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Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous writers

August 23, 2010
Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch (Courtesy: Friend of subject, via Wikipedia, under CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It’s important I think that my third post be on our indigenous writers. Again it’s going to be pretty idiosyncratic as my reading in this area has been scattered, not for lack of interest so much as the old “so many books” issue that we all know only too well. I was first introduced to indigenous writing at high school where I had two inspirational teachers who encouraged us to think seriously about human rights. It was then that I bought Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s (or Kath Walker as she was then) book of poetry, My people.

In my first Monday Musings post, I mentioned David Unaipon who is generally recognised as the first published indigenous Australian author. However, it was Oodgeroo Noonuccal, with her book of poetry, We are going (1964), who heralded contemporary indigenous Australian writing. So let’s start with her.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal My people (1970, poetry)

Noonuccal’s poetry is largely political. She wrote to right the wrongs which indigenous Australians confronted every day: the racism, the white-colonial-slanted history, the lack of land rights, and so on. Much of her poetry is therefore strong but accessible “protest” poetry. My people collects poems from her first two books and includes new works as well. Here are just a few lines to give you a sense of what she was about:

… Do not ask of us
To be deserters, to disown our mother,
To change the unchangeable.
The gum cannot be trained into an oak.
(from “Assimilaton – No!”)

Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest walls
And wild bird calls.
(from “Municipal gum”)

I love the way she uses gums to represent her people – who they are, where they should be. Some of the poems are angry, some are conciliatory, and others celebrate her culture. I loved the book then, and I still value it now.

Sally Morgan My place (1987, memoir)

The next book in my collection, chronologically speaking, is Sally Morgan’s memoir My place. Sally Morgan is primarily an artist but her memoir became a best seller when it was first published. In it she chronicles how she discovered at the age of 15 years old that her colour did not come from an Indian but  an Aboriginal background, and her subsequent investigations into her family’s rather controversial story. I don’t want to go into the controversy here. Rather, the point I’d like to make is her story-telling: it is warm, funny, and thoroughly engaging.

Women of the centre (1990, short life-stories); Black chicks talking (2002, short life-stories produced in film, book, theatre and art)

Telling stories is an intrinsic part of indigenous Australian culture. It’s how traditions have been passed on for 40,000 years or more. It’s probably simplistic to draw parallels between traditional story-telling and the telling of stories in general. After all, we all love stories. Nonetheless it is certainly clear from the little experience I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, that story-telling is an intrinsic part of indigenous Australian culture and is becoming an important way of sharing their experience with the rest of us. This was powerfully done in Bringing them home: The stolen generation report of 1997 which contained not only the history of the separation of children from their parents and recommendations for the future, but many many first person stories which drove the drier points home.

Two books that I’ve read which contain personal stories by indigenous women are Women of the centre and Black chicks talking. The introduction to the former states that its aim is to help we non-Aboriginal Australian readers to understand lives that are so different from our own and “to provide personal written histories for the descendants of the women involved”. This latter is becoming an urgent issue in indigenous communities today – the capturing of story before more is lost. In Black chicks talking Leah Purcell interviews nine Aboriginal woman – some urban, some rural, some well-known, some not – about their lives. Another wonderful read.

Life stories/memoirs represent, in fact, a significant component of indigenous literature. Another work worth mentioning, though I’ve only seen the film and not read the book (shame on me!), is Doris Pilkington’s “stolen generation” story of her mother’s capture and subsequent escape involving an astonishing trek home, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Alexis Wright Carpentaria (2006, fiction); Tara June Winch Swallow the air (2006, fiction); Marie Munkara Every secret thing (2009, novel)

Finally, a brief mention of three recent fictional works, two of which I’m ashamed to say are still in my TBR pile. These are the two David Unaipon Award winners by Tara June Winch and Marie Munkara. If you are interested in the latter, please check Musings of a Literary Dilettante’s review.

I have though read Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria. It’s set in a fictitious place, tellingly called Desperance, in northern Australia. Its focus is colonialism (ie European invasion of the land), and conflict within black communities about how to respond. To explore these, Wright touches on lot of ground, including land rights, deaths in custody, mining rights, boat people, and petrol sniffing to name just a few. She flips between the real and the magical, she uses language that is image-rich and often playful, and she tells some very funny stories. It’s a big, wild and rather complex read that manages in the end to be hopeful despite itself.

