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Identity … Cusack meets Heiss

July 28, 2013

A few days ago I reviewed Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark, a sort-of memoir of her two decades as a teacher. As seems to happen more often than not, I found synchronicities between it and my previous read, Anita Heiss’s Am I black enough for you? The main one relates to identity.

I shared, in this week’s Monday Musings, Heiss’s statement regarding the functions of Aboriginal literature. One of these is that it:

assists understanding of the diversity of our identities.

Literature, in other words, helps us understand who we are and where we come from – and it does this both for “us” (those who belong) and “other” (those who are outside but are related in some way).

Cusack argues strongly for “relevant” education and is critical of a curriculum that seemed suited only to a university-bound minority. This doesn’t mean, though, that she wanted to promote a purely “practical” or “vocationally-oriented” curriculum. As a student of history and literature, she believed in the importance of the humanities BUT she also believed that they needed to be relevant. For example, she believed that rather than forcing all students to learn ancient languages (like Latin), they needed to be expert in their own language:

But I soon came to realise that English and history teachers have in their hands the tools with which a genuine education is forged. In all the countries in which I have since lived, I have realised the particular and vital importance of teaching the native language. This is not only the vocal instrument by which one learns to express one’s thoughts; it is the key to the thoughts of others …

She believed, in other words, that all students – academic and non-academic – should be inculcated

with a love of literature and the capacity to express themselves clearly – surely the best heritage heirs to all our culture can have …


The more we know about our background, the better we know our identity …

So, there we have it … Cusack, writing in 1976 of her experience in the 1920s-40s, and Heiss, writing nearly 40 years later, both argue that identity (knowing who we are) is intrinsically linked to language, literature and history. This may be self-evident to most of us, but somehow it seems, we need to keep reiterating it … and so here I am, doing my bit …

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Joseph permalink
    July 28, 2013 01:59

    I often see connections between various, sometimes very different works.

    I agree with you on the purpose of literature, at least one of the purposes. Those are terrific quotes you posted.

    • July 28, 2013 08:54

      Thanks Brian … And don’t you love it when you see those connections (and then think of all those we don’t see because of the order we read books, the gaps between books. I love the serendipity of it!)

  2. July 28, 2013 02:07

    Some of these OOP Aussie novels are very pricey. Wish more would make their way to the kindle.

    • July 28, 2013 08:57

      Slowly, slowly I suppose, Guy … I wonder how many copies of this is lying around. I might ask my web-services friend at the NLA about the Cusack and about whether they are making their own publications available electronically.

  3. July 28, 2013 03:53

    I keep having the same sort of synchronicities,or maybe I impose patterns formed from the last book I have read.

    • July 28, 2013 08:59

      I suspect part of it might be our imposing patterns Marilyn from our previous read … And it probably means that we read the book differently to how we may have had we read it after something else? Still, presumably there’s something there to enable us to make the pattern?

  4. Louise Allan permalink
    July 28, 2013 10:08

    Wouldn’t it be great if indigenous languages were taught in our schools — to all kids, black and white …

    • July 28, 2013 15:04

      It sure would, Louise … I believe it does happen in some schools, some being the operative word!

  5. Jim KABLE permalink
    July 29, 2013 13:18

    Dear WG: Yesterday afternoon I found Dymphna CUSACK’s A Window in the Dark on-line – via Google Books. I have just finished reading it. Many, many of my personal experiences and ways of thinking absolutely in step with her own. I finished my reading earlier this morning – truly uplifting. In 1968 and a student at Sydney University – I boarded for a year with the widow of WEA – Esmonde HIGGINS. I tested her on her Italian vocabulary over breakfast and she took me along with her to assist on delivering Meals-On-Wheels. I had no idea of her famous husband – nor then of his sister Nettie PALMER (married to Vance) – nor indeed of their noted uncle Henry Bournes HIGGINGS who supported both in their tertiary education. From one’s experiences come later reflection and understanding. Many thanks to you for your review! And to Louise ALLAN – yes indeed! If only all of us – or at the very least our children, grand-children – could have some exposure to one of the increasingly fewer Indigenous languages and cultures which still exist/are spoken! Select a number for which significance (mother-tongue speakers) – such as Gumatj or Banjalang, or Warlpiri for example – is a factor – and link them to regional clusters of schools – produce the on-line programs – get them into schools – for children AND teachers! Hallelujah!

    • July 29, 2013 13:45

      Oh that’s great Jim that you found it, read it, and liked it. I’ve read quite a bit over the years about Vance and Nettie Palmer (and read Vane Palmer’s The passage at school) but I wasn’t aware of the Higgins relationship – or, if I had read it, I’d forgotten! Anyhow, very glad my review resulted in your reading this, and sharing your story with us.

  6. August 3, 2013 02:19

    Yay for doing your bit! In the US everyone focuses on science and math and while yes these are important, so is history, literature and language. There needs to be a balance between the two and education needs to be about more than getting a good job when you graduate.

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