When a book opens with an episode of a seven-year-old girl being fondled by her uncle, anticipating a disturbing narrative of a fractured childhood is inevitable. And as expected, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too Afraid to Cry takes us on a journey of a young girl’s early childhood amongst her adoptive family that is punctuated with repeated sexual assaults and racial abuse.
In a creative blend of poetry and prose, Ali Cobby Eckermann documents a confessional memoir that traces the author’s lived reality as an aboriginal child among the European Australians. Separated from her aboriginal roots at birth, the young girl is oblivious to her foreign status amongst the Australians until the discourse of racism begins to take shape around her. While, on one hand, schoolteachers refer to her as “her kind”, on the other, a group of boys strip her to check if ‘boongs’ (derogatory term used against Australian aboriginals) were the same as other girls. Ali traces all of these encounters by gradually receding from the white Australian frame.
As the author recounts numerous episodes of bullying and discrimination due to her being the “other kind”, she uncompromisingly underlines the overtones of outright racism that surrounds the indigenous people in Australia. For instance, her shared sense of self-dispossession and estrangement with her big brother and other indigenous characters like ‘Mingari’ stand as testimony to the ill treatment of aborigines by a country that vindicated such kind of injustice through tags like ‘child protection’ and ‘civilisation’.
An individual caught in an unending spiral of sexual assault, abusive adolescence, domestic violence and identity crisis, Ali ineluctably falls into the bottomless pit of ritualistic alcoholism, substance abuse and occasional violent outbursts. Adding to that, her growing sense of being foreign along with her repeated encounters with fellow indigenous people furthers her longing for a true identity. However, the inability to fully detach her from her adoptive culture and to accept her roots is evident at several points as she writes:
“My heart is ready to echo the music of my family but the square within me remains.”
But, Ali does not want to restrict her narrative to mere Western/indigenous or self/other dichotomy. Therefore, she insists on keeping her “whitefella ways” intact even after reuniting with her original culture.
In terms of narration, Ali strives to posit an individual’s story of personal and political disempowerment by presenting a collective narrative of the Stolen Generations (children of Australian aboriginals removed from their families). Similarly, the memoir also unravels the harsh truth of a colonial power such as Australia and documents the atrocities committed by it.
What makes her memoir compelling and affective is the rich depiction of her experiences through prose and poetry. While the prose sequentially narrates her experiences, the poetry, occurring at intervals, are intelligible, unromanticised verses, reflecting on incidents gone by and sometimes envisaging the ones to come. These verses come as a relief to the reader as the narrative is immersed in racial and sexual abuse, violence, mistrust and loss of self. While the story does gradually lead to the author’s rehabilitation and eventual re-discovery of origins, the trauma echoed by the writer resonates with the reader’s imagination. A bildungsroman account told with unflinching honesty and complete straightforwardness, Too Afraid to Cry is a penetrating narrative and a compulsory addition to the library of a literature lover.