Interview with Francis Firebrace, Aboriginal Storyteller — by Helen McKay.
Taped in Sydney and published in Feb-March’98 issue of Telling Tales.
Helen: Francis, when did you start storytelling?
Francis: As a kid I loved the poetry my father taught me and I could recite it pretty well. I’d heard all the stories as I grew up, but people weren’t interested in our culture back then. When I was a young stockman I used to recite Banjo Patterson’s poetry for a beer and tell some spooky stories around campfires.
But when I was 48, I went through a period of great personal loss and I bought a boat and sailed up to the Whitsunday Islands. There I found a freedom I’d never known before, during which time I began to remember my stories. I went broke up there and a friend suggested that I should tell my stories to the tourists who occasionally chartered my boat. I’d nothing to lose. I took groups of visitors out for a couple of nights at a time to lovely deserted islands, where we sat round the campfire at night. I painted white clay on my body and told the stories through the flames – many of them spooky stories.
Although they were scared, all alone with this Aboriginal fella – they loved it. People flocked to hear my stories and, gradually, I came to believe I was meant to be a storyteller. When you tell stories from the heart you connect with the audience – you have to live it in your mind – the story has to become part of you. That’s how it was with me.
I figured that there’s more to life than this 9-5 working day – it may get you money, which can buy you the possessions they keep telling you will make you happy – but it’s all rot. Freedom and love are the two things that make us happy and working freelance as a storyteller, doing what I love, I discovered my true calling in life.
Helen: Francis, you’ve just returned from `A Common Wealth of Stories’ – a festival which was held in Edinburgh, to coincide with the CHOGM Conference.
Francis: Yes, and I had a wonderful time there, working with some other indigenous and Scottish tellers – mainly the tradition-bearers from other countries. This was a special event and was strictly for people who offered the unique indigenous tales of their homelands. The organisers were not at all interested in the Prima Donnas of the storytelling world.
Helen: Did you move around Scotland?
Francis: No. I was based in Edinburgh. Apart from the festival performances, I told to 4 schools in Edinburgh. In the very conservative Church schools we were not allowed to talk about spirituality – but I did, and the kids loved it. At least it’s spreading the word about openness. The 9 year-old kids wrote me some beautiful letters. The called me brother, and said, ‘You’re really cool Francis’ – we got along fine.
Stories get to you – right inside where you live
– if you are telling from an honest viewpoint.
Helen: You were interviewed by the BBC world service.
Francis: Yes, I was interviewed three times on the BBC world service, once by a Nigerian girl, along with a teller from Ghana, Swaziland, Jamaica and one lady from Scotland. During the event I met Mona Williams who comes originally from Guyana, but now lives and teaches in Palmerston North, N.Z.
Helen: Were the stories you told in Scotland the same as the ones you tell here?
Francis: I told a couple of different ones, but they were mostly the same stories as here. The last shows I did, towards the end of the gatherings, were booked out well in advance. I’d been on the BBC and people flocked to get tickets. Many were disappointed. It was only a small theatrette holding 75-80 people, but they managed to squeeze about 100 in – it was very friendly! I didn’t use a microphone or have my paintings up on stage as a back-drop — the place was so packed — so to compensate, I told more stories.
Helen: You went to London after the conference?
Francis: Yes. I had a quick look at London and it’s a wild place – a bit too wild for me. A friend asked me to tell stories at a school outside London and I enjoyed that. The kids were great.
They told me before I left here, I couldn’t make people talk on the Underground in London, but I proved them wrong. I got up in the train and said ‘Attention everyone, the Australian people reckon I can’t make you people talk in the Underground, but I told them they were wrong, because you are all human beings with a heart.’ They looked up, startled. ‘I’d like to introduce myself – I’m Francis Firebrace, an Aboriginal fella from Australia – what’s you’re name, brother?’ and put out my hand.
The fella took my hand, smiled and gave his name and the other people smiled. Before you knew it, they were all talking and laughing with me. The girl I was with couldn’t believe it. She said it was the first time she’d ever seen people talking to each other on the Underground. They were so taken by surprise. I felt like Crocodile Dundee but, instead of being in New York, it took place on a train in London. Those people have an inbred fear that a person might want something from them. They just can’t cope with someone being friendly.
While I was in Edinburgh, I flatted with the fella from Swaziland and we became friends. I made a lot of friends while I was there and have been asked to go to Denmark and Swaziland to tell stories.
Helen: How did your paintings go over there? I believe you got some commissions.
Francis: Yes, they loved my paintings. I signed a contract with a London publisher for six paintings. I’ll have to get started on them tomorrow. Right now I have a rehearsal to go to for the Sydney Youth Ballet. I’m narrating `Wonga Wonga – The White Waratah’ for a performance at the Glen Theatre, French’s Forest. I tell the story and the girls perform the dance.
Helen: Tell me about your trip to Vietnam.
Francis: I am going to tour Vietnam in January with a group of five Aboriginal performers – a didge player, myself, and three dancers. We’ll be celebrating Australia Day up there.
Helen: You really love your life right now?
Francis: Yes, storytelling draws you in. My stories have real meaning – they’re not just entertainment – but you must feel them inside you. ¤
Helen: I once went to a professional speakers’ meeting where the speaker suggested, when we were speaking we should `fake sincerity’ to our audiences, can you imagine that? I found it went against everything I believed in. I haven’t been back.
Francis: You’re kidding. People can see right through all that stuff. Stories get to you – right inside where you live – if you are telling from an honest viewpoint.
Helen: You need to take care what stories you select. Their messages must match what you are trying to convey.
Francis: Do you know why I like what I do? It’s because the stories all have important life lessons. In Scotland I noticed some tellers told stories – entertaining certainly – but they lacked guts – the vital truths or messages were missing and I felt flat after hearing them. While you do need to be entertaining, to hold an audience, the stories should carry messages. My stories reach the heart. I choose stories that have meaning for right now and I make them entertaining – everyone loves them.
My paintings, which I use as a backdrop, catch the imagination of people – especially children. I don’t talk down to children either.
I love telling stories sitting around a campfire in something like the National Park, with stars overhead and sounds of the night, for accompaniment. That’s what we need — an evening of storytelling under the stars – with all kinds of tellers. Maybe you can organise that for the guild sometime. I’ll be a starter.
I loved Derek Gordon at the Festival, whose love of language and stories was amazing. What a performer! And that little Japanese teller, Masako Sueyoshi, was just dazzling. I fell in love with her performances – all that energy she put into her stories – she was just stunning.
My people just love what you are doing towards recconciliation, Helen. You’re not out there making a big fuss, but working quietly, bringing people together through stories. That’s the way it should be and I’d like to thank you for that.
Helen: Stories are so important to today’s community in Australia. They heal old wounds, build bridges and create understanding between people, regardles of age and ethnic origin. Thank you for your time and kind words, Francis.