Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian autobiographies
When I was a child my father told me to be proud I was of “aboriginal descent”. Perhaps it was the silence surrounding his words that made them resonate as they did; I’d certainly heard no such thing anywhere else in my life, certainly not in my reading or schooling. There didn’t seem much in the way of empirical evidence to support my father’s words. A child, and unable to either calibrate injustice and racism or identify its cause, I sensed the legacy of oppression. (Kim Scott in Kayang and me)
Indigenous autobiographies are finally, I think, starting to make their mark in mainstream Australian publishing. The first so-called indigenous autobiography I read was Douglas Lockwood‘s I, the aboriginal. It sounds like an autobiography but in fact it was written about an indigenous man, Phillip Roberts (Wailpuldanya of Alawa tribe), by a white writer. It was published in 1962 – though I read it later in the 1960s – and it introduced me to a world I knew little of but recognised as important to my life as an Australian.
Through the 1970s I read various books about indigenous Australians, but it was the poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, which most conveyed to me the experience of being an Aboriginal Australian. And then, in 1988, came the hugely successful Sally Morgan’s My place which was, I think, the first “real” indigenous Australian autobiography I read. Unlike Kim Scott, Sally was not told to be proud of her “Aboriginal descent”. Rather, it was hidden from her – or, at least, she was oblivious of it though, as I recollect, her sister had cottoned on to something of their derivation. Her family did not promote their background – for obvious reasons in a society where, as Scott says, there was (is) a “legacy of oppression” – but Sally worked her way through it to find her own place as an indigenous woman, writer and artist in Australia.
One of the first posts on this blog was on Boori (Monty) Pryor’s autobiography Maybe tomorrow. It’s a short autobiography by a man who has geared his life towards educating young people – white and indigenous – about what being indigenous means. His aim is twofold – to encourage pride in indigenous people and understanding and respect in white people. In a later post, I referred to Leah Purcell‘s Black chicks talking which tells the lives of a number of indigenous women in Australia. They are written by Purcell but are based on interviews she conducted with the women. Her goal is similar to Pryor’s: she sees her women subjects as role models for young indigenous Australians but also wants white Australians to recognise and understand the lives and achievements of indigenous women. Both books are good reads.
The Stolen Generation – that is, the generation/s of Aboriginal people in Australia affected by the government practice of taking mixed-race children away from their families – has resulted in pretty much a whole new genre of indigenous autobiography. The Stolen Generation report itself contained many stories (or case studies) to prove its case. For white Australians, though, the best known Stolen Generation story is Doris Pilkington‘s Following the Rabbit Proof Fence (which was also made into a film). It tells the story of three young girls who, in 1931, escaped the settlement they were taken to, well over 1500kms from their home, and followed the rabbit-proof fence to return to their families. Doris is the daughter of one of the girls – and she, too, like her mother was stolen.
I have only recently come across Hazel Brown and Kim Scott’s 2005 book Kayang and me. Kim Scott is an award-winning Western Australian indigenous novelist and Hazel is his aunty. Together they have written this story of the Wilomin Noongar people in southwest Western Australia. I have only started it, but it is the book that inspired me to write this post. It describes a region of Australia I know little about, so I look forward to making its acquaintance!
I am aware that I have barely scraped the surface of a genre of writing that I would like to delve more into. This will not, I hope, be the last I write on this topic – but, in the meantime, I’d love to hear comments and recommendations from you on the topic.