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From Australia’s ‘Stolen Generation’ to Celebrated Poet

At 18, having just left an abusive relationship and while wrestling with a drinking problem, Ms. Cobby Eckermann discovered she was pregnant. Feeling lost, and judged by people in the small town where she lived, she agreed to put her son up for adoption. She saw Jonnie once after giving birth, and was not legally allowed to look for him until he was 18.

The family was a part of the stolen generation of Indigenous Australians, 100,000 of whom were forcibly removed from their parents through government policies between 1910 and 1970. But she said the official story was wrong: the 60-year nightmare for Indigenous Australians did not end there.

Ms. Cobby Eckermann said the trauma of the stolen generation was still being repeated in Indigenous communities, long after the Australian government had apologized and supposedly ended the policies. In fact, she said, more Indigenous Australian children were in foster care than ever before. The number placed in the care of other Indigenous families had also declined.

“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. Australia needs to grow up and take a look at itself.”

The generational and cultural grief of a lost generation is at the heart of Ms. Cobby Eckermann’s poetry. She writes of her late mother, Ngingali Audrey, in her collection “Inside My Mother”:

my mother is a granite boulder

I can no longer climb nor walk


her weight is a constant reminder

of myself

I sit in her shadow

gulls nestle in her eyes

their shadows her epitaph

I carry

a pebble of her in my pocket

Ms. Cobby Eckermann now lives with, and cares for, her adoptive mother, whom she calls Mum Frieda, near Adelaide, Australia. She said they had found a friendship and peace together, decades after Ms. Cobby Eckermann ran away from home as a teenager.

At school, she said, it seemed as if Aboriginal children were always in trouble.

“I couldn’t control my behavior and I hated seeing the hurt in my adoptive parents’ eyes,” she said. “They were wonderful people.”


Ms. Cobby Eckermann will receive a Windham-Campbell literary award at Yale University.

Matthew Sherwood for The New York Times

They did not know at the time that Ms. Cobby Eckermann had been sexually abused as a child. She wrote in her memoir, “Too Afraid to Cry,” that after the assaults, she found it difficult to concentrate, frozen by an “icy wind.”

“It seemed only angry thoughts could thaw my brain,” she wrote.

Healing came through time spent in rehabilitation from the drug addiction she had battled since her teenage years and the traditional methods of the “senior women” elders in the Australian desert.

Slowly, Ms. Cobby Eckermann said, she started to understand who she was.

“The trauma had been sitting in my body for a long time,” she said.

“I couldn’t speak the traditional language yet, but I had good eyes,” she said. “I think it was from so many years of looking for my family.”

Ms. Cobby Eckermann traveled to the Australian desert ahead of her trip to Yale to tell her traditional family, the Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha people, about the Windham-Campbell prize and what it meant. She wanted to explain, with the help of translators, that it was for all of them.

She will be accompanied on the trip to the United States by Jonnie and by her daughter, Audrey, who was given to Ms. Cobby Eckermann when she reunited with her family, in keeping with cultural practices. She said her winnings would go toward purchasing a place where her family could spend time together, after decades spent apart.

The organizers of the Windham-Campbell Festival had been thoughtful and respectful of her work, she said. But she also wanted to use the spotlight to highlight the suffering of Native Americans, visiting some during her stay.

“The U.S. might be honoring my story, but they’re ignoring one at their back door,” she said.

Since her first collections of poetry were published in 2010, writing has brought Ms. Cobby Eckermann fellowships, literary festival appearances and the publication of seven books. But above all, she has treasured the sense of healing 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 family 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.”

But she said most Indigenous Australians had not had the same chance to express themselves, with Aboriginal families scared to have arguments at home for fear of social services being called and their children being taken away.

“These are the insults we live with on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Much was made, when the prize was announced, of the fact that a fairly unknown Australian poet who was unemployed and lived in a trailer was among the winners. But Ms. Cobby Eckermann said the unconventional paths she had chosen, avoiding the pressure to conform to a society she felt had treated her so cruelly, had been essential to her healing and recovery.

“I’ve had my quota of sadness in this lifetime,” she said. “I don’t cope very well with sadness any more.”

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