Vale Ruby Hunter
I’ve been meaning to write a post for weeks. I’ve finished a novel, been to the Perth Writers’ Festival and back and thought of dozens of topics to write about. But ever since Ruby Hunter died two weeks ago, I’ve wanted to write about her passing. And every time I’ve opened this blog, I’ve felt so overwhelmed with sadness that I couldn’t bring myself to write. Ruby Hunter was a great soul and the world is a more melancholy place without her.
Ruby Hunter is a musical legend in Australia. When she sang, her voice came out of the rocks and rivers of this country. I didn’t know Ruby personally. I met her once, briefly. But I interviewed her via phone on a number of occasions and I included a story about her childhood in my book Tough Stuff, a collection of stories about heroic kids. Although Tough Stuff was published in 1999, it has been continuously reprinted so Ruby’s story has been read by more than a generation of Australian kids, as well as young readers from around the world. It’s a story of injustice and courage and of a small girl’s ability to rise above the most difficult challenges.
Ruby was one of the stolen generation, who as a child, was taken away from her family home in the Coorong when she was eight years old and forced to spend years in institutions. I’d read a brief version of her experiences in a newspaper and knew that I wanted to include her story in Tough Stuff. But in the same week in 1998 that I was meant to meet her for an interview, my twelve year old son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I phoned Ruby from the hospital to say I couldn’t make it. I can still remember her voice on the other end of the line, rich and warm and full of sympathy. By the time I was ready to write again, Ruby was on tour so we spoke again on the phone and emailed and faxed versions of the story to her agent until Ruby felt I’d managed to capture a small, true snapshot of her childhood.
Years later, when I was working on A Prayer for Blue Delaney, Ruby helped me again. I had invented a character called Rosy in the novel, largely because Ruby’s story had never left me, who is taken from her grandmother. I wanted to include a brief telling in the book of a legend from the Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong, where the old grandmother tells a group of children the story of the Mungingee. Ruby knew exactly who I needed to talk to get permission to use the story and to make sure the details were right.
There must be thousands of people around the world who were touched by Ruby Hunter, through her music, her story and her personal genoristy. Her influence stretched beyond her much loved family to people that she would never meet. In conversation with her, she struck me as someone of unstinting generosity, a woman with a huge heart. She was only fifty-four years old when she died on 17th February. Today she was laid to rest in the country of her mother’s people in the Coorong. She is deeply mourned by more people than she ever knew. Go well, Ruby Hunter.