An Indigenous Australian retelling of “Alice in Wonderland”: “Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala”

White Rabbit becomes a White Kangaroo. Billy Tea and Damper party replace the Mad Tea-party. Game of croquet is now Game of the Witch Spirit. Welcome to the Indigenous Australian instalment of our home library’s “Alice”.

“Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” (Simon and Schuster, 1992) is Nancy Sheppard’s adaptation of Carroll’s original “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. The adaptation is presented in two languages and, similarly to popular Chinese and Japanese ‘Alice’ editions, each page has the text in both languages – Pitjantjatjara and English.

The illustrator of “Alitji”, Donna Leslie, is a First Nations woman of Gamileroi peoples. Her paintings are often inspired by the natural world. She has a long career in visual arts having worked on creative projects for over 30 years. She has exhibited her work widely in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Donna is also a scholar with a PhD in Art history and an art museum curator and teacher. The complete series of Leslie’s 33 original illustrations for “Alitji” was exhibited at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts in Melbourne in 1992. She has created a brightly sunlit, red-earthed Dreamland world that captures the very essence and the unique beauty of the Australian land that I am so lucky to call home for the past twenty years.

In 1993, she won the Crichton Award for Children’s Book Illustration for her “Alitji” illustrations. This award (established in 1985) recognised and encouraged new talent in the field of Australian children’s book illustration; its administration has been taken over by Children’s Book Council of Australia in 2019 and it is presently known as CBCA Award for New Illustrator.  
 
The indigenous language of “Alitji” – Pitjantjatjara – is one of the few hundred languages spoken by the Aboriginal peoples inhabiting parts of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Like many indigenous languages, it was traditionally a ‘spoken only’ language but has been given its written form in the 1960s. Nancy Sheppard produced texts and tapes for the intensive course of Pitjantjatjara she taught at Adelaide University. She was also teaching young Pitjantjatjara children near Alice Springs (in Australian Northern Territory) and produced this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ adaption with her indigenous students in mind.

There is no Pitjantjatjara word for ‘rabbit’ (as these species were brought to Australia by the white settlers) so, naturally, Alitji sees a white kangaroo instead (yes, white as snow kangaroos do exist). The Caterpillar becomes a Witchety Grub, the pepper in the ‘Pig and Pepper’ chapter becomes the native itunypa plant, while the baby changes not into a pig but a native Australian bandicoot. Despite many ‘substitutions’ to fit the cultural demands of the adaption Nancy Sheppard’s translation of what is known as ‘logical nonsense’ is often remarkably true to the original and conveys the spirit of the original’s dialogue with much wit and humour. She also cleverly adapts the original wordplay and verse parodies.

The book is accompanied by a brilliant article that discusses some of the challenges and linguistic quirks of the process of adapting Carroll’s nonsense and word puns, as demonstrated in Sheppard’s witty transformation of the original Dormouse’s story of the three little sisters. The below picture illustrates the relevant episode and is captioned: “The Koala’s story was about three sisters – Tili, Iljti and Itjila – who lived in a tank”. The equivalent episode in Carroll’s Wonderland sees the Dormouse tell the story of three little sisters Elise, Lacie and Tillie who lived at the bottom of a treacle well. This unusual accommodation of the sisters in Carroll’s original was possibly based on a treacle well near Oxford, which was believed to contain water of medicinal properties.

An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“The Koala’s story was about three sisters – Tili, Iljti and Itjila – who lived in a tank”

In Sheppard’s adaptation ‘Iltji’, besides being the Pitjantjatjara translation of ‘Elsie’, also means ‘wilderness’ or ‘desert’ and ‘Itjila’ is an anagram of ‘Alitji’ just as Carroll’s ‘Lacie’ is an anagram of ‘Alice’. The Pitjantjatjara word ‘tangka’ means both ‘tank’ and ‘cooked food’, whereas “tili” (the name of one of the sisters) translates as ‘flame’, ‘firestick’ or ‘match’. Sheppard’s puns then become clear in the context of these meanings:

“What did they [sisters] live on? Alitji asked. “Cooked food”, said the Koala. Much surprised Alitji said, “But how could they cook it?”… “On a fire, of course,” said the Koala. “Don’t forget they had Tili.”

