many of the women in her extended family group and the many communities that are part of her story. She is a mother to her two younger siblings and aunty to many other children before becoming a mother to her own two sons and is now a Wirlomin Noongar Elder.
About the author
This is a co-authored narrative, in which an Aboriginal voice is recorded and presented through a non-Aboriginal author. Ing believes she was born on July 18, 1947, although she does not possess a birth certificate. As a member of the Stolen Generations, Ing’s life is complicated, particularly in cultural terms. Brought up on the Mission like a white child – she is often called ‘wadjala woman’ by other Noongar people – she must try to regain that sense of belonging she had as a small child with her extended family.
Her involvement in the Wirlomin Language and Stories Project, established to recover the words and stories of her language group, and to promote other cultural activities, led to the telling of her own life story. All this has assisted Ing’s sense of belonging within her Aboriginal community. She now lives in Perth with her husband and in addition to being an accomplished storyteller is an equally accomplished painter.
Margaret O’Brien was born in Norseman in the WA Goldfields in 1948 and grew up in Bunbury. She started writing after retiring from a 45-year nursing career. Her writing took a dramatic turn when she met Helen Ing Nellie at the Perth Writers Festival in 2014 and became her ghostwriter. Margaret is married, a keen bird photographer, and is passionate about animal welfare. (Information from Magabala Books website).
Questions for discussion
- For Ing, losing her Noongar language, its words, indeed her name, is the greatest loss she suffers as a result of being brought up on the Mission. Trace her description of this loss and of the recovery of language and story through which she is gradually incorporated into Noongar culture. How complete is this incorporation?
- How would you describe Ing as a character? As a story-teller? What are the characteristics she attributes to herself? Are there others that are ascribed to her by other characters, as well as ones that derive from the narrative, and the manner of its telling?
- Ing’s notion of family and familial relationships is very different from how these are typically viewed from a non-Aboriginal perspective. Discuss the network of Aboriginal relationships she is part of and how they operate.
- Discuss to what degree Ing tells her own story through the stories of others.
- Identify the characters that Ing says have most influenced her life.
- Ing is telling her story as an older woman looking back on her life. How much do you think this perspective affects the narrative? Is it coloured by a degree of nostalgia?
- If you are a non-Aboriginal reader, how available is this story to you; that is, how open is the text? Does the Foreword by Kim Scott with its Noongar introduction – an invitation to follow ‘my family … our tongue’ – assist your understanding of this story?
- While Ing’s voice is quite distinctive in this narrative, it has been recorded and written by Margaret O’Brien. How does this affect your reading of this text?
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- The Bauhinia Tree: The Life of Kankawa Nagarra Olive Knight, Kankawa Nagarra Olive Knight