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