"Sarah!" The only other historian from Albany at the Tasmanian conference came along to see me present my paper and said afterwards: "I've always seen you as such a brave and confidant woman. What happened?"
I was at the conference for four days before my own presentation and watched the academic rigour of each question time with great apprehension. Thursday loomed closer and closer. "They are very gentle to us babies," another postgrad said to me, of the Elder's treatment but I was still scared out of my brain.
The night before my presentation, I went over the paper and decided that it had about nine things seriously wrong with it. The next morning, I rang my supervisor and got her out of bed, forgetting all about the time difference. "Just drop the Gimble paragraph if you feel you are running out of time," she said. "You'll be fine. Good luck."
Most of the conference sessions took place in small meeting rooms or lecture theatres. Mine was in the absolutely enormous performing arts complex. Huge. Like for an opera or something.
One of my idols whom I'd not met, Lyndal Ryan, sat in the front row. Others started filtering in and took up seats all over the auditorium. I was introduced as 'Jane'.
There was nothing for it but to smile and say to the audience, "Look. I'm just a pup at this, so bear with me." I explained that the sealers and the Tyreelore (Pallawah islander women) fascinated me for a few reasons, not least because I worked with men in small boats in my other life and "they are the same kind of men." That the women were not of my own ancestry or story but indicated an innate woman's wariness of appropriation, of personal and spiritual annihilation.
Everything seemed to work okay, except for the first slide which was a map. I was trying to explain the location of the islands and where they lay on the coast around Albany - to Tasmanians. For some reason, that particular slide was almost invisible on the big screen. I fumbled through that. As I began to read, I realised that I could break out of the text and just talk. It got easier and easier, until Malcom, the chair, gave me the five minute call and then I had finished the paper.
Lots of questions, about men and islands and women. I was challenged on my use of the word 'wives' by a young man doing Black Line studies. He thought it was a demeaning term, considering that the abductions of women were often violent and they were treated as slaves and chattels. I explained that Tyreelore meant Island Wife, that the Pallawah women had called themselves wives. "Robinson only mentioned the word wives once in Friendly Mission," he replied, somewhat defensively. I looked over to Ryan for help and she looked back with a 'you're on your own, darling'.
Interestingly, this challenge to my terminology has since helped solidify my thoughts about the Tyreelore. It was the most useful question or comment in the whole presentation. But at the time, it was a difficult moment. Later, Lyndal Ryan sat next to me and said, "What you are doing is really important. Don't worry about him. Keep doing what you are doing. Read between the lines. We want to see more of you."
At lunch, another Elder with a reputation as history's 'troublemaker' took me aside. "Lyndal and I were talking about your paper," he said. "It is such a rich and exciting story you are working on. We also talked about your doubt. It is a good thing in historiography to entertain doubt. Doubt is crucial to your discipline, to pull a story apart and look at it anew. But do away with your self doubt. You don't need to doubt yourself and your capability to write this history. You are right on track."
What a cool thing to say.
After lunch, I had to chair another presentation for three postgrads who were all in much the same state as I was. When we were done, Luke said, "Let's go and get a drink."
"Oh, yes please." We all heaved a very relieved sigh and went across the road. At a classic Tasmanian brick and tile with a Boags banner and clinking keno machines, the tattooed barmaid poured us all a 'house red' straight from the cask and charged us a dollar fifty each.