Good Reading : May 2009
author profile At the University of Tasmania, her desire to major in German was somewhat surprising given it was just a few years after World War II (in fact, she had the teacher all to herself ). Upon graduating, female students inevitably became librarians or teachers, but Christobel was determined to be different, and joined the Department of Immigration in 1951. At first in Hobart, and then in Canberra, she helped migrants from post-war Europe to settle in Australia – many were refugees and, once again, the harsh realities of displacement were before her. Christobel did eventually become a librarian, taking over from her departmental colleague. In 1952 she moved to Melbourne to undertake vocational training at the State Library of Victoria. The students lived on £4 a week; payday was celebrated with a trip to the market and a feast in Chinatown, ‘which was very insalubrious in those days’, she recalls, with a long, low laugh. When Christobel married former bomber pilot David Mattingley in 1953, she was on the move again – back to Adelaide, where he had a teaching job and she applied her library skills. The births of their three children was the catalyst for Christobel to turn to what appears to be her true calling – she began writing stories. Along with a love of books, natural history and Indigenous culture, writing had also been a youthful passion as it ‘gave me a way of expressing myself ’. Before the age of 10, she was published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s children’s pages, and the nature magazine Wild Life. In 1970, she was back in print with her first book, The Picnic Dog. Several books followed, including 1977’s New Patches for Old, for which she received government funding. ‘After that I stayed self- employed,’ she says, adding with another laugh that her husband David has supported the Australian publishing industry since she gave up being a librarian. He was the subject of one of her recent books, Battle Order 204, a powerful non-fiction work for young readers based on David’s wartime recollections, letters, logbooks and journal. The traumatic realities of war that indirectly touch her life have inspired other works, including The Miracle Tree, a story about the atomic aftermath in Japan, written after visiting her daughter of the state’s history in Survival in Our Own Land, she became intimately aware of their stories. Chance meetings then made ‘There’s never been any hip-pocket in my writing – it’s all heart.’ Rosemary there. And her son Christopher’s efforts to help a Bosnian family escape from war-torn Sarajevo in the early 1990s prompted the trilogy that begins with No Guns for Asmir. Profits from these books have funded the education of Asmir and his brother – one of numerous examples of how the author puts her heartfelt words into action. ‘There’s never been any hip-pocket in my writing – it’s all heart,’ says Christobel, who has decided that royalties from her latest book will go into a trust fund to further the education of young Anangu people. Maralinga was written by Christobel with Aboriginal elders from South Australia’s Yalata and Oak Valley communities. Through their words and paintings (which, along with archive photographs, are the book’s illustrations), they tell of the Anangu people, past and present. Their way of life was unchanged for tens of thousands of years before white settlement, then, in the course of a few generations, everything altered dramatically. Many were drawn to rations and Christian missions, then removed from their lands before nuclear testing commenced. Others remained, to suffer and die from radiation sickness. Today, theirs is a story of hope. As with all Christobel’s books, Maralinga was inspired by personal connections with her subject. Her frequent lecture tours have taken place in remote Aboriginal communities, including Yalata in 1979. Several years later, when asked by South Australia’s Indigenous community to tell their side MAY 2009 i goodreading 19 this book inevitable – including with Erica Wagner, the commissioning editor at Allen & Unwin of the award-winning Papunya School of Country and History just before its launch in 2001. ‘I said to her, “I’d love to do a book like this with the Maralinga people,” and she said: “You’re on!” You don’t get publishing offers like that very often!’ says Christobel. And so Maralinga became another labour of love – even through a shocking series of illness and injury, including bowel cancer. It is impossible to see a point of delineation between this author’s dual dedication to her writing and the causes she believes in. Perhaps this is why she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of South Australia in 1995, and made a Member of the Order of Australia the following year, for services both to literature and social justice. It is also why Christobel Mattingley’s life and work can be summarised using the wise words of a respected Aboriginal elder, which bring Maralinga to an end: ‘Don’t look back or take the wrong ways. Look forward. Teach the children. Teach the young fellas. Look and listen and learn. Be happy.’ Maralinga: The Anangu story by the Yalata and Oak Valley communities with Christobel Mattingley, is published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $35.00.