Stolen Generation’ Survivor Turns Her Pain Into Poetry

A turn to writing brings healing after enduring a life of despair and abuse.
By CHARLOTTE GRAHAM

When Ali Cobby Eckermann met her biological mother for the first time at age 34, she did not think her life could be enlarged further, she said. Four years later, in 2001, Ms. Cobby Eckermann was re¬united with her son, then 18, who had been taken from her at birth.
The trauma of being removed from her birth mother and being separated from her son as part of Australia’s so-called stolen gener¬ation of Indigenous Australian chil¬dren has rippled through decades of her life. It led to abuse and isola¬tion, alcohol and drugs, and a pro¬found sense of grief.
It also led to poetry. After leav¬ing rehab and recovering from her lowest point, Ms. Cobby Ecker¬mann, now 54, started writing as a way to heal and to tell her family’s story. She recently was at Yale Uni¬versity in Connecticut to receive a Windham-Campbell writing prize, one of eight recipients this year selected from around the world. The award comes with a prize of $165,000. (She plans to donate the money to the the Yankunytjatjara/ Kokatha people of her homeland.)
Ms. Cobby Eckermann grew up with an adoptive family on the farming plains of Hart in South
Australia. She had been taken at birth from an Aboriginal mother who had in turn been taken from
her mother. At 18, having just left an abusive relationship and while wrestling with a drinking problem,Ms. Cobby Eckermann dis¬covered she was pregnant. Feeling lost, she agreed to put her son up for adoption. She saw Jonnie once after giving birth, and was not le¬gally allowed to look for him until he was 18. The family was a part of the sto¬len generation of Indigenous Aus¬tralians, 100,000 of whom were forcibly removed from their par¬ents through government policies between 1910 and 1970. But she said the official story was wrong: the 60-year .nightmare for Indigenous Australians has not ended.
“The insidious racism of this country needs to be addressed, and not by us,” she said. “We need more reconciliation than just buying an Aboriginal painting and hanging it in your office.”
Since her first collections of po¬etry were published in 2010, writ¬ing has brought Ms. Cobby Eckermann fellowships, literary festival appearances and the publication of seven books. But above all, she has treasured the sense of heal¬ing it has brought and the release of guilt she felt over the adoption of her son.
“An avalanche of creativity has built up inside me since meeting my mother and learning our fam¬ily story,” she wrote in her memoir. “Whenever I complete an art piece, I feel a personal celebration in my heart. I feel dead chunks falling off my darkened soul.”
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