Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian memoirs

As Australians would know, this week – July 7-14 – is NAIDOC week. NAIDOC originally stood for an organisation – ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’ – but the acronym has now become the name of the week itself. Fascinating how acronyms can take on lives of their own, isn’t it? Anyhow, the theme for this year’s celebrations is We value vision: Yirrkala Bark Petitions 1963.

This theme commemorates the 50th anniversary of two bark petitions which were sent by the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land to the Australian Parliament. The petitions concerned the Commonwealth Government’s granting of mining rights on land excised from Arnhem Land. They asked the Government to recognise the Yolngu peoples’ traditional rights and ownership of their lands. These petitions were the first indigenous Australian documents recognised by the Government and helped, the NAIDOC website says, to “set into motion a long process of legislative and constitutional reforms for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. Many Australians know of Eddie Mabo and the Native Title Act of 1993, but I wonder how many know of actions like this which occurred decades earlier?

In this spirit of commemorating the past, I thought today’s Monday Musings could focus on indigenous Australian memoirs/autobiographies. I’ve written on this topic before, and so will try to avoid repeating myself too much. Interestingly, all of the books I mention below are by women. The Cambridge companion to Australian literature says, in fact, that since the 1970s, Aboriginal women have dominated indigenous autobiography.

A number of themes run through indigenous memoirs/autobiographies and, of course, identity is a big one. One of the best known examples of a memoir about identity is Sally Morgan‘s My place which was published in 1988, Australia’s bicentenary year – the bicentenary, that is, of white settlement in Australia. It was not a year that was universally celebrated by indigenous Australians, for good reason. My place was, possibly, the first book by an indigenous Australian that many non-indigenous Australians had read – and it became a best-seller. Morgan, also an artist, told the story of her family – and of their shame that was so strong that she had not been told she was indigenous. She’d been let think she was of Indian (that is, from the subcontinent) extraction, until she was well into her teens. I haven’t read My place since 1988, but I expect it would still stand up well today. Morgan is a great story-teller.

Anita Heiss‘s Am I black enough for you, which was published in 2012, is also about identity, but in a different more confident way. I’m reading this one now. In it, Heiss aims to educate Australians about the breadth of indigenous life and experience in Australia, to show us that people do not have to be living a traditional indigenous life in the desert to identify as indigenous.

A big topic for indigenous memoirs is the experience of the Stolen Generation. Many of these also deal with identity, but from a specific point of view. I mentioned one – Doris Pilkington‘s Following the Rabbit Proof Fence – in my previous post. While I’ve read a couple of novels dealing with this issue since that post, I haven’t read more memoirs. There are many out there, though, including Rosalie Fraser’s Shadow Child: A Memoir of the Stolen Generation (1998), Doris Kartinyeri’s Kick the tin (2000), Donna Meehan’s It is no secret: The story of a stolen child (2000).

As Australians would know, the most comprehensive study of the Stolen Generation appeared in the government report Bringing them home (1997). This 700-page report contains excerpts from the testimonies of over 500 indigenous people about their or their families’ experiences of being stolen.

A common style of memoir – for indigenous and non-indigenous people alike – is what I’d call the “success memoir”. You know, those chronicling major success or high achievement. Sydney 2000 Olympic Games gold medallist Cathy Freeman wrote Cathy: Her own story in 2003. As often happens with memoirs written by non-writers, she had a co-author, the sportswriter Scott Gullan.

Last but not least is the simple story-of-my-life memoir, though most memoirists wouldn’t be writing their stories if they really were simple! Ruby Langford Ginibi would fall into this category – I think, as I haven’t read her yet. Ginibi published her first book, the gorgeously titled Don’t take your love to town, in 1988 when she was 54. She won a Human Rights Literary Award for it. Ginibi was a lecturer in and historian of Aboriginal history, but her start was way different. She married young, had nine children, lived and worked in the bush, and also worked as a clothing machinist. One of the obituaries written after her death says:

Through her numerous books, short stories, poetry, interviews and public appearances and her commitment to ‘edu-ma-cating’ non-Aboriginal people about Indigenous peoples’ circumstances and struggle she made a distinctive and substantial contribution to Australian history and literature.

 “‘Edu-ma-cating’ non-Aboriginal people”. That’s what all these writers are doing in their different ways … I’m glad they are, and will continue to read a few each year.

Unfortunately, many of these books are likely to be out of print but most should be available in libraries – in Australia at least. If you’d like to read one, I suggest you do so now and join ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. Lisa will, I understand, accept reviews after the week has finished.

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian memoirs

  1. Excellent topic/reviews given the week it is. To-morrow (Tuesday) I am heading to Canberra – to the National Library – where Dr Christine CHEATER will be giving a presentation: “Stealing Boyhood” – about Indigenous lads who were institutionalised pre-1940. Stolen Generations. I lived many years in Japan – the fascination and deep interest in this land was always most apparent there when the subject of Indigenous Australia came up – in a variety of contexts not least of all when I was invited to address teacher groups or continuing education groups. Anita HEISS of your list is the only one I have not yet read – though I have watched her eloquence on TV.

    • Oh well done Jim … I’ve only read a couple of them from this list … Am getting behind.

      I have booked for the event tomorrow but may not make it as have another commitment at 7. Am torn.

      Ah Japan … We’ve had three holidays there, each of three weeks. Last one was supposed to include Sendai in a may 2011. Needless to say we re-organised our plans and headed south instead. Great place to visit.