This is just a small introduction to the wealth of Australia’s indigenous literature. It won’t be the last time I write about it. I will also in the future post on white Australians who have written about Aboriginal Australians, writers like Thomas Keneally who wrote The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith but who now says he wouldn’t presume to write in the voice of an indigenous Australian. A vexed question really. I believe there should be no “rules” for writers of fiction and yet, sometimes perhaps, it is best not to appropriate voices not your own. But that is a question for another day…

Meanwhile, back to Alexis Wright – and stories:

Old stories circulating around the Pricklebush were full of the utmost intrigues concerning the world. Legends of the sea were told in instalments every time you walked in the door of some old person’s house. Stories lasted months on end, and if you did not visit often, you would never know how the story ended. (Carpentaria, p. 479)

26 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2010 17:28

    You are to be commended for promoting these books. Is there a wide audience for indigenous literature?

    Its great that there is so much interest in the writings of minorities, especially when they have become a minority in their own land.

    • August 23, 2010 17:42

      Thanks Tom … I think there’s a small but growing interest. If they were promoted more, there could even be more interest I suspect. Carpentaria was pretty widely read – amongst the literary fraternity – due to its winning awards but it’s probably a bit too challenging to reach a really wide audience. I agree with you re the increasing interest in the writings of minorities. They add such depth and breadth to our common experience don’t they?

  2. August 23, 2010 19:54

    Excellent post. I’ve been asking around for recommendations of Australian authors and I’ve been getting Peter Carey and the like. That’s all very well, but there is a whole other history to Australia that I also want to explore. I’ll check out some of the authors you mentioned here.

    Noonucal’s poetry is electric, I’d love to read more of it. I do hope the work of these authors grow in popularity.

    • August 23, 2010 21:24

      Thanks Zee. I was really disappointed as today there was, quite coincidentally, to be a (free) seminar on Noonuccal at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. I’d love to have gone but was already committed. Anyhow, I do hope you check out some of these authors.

  3. August 23, 2010 20:36

    Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air was startlingly good for a debut I thought, she’s obviously been busy being a mum/studying and being mentored by Wole Soyinka but I hope there is a follow up coming!

    I also enjoy Anita Heiss’s chicklit, which usually centres on a smart, independent indigenous woman.

    • August 23, 2010 21:21

      Thanks Sarah …. yes, I think Winch has been studying at W0llongong Uni hasn’t she? I’ve dipped into the book. Glad you like it. I really must try to find time to read it properly. I’ve heard of Anita Heiss but haven’t read her. Thanks for bringing her up.

  4. August 23, 2010 20:52

    I’m enjoying these MOnday Musings, Sue:)
    Another one to look out for is Benang, by Kim Scott from the Nyoongar people, which won the Miles Franklin in 2000. It’s a blend of fact and fiction as he traces his family’s story, and it’s excellent.

    • August 23, 2010 21:30

      Thanks Lisa. Thanks for mentioning Scott. I remember the title but haven’t read it, but it sounds like I should. There’s also Eric Wilmott’s Pemulwuy. I’m not sure how well it was received critically but have always felt I should read it because of Wilmott’s one-time relationship to the ACT.

  5. August 23, 2010 21:28

    I love these posts championing Australian writers! My best friend just moved to the Gold Coast and her relocation has sparked my interest in Australian lit, so all these recommendations are proving incredibly useful in the making of my reading lists!

    • August 23, 2010 21:32

      Oh good Claire … is she enjoying it? Is she reading much Australian Lit? Anyhow, I’ll be watching for reviews on your blog (but don’t feel pressure. I know what it’s like).

  6. August 24, 2010 06:57

    Yo are doing such a great job with these musing! Thanks for the focus on Indigenous writers. Will be checking them out and I think I will feature a poem from the poets for my Wednesday poetry.

    • August 24, 2010 08:55

      Thanks Kinna … that’s wonderful. I’ll be watching out for it (but no pressure of course. You are allowed to change your mind!).

  7. August 24, 2010 09:18

    This article from Sunday’s Age might be relevant:

    THE main character in Adrian Hyland’s two crime novels is a young black woman called Emily Tempest … But her creator is a middle-aged white bloke, a fact that bothered a couple of major Australian publishers so much that they rejected the first Tempest book, which went on to win a Ned Kelly award for 2007’s best new crime novel. Meanwhile, the gender/colour issue still guarantees the author the occasional half-hostile question at writers’ festivals.

    • August 24, 2010 10:16

      Thanks for this DKS. I hadn’t seen it. I hope DesertBookChick pops by as she likes Hyland and lives in the Centre. This is quite a fraught topic…and it’s far wider than white men writing about indigenous women, isn’t it, as you have clearly noticed at writers’ festivals. Some critics/commentators/reviewers seem to forget that writing fiction is “an act of the imagination”. That said, there are interesting issues to consider when a powerful culture co-opts a less powerful one in the arts. We should be teasing out those issues on a case-by-case basis (how have they done it, what are they saying, does it work, what is the impact, is it exploitative, and so on) not applying simple knee-jerk reactions and “you shall not” rules. It all adds to the conversation and is much better not suppressed by fearful editors/publishers, isn’t it.

