When Still a Pygmy was published Isaac and I knew that speaking engagements would be a good way to generate interest in the book at the local level. I also thought that getting out and talking to ordinary Australians about his memoir would help Isaac feel at home in mainstream society – a rare experience for Indigenous people the world over.
One of our very first speaking engagements was for a community organisation known for its good works. On the night, the President of the association stood up, welcomed everyone … then told a blond joke; the Deputy then stood up … and told an Irish joke. I sunk my head into my hands and wondered what on earth I was doing there wanting to talk about writing. We were the entertainment and no one was interested in the book.
A few days later we got a second invitation, this time at Rockdale Library. “Surely”, I thought, “a library will attract people who buy and read books”. And so began what has been the most fulfilling series of talks and insight into communal literary life in Sydney. If you need reassurance that the skill of reading and hunger for books is alive and well, go to your local library!
The stalwarts of these events are those champions of society: women d’un certain âge. Before we start our presentations I scan the audience and it is always the same: women with keen intellects who have come along to learn; anticipating a Q&A where they can engage with authors and big ideas they’ve been mulling about life, society, migration, people, or history. It is the Grand Old Dames who are the most fun. They bring a wealth of perspective from youthful adventures in Africa or the Pacific in the ’50s and ’60s to raising broods of children before moving in to the workplace, or simply because age has made them matter-of-fact about the ingredients that make marriage work.
Isaac is a terrific speaker and for an hour or two we all are transported out of the world of 24/7 infotainment into a world of discussion where there is effort to analyse and make sense of the lives of others. Our library talks are a continuation of that long tradition of enlightened conversation, not dissimilar to the 19th Century salons of Jane Austen or George Elliott.
The questions Isaac receives have similar themes – about living in the forest, parenting 10 children, and establishing a new life as refugees in Australia – but the topic of Isaac’s mother’s efforts to kill his wife is the favourite. In the first few talks I think this is because it is so exotic: ‘Pygmy Mother Hires Witchdoctor to Kill Daughter-in-Law; Trades Youngest Daughter as Payment’. Who could resist that? But as we do more and more events I realise I am wrong. The audience relates to Isaac’s family experience; people who initially thought they could not possibly have anything in common with a Pygmy from the forest, realise the universality of those complicated tensions around parental expectations of a suitable match, and between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters-in-law, and with difficult children.
Our talks end in an atmosphere of camaraderie, fresh air after the divisiveness of politics outside the library. The audience laughs and applauds and wants to greet Isaac personally, and sometimes have their photo taken with him. They can hardly believe they’ve met a Pygmy from Africa who has shared his life with them, in the process making them reflect on their own lives as wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, activists, entrepreneurs, and travellers.
As for Isaac, after years of feeling marginalised in Congo as Pygmy and initially in Australia as a refugee, he is enveloped in the humour and warmth. The library has become a meeting house on the pathway to his new Australian life.
Isaac Bacirongo and Michael Nest are the authors of Still a Pygmy.