Monday musings on Australian literature: White writers on indigenous Australians

Over the years I’ve read many books written by white Australian writers on indigenous Australians*, including Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never, Nene Gare’s The fringe dwellersThomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Kate Grenville’s The secret river, Peter Temple’s The broken shoreand several books by Thea Astley. Later this week I’ll be reviewing another, Margaret Merrilees’ debut novel The first week. I avoid reading reviews of books before I write my own, but I did want to find out about Merrilees, who is new to me. My research uncovered an essay written by her in 2007 titled Tiptoeing through the spinifex: White representations of Aboriginal characters.

In it, as the title implies, Merrilees tackles the dilemma faced by white writers in Australia:

To write about Australia, particularly rural Australia, without mentioning the Aboriginal presence (current or historical) is to distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie. However, for a non-Aboriginal writer to write about Aboriginal people is to run the risk of “appropriating” Aboriginal experience; speaking on behalf of … There’s been too much of that already.

I don’t think this dilemma is confined to writers, but writers occupy a particularly visible and influential position which heightens the challenge for them. Thomas Keneally has said that if he wrote his 1972-published The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith today he would not write in the voice of Blacksmith but from a white perspective, because “the two cultures are so different in their maps of the world that it was reckless to do it”’. Kate Grenville, whose The secret river was published in 2005, wrote in Searching for The secret river that:

I’d always known that I wasn’t going to try to enter the consciousness of the Aboriginal characters. I didn’t know or understand enough – and felt I never would. They – like everything else – would be seen through Thornhill’s eyes.

Fair enough. However, as Merrilees realises, it’s not always that simple. She looks broadly at the history of white representation of indigenous Australians in literature, suggesting it has often been well-intentioned but fraught nonetheless. She “listens” to what indigenous writers such as Jackie Huggins, Melissa Lucashenko and Kenny Laughton have said about “whites writing on blacks” and the resultant distortions and misconstructions. She explores some examples of fraud and theft of indigenous stories and culture by white Australians, such as Elizabeth Durack painting as Eddie Burrup and Patricia Wrightson using Aboriginal mythology. And she discusses the dangers of the opposite of appropriation, that is, the complete absence of indigenous people. She recognises that the situation hasn’t been helped by the paucity of indigenous writers, although this has started to slowly improve in recent decades.

So what are white Australian writers to do? Merrilees argues that

a novel which attempts to capture the Australian consciousness, and in particular a novel with