In No Sugar, both white and Aboriginal Australians use language to reinforce their own racial and cultural identities. Although all of the characters in the play predominantly speak English, the Millimurra-Munday family peppers their speech with Nyoongah, an Aboriginal language. When reading the play, readers can turn to the glossary for definitions of over one hundred words and phrases. However, for those watching the play, the frequent Nyoongah vocabulary is likely unfamiliar and disorienting. Like the white Australians within the play, audience members are forced to use context clues to uncover meaning. Living in a world where so much has been taken from them—their land, their autonomy—Aboriginal Australians hold on to language as one of the last vestiges of their culture. In contrast, white Australians use English, especially written English, as a method of gatekeeping, actively discouraging Aboriginal children from learning to read, or else using complicated documents to confuse the Aboriginal people who are signing them. In both cases, language serves to isolate one community from another. However, the white Australians use it in order to disenfranchise the Aboriginal people in their communities and deny them the opportunity to improve their conditions, whereas the Millimurra-Mundays and other Aboriginal characters use their language to protect themselves and their culture, which white Australians have attempted to steal from them or destroy.
The Millimurra-Munday family has very few physical possessions, and very little agency over their own lives—even the food they eat and the land they live on is regulated by the government. However, they are able to hold on to aspects of their rich cultural history through speech and song, even as other aspects of their identities are taken away. The Nyoongah language bonds together those that speak it, while creating a divide between the Aboriginal Australians and the white Australians who only speak English. In court, for example, Sam refers to his “gnoolya,” or brother-in-law, Jimmy, which the white men in the room do not understand. Later, Gran asks the Constable about “them wanbru,” or blankets, which he also is unable to translate. By preserving their language, the Millimurra-Munday family is able to preserve some of their culture and dignity. Songs and phrases in the Nyoongah language further preserve the family’s culture and history. The play ends with Joe and Mary leaving Moore River in search of a better life, as Gran sings them off with a song in Nyoongah. The song, which translates to “woe, woe, woe. / My boy and girl and baby / Going a long way walking,” acts as a bridge across four generations. Even as Joe, Mary, and their baby leave their families and home behind, they remain connected to their ancestors and to their culture through their shared language.
Mr. Neal, a white Australian, is more interested in controlling the people in his care than helping them. He attempts to use access to language and information as a way to oppress the Millimurra-Mundays and other Aboriginals, and keep them from gaining power or influence. At the Moore River Settlement, Mr. Neal tries to convince Sister Eileen to stop lending books and novels to the Indigenous population. He explains, “There’s a sort of unofficial directive on this: it’s the sort of thing which isn’t encourage by the Department.” When Sister Eileen clarifies what he means, asking, “you don’t encourage the natives to read?” Neal explains, “my experience with natives in South Africa and here has taught—led me to believe that there’s a lot of wisdom in the old adage that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’” He believes that if the Aboriginal Australians are allowed to read, they will get “ideas,” which will make them harder to control. If Neal genuinely wanted to improve the lives of his charges, he would be happy to let them read. However, it seems that his goal is simply to keep the Aboriginals docile, so depriving them of knowledge and the ability to read will only depress them further.
Mr. Neal also uses the written word to manipulate the Aboriginal people under his care. He knows that Joe wants to leave the settlement with Mary and so Neal gives Joe a document to sign, which declares that Joe will “Undertake not to domicile in the town of Northam, nor anywhere in the Northam Shire. I fully understand that if I return to Northam I am liable to be returned under warrant to the Moore River or other Government Native Settlement.” Joe begins the read the paper on his own, but when he is too slow, Neal takes it from him and reads it aloud. Although Joe understands the basic gist of the document—“You mean if I put me name on this, me and Mary can take off?”—its formal wording, and the rushed way in which it is presented to Joe, means that he does not get the opportunity to fully consider its implications. That is, although Joe will be allowed to leave, he is not free.
In No Sugar, spoken and written languages are used to create and enforce cultural boundaries. In the play, white Australians use formal and written English to purposefully confuse the Aboriginal people with whom they interact. Government officials especially understand that keeping the Aboriginal community ignorant makes it easier to manage. They understand that knowledge is power, and that knowledge is often easily gained from books and other written texts. Meanwhile, the Millimurra-Munday family uses their Indigenous Nyoongah language to relate to each other, to remind themselves of their ancestral roots, and to assert their identity as Aboriginal Australians. The white Australians and civil servants actively use language to disenfranchise the Indigenous people, whereas the Millimurra-Mundays use it to empower themselves and their community.
Language and Culture ThemeTracker
Language and Culture Quotes in No Sugar
JOE: ‘The—blood—was stirred…as if by a trumpet… by the history-ical…Headed by a tab-leau… […] ‘…Commemorating the pioneers whose lives…’ […] ‘…Were a steadfast performance of duty in the face of difficulty and danger. With them was a reminder of the dangers they faced, in the shape of three lorries…carrying Aborigines.
[They all stop what they are doing and listen.]
JOE: All right! ‘…Dancing…to a brass-band.’
SAM: Koorawoorung! Nyoongahs corrobereein’ to a wetjala’s brass band!
