Two Sisters tells the stories of Ngarta and Jukuna, two women who were raised in the desert of Western Australia. Published by Magabala Books, Two Sisters hails as the first printed autobiography containing text in the Walmajarri language.
Two Sisters begins by reminding the reader of the cultural gulf between native Australians and the white history so avidly imposed on us through school and mainstream media.
“No one in the desert had heard of Adolf Hitler… It would be much later before they first heard the word ‘Australia’ and learned that they were not only Walmajarri, but also Australians.” (Pat Lowe, Introduction)
It’s easy to forget how truly isolated some communities were (and still are). It’s easy to forget that every person has a story to tell. That’s why Two Sisters is such an important book; it gives a truly honest voice to those who have been silenced. One only needs to listen, to appreciate how significant these voices are.
Although their experiences were quite different, both Ngarta and Jukuna show undeniable strength in the face of violence, hardship, and loss.
Ngarta’s chapter is told in third-person with direct quotations: “Tired out after her long chase, Ngarta climbed up the slope to the shade tree where her family had their camp. Her grandmother was there, waiting for her. ‘My grandmother cried for me: first time I killed a fox.’” (Page 33)
The chapter tells of migrating across the land with her extended family and how a band of killers kept them hostage until Ngarta finally escaped. After living on her own for a year, Ngarta went to work on a cattle station and eventually met up with her older sister, Jukuna.
In contrast, Jukuna’s story is told in first person with a greater sense of immediacy: “I’ll tell you some more about when I was a child. I was taught to use a coolamon for separating seed from the sand and bits of grass. My grandmother took my hands and held them under the coolamon.” (Page 62)
Jukuna tells of her mother and father’s early history and how she left her family in the desert to go with her husband and work on Cherrabun station where she saw her first ‘kartiya’ (white person). After many years on the station, Jukuna began to translate the Bible into Walmajarri and to teach the language to children.
The narrative voices of both Ngarta and Jukuna’s stories, while both very different, are honest and unadulterated, showing such character and emotion that the reading experience is a very humbling one. The section of text written by Jukuna in Walmajarri is refreshing to see in a printed publication. It reminds the reader that this book has a greater purpose.
The chapters by Pat Lowe and Eirlys Richards on the Walmajarri diaspora and how the book was brought together for publication offer a more academic approach to Two Sisters and its cultural significance in Australian literature.
Two Sisters is a captivating read and a beautifully produced book inside and out. But even more than that, it serves as an important reminder that there are countless stories still left to be told, and that we owe it to our culture and our literature to tell those stories properly.
Kyra Thomsen is a writer from Wollongong, NSW. She is Deputy Editor of Writer’s Edit and her work has been published in Kindling, Seizure, Space Place & Culture, Mascara and more. You can find more at kyrathomsen.com or on Twitter with @KyraThomsen.