Monday musings on Australian literature: BlackWords

NAIDOC Week, to which last week’s Monday Musings was dedicated, officially finished yesterday, but I’ve decided to bookend it with another Monday Musings focusing on indigenous Australian literature. This post, in fact, also harks back to two Monday Musings ago which talked about the AustLit database – because I want to introduce you to one of AustLit’s projects, BlackWords.

BlackWords was established in 2006 under the guidance of Dr Anita Heiss (whose Paris dreaming I reviewed earlier this year and whose memoir Am I black enough? for you I’ll be reviewing this week). It is a resource for and database of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island writers and storytellers. It contains, where available, the standard information provided throughout the database:

  • author biography
  • lists of works by the author and about the author

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are the traditional keepers of their oral history, we are the custodians presiding over Indigenous Australian literature … (Indigenous writer and David Unaipon Award winner Yvette Holt)

It now contains records for over 5,000 people and organisations. Wow! The database aims to cover “published and unpublished books, stories, plays, poems, and criticism associated with eligible writers and storytellers … in English, in Australian languages, and in translations.” Given that the loss of language is a significant concern for our indigenous peoples, capturing works in Australian languages is a particularly important goal.

… each time we translate black words onto white paper we are reclaiming an integral piece of our heritage, culture and language.” (Yvette Holt)

Tara June WInch

Tara June Winch (Photo: Howcheng, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Currently the BlackWords homepage spotlights three featured authors: Tara June Winch, Anita Heiss and Samuel Wagan Watson. Click on the author’s name and you get taken to their AustLit page. In the right sidebar of their page is something called Resource Maps. For Anita Heiss and Tara June Winch these include Wiradjuri Trail (Wiradjuri being the nation they both belong to). The Resources Maps contain hand-built links to internet sources on the topic. As with all of AustLit, these maps are works in progress.

The left sidebar contains a variety of links, encouraging other explorations, such as “Teaching with BlackWords”,  “Publishers” and “Translations”.

Specifically for BlackWords, the site also includes a timeline of historical dates significant for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It starts at 1788 … the date when white people established their first settlement in Australia. The text entries for these dates include links to works and authors in the database. Also, under the dates – where relevant – are links for search terms that will lead searchers to works indexed in the database about the event/date. So, for example, under 1788, are links for Pemulwuy, an Aboriginal warrior who resisted the white invasion, and Bennelong, who was captured by Governor Phillip and found himself caught between two cultures. (The timeline is a little tricky to find. It would be more obvious if placed in the left sidebar, but instead it’s a dot point under “About” on the About page.)

… when storytellers speak, their words will inextricably tie indigenous peoples to their lands and to their mobs … (Yvette Holt)

BlackWords is a wonderful initiative and has now reached the critical mass to be of value to indigenous and non-indigenous Australians alike. It is for resources like this that the Internet is at its best, don’t you think?

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: BlackWords

  1. I’ve used it quite a bit, because when I’m listing indigenous authors and their books I like to include the details of indigenous heritage. I know there are hundreds of them, but I am gradually learning the names of different language groups and where they are, and the BW site helps me to do this.
    Thanks for your support with ILW Sue!

    • Well thanks for organising ILW, Lisa … I agree, it’s good to get to know the different groups. Some are very familiar but as you say there are so many. Did you watch First Footprints last night. Excellent series … Looks like anyhow from the first episode. Some familiar material but some new as well. I hadn’t seen the facial art before. That was truly fascinating.

  2. This is an excellent post! Thank-you. I sent a message to Gayle KENNEDY – one of my more significant students from over 40 years ago at Hay War Memorial High School – last night – after seeing her father on a new documentary series on Indigenous Australia being narrated by Ernie DINGO. I had seen both of Gayle’s parents: Roy & Beryl KENNEDY – in a photograph at Lake Mungo in the Weekend Australian. Gayle won the David UNAIPON Prize for literature in 2006: Me, Antman & Fleabag – published by UQP in 2007. In the latter 1990s Gayle was the indigenous researcher/writer with Streetwize comics – and was responsible for writing the “Reconciliation” edition – which had a print run of over 500,000! Her response to my comments re NAIDOC and her father (over 80 years of age) and mother was that NAIDOC should run every week! Gayle did her HSC prep. years at Queenwood School for Girls – Shirley HAZZARD’s old school, too!

    • Oh thanks for that history Jim. What a great first program eh? I had a few one and two degrees of separation regarding that episode – re Mungo (but the anthropologists, not the indigenous people), and re the Martu people in the Pilbara. I had heard of Gayle Kennedy and her Unaipon book but I hadn’t heard of Streetwize until Anita Heiss’s book that I’m reading now.

      I didn’t know about the facial rock art … we’ve been to NT and the Kimberleys (a few times now) but have only seen the rock art open to tourists. That facial art was astonishing. Beautiful, and how long it’s survived is wonderful.

  3. This sounds like a brilliant and valuable initiative. I’d love to read Tara June Winch’s novel. She seems like a very active, talented lady. So wonderful to think that these languages will be saved.

  4. These databases that you highlight all seem to be terrific resources to discover writers and decide who to read. I only wish that I had more time to read more works!

    • Thanks Stefanie … The whole website has been revamped relatively recently. It’s much friendlier and better looking than it was. Good point about the research projects.

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