We Come from the Past: Orality, Indigeneity and the Flow of Culture

Jen Crawford and Paul Collis at the overflow of the Barka / Darling River, North Bourke, September 15, 2022 ©Paul Magee
Jen Crawford and Paul Collis at the overflow of the Barka / Darling River, North Bourke, September 15, 2022 ©Paul Magee


Bourke and Brewarrina are towns in outback New South Wales, Australia. These two towns, and the Gundabooka and Toorale National Parks, both some 80 kilometers from Bourke, comprise our four main fieldwork sites. Preparation, writing-up and additional fieldwork takes place in the national capital, Canberra, 722 kilometres south-east of Bourke.

Synopsis and Position

The aim was to create a book that speaks. Spoken on Country by a Barkindji elder and poet, in dialogue with two white poets and five Barkindji, Nyempa, Kunya and Murrawarri interlocutors, taped and then transcribed in the form of a playscript, the bulk of A Book that Opens comprises an archive of conversation-based knowledge about river management down the Barka / Darling River, and about care of the ancient fish-traps at Brewarrina. The evidence of extensive Aboriginal management of rivers, deserts and forests prior to 1788 is there, but it has been widely ignored by a settler society anxious to maintain rights over a continent initially claimed as “unused” land. Focussing on the material and oral evidence of such care for Country, the project constitutes a practice-based experiment in archiving the kinds of dialogic intellectual practice that indigenous thinkers have sustained on and around the Southern island continent for for millennia. Bookend chapters record the project team’s improvised oral presentations on the project in Canberra, both prior to and after these conversations with traditional owners, which makes for estranging parallels between conversational intellectual practice on campus and out on Country. 

Objectives and Methods

By insisting that every word it contains initially be spoken, the book that forms the project’s centrepiece aims to bring both indigenous and academic conversational practice to the fore of our literary experience. In the process, it seeks to open new angles on just what a book might be.  


Chapter One of A Book that Opens comprises the creative transcription of an unplanned dialogue on the nature of the project, conducted by the three project team members (Paul Collis, Jen Crawford and Paul Magee) in Aug 2023 at the University of Canberra. The chapter was published as “Overhead: Notes on the River” in the Reading Time special issue of the USA-based journal, Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History. 

Primary fieldwork (constituting Chapters Two to Ten of A Book that Opens) was conducted from the 9th to the 18th of September, 2022, and the results were transcribed over the course of the following 12 months. These nine chapters feature Wayne Knight, Margaret Knight, Gertie Dorigo, Brian Smith and Bradley Hardy in dialogue with Paul Collis, Jen Crawford and Paul Magee. Of these fieldwork dialogues, Chapter Three was published as “Unfinished Business at Gundabooka” in the Spring 2023 Indigenous Special Issue of the Australian literary journal, Meanjin, while Chapter Four was published as “The Edge of Reality” in the Australia-based online poetry journal, Cordite Poetry Review. 

Chapter Eleven of A Book that Opens comprises the creative transcription of an unplanned dialogue on the nature of the project between the three core project team members and Wiradjuri woman and scholar of late 1950’s Bostonian poetry cultures, S.J. Burton. Recorded on Dec 1 2022, this dialogue comprised the final plenary session of Out of the Ordinary: On Poetry and the World, a conference on poetry and poetics at the University of Canberra. Audience questions and feedback were invited on the proviso, “Any word you say will become part of the book.” 

Illustrations and other forms of visual artwork for the pages and front cover of A Book that Opens were gathered during a final field trip over Nov. 24-28, 2023. Katie Hayne painted key sites in Bourke and Brewarrina, while Emma Philips and Ursula Frederick took photos of places and participants.  

Photos clockwise: Big Overflow; Paul Collis and Muda Foundation; Big Road; Sunrise; Big Sky; Big Foreground [©Paul Magee]

Brewarrina NSW 2839, Australia