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Interview with Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor
By Anthony Dwyer

Posted: October 2003

The collaboration of Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor is one of success and difference. Success in that their books for children, starting with The Binna Binna Man in 2000, have all attracted critical praise and awards in their native Australia. Difference in that their collaboration is one between an Australian woman of European heritage and an Aboriginal man.

Boori is from North Queensland – his mother’s family group, the Kunggandji, is from near Cairns and his father’s, the Birra-gubba Nation, stretches from Townsville, where Boori was born, to near Bowen. He is a storyteller, dancer and player of the didjeridoo, much in demand throughout Australia, and takes his lead from the storytelling tradition of his people. He loved listening to stories as a child and is still learning about his culture from his elders. He believes that there is a lot for both European and Aboriginal Australians to learn about each other and that doing so will help heal the past and make the future good.

Meme’s beginnings were also very rural – on a sheep and cattle property in SW Queensland 50 kms from the nearest town – but her traditions were completely different. Like a lot of Australians, she knew nothing of Aboriginal storytelling and culture until fairly late in life, even though as a country girl she came into contact with them as a youngster. After a 16-year career in community theatre, she studied photography and this led to her first book. Apart from acting and directing, she has been many things in her life – from juggler to dishwasher. She now works with the Wurundjeri people, the traditional custodians of the land where she now lives in Melbourne, and writes. She has written seven books in all, five of them with Boori.

Meme, what is it about Boori which makes your collaboration with him so successful?

Boori has a great sense of humor. And a very generous heart. He has a unique gift for sharing his experiences with others. He can make you laugh and cry at the same time. When I first saw him perform in front of a class of school students I was inspired and wanted to read the book that was there in the making.

And Boori, what about Meme?

We seek the same things and are open to change no matter what the outcome, be it negative or positive. It’s always good to learn from the negative and build on the positive. Besides Meme is a great teacher. She must be - because I listen!

Why did you decide to write for children instead of adults?

Meme: I’ve never decided I was writing for children instead of adults. For me, the story dictates the form. Someone said to me recently that writing for adults must be very different from writing for young people. I was surprised by this comment because only the similarities of writing had occurred to me. You have ideas flying around, a little bit like a head full of butterflies, and the challenge is to make these ideas manifest on the page in words. Beyond that the idea or story makes it clear how long or short your writing will become. I would hope that all ages enjoy books like Flytrap and My Girragundji. Of course, there are concepts in Njunjul the Sun that make it unsuitable for readers younger than teenagers. Suitability of theme does determine for whom a book is marketed. But the writer’s task is very much the same no matter who is going to read the book.

Boori: I think we write for ourselves first. Then the books fall and land wherever they want. Sometimes in between the young and the old. Sometimes they form a bridge between different understandings. They are a great chance for different generations and cultures to see each other as they cross paths.

How do you find the process of putting a book together? Do your talents complement each other? Do you ever have to compromise?

Meme: Boori and I bring different skills to the process of writing. We often begin a book by talking and laughing and sharing our experiences of the subject. I am the one who works on the computer to get our ideas down. We then read through these drafts many times and fine-tune the words to suit the ideas. Rhythm in writing is very important so often we read passages out loud to hear if the words are making a pleasing rhythm. To convey a sense of humor demands a particular placement of words. We work very hard at this to get the best result.
I very rarely feel I have to compromise. I think this is because we have great respect for each other and for the ideas that unfold - they are greater than either of us. We share a common need for optimism in our work and I believe that we inhabit worlds that are very similar spiritually.

Boori: We both have a background in theatre so we see lots of similar things. I feel I’m a good writer but that I’m a great storyteller. Meme is a great writer and a good storyteller. We are learning from each other to be better in both storytelling and writing.

How has your collaboration changed your understanding of each other’s culture?

Meme: For me, Boori has been able to fill in the gaps of my understanding of Aboriginal culture and in particular his Kunggandji and Birragubba culture from North Queensland. Over the eight years we’ve been living and writing together I feel like I’ve been able to see more clearly both the differences in our cultures and the human similarities. It has been a very enriching journey so far and I imagine will continue to be. I understand more my connection to my homeland, the significance of family, my role as mother and much more. This could become a book!

Boori: Collaborating on these books has made me more aware of what we have both missed out on and the work that still has to be done to fill in those missing pieces to make ourselves whole, which in turn will help our children understand who we are so they won’t have to be burdened with carrying our baggage.

Do you think nations can also learn the things you have learned about each other’s culture? For example, Australia and Indonesia? Or religions?

Meme: This is a big question. Respect is a word I have come to value. And asking questions and listening. I’m sure that a good dose of respect, asking to hear another’s experience, and listening to the response, could go a long way in improving any relationship – personal, cross-cultural, or international.

Boori: There is still a bit of a journey to be walked and talked, listened and learned before there is an answer to this question.

You both travel widely and have done so for a long time. How do you find children now compared with, say, 10 years ago? Do children have a better understanding of Aboriginal culture now?

Meme: I’m sure Boori can be a lot more positive on this one than me. I am still dismayed by the lack of education about Aboriginal culture in the school system. At the same time, I meet many teachers who feel very deeply about Aboriginal culture and the need to educate themselves and their students. For many teachers it is a struggle to teach what they have never been taught.
There are examples of teachers doing wonderfully inventive and informed programs with their students. Often I see that the teaching of Aboriginal culture is put in the too-hard basket. And so we continue to rob ourselves and young people of a sense of connection to the oldest continuing living culture in the world. And we continue to damage our sense of belonging in this country and therefore the country itself.

Boori: Our teachers are at the forefront. Without them we would be sixty years ago. They are our unsung heroes, our healers, and they should be given more respect. It is better than it was ten years ago but there is still much work to be done.

Do you have plans for more books together?

Meme: For the moment we are writing separately. We help each other a lot with our individual writing. There will be other joint books down the track I’m sure. We’re interested in adapting some of our books for film so that could take us into exciting new fields of the imagination.

Boori: Stay tuned!



More about Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor:
Don't miss Meme's own web site for information about all her books.

Get some background info on Boori and other well-known Australian aborigines at the Wingara website.

Teachers and librarians - for more on Meme's and Boori's collaboration go to the website of the Australian Association of Teachers of English (AATE).

Keep up with all the
best books about or
from countries of the Pacific Rim by visiting
the Notable Books section of the Kiriyama Prize site.


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