For comparison, this part of Carroll’s dialogue between Alice and Dormouse reads:

“And so these three little sisters – they were learning to draw, you know-” [said the Dormouse]. “What did they draw?” said Alice. “Treacle,” said the Dormouse”.

At the end of the book, there is a Glossary defining Pitjantjatjara words used throughout the adapted text. Some of those definitions are included in the image captions below (enjoy browsing these!)

The Australian Dreamland inhabited by Sheppard’s indigenous characters, who substitute the original Carroll’s Wonderland folk, serves an important dual purpose. It retells a classic English literature story to the indigenous children in their native language, whereas its English translation of the Pitjantjatjara adaptation acquaints other readers with the elements of an ancient indigenous culture, which is one of the oldest on Earth (more than 65,000 years old to be exact).

To browse other editions of illustrated “Alice in Wonderland” click here. To browse other editions of illustrated “Through the Looking-Glass” click here. What are your favourite versions of illustrated ‘Alice’?

Author: Nancy Sheppard

Illustrator: Donna Lesley

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia

Year of publishing: 1992

ISBN: 9780898154788

An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Alitji and her sister were playing in a creek-bed when a white kangaroo hopped past and disappeared into a hole in the ground.” [substituted Wonderland elements and characters: river bank becomes creek-bed and White Rabbit a white kangaroo]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Alitji fell for a very long time until she landed suddenly on a heap of dry leaves”
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“After eating the yams, Alitji grew so big her head hit the roof of the cave and she started to cry.” [substituted Wonderland elements: small cake with “Eat me” words on it becomes yams which Alitji found in the dilly-bag dropped by the white kangaroo (yam is a starchy, tuberous root vegetable; a dilly bag is a small, knotted-string carry bag)]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Alitji, now small again, found herself swimming in a pool of her own tears – and so was a Hopping Mouse.”
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“They were indeed a miserable party that climbed out of the water, wet and bedraggled.”
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“It was the Dodo who suggested that all race around the claypan to get dry.” [substituted Wonderland episode: Caucus-race on the bank of the pool of tears, the pool becomes clayplan (a shallow depression in clayey soil that fills with water after rain)]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Alitji tried to help the White Kangaroo find his woomera and dilly bag” [substituted Wonderland elements: White Rabbit who lost his gloves and a fan becomes a white kangaroo whose lost belongings are woomera (the wooden implement into which spears are fitted for throwing) and a dilly bag (a small knotted-string carry bag)]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Alitji filled the wurlie completely and was stuck.” [substituted Wonderland episode: Alice outgrowing the White Rabbit’s house, the latter becomes a wurlie (a shelter made of branches and barn and thatched with leaves or spinifex grass)]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Alitji gazed up into a tree and saw a large witchety grub.” [substituted Wonderland character: Caterpillar]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“A pigeon, guarding its nest, mistook Alitji’s long neck for a snake.”
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Inside the wurlie the Spirit of the North Wind was nursing a baby, while another woman was cooking itunypa roots. A wild cat lay by the fire, grinning.” [substituted Wonderland characters: Duchess, her cook and Cheshire cat; pepper becomes itunypa (a root vegetable that has an extremely strong flavour), the Duchess’s house becomes a wurlie (a shelter made of branches and barn and thatched with leaves or spinifex grass)]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“The Horse and the Stockman were drinking tea around a fire and resting their elbows on a koala who was fast asleep between them.” [substituted Wonderland characters: Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“The leaf children led the procession, followed by the young initiates, the Witch Spirit and others” [substituted Wonderland characters: deck of card soldiers and royal children, the Queen]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“The North Wind Spirit and Alitji walked off arm in arm” [substituted Wonderland characters and episode: the Duchess is leading Alice to see the Gryphon (who is Emu – see picture below) and Mockturtle, the latter is Kangarurtle that sadly does not make an appearance in any illustrations in the book]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Alitji and the Witch Spirit found the Emu asleep in the sun” [substituted Wonderland characters: the Queen and the Gryphon]
An Indigenous Australian retelling of "Alice in Wonderland": "Alitji in Dreamland / Alitjinya Ngura Tjukurmankuntjala” Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Illustrated "Alice in Wonderland", Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
“Alitji woke up to find it had all been a strange dream”

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