:: Gurindji Journey ::
Book Launch Speech - Tessa Morris-Suzuki


“Hello, nice to meet you. My name is Minoru Hokari. Thank you very much for picking up my book. If you've paid for it, thank you very, very much. This is the first book I've authored (not counting translations) so naturally I'm pretty nervous, but in any case, I'm thrilled that my book has caught your eye. I hope you'll enjoy is, and look forward to getting acquainted”.

This is Mino's book launch, and really the only person who can do it properly is him. That is Mino talking to you, on the opening page of his book - launching his book himself.

I feel like a rather inadequate understudy. Talking about the book here, I feel quite conscious of Mino's presence. I can feel him watching us with huge enjoyment, loving being the centre of attention and delighting to watch people's reactions to his book. I also feel a little nervous when I imagine Mino watching, because I imagine him listening very carefully to what I say, and - if he thinks I'm getting it wrong - letting me know afterwards, in the nicest and kindest and funniest way, but nonetheless quite clearly making his views known.

For those of you who don't know Mino, I'd like to say a little bit about him. You can find much more in the book itself. Mino studied economics at Hitotsubashi University in Japan, and then (unusually for an economics student) decided to study Australian Aboriginal society, and came to the University of New South Wales in the 1990s to complete his PhD thesis under the supervision of Ann McGrath. He focused on the Gurindji people of Western Australia, and came to focus particularly on Gurindji history, developing a completely unique approach to this subject. He finished his PhD at ANU in 2001, and the examiners, including Dipesh Chakrabarty and Greg Denning, considered it just extraordinary. Mino was then a visitor in Pacific and Asian History at ANU, working on preparing the book emerging from his thesis for publication in both Japanese and English, and preparing for a new project which would have looked at interactions between Aboriginal people and Japanese and other Asian pearl divers and migrants in Western Australia. That was the period when I got to know him. His presence was like an amazing breath of fresh air, sweeping through the corridors of Coombs and bringing with it all kinds of unexpected new ideas.

However, in the midst of a journey to Western Australia to begin fieldwork, he was struck down by an illness which proved to be a particularly malignant cancer. As I note in my introductory section:

“In his approach to illness, as in his approach to history, Mino drew on resources which came from his encounters with Jimmy Mangyarri and the other elders of the Gurindji country. He listened to his own body, and to its relationship with the world around. He faced pain and illness with audacity, refusing to be overawed by their demands on his life, refusing to grow solemn in their imperious presence. He continued writing up to the moment of his death, working to complete a version of his research which was published in Japanese in 2004. It has proved profoundly influential.”

Now at last we have the English book too.

I re-read this book on a flight to Japan a couple of weeks ago, thrilled at last to be able to read the English version in print, and I want to thank Ann McGrath and all at UNSW press for achieving this. Mino would also have wanted to give his special thanks again to the Gurindji elders and all the members of the Gurindji community who made his research possible. And I'd also like particularly to thank and welcome Mino's sister Yuki who has come all the way from the US to be here for the launch. It is her tireless work above all that has made this possible.

As I sat on the plane reading I thought simply, “what a wonderful book this is. What an incredible achievement”.

It is fascinating and it is wonderfully written, but above all it is truly profound. It confronts and poses the biggest and most daunting questions - questions about the nature of history and (in a sense) about the things that make us most deeply human. These are terrifying questions. They don't have any ready answers. But pursuing them is not just what academia is about, it is what life is about.

I have always felt that there are basically two approaches to research. One approach is that you look for a suitable topic to investigate - one that is not too challenging, but hasn't been done before. You go through the archives and you do your interviews and you write your articles for properly refereed journals - and nowadays you make sure that they are at least A ranked journals - and with any luck you publish your book with a respected, preferably US publisher. That is basically the way that academia tells us to do things.

The other approach is that you embark on a journey in pursuit of the fundamental questions of life, so that your research becomes inseparable from the whole texture of your life and from the meaning that you give to your life. In a sense, you don't do research but rather you live research. That is a very scary thing to do, because the end point of the journey is not clear at the beginning, and at the end there may not be answers that make for good articles in A-ranked journals. But that is what Mino dared to do, and - as happens when this works well - it produced remarkable results.

There are many Mino stories I could tell you, but I'll just tell you two. When Mino died, we planted a gum tree in his honour in the courtyard of Coombs that is (now) nearest to the Hedley Bull Building. It's a relatively unusual species of gum for Canberra - one that generally grows very tall and straight, and mostly grows by the seaside. Jen Badstuebner and I wanted to take a photo of a full-grown gum of the same species to send to Mino's family, so that they would know what the tree was going to look like when it grew. So we went to the botanic gardens to look for one. But it proved easier said than done. There are hundreds of gum species in the gardens, some of them with their labels half concealed by dense vegetation, and when we finally did locate the tree in the midst of the rain forest area of the gardens, finding a spot to photo it from meant pushing through undergrowth and twisting yourself into contortions in order to get the right angle.

And I think that as we did this we both felt very strongly a quiet little presence of Mino being enormously amused by this spectacle, and laughing as though he had never seen anything so funny in his life. You can go and visit his tree in the Coombs courtyard. Please do. Go and have a look at it from time to time. It is doing great, and is very tall and strong, and think of it as being like Mino's ideas of history, taking root and growing and providing a place that shelters and nourishes all kinds of living things.

My other particularly vivid memory is of walking with Mino and another friend on my very favourite hidden beach on the South Coast, and talking about the future of history. I talked a bit about the ideas that had inspired my generation, and said, now it's your turn. You're the future. You're the ones who are going to come up with the big ideas to carry history forward. Mino was quite up to the challenge. He was happy to think of taking on the future as well as the past. And he did. The Japanese version of his book has already had a big impact in Japan, particularly among younger researchers. And now I believe this book is going to have a great impact in the English speaking world too.

The journey is still continuing. As readers, please carry it forward. At the end of his book, Mino quotes from Greg Denning:

“…writing is theatre and the writer a performer. The writer's goal, in the words of the theatre, is to 'produce effects'. Make someone laugh, make someone cry, make someone angry. And the writer does it in performance. All the possibilities, all the perfectibilities are closed down in a performance to one 'there you have it'. The writer is vulnerable at this moment. Writing, I said to a friend, is like dropping a stone into a deep well and waiting for the the splash. No, he replied, it is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the bang.”

And Mino ends by saying that he is throwing that petal.
I want to end by saying:
“Listen very carefully. I think you about to hear something.”