The award-winning and inspirational Wongutha author of Bawoo Stories and Badudu Stories dies in Perth

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this blog post contains images and the name of a person who has died. Please take care.

Fremantle Press extends its sympathy to the friends, colleagues and relatives of May O’Brien, BEM, who passed away on Sunday1 March 2020. May was a much-loved member of the Fremantle Press family whose enthusiasm for writing and sharing her stories was infectious and uplifting.

Fremantle Press, formerly Fremantle Arts Centre Press, began work with May in 1992 when it published four traditional teaching stories of the Wongutha people. At the time, Barn-Barn Barlala, The Kangaroos Who Wanted to Be People, How Crows Became Black and Why the Emu Can’t Fly were groundbreaking publications, being among the first books to present Aboriginal stories in a bilingual text. Republished as Bawoo Stories in 2008, the book continues to be among the most enduring and popular titles ever published by the Press.

Though the official record states she was born in Laverton, May said she was born in 1933 in the gold mining town of Patricia about 90 kilometres north-west of Kalgoorlie. She said her early life was steeped in Aboriginal culture, learning the many skills of hunting and gathering and listening to ‘grannies and aunties … that used to tell us stories around the campfire at night’.

By the age of five, May was at the Mount Margaret Mission, where she lived for 12 years. Though she expressed gratitude for the educational opportunities she gained at the mission, and indeed May was the first known Aboriginal woman in Western Australia to graduate from a tertiary college, May’s early experience of coming to terms with a new language and an alien culture were evident in her story What Do You Say?

‘But why won’t you say thank-you?’ [asked Violet]

‘We never do,’ replied Buruwan, ‘but Miss Jones makes a big fuss about it and punishes you if you don’t. In Wongutha way when someone gives you something, no-one is expected to say “thank-you”. People give things because they want to.’

It is notable that May O’Brien’s capacity to give freely and ‘because she wanted to’ was unparalleled, as was her willingness to acknowledge and thank the people around her. First published in 1994, What Do You Say? and companion stories Smartie Pants, Which Jack? and Too Big for Your Boots were all released in 2014 in a collected edition called Badudu Stories with ‘badudu’ meaning ‘not what it seems’ in the language of the Wongutha people. After we published the new edition, May was over the moon. As soon as she got a new parcel of reviews in the post, she’d be on the phone to tell us how excited she was to see her work reaching new people.

To us, May was a writer, but to countless others she was a passionate educator and a fearless activist who sat on many state and national committees. After a 25-year teaching career, May became the first Superintendent of Aboriginal Education in WA, a position she held until her retirement in 1988. Among her many achievements, May won a Churchill Fellowship Award, was a delegate for Australia at the United Nations Conference of Women and was awarded a British Empire Medal and a John Curtin Medal for her work in education. She also was Patron of the Australian Principals Association Professional Development Council’s ‘Dare to Lead’ project, the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy Ambassador and an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Working with May at many Indigenous Literacy Day events was a pleasure and a privilege. She had the capacity to hold an audience spellbound with just a crooked forefinger, a wide-eyed expression and a whisper. May’s irresistible laugh, her hardworking nature and her generous spirit made her a joy to know.

The funeral service to celebrate the life of May Lorna O’Brien will be held at the Belvoir Homestead, 1177 Great Northern Highway Upper Swan at 10.00 am for a 10.30 am start on Thursday 26 March, to be followed by a graveside service at Guildford Cemetery at 2.00 pm.

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