      • Fast turn-around. I should think at least an hour to-morrow night would be great – organisers tell me wine and cheese from 5.00 pm? Ah, yes 2011 – 3/11! I lived in far south-west Honshū – in Yamaguchi-ken 14+ years – and earlier two years in Shimane-ken. My wife on and off both regions. I returned just (!) four years ago – hence not yet reading Anita HEISS – shall rectify that shortly.

        • 14 years is a long time. Our son taught for 3 years as a JET in Niigata-ken … in a small town in the mountains. Our first two trips coincided with his time there, and our third one was after his return. The third trip — the to-be-Sendai one — we spent a couple of nights in Matsue, a week on Shikoku plus 2-3 days around the islands (Naoshima, Teshima), and pottered around other towns in Southern Honshū. One of our favourite places is Kanazawa. We make a point of going there on each trip. Haven’t been to Yamaguchi-ken though on our first trip we did go down to Nagasaki. So much still to explore, places to visit again, new places to go to. Our next trip is to Europe — not been there for a long, long time.

          I think tomorrow is supposed to be 5.30-6.30 for the talk? 5 for pre-talk?

        • I lived two years in Matsue – friends scattered throughout Shimane-ken – and a significant friendship with the great grand-son of writer (1850~1904) Lafcadio HEARN (aka KOIZUMI Yakumo). A couple of times I was in Niigata-ken – and out to the island of exile/gold-mining – Sado-ga-shima. In a local town in Yamaguchi-ken there was a charming folk tale – “San-nen-Netaro” which linked it to the gold-mining of Sado Island. Thanks re this evening – I may be back in Sydney thus before the witching hour.

  2. Finally some books I might be able to get at some local libraries! What sorts of celebrations will be going on during the week? Will you be attending any?

    • Stefanie, In my city, there are things like exhibitions and lectures … I’d like to get to one of the Yirrkala Petition lectures but may not get to those. Some of our exhibition spaces are being devoted this week or month to indigenous artists … A photographic one and one at the glassworks. I’m considering going to the glassworks one, at least. And, Australia’s premier indigenous dance theatre Bangarrra is performing here later this week. They come here most years …. We are going to see them.

      Most schools have indigenous themed-activities … Often it is in the school holidays so schools celebrat NAIDOC the week before but this year in our city they don’t start holidays until next week soi’m hoping most will be doing something special this week.

  3. Great overview. I’m trying to remember the name of the children’s book I won during NAIDOC week one year… I can see the cover but can’t remember the name!

  4. I remember reading My Place in London and being so moved by it – this was probably the first exposure many Poms had to indigenous literature. When I moved to Australia, I was also struck by the power of many indigenous playwrights. Jane Harrison’s play “Stolen” (1998) was an extraordinary eye opener to many people and contributed a great deal to debate and awareness of indigenous issues. Thanks for this!

    • Oh thanks Dina … I don’t go to theatre much … Music, ballet and movies tend to be the performing arts I focus on, though I do like theatre … I was aware that there was some good drama by indigenous playwrights but haven’t really seen much.

  5. A Jim, yes, we wandered around the samurai area of Matsue and saw the Lafcadio Hearn house and museum. Fascinting. I downloaded his travel book about Japan onto my iPad but have only dipped into it. In the museum displays they said that he had introduced the word tsunami to the west. Anyhow, I have written a few short posts on my Japanese travels. If you are interested you’ll find them under the Travel category.

  6. Hi Sue, thanks for helping to promote ILW with these suggestions for memoirs:)
    In response to your musings about whether Australians know much about Aboriginal activism pre Mabo, I’d just like to mention The Lone Protestor by Fiona Paisley. It’s the amazing story of A M Fernando who devoted his life to activism in the early 20th century, and amazingly took his protests to Britain and Europe, an heroic effort not well known but should be. Yvonne at Stumbling Through the Past reviewed the book here

    • Oh thanks Lisa … I’ll go read that … So many things we don’t know. I know you’re not into sport but you probably know that Australia’s first international sporting team was an indigenous cricket team which went to England … In the 1860s as I recollect.

  7. How do I find the Travel entries re your visit to Japan?
    And were you at the NLA for “Stealing Boyhood”? Most moving.

    • No, sorry, I didn’t in the end … was disappointed but it didn’t work out. I hope they had a decent turnout.

      To find the Travel entries, click Categories in the Sidebar and scroll down to Travel and click The Literary Road link under that. That should bring a list of results including three On the literary road: Japan posts. I hope you’re not disappointed after all that!

  8. Wonderful list. I’m curious to read Anita Heiss – the topic of being black enough is something I’ve heard a lot about from Ghanaian girlfriends and mixed race friends. I read Sally Morgan years ago too and would be keen to reread this. I’d also love to read Ruby Langford Ginibi as she sounds rather amazing. How awful that Sally Morgan was not told about her true origins until she was a teenager – it’s so shocking to think of the level of shame her family felt.
    By the way will your future trip to Europe include a stay in Italy?

    • Unfortunately not Catherine though would love to. It’s primarily Spain/Portugal, which I’ve never been to, and Germany which I’ve been to once but where hubby lived for a year before we met. We’ll be exploring his old area, the southwest I think you’d call it, and then the east where neither of us have been … Mainly Weimar and Berlin.

  9. Pingback: Australian Aboriginals blast indigenous job scheme as “token gesture” | Craig Hill

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