Helen Ing Nellie (author) as told to Margaret O’Brien, Simply Ing, Magabala Books, May 2018, 288 pp., $17.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781925360899
Simply Ing is the memoir of Noongar woman Ellie Nellie, nicknamed Ing (Noongar for ‘spoilt’) by her family. Her nickname came about because she was a cheeky child, full of fun, who somehow managed to get away with a lot of mischief. Ing was placed in a mission at the age of five and robbed of her name, culture and language. As a teenager, after the death of her parents in a car accident, she returned to Gnowangerup Aboriginal Reserve to care for her younger brother and sister. But having been raised in the wadjala (white people) way, she struggled to fit back in with Noongar culture.
Ing’s story gives insight into indigenous life at that time, including food, medicine, housing and so on. She reflects that much of this lifestyle, and the wisdom it represented, is lost now, as is much of the Noongar language. Nevertheless, the book captures some of Ing’s knowledge and way of seeing. She talks about being able to see spirits, and of the spiritual insights she learned from her Uncle Malcolm, whilst there is a glossary of Noongar words contained at the end.
There have been many traumatic events in Ing’s life, including losing her parents, her sister dying very young, many people she knows being imprisoned or struggling with alcohol, and losing her son to ice. The memoir doesn’t shy away from the terrible events of Australian history such as a massacre at Ravensthorpe (Western Australia) which wiped out many of the local Indigenous people who were her ancestors. The use of Ing’s own voice means these long-ago events have real immediacy and impact, so the reader experiences the heartbreak with her.
At the same time, Ing’s descriptions of eating bush food and the feel of swimming in cold water, or the first time she wore shoes, are brought to life equally as vividly. Her loving descriptions of nature evoke the landscape and animals she grew up with. And through it all, Ing’s sense of humour comes through strongly, with stories and incidents such as the time she punched Father Christmas and knocked off his hat.
A powerful exploration of what it is like to live with a dual identity, Simply Ing is ultimately a story of hope for reconciliation. Despite facing racism and never quite feeling she was part of either culture for a long time, Ing treats everyone, Indigenous or wadjala, with the same respect and openness. The book captures her voice so the reader feels she is speaking directly to them, which means the way she sees the world comes through strongly. Ing speaks with love and gratitude of those who raised her, Indigenous and wadjala. It becomes clear that she has a strong focus on community, respect, connection and learning. Now an elder of the Wirlomin Noongar community, Ing’s strong, generous spirit is an inspiration.