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.

Rabbit-proof fence

Rabbit-proof fence, including the route taken by the three young girls (Courtesy Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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.

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian autobiographies

  1. Ive not read an autobiography/biography from and Indigenous Australian – but have you read Ever Secret Thing by Marie Munkara? That book is amazing. Its fictionalised stories that are based on stores her parents and other relatives told her about missionary life.

    • Hi Becky … yes, I have read it (and did review it here a while ago). I thought about mentioning it because, as you say, it is based on family stories. I thought I’d written enough on books I’d already read but it probably was worth mentioning this fictionalising approach because it is valid isn’t it?

      • I think the ficitonalising approach as you put it is valid. It seems in her case she has been told certain stories y her family, and by fictionalising them she has been able to really bring them to life for her readership.

        • Yes, I agree, she has … and I’d happily read more. I liked the way she is able to handle difficult and sometimes tragic subjects with humour. Also how she sends up all sides of the story though of course in the end her and out sympathy must lie with the underdog/the oppressed side.

  2. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t read any of these, and only a few novels by Indigenous writers. Wait, was the book I just got for you by Kim Scott? Maybe I should read it first (if only I had time!)

  3. I’m reading Shadow Lines at the moment, Sue. It’s by Stephen Kinnane and it’s about his grandmother who was taken from her family in 1905. I’ll let you know more about it when I’ve finished it.

    • Ah, I wondered if that might be an indigenous story. I saw it in your sidebar when I commented on the Poetry post and it looked likely but I was too flat chat at the time to click on it to investigate. I look forward to your review.

  4. These all sound really interesting. I am ashamed to say I’ve not read any autobiographies/biographies of Native Americans. I’ve read fiction – Louis Erdrich and Alexie Sherman, but that’s different. I should probably work on fixing my oversight.

    • You know it’s easy to overlook because this material is often not well marketed in the mainstream is it? I think it’s well worth looking out – at least from my experience.

  5. I’ve not read any indigenous autobiographies from Australian. I do, though, have an interest in the people. I just wanted to say thank you for this post.

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