A Story Unto Himself
Larry Walsh is an elusive man. I know this because it took the team at Kathakar — India’s only storytelling festival — two full months to locate the 65-year-old Elder from the Taungurung tribe of Kulin Nation in Victoria, Australia. Uncle Larry Walsh, as he is known amongst his tribe, was in New Delhi between 11-13 October this year to regale audiences with ancient myths of fabled beings at Kathakar’s 12th edition. I was to interview him there, but he vanished into thin air right after he wrapped up his segment, much like the embers of the fire his audience usually gathers around to hear his stories. It was only in early December that the organising committee at Kathakar managed to establish contact with him and facilitate this interaction. Narrated in his trademark gravelly baritone, the tales that Walsh puts out into the world are infinitely fascinating, yet they pale in comparison to the story of his own life.
In 1956, when his mother had gone to pick vegetables, a two-and-a-half-year-old Walsh was forcefully taken away by the government which decided he was in need of care and protection. The second-eldest in his community, Walsh is a survivor of the Stolen Generation — children of Aboriginal descent who were separated from their parents, under law, to breed out the colour. “As an eight-year-old, I would constantly get picked up by the police for being a troublemaker and my picture would be plastered across police station walls. Whenever a crime or violent act happened after that, I was picked up. I figured I should just prove the authorities right instead of getting wrongfully convicted, so I started getting into robberies and fights for real,” Walsh recounts. I ask him whether being a part of the Stolen Generation has affected his storytelling in any way, but he cuts me short. “You have the gist of it. This is something I would not like to comment on further as it is deeply painful.” And although I cannot see him, the sadness in his tone is palpable.
It was only after he turned 14, post the 1967 referendum that included indigenous people in the census and gave the federal parliament the power to make laws for them, that his people were considered citizens. But they still had had no rights: to education or to vote, nor to go to discos, motels and restaurants. When Walsh asked to be emancipated, the authorities handed him a letter written by his younger brother two years earlier, which highlighted how Walsh had been taken away from home, and how his mother grieved for him. When he was reunited with his real family soon after, an encounter with a community elder with a flair for telling stories encouraged him to scour for tales from his own tribe and recount 60,000-year-old stories of the Kulin Nation through a modern lens.
Excerpts from an interview…
What sparked your interest in storytelling?
“As a person who is endlessly interested in history and the ways of our forefathers, passing on the knowledge I have through storytelling was a natural way of perpetuating my culture. I never really put much thought into it; it has simply been a natural progression for me and honours the 60,000+ years of oral tradition of my ancestors.
Who awarded you the prefix of “uncle” before your name?
In contemporary Australian Aboriginal tradition, uncle is a mark of respect given to elders who have achieved a level of standing in the community. I was nominated with the responsibility of this title by my family at the age of two. This is the traditional way that it is bestowed.
You have a vast repository of stories. How have you built this over the years? Where do you pick up these narratives from? How do you make them your own?
Like other cultures, the Australian Aboriginals have many centuries of stories. I am connected to the South Eastern Kulin Nations language groups which are my main source of stories. In my lineage, the stories have been passed down through over 60,000 years and I do not have rights to narrate stories from other regions unless they are traded or gifted. Each story has a message, learning or moral that has a modern context as much as it stems from age-old traditions and I try to highlight the contemporariness whilst honouring the heritage of the story. I also gather contemporary stories that relate to history and events in Australia and significantly focus on indigenous Australians.
I really enjoyed watching you narrate How We Got Fire. Is there a particular story you specifically enjoy narrating?
I love telling the story of how the platypus was created. The platypus was born after a duck woman became besotted with a handsome water rat. Duck people didn’t like water-rat people. Years later, when the two communities met, they reconciled, for they were a family now. The children got the water rat’s dark and hairy body, and shy nature, and the mother’s duckbill and webbed feet. It is a great story that illustrates the importance of different people coming together in peace and understanding whilst also acknowledging that we are all unique.
Stories are only as good as the people who tell them. What are your tips for good storytelling?
Let the words do the talking. Be true to the story. Don’t place yourself in the centre of the story. Take your time with a narrative. Find a nice comfortable place for the audience to enjoy.
Do you have a story in your head that you are waiting to put out into the world?
I do. Broadly speaking, it is a story of how indigenous Australians would plan our public transport system and how it would become aboriginalised. I think we would solve a lot of problems — both socially and environmentally — if we applied some of the wisdom of the first people to modern-day issues.
You visited India for the first time in 2019 as part of the Kathakar festival. Considering that India is a country with a rich history, did this affect the kind of stories you chose to narrate?
No, it didn’t change what I bought to the table at Kathakar. I recognise the rich history of India just as much as I value my own heritage. I’ll read the audience and deliver to them what fits the situation. India has a stunning mix of beautiful cultures but the poverty really struck me. I feel for those who cannot get out of their cycle of disadvantage because of the remnants of the caste system that still dictate so many people’s thinking.
Was there a particular performance you specifically enjoyed at Kathakar 2019? What had you hoped to take away from your visit to India?
I am interested in all storytelling traditions and greatly enjoyed meeting both the local and international artists who were present at the festival. I was actually hoping to walk away with a Bollywood role but I’m still waiting to hear on that. On a serious note, I want to connect and share and hopefully build a relationship for future collaboration between India and Australia.
If you could sit around a fire with any person, dead or alive, and exchange stories with, who would you choose?
Well, I suppose you can’t go past Mahatma Gandhi. I would love to have a chat with him; he knows what colonisation did to his people just like mine and I am sure he was a gripping storyteller.
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