Daughter of the River Country by Dianne O’Brien
“I always felt sorry for the underdogs.” (Daughter of the River Country)
Daughter of the River Country is a harrowing, unforgettable memoir by Dianne O’Brien, a Yorta Yorta woman from the river country of north-east Victoria and southern NSW, who was stolen as a baby and unaware of her heritage for many years.
Young Dianne loved her mother dearly but she was at grave risk from her adoptive father once her mother died. During her life she has suffered dire circumstances including rape, the infamous Parramatta Girls Home, the ‘forced adoption’ program at Crown St Hospital in Sydney and domestic violence.
Times of light have come from her own children; those who have helped her, including the legendary singer, Jimmy Little; and pride in her heritage. Aunty Di’s indomitable, loving attitude has made it possible for her to, not only, survive but become a leader and inspiration herself.
Daughter of the River Country is co-written by Sue Williams and published by Echo Publishing.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Aunty Di.
Where are some of the places Daughter of the River Country is set?
Parkes, a country town in NSW, where I lived the first years of my life. I have vague memories of our time on a farm, but Mum (my adoptive mother who I still think of as the only real mother I’ve ever known) often talked about taking me back there to tell me a secret. Only later, after her death, I realised the secret was probably that I’d been adopted, and am the daughter of Aboriginal parents.
Granville in western Sydney, where I spent the rest of my childhood. In those days, it was pretty much the outer suburbs, and was a pretty rough place with gangs from each of the areas looking after their own territories. A lot of residents came from elsewhere for work, so it was a pretty transient kind of place.
Cobar in far western NSW where I was taken by my new husband, Colin, the man who’d raped me and made me pregnant in Granville. It was a terrible marriage, full of violence and abuse, and it was a pretty harsh, hard-drinking place in those days. I did make some great friendships, however, with some Aboriginal people who were living on the outskirts of town.
Cummeragunja, in Shepparton Victoria, on the Murray River, which is where many of my people, the Yorta Yorta, are from. They include my great-grandfather, the legendary activist William Cooper. It was wonderful to go there and discover my family and so many people who looked like me and my kids. I finally felt I belonged!
The Central Coast of the NSW, where I live now and run the Mingaletta Centre, offering help to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and also non-indigenous people who are in need of a helping hand.
Your descriptions of place and country are vital. What is particularly important to you in the natural world?
Growing up, I was always drawn to rivers. I never understood why. But I loved swimming in them, watching them, everything about them. Later, when I discovered I was Yorta Yorta, I found out I was one of the river people, a daughter of the river country.
All my life, I’ve always been followed by magpies too. Later, I found they were my totem. They were looking out for me for all those years, and I never knew it!
What do you believe helped you survive the many terrible events you have experienced?
As soon as I gave birth to my daughter Debbie, I knew I had to survive to protect her, and then my other children, as they came along. I wanted to shield them from the terrible violence that become an everyday part of my life.
I also had a belief that I was here on earth to help people. As a small child, I helped, babysitting other children for parents who had to go to work. As I got older, I helped people in other ways. I always wanted to make things better for other people, and hoped that, somehow, they’d get better for me one day, too.
What legacy did your adopted mother, Val Westman, leave you?
She left me a faith in God, and a strong belief in the power of good. She was someone who always helped people, and she passed that on to me. She was a beautiful presence in my life, and when I had my daughter Debbie, I felt she’d somehow come back on earth in Debbie’s spirit, to watch over me.
Could you tell us about one of the Aboriginal people in your book who impacted on your life?
Coral Edwards was one of the founders of Link-Up, an organisation which looks to connect Aboriginal people with their families. It was Coral’s work, together with Peter Read, that finally revealed that I was Aboriginal, which has added a whole new depth and level of understanding to my life. I will forever be grateful.
You wrote the book with the assistance of Sue Williams (who wrote Healing Lives, among other books). What was Sue’s role?
I told Sue all about my life, and she helped me shape it into a narrative that made it so much easier for readers to follow and understand. It can be hard when you’re lived a life to look at it objectively sometimes!
Where are you based now and what is the work of your heart?
I now live on the Central Coast of NSW where I run the Mingaletta Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation that helps people who need help. That’s very much the work of my heart, along with looking after my family. I’m very lucky to have beautiful children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and I wanted to write this book to let them know where they’ve come from and to be proud of their heritage.
Thank you for sharing your brave, heartfelt life with us, Aunty Di. I am sure that your life and lifework will be a powerful example and greatly encourage and change many.
Daughter of the River Country at Echo Publishing