JIMMY: Ah! That beats everythin’: stupid bloody blackfellas…You fellas, you know why them wetjalas marchin’ down the street, eh? I’ll tell youse why. ‘Cause them bastards took our country and them blackfellas dancin’ for ‘em. Bastards!
JOE: ‘The pag…page…page-ant pre-sented a picture of Western Australia’s pre-sent condition of hopeful optimum-optimis-tic prosperity, and gave some idea of what men mean when they talk about the soul of the nation.’
SAM: Sounds like bullshit to me.
As I mentioned, I was a little concerned to see so many dirty little noses amongst the children. I’m a great believer that if you provide the native the basic accoutrements of civilisation you’re half way to civilising him. I’d like to see each child issued with a handkerchief and instructed on its use. […] I think some practical training from yourself and Matron in its correct usage would be appropriate. If you can successfully inculcate such basic but essential details of civilised living you will have helped them along the road to taking their place in Australian society.
CONSTABLE: You’re being transferred to the Moore River Native Settlement.
GRAN: I ain’t goin’.
CONSTABLE: You’re all goin’. You’re under arrest.
GRAN: What for? We done nothin’ wrong.
SERGEANT: It’s for health reasons. Epidemic of skin disease.
JIMMY: Bullshit, I’ll tell you why we’re goin’.
CONSTABLE: You wouldn’t know.
JIMMY: You reckon blackfellas are bloody mugs. Whole town knows why we’re goin’. ‘Coz wetjalas in this town don’t want us ’ere, don’t want our kids at the school, with their kids, and old Jimmy Mitchell’s tight ’coz they reckon Bert ’Awke’s gonna give him a hidin’ in the election.
Mary: I don’t like the way [Mr. Neal] looks at me.
Joe: Well, you got me now, for what I’m worth.
Mary: He’s always hangin’ around where the girls are workin’; in the cookhouse, in the sewin’ room. And he’s always carryin’ that cat-o’-nine tails and he’ll use it, too.
Joe: Bastard, better not use it on you or any of my lot.
Mary: He reckoned he was gunna belt me once.
Joe: What for?
Mary: ‘Coz I said I wasn’t gunna go and work for guddeah on a farm.
Joe: Why not? Be better than this place.
Mary: No! Some of them guddeahs real bad. My friend went last Christmas and then she came back boodjarri. She reckons the boss’s sons used to belt her up and, you know, force her. Then they kicked her out. And when she had that baby them trackers choked it dead and buried it in the pine plantation.
[He picks up inji sticks. The Nyoongahs, SAM, JIMMY and JOE, dance with them. BILLY joins in. They dance with increasing speed and energy, stamping their feet, whirling in front of the fire, their bodies appearing and disappearing as the paint catches the firelight. The dance becomes faster and more frantic until finally SAM lets out a yell and they collapse, dropping back to their positions around the fire. JIMMY coughs and pants painfully.]
BILLY: This country got plenty good dance, eh?
JIMMY: Ah, yuart, not too many left now. Nearly all finish.
BILLY: No, no, no. You song man, you fella dance men. This still your country. [Flinging his arms wide] You, you, you, you listen! Gudeeah make ’em fences, windmill, make ’em road for motor car, big house, cut ’em down trees. Still your country! Not like my country, finish… finish.
[He sits in silence. They watch him intently. JOE puts wood on the fire. He speaks slowly.]
BILLY: Kuliyah. [Miming pulling a trigger, grunting] Gudeeah bin kill ’em. Finish, kill ’em. Big mob, 1926, kill ’em big mob my country.
NEAL: Just a moment… There’s another matter I’d like to discuss with you. I believe you’ve been lending books—novels—to some of the natives.
SISTER: Yes, I have.
NEAL: There’s a sort of unofficial directive on this is; it’s the sort of thing which isn’t encouraged by the Department.
SISTER: What do you mean? That you don’t encourage the natives to read?
NEAL: That’s right.
SISTER: [incredulously] But why? I’d intended to ask your permission to start a small library.
NEAL: I’m sorry, Sister, but—
SISTER: [interrupting] It won’t cost the Department a penny, I can get the books donated. Good books.
NEAL: It’s quite out of the question.
SISTER: But why?
NEAL: Look, my experience with natives in South Africa and here has taught—led me to believe that there’s a lot of wisdom in the old adage that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.
There is a happy land,
Far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand,
Bright, bright as day:
Oh, how they sweetly sing,
‘Worthy is our Saviour King!’
Loud let His praises ring,
Praise, praise for aye!
[As the whites continue, the Aborigines break into full clear voice with a parody of the words.]
There is a happy land,
Far, far away.
No sugar in our tea,
Bread and butter we never see.
That’s why we’re gradually
DAVID: Eh, brother, you want my pocket knife? You might need it.
JOE: No, Brudge, I can use glass if I wanna gut a rabbit.
[SAM hands JOE a home-made knife.]
SAM: Here, son, take this one.
JOE: No, I’ll be all right.
SAM: Take it. I can git another bit of steel and make another one. Here, take it.
[Magpies squawk. GRAN begins to sing. They farewell each member of the family, then walk off into the distance.]