      • August 26, 2010 12:13

        It’s such a fraught area that I don’t know. Case-by-case discussion seems to be the only thing to do, and for this case-by-case discussion to be useful it would need to include the people who are being depicted, not only those who have ideas about them from afar, even if those ideas seem supportive or kind. “You shall not,” wouldn’t work. “Please think about what you’re about to write,” seems reasonable, but art doesn’t feed exclusively on reason, and writing doesn’t always benefit from writers being careful and thoughtful and nice. Eliot was being supportive of Jews when she created Mirah, and Dickens was playing on a stereotype when he created Fagin, but Fagin is human and vivid and memorable, and Mirah is a boring bit of cardboard.

  8. August 24, 2010 12:51

    I like that Noonuccal’s poetry isn’t pretentious, but understandable without sacrificing beauty and rhythm. I feel embarrassed about how little Australian literature I’ve read in general, and Indigenous literature in particular. (Although I’ve read quite a few Australian young adult novels, I think?)

  9. bmpermie permalink
    August 24, 2010 15:01

    After reading your interesting musings I thought of Wild
    Cat Falling by Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson when I first read this 25 years ago) but when I checked spelling Wikipedia says that his aboriginality is now in doubt.

    And of course the plays of Jack Davis which have been on high school text lists and occasionally put on in Sydney. These are poltical in that the themes address issues such as dispossession, access to fair treament etc.

  10. August 24, 2010 20:48

    Hannah: You shouldn’t feel embarrassed…I was cranky that the school system gave you Harper Lee and Steinbeck (albeit they are well worthwhile authors) rather than Aussie authors. And, anyhow, you have now read Cloudstreet.

    bmpermie: Wild cat falling was one of the books I thought about but I had this recollection that there was some controversy so, like you, I checked it out. He is still regarded for his work in promoting indigenous culture but he’s not, as you’ve discovered, indigenous. But, I haven’t even heard of Jack Davis, so thanks for that! Will check him out.

  11. August 25, 2010 01:29

    Thanks for this! There are so many good ones to choose from, where would be the best place to start for someone who knows not much about the culture and history?

    • August 25, 2010 09:19

      Now, that is a difficult question and I’d be interested in other people’s comments. The book that opened a lot of people’s eyes who hadn’t really thought about the issue before was Sally Morgan’s My place because it covers contemporary and past experience. There has been some controversy about some of the stories she uncovers about her family but that, to me, doesn’t affect the “truth” of her story one iota in terms of indigenous experience as a whole. This site will give you an idea of how this book is being recognised: Black chicks talking also covers a wonderful range of contemporary issues – from urban to rural – in a pretty engaging way.

      There are histories which give you the facts of course…but I’m assuming that’s not what you are asking about.

      • August 26, 2010 01:35

        I like history but it is always much more interesting to get in it fiction or memoirs. 🙂

  12. August 26, 2010 14:35

    Thanks again, DKS. I think that in the end I have a bit of a “hands-off” approach when it comes to art. Let the creators live or die by their own sword as it were. That’s simplistic I know. For me, it would be “think about the impact of what you are writing” but then the likes of me don’t change the world. It’s the brave souls who do. The only trouble is, there is a fine line between being positively brave and destructively so. Back to case by case methinks. And totally agree that those being depicted need to be part of it, need to put their perspectives on it.

  13. January 4, 2011 15:16

    Some great suggestions. The only book I have read is My Place by Sally Morgan and I admit that I didn’t enjoy. It might have to do with the fact that I read it for the HSC and that took some of the joy out of it for me. I also admit to be terrible at making an effort to read indigenous authors and I hope to make this something that I improve upon in the future

    • January 4, 2011 15:35

      What a shame about the HSC. I loved My place from the start. As I recollect it started out really humorously BUT it does have some differently “voiced” sections in it doesn’t it which require some concentration.

      I suggest you try Black Chicks Talking perhaps – non-fiction and a great intro to a variety of indigenous women’s experience which then might make fiction easier to try.

  14. November 19, 2018 23:56

    I’m searching you reviews for some writers I need to incorporate into my #AWW2019 reading list. Leah Purcell and Oodgeroo Noonuccal look like some excellent choices!

    • November 20, 2018 08:15

      Thanks N@ncy. Yes, they are. I’m thrilled that you are pottering around my reviews.

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