Open Your Heart to Country by Jasmine Seymour
In a surprisingly short time Jasmine Seymour, who is a Dharug woman belonging to the Burubiranggal people (descended from Maria Lock and Yarramundi), has carved a significant place for her picture books in our children’s literature canon.
She is not only multi-talented as both an author and illustrator but has a masters degree in Indigenous languages education, is a Dharug language teacher and activist, collaborated as a researcher on the Real Secret River project, was a co-curator for Dyarubin exhibition at the State Library of NSW, is the secretary of the Da Murrytoola Aboriginal Education Consultancy Group and is a primary school teacher. She also has two children.
Jasmine wrote and illustrated Baby Business – now a classic gift for new babies and of widespread importance; Cooee Mittigar: A Story on Darug Songlines, illustrated by Leanne Mulgo Watson, and winner of the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award (Children’s Literature); and she illustrated Family from Aunty Fay Muir and Sue Lawson’s acclaimed ‘Our Place’ series.
Now Jasmine has written and illustrated the glorious Open Your Heart to Country (Magabala Books). The significance of this book cannot be overstated. It is a First Nations bilingual picture book, written in Dharug and English (with a glossary at the end, although the meaning is clear while reading). This book encompasses love of Country through song, language, people and place. It is welcoming, illuminating and healing.
We are honoured that Jasmine is sparing the time from her many commitments to speak with PaperbarkWords.
You have a most impressive resume (summarised above), Jasmine. Could you tell us about one of the things you are involved in?
At the moment, I am enrolled in a Master of Research Degree at Western Sydney University. I hope to further my understanding of the Dharug language. I would love to see the schools in the Sydney basin area connected to Dharug all start to teach the Dharug language. I am hoping that I will be able to help make that happen.
How does this or one of your other activities tie in with your writing?
The Dharug language was the reason why I started to write. When I started teaching, I really noticed the lack of resources for the Dharug language. Leanne Watson and I wanted to create a book for kids that would show the beauty and importance of listening and learning from Country. Through that wish, Cooee Mittigar was created.
Dharug or Darug? I’ve noticed both spellings used. Are both correct? Is one used in certain circumstances?
Both spellings are correct. But we know now that the word Dharug would have had the Dh sound. Many of the ‘dh’ were taken out, or not heard when our language was recorded.
Your title Open Your Heart to Country reflects the open-hearted nature of the book. It’s a gift to ease into its pages, contemplate, enjoy, learn and be soothed. A difficult question, how do you think you’ve achieved this?
When I initially wrote the poem, I felt that it was immensely sad. It is about the loss of language and the pain of not knowing who or where you belong, and how learning your language connects you to your story. Over time this beautiful poem has changed in meaning to me to be full of hope and joy. That is largely to do with my language communities. After I finished the Masters of Indigenous Languages Education degree, I started teaching Dharug at my primary school where I teach, and I also started to teach it to adults. This experience has been the biggest privilege of my life. I teach not far from where Maria Lock and other Dharug children were sent to learn how not to be Aboriginal. Being at the other end of history where I now get to teach Dharug to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is Incredible!
You write and illustrate some of your books. Which flows more easily for you – writing or illustrating?
I prefer to illustrate first. For this book, the illustration came second. It was very difficult to get the language of the illustration and it took me a long time to find it. The Children’s Book Week poster gave me the ‘in’ I was looking for and it flowed well after that.
Your colours glow and your shapes, outlines and backgrounds create a rich tone and space to also make Open Your Heart to Country an ‘art book’. What media and process do you use for your illustrations in this book?
I used acrylic inks on a geli board to take impressions of plants and create texture for backgrounds and shapes. I also used the chalk effect in procreate, a digital illustration app, for the people and animals. I feel like there is a sense of time within the pictures. I hope that I have achieved that because I wanted to show how deep the connection to Country and language is despite it being interrupted by colonisation.
Open Your Heart to Country is, without doubt, full of beauty. The endpapers are exquisite and it was your depiction of flowers that first drew me into the book. What are some of the flowers you show here (and do any of these have particular significance for you)?
The flowers are all from around the Hawkesbury where I have lived all my life. Waratahs, flannel flowers, crowea and banksia flowers dominate the landscape. I think Dharug Country is Beautiful! I wanted to show that in these end pages.
You also illustrate birds and animals originally and evocatively. Could you please select a double page and briefly tell us something about your composition?
I have two favourite pages. The first is the image of smoke-like birds (the galahs) and The Girl in the nawi (canoe). Cleanse yourself in smoke and let it cover you. I love the idea of Country recognising you because you smell like smoke. I love the smoke birds turning into the spirit of a story, your story, and that this storytelling makes you whole.
The girl in the nawi is paddling upstream against time but is also being guided by ancestors represented by the birds. One of the Elders here on Dharug Country tells us that in the beginning, it was the birds who were created first. I love the idea that the birds are the first storytellers, the first ancestors of this place. I believe that learning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders languages will help all Australians understand the story of this incredible home that we all share today.
I have previously interviewed Darug woman, Julie Janson about her novel Benevolence, based on her research into the history of the Hawkesbury River region. Do you know Julie and, if you’ve read (or are aware of) Benevolence, what do your books have in common?
I have not had the pleasure of meeting Aunty Julie Janson yet. I think that our books have much in common. We both advocate for the Dharug people. Dharug people were amongst the first colonised and many of the policies that have been imposed upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were enforced upon us first. We might not look like our ancestors did at colonisation, but our families are strong. We are still here. We are still strong.
Who have you written Open Your Heart to Country to/for?
I wrote Open Your Heart to Country for children and adults who are learning their language for the first time. I wrote it so that all people can understand and explore the incredible work that First Nations language workers do when they begin to revitalise their language. This is the first children’s picture book about language revitalisation. It is a complex story told simply. That is what great picture books do, they also teach adults. I hope that this book might help people understand. Learning about the language of place and its people is something that all Australians should have some knowledge about. Language is I believe, one of the pathways to reconciliation.
What do you hope children remember about Open Your Heart to Country?
I hope that students understand that learning a new language also gives you a different outlook. That is part of the beauty of language for me. When you learn Dharug, you start to think like a Dharug person. It is quite different to how we as English speakers see and think about the world. This is what all languages do, they change the way you view the world. Australia before colonisation was multilingual. Over 800 different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages would have been spoken. We would have all been multilingual, knowing and conversing in all the neighbouring languages around us. I also hope that
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
I currently read lots of research papers on language teaching and Dharug language. I also read lots of picture books. I would recommend that you try to find a book about the language of the country in which you live on. I would also recommend that you explore all the incredible books that are being produced by Australian First Nations peoples. There is so much to learn, explore and enjoy if you open your heart to it.
Thanks for your responses, Jasmine. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with you.
I greatly appreciate your talent, storytelling and wise, generous words here. I am grateful to have been collecting your books since Magabala Books first began publishing them.
Open Your Heart to Country is a wonderful work. It is an embracing refrain.
Open Your Heart to Country at Magabala Books
Cooee Mittigar My annotation for National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature (NCACL)
Baby Business My annotation for National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature (NCACL)
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