In Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood (Norton, Mar. 2018), Ali Cobby Eckermann, one of the Stolen Generation—the Aboriginal children taken from their birth mothers to be raised in white families—describes in heartbreaking detail the unjust, racist treatment of her people by the Australian government. The book, written in both prose and poetry, came to be only after Eckermann’s decades-long search for her Aboriginal family resulted in a transformative reunion with the mother she didn’t know and numerous other relatives she didn’t know existed.
“I wrote this in the desert in 2006 after my long journey to discover where I belonged,” Eckermann says. “I was finally living in community, totally surrounded by family. I found the safest place in the world for me to work, the safety net of the language, the children, the food, the laughter.” It took Eckermann only two months to write Too Afraid to Cry. “Once I started, it just flowed out,” she says from her home in Adelaide, South Australia.
Eckermann’s first book, the poetry collection Ruby Moonlight (Flood Editions, 2015), was awarded the New South Wales Book of the Year Award. This was followed by Eckermann’s 2017 win of the Windham-Campbell nonfiction prize from Yale University, which carries a cash prize of $215,000.
“It changed everything for me,” says Eckermann, 54, who is using the money “to provide writing time.” She adds: “All I want to do is write. I’d never even had the thought of winning a big prize or grant.”
Eckermann’s path to Robert Weil, editor-in-chief of Norton’s Liveright Publishing, was, she says, “a bit miraculous.” When the news of the Windham-Campbell award was announced, Adam Fitzgerald, one of Weil’s authors, happened to be in Adelaide. As Eckermann tells it, “Sarah Tooth, a friend of mine and director of the South Australian Writers Center, told Adam, ‘Ali lives here; would you like to meet her?’ The three of us met up and chatted for quite a while at my caravan [trailer].”
Eckermann gave a copy of the book (published in Australia by Ilura Press) to Fitzgerald, who, after reading it, passed it on to Weil. He lobbied for its American publication. “Given the fact that I had published writers and leaders like Russell Means and Leonard Peltier, I know a good bit about ‘adoptions’ of Native American infants in the U.S.,” Weil says. “So I was especially drawn to Ali’s wrenching personal story. Her style is unique because her poetry here is combined with prose, to extraordinary effect. The story lingers in memory long after you’ve read the book.”
Weil sent Eckermann a contract and then brought her to New York to meet his team. Eckermann likens it to “the serendipitous journey of my literature.” She says, “I’m still feeling overwhelmed with the rapid climb, and getting to meet all these smart people in New York—not that I’m not smart but I’m different.” She also attracted the interest of literary agent Charlotte Sheedy, who now represents her in the U.S.
Eckermann was adopted at birth by a white Lutheran couple. Unlike some others who adopted children from the Stolen Generation, Eckermann’s adoptive parents were kind and supportive, even when she began acting out as a teenager. The drugs and alcohol, the reckless behavior, and the many times she ran away, Eckermann says, stemmed from her longing to find her biological family. Although finding them was more difficult than she’d anticipated, her determination and the support of her adoptive parents finally made it happen. She traveled to the desert in the northern part of South Australia, which is home to many Aboriginal tribes.
But before that, Eckermann checked herself into a rehab hospital. “I was five and a half months in rehab, and then another couple of years going to meetings and such,” she says. “I call it a university. It was an amazing university of human need, human character, human study. And we had to do a lot of journaling, so I was writing.”
Eckermann then took a creative writing course in Alice Springs, something she’d wanted to do for years. Some of what she wrote there became Little Bit Long Time, her first collection of poetry, published by the Australian Poetry Center in 2009.
It wasn’t until Eckermann found her Aboriginal family, however, that she says she discovered her “real self”—and could truly acknowledge that she is a poet. “Within the traditions of the family in the desert, it gave me a little place, a little role that made me feel good,” she says. “When we sat around the campfire, everyone talked stories of the past. This didn’t make me feel excluded, but I wasn’t part of those stories. So the poems gave me inclusion.”
Eckermann says Too Afraid to Cry isn’t a political memoir; her activism would come later. But there are passages in the book that make the discrimination and forced adoptions in Australia palpable. In one, Eckermann recalls her new Aboriginal school friend: “Mingari... lived with her mum and had little brothers and sisters. She told me the welfare took every second baby from her mother, and there were now four babies missing. She said her mum drank a lot because of that.”
Eckermann’s adoptive mother was unable to have children, so she and her husband adopted four infants. “Two of us are Aboriginal, and two of us not,” Eckermann says. “Finding our biological parents was always an option our parents gave to us. But there was a brief moment when I had to reassure my mother that she wouldn’t lose anything.”
When the Australian government removed antidiscrimination rights in 2009, Eckermann’s life and writing changed. “They pushed it through Parliament,” she says. “So I was out there with family and community members who were saying, ‘Ali, you’ve got to write about this and stick up for us.’ That’s when I got political.”
The political climate in Australia gave Eckermann a purpose. “My political activism mostly takes the form of speaking engagements,” she says. “And I have had two essays published by the Cordite Poetry Review, and hope to write more for them and others. I do feel, though, that my poetry is my strongest political tool.”
Eckermann is happy to exist on both sides of the cultural divide. “The problem with governments is that they just stay in one segment of society,” she says. “They can’t immerse themselves outside of that. I’m really grateful that I can. I can go and have a meeting in New York with Bob [Weil] and the Norton team, and when I’m walking down the street I can have a chat with someone who’s a bit down on their luck, and have a cigarette and share a story and a laugh, and then just go away knowing that moment made that person’s life a little better.”