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Monday musings on Australian literature: Role of Aboriginal literature

July 22, 2013

Most keen readers have firm views about the value of reading to them. Some, I think, read mainly to escape. Others like to be opened to other ways of being and thinking. Others like the things they learn – yes, even from fiction! And still others love beautiful or interesting language. These aren’t the only reasons, and aren’t mutually exclusive, but are I think among the main reasons …

Last week I reviewed Anita Heiss‘s Am I black enough for you? Heiss has a PhD in Aboriginal literature and publishing, and is active in promoting Aboriginal literature. She has co-edited The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Aboriginal literature, and she was the guiding force behind BlackWords, the topic of last week’s Monday Musings. She is a writer herself (of novels, poetry and non-fiction) and has published two children’s books co-written with students of La Perouse Primary School as the result of workshopping stories with them. She is regularly invited to talk about Aboriginal literature – in Australia and overseas – at conferences and seminars. You won’t be surprised then to know that she has very clear ideas about the role of Aboriginal literature.

Here is what she says in Am I black enough for you?:

Aboriginal literature from Australia serves many purposes: it records our ‘truths’ about history; it functions as a tool for reconciliation, allowing non-Indigenous Australians to engage with us in non-confrontational ways; it provides a means of self-representation in Australian and world literature and assists understanding of the diversity of our identities; finally, it challenges subjective and often negative media stereotypes and interpretations in our lives.

While this feeds into some of the reasons we read, it is a far more political manifesto for literature than we are used to. But then Indigenous Australians are in a very particular, and minority, position.

By some definitions, aspects of this could almost be seen as propaganda – in the sense that she’s essentially talking about promoting a cause – but propaganda, once a neutral term, now has very negative connotations. It contains notions of ‘skewing” facts, and of coercion and control, usually by the state. This of course is not what Heiss is talking about – but she is talking about the role literature can play in reflecting and expressing, to both the self and other, a particular view of things. Whether this is conscious – as Heiss clearly is with her chicklit books (see my review of Paris dreaming) – or subconscious is not really the point. (If it’s too conscious, too manipulative, and/or not believable, readers will stay away). The point for Heiss is that more indigenous writers need to be able to express themselves so that indigenous and non-indigenous people will better understand and know the reality of indigenous Australian life and experience, rather than rely on non-indigenous-written texts and stereotyping. Education, more than persuasion, is what she sees as the goal.

Heiss’s manifesto, as I’m calling it, also made me think of “ideological” novels, that is, those novels which consciously argue a philosophical or political, that is, ideological, line. But this too, I think, is not really what Heiss is saying – though individual indigenous novels could very well fit this specific definition. She is recognising, rather, that all literature functions as part of the prevailing ideology (or culture) within which it is written and therefore can’t help but impact this ideology simply by being, regardless of whether it reinforces or questions or rejects existing norms. The more Aboriginal literature is published, the more it is likely to shift the prevailing ideology, which is a good thing.

Why am I writing this? Just, I guess, because as a reader I like to think about who writes and why they write the things I read, and about the role literature plays in my life (and our collective lives). I appreciated Heiss’s clear manifesto on what she believes and thus on why she does what she does. I wanted to share it – and tease it out a little. I’ve done that, and now I’m happy!

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim KABLE permalink
    July 22, 2013 23:45

    In the early 1980s I was teaching ESL in a Sydney Boys’ H.S. I had covered the walls of my half-sized demountable classroom with posters I had brought from places around the world. And Australia. There was a newspaper article with a smiling photograph of magistrate Pat O’SHANE. She looks like my mother, said one little boy from Cyprus. I was writing a weekly column (translated from my English) in a Viet-namese language newspaper. Write longer essays on different ethnic groups making up Australian society I was asked. I’ll start with Indigenous Australia. The essay revealed my woeful lack of understanding – I sent it to the Dept of Aboriginal Affairs – who sent it back carefully annotated as to my ignorance! By this stage I was working in a multicultural education unit – alongside a unit of Indigenous educators – I was inspired to begin Armidale studies in Aboriginal Education – as a consequence of which I pursued an action research project – with the permission of the local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group – at Cleveland Street High School in Redfern – and the school’s Aboriginal Education centre – teaching a unit of writing from a variety of Indigenous writers such as Archie WELLER, Ruby LANGFORD, Jack DAVIS, Beryl PHILP-CARMICHAEL and others – and from non-Indigenous Australian writers – such as the poem “Black Children” by the Jindyworobak poet Rex INGAMELLS. The students I came to visit over a number of weeks were from a shared Aboriginal heritage but one which linked them to many different parts of Australia – as well as other ethnic backgrounds, too. I think essentially what I was engaged in – and a report was written not only for my course at Armidale but also to pass on to the AECG – was what Anita HEISS was arguing for. For my students it was to find mirrors to their experience – to provoke questions of identity – finding pride if you will – in writers of their own identity – and yet at the same time a way for the non-Indigenous Australians too to find reflections of this land. Thirty years ago.

    • July 23, 2013 08:34

      That’s great Jim … Literature is a powerful tool for identity and education isn’t it. There’s nothing like it for learning to understand people who are different and for seeing oneself reflected through different eyes. Sounds like you had a great experience with that project. My first indigenous writer was Oodgeroo … Kath Walker as she was then … In the late 60s … And her poetry as had an important impact on me.

  2. July 23, 2013 01:04

    Excellent and important, Sue. I am a huge fan of all groups being able to tell their own stories and all of us reading and thinking about their narratives. The more I read literature by those different from myself, the more important they seem. It’s not that I learn something, or change my mind. What happens is that by identifying with others I expand and feel linked to them in a way that facts alone can’t do. I feel a shared humanness.

