Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous writing and Canberra

This is going to be a difficult post to write because, really, my knowledge is superficial, but I figure that if I put out some feelers, I just might learn something from those who read this and, hopefully, comment. I was inspired to write it by – yes, you’ve probably guessed it – Canberra’s centenary, because at last Monday’s “Very Big Day Out” celebration, we were given a beautifully produced program titled Centenary of Canberra: Celebrating First Australians. It describes the major events that are/will be occurring in Canberra over the centenary year involving indigenous Australians. Many of these events involve indigenous people from other parts of Australia – but given Canberra’s role as the nation’s capital it seems right that we don’t narrowly focus on ourselves. There’s a big Australia out there.

To today’s topic though … the first thing I need to say is that the history of indigenous culture in the Canberra region is a complicated one, and is still being researched. It appears that several groups are associated with the area, representing several languages, with the Ngunnawal, Ngambri and Wiradjuri people having the closest association. I don’t intend to write more on these groups and what connections they may or may not have with each other and the land, as it’s not relevant to my main concern here. The important thing is, I think, the conclusion in Our Kin Our Country report published in August 2012 by the ACT Government’s Genealogy Project:

the verification of a distinct regional Aboriginal population that survived, resisted and adapted to European occupation and settlement in the areas surrounding what is now known as Canberra.

Indigenous writers associated with Canberra include the late activist Kevin Gilbert, Jennifer Martiniello who established the ACT Indigenous Writers Group, and Jeanine Leane whose David Unaipon award-winning book, Purple threads, I reviewed last year. Kevin Gilbert and Jennifer Martiniello are represented in both the ACT Centenary anthology, The invisible thread, and the Macquarie PEN anthology of Aboriginal literature.

Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker) were the first indigenous writers I became aware of, back in the late 1960s. They were both activists who exposed the devastating effect dispossession had on indigenous people. In 1992, Gilbert, a Wiradjuri man, made a speech at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (in Canberra), stating:

You cannot build a vision, you cannot build a land, you cannot build a people, on land theft, on continuing apartheid and the denial of one group of Aboriginal people … (from the Macquarie PEN anthology of Aboriginal literature)

He was a prolific writer of poetry, plays and non-fiction.

Jennifer Martiniello‘s piece in The invisible thread is also highly political, speaking particularly of the impact of loss of language:

I could tell you about growing up in a voided space. What it is like as a child to be an echo, a resonance of something unnamed in the silence. I could tell you about my grandmother’s and my father’s first three languages – Alyerntarrpe, Pertame, Arrernte – and about my own eliminative reduction to one, English. My father’s fourth language, and the supreme evidence of colonial obsession with an abstracted literacy that could not read the forms and expressions of our multiple literacies. I could show you the void of two hundred blank white pages of history unmarked with the black ink of our lives … (from “Voids, Voices, and Stories without End”).

Wiradjuri Echoes

Wiradjuri Echoes, at “The Very Big Day Out”, 11 March 2013

Martiniello is of Arrente, Chinese and Anglo-Celtic descent.

Jeanine Leane‘s Purple threads also has an activist element, albeit couched in stories which are warm and funny as well as sometimes dark. They are set in a world where, she says, “black was not the ideal colour”. (By the way, when I reviewed this work I wasn’t sure what to call it but I have since seen it described as a “story cycle”. That sounds good to me!). Leane, a Wiradjuri woman, has also written and published poetry.

There are, I’m sure, other indigenous writers associated with Canberra, but these are the three best known to me. Identifying writers as belonging to a group – indigenous, migrant, women, gay, and so on – is an uncomfortable thing. It would be good to simply see writers as writers, people as people, but when you are a minority, when recognition doesn’t come easily to your “group”, there is value I believe in overcoming my discomfort … to help bring other ways of being and seeing to the attention of us in the majority culture.

As I was researching this post I came across a comment made by Cara Shipp, a local teacher of secondary English, at the Dare to Lead Conference: Leading indigenous perspectives in the national curriculum (Sydney, November 2010):

I think there is a danger in concentrating too much on the traditional cultural stuff. In terms of the way it is delivered, that can play into the stereotype that Aboriginal culture is dead and past. The only texts suggested for teaching in the draft National Curriculum are Dreamtime stories and I am not sure this is a good thing.

Really? Only Dreamtime stories in 2010? She has a point. I sure hope the final National Curriculum includes some of the great indigenous writing we know is out there.

14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous writing and Canberra

  1. Excellent. Especially your statement about the need “to help bring other ways of being and seeing to the attention of we in the majority culture.” That paragraph says so much that needs to be more widely understood. I may need to quote you–citing you, of course.

    • You do don’t you Stefanie … They provide a great time not only for celebration but for learning and reflection. And I think the Canberra 100 program, while wanting to show Canberra is a great place is also fostering the other element too.

  2. Hey, for someone who says her knowledge is “superficial”, you produced a very informative post. Thanks! I loved the quote from Jennifer Martiniello – really powerful. I also agree that there needs to be an emphasis on the living culture, not just “traditional cultural stuff”. By the way the Kevin Gilbert link doesn’t work. I found the page anyway, but just thought you’d like to know.

    • Why thanks Andrew … Martiniello’s piece is great I thought. Language is such an important part of our culture and who we are. Thanks re the Gilbert … I think I know what happened. Will go fix it.

  3. There is a list on the Libraries ACT website of some local indigenous authors.

    Our Mob Writing is a local writing group for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They have occasional events in the public libraries.

    • Oh thanks Antoinette … I was hoping some local people would contribute like this. I’ll go check that link.

      Ah Terri Janke … I thought of including her but wasn’t certain about her ACT connection. She’s an interesting active woman too. I still need to read Butterfly song.

      • I was at school in Canberra with Terri and her sister Toni. The list of local authors is due for an update, there are others to be included.

        • Well there you are … I didn’t know she’d grown up here Antoinette. I knew of her novel and of her work regarding intellectual property and indigenous people. I’d love to see the updated list when it’s done.

          (BTW My first job was in the Public Library here – CPLS it was called then – when it was part of the National Library – in the old Kingston head office.)

  4. Growing up, I’m sure that I only ever heard people pay respects to the Ngunnawal people, yet just before I left Australia, at an event at work we had a representative from (I believe) the Wiradjuri people. The complexity of even this facet of the relationship between us all shows how vitally important it is to have such discussions and keep such awareness growing. I think this is a great post, to that effect.

    • Thanks Hannah … yes I really only became aware in the last few years of other groups including the Ngambri. I think the situation is complicated. I’ve heard that Wiradjuri language is being taught in some North Canberra schools because, I think, it’s survived better than the others. Anita Heiss is Wiradjuri I believe … I think Wiradjuri is primarily north and east of here (Goulburn etc). Such a loss of history for these people … it’s hard to imagine what that actually means, we who have our history.

  5. Great post, Sue. I don’t feel qualified to comment (whatever ‘qualified’ means in this context), but I am glad that there are those in the local community who, due to the Centenary, are talking about the various layers of our life, and not just the obvious layers.

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