Sophia Barnes reviews “Too Afraid to Cry” by Ali Cobby Eckermann
Too Afraid to Cry
by Ali Cobby Eckermann
Reviewed by SOPHIA BARNES
Ali Cobby Eckermann’s elegant, confident and distinctive memoir is a slim volume for all that it contains. If a reader has the leisure to read it all in one sitting (as I did) the impact of its interwoven vignettes, interspersed with poetry, will be heightened. It is a book which rewards complete engagement and a willingness to follow the sometimes unanticipated shifts in rhythm of its fragmented form. Following the success of several collections of poetry and two verse novels, Too Afraid to Cry brings Cobby Eckermann’s ear for the cadences of memory to sharp, crisp, at times even blunt prose.
Each chapter, identified only by number, is short (the longest only stretch to three or four pages) and these chapters are frequently separated by brief, titled poems. This combination — a kind of verse novel (or verse memoir) in itself — serves to give a reader the sense that they are taking a series of interrupted glances at a tumultuous, changeable and rich life. Cobby Eckermann moves across stretches of time confidently, zooming in on moments of encounter, epiphany or conflict in such a way that we feel irresistibly pulled along with her, piecing together the intervening time through poetry whose loaded imagery is beautifully interwoven with narrative events. Occasionally the poems foreshadow, occasionally they meditate on what has passed (though never in an explicit or heavy-handed way), and together they underpin the rhythmic power which makes this memoir such compelling and affecting read.
Too Afraid to Cry opens with ‘Elfin’, a spare yet lyrical poem whose motifs of song and growth, of flight and emergence, are juxtaposed quite shockingly, but very effectively, with the almost uncannily abrupt scene of child sexual abuse which begins on the page opposite. As readers we know immediately that the territory of this memoir will not be comfortable or easy for us to traverse; yet what I found striking was that even as this horror of violation is bluntly introduced, we hear the young Ali’s voice, loud and clear. ‘Fat chance!’ she thinks, as she endures her Uncle’s fumbling. She may have experienced adult betrayal in the worst imaginable way, yet this young girl is no victim — that much is clear from the very opening, and it’s an impression which only becomes more concrete throughout.
Ali Cobby Eckermann grew up as in indigenous child in an adoptive family. There is real, if often unspoken, love between mother, father and adopted daughter; nonetheless, as Ali grows up she comes to feel more and more an outlier. The abuse to which she is subjected in her school years brings her to consciousness of her difference, and it is a realisation from which she cannot retreat. The tragic irony of the pressure under which she is put to adopt out her own child brings home to the reader the scope of an inter-generational story of dispossession and loss, as well as sacrifice. Along with her ‘Big Brother’, Cobby Eckermann shares the experience of being both familiar and foreign, in indigenous and white Australian society.
Too Afraid to Cry narrates fitful travels through the outback, from town to town, taken in the years of Cobby Eckermann’s early adulthood, and it does so with unswerving honesty — the choices made or not made, the relationships begun and ended, the jobs gained and abandoned. This account of her movement through space, from job to job and finally through rehab to a place of family, creativity and healing is always counterweighted by the timelessness (it is undoubtedly a cliché, yet I can’t help finding it to be true here) which her poetry seems to evoke, or to capture — at the very least, to speak to.
There is the confronting clarity and bluntness of ‘I Tell You True’: I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true / since I watched my daughter perish […] Since I found my sister dead […] Since my mother passed away. Then there is the irresistibly continuity, the extending time of ‘Bird Song’: Life is Extinct / Without bird song / Dream Birds / Arrive at dawn / Message birds / Tap Windows / Guardian birds / Circle the sky / Watcher birds / Sit nearby / Fill my ears / With bird song / I will survive. Cobby Eckermann balances the unadorned prose in which she recounts her memories and her journey without apology or bravado, with the rhythmic undercurrent of her poetry.
As we become more aware of the myriad experiences of dispossession and of broken families which have so defined our colonial history in Australia we might risk a sense of being overwhelmed, of feeling as if we had heard ‘too many’ stories, of being unable to step back and to see afresh the scale of what was done, and to listen to the accounts of those to whom it was done. Ali Cobby Eckermann offers a fresh, unflinching and uncompromising iteration of a search for identity undertaken by multiple generations of adopted and adoptive indigenous children and parents. Yet she does not just tell her story to add to the existing record; she weaves a compelling narrative whose lingering emotion, for this reader, was a vital and entirely beguiling strength. A continued and unashamed pleasure in life, a love for colour and voice and land, sensation, interaction and perhaps above all, language, radiated from this memoir, and I think that stray lines of Cobby Eckermann’s poems will continue to surface in my resting mind for weeks to come.
SOPHIA BARNES is a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, where her Ph.D has recently been conferred. She has published academic work internationally, and has had creative writing published in WetInk Magazine. In 2013 she was shortlisted for the WetInk / CAL Short Story Prize for the second year running.