    As I have read Indigenous and other people of color, I think I see a pattern. For a time most of what is written by African Americans, even by the people themselves, was cheifly about black/white relations. Gradually we got more books that focus within their own communities, their relationships to each other. I have seen a similar shift in women’s writings more generally. So far, and I haven’t read enough to be sure, most of the books I have read by Indigenous Australians focus on what happens or happened between whites and blacks, rather than among blacks. Or about blacks reactions to whites. The main exception I see is Alexis Wright. Maybe Heiss’s chiclit is a step in that direction. Do you see this kind of writing appearing?

    • July 23, 2013 10:20

      Thanks Marilyn … I hope it all made sense … I get nervous when I start talking about the “meaning” or “role” of literature – in a few hundred words! That’s it, I think, the “shared humanness” – we know we are all human but we “feel” it through literature in a way that becomes part of our being, doesn’t it?

      That’s an interesting observation. Another book I’ve read, besides Paris dreaming, that is mostly about relationships within an indigenous family is Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads. In fact in my review I mentioned that it is as much about the universals of family relationships as about indigenous issues (though they are of course there too).

      • July 25, 2013 02:14

        Good. I have been looking for that book ever since I read your review, but it hasn’t made it to the US yet.

        • July 25, 2013 08:09

          If you’d like it, you know where to come.

        • July 28, 2013 03:50

          You are so kind. I would very much like this book, but you must let me reimburse you or send sent you some goody from here.

  3. July 24, 2013 01:58

    “The point for Heiss is that more indigenous writers need to be able to express themselves so that indigenous and non-indigenous people will better understand and know the reality of indigenous Australian life and experience, rather than rely on non-indigenous-written texts and stereotyping.”

    Oh yes, yes! I agree with this and everything else you said. There is a danger to this though too. Back in the late 80s and 1990s when “ethnic” immigrant literature surged (Amy Tan for instance) I heard stories from lots of writers complaining that publishers wouldn’t take their most recent book because it wasn’t ethnic enough, it was too “American” and not enough Chinese or Mexican or Native American, etc. There was anger from many writers and I think the publishers might have been a bit chagrined for being caught out trying to make a buck like that. The danger of course has nothing to do with the writers themselves and everything to do with the prejudice and racism of the publishers and ever the reading public. But then it also provides more opportunities for the dominant culture to learn and understand. At least hopefully it does.

    • July 24, 2013 16:46

      Oh yes, Stefanie. Funnily, I was just wondering the other day about what Amy Tan is doing now. What you’ve described is fascinating … So, it had nothing to do with the quality of the book or the writing? I guess something similar might have happened with memoirs in recent times … Some could very well have been rejected for “not being miserable enough”! I have nothing against a good “misery memoir”, like ‘Angela’s ashes’, but it I’d seem for a while there that that was the only type of memoir being published.

      I do hope though that we see more and more indigenous literature, with more diversity of subject matter, which I think is happening … as Marilyn refers to in her comment. It’s interesting how literature does, overall, reflect where we are as a society and where people and groups of people are. Makes sense really.

  4. July 24, 2013 13:59

    Can I subscribe to all of those in your first paragraph? And add, also, to laugh? To learn? To aspire?

    • July 24, 2013 16:45

      You can, Hannah … and your additions are good … to some degree I see them as being part of those I listed but it’s all in the way we express it isn’t it?

  5. Matthew Todd permalink
    July 24, 2013 23:20

    Ok, so here’s a big question: can Indigenous writing ever be apolitical?

    Some postcolonial theory suggests that the simple act of picking up a pen and writing in English automatically qualifies as a political act. By doing this, the subaltern (the colonised) is instantly feeding into a long history of oppression by a culture – a culture symbolised by the English language. They are using the tools of the people who colonised them to tell their story. In some ways, the colonised have won.

    Sorry if this doesn’t make any sense – I’ve been mulling your post over in the shower, and the steam and hot water may have addled my brain.

    • July 24, 2013 23:51

      Good question Matthew … as I think I wrote in my review of her Am I black enough for you she writes that at least one critic has said to her that it’s not Aboriginal literature if it’s not in traditional language. But then writing wasn’t part of their culture so by this token even picking up the pen and writing at all is a political act.

      I’m not sure I agree with that post-colonial theory OR, if I do, I think I’d argue that that’s not the point because, really, the colonisers have won (I think you meant “colonisers” not “colonised” in your comment about winning?). In other words, isn’t it, whether we like it or not, a fait accompli? The issue then is not who has won but what we do now? Or am I addled?

      Anyhow, to answer your question, I don’t imagine it can be apolitical (if ever) for a long time yet.

      BUT, you’re making my brain hurt! What do you think?

    • July 25, 2013 02:23

      Is writing by colonizers apolitical? Why do we assume that only “others” take a political stance? Of course, writing in English is a problem, but how else will you get the “colonizers” to listen and know what their actions look like from the other side. Certainly some writers subvert the English language and blend in something of their own in their prose. Sometimes I think theoretical distinctions can be too abstract to explain the mixed up world we all live in.

      • July 25, 2013 08:14

        In one sense you’re right I think Marilyn … I’m guessing Matthew is referring to being overtly political … But it’s probably all a matter of degree (and perspective) isn’t it? And yes, I agree about theoretical distinctions. They have their place in the way they notice or identify or frame “patterns” (for want of a better word) but I don’t think we can accept them slavishly?

  6. July 28, 2013 09:07

    Okey doke Marilyn … Will be in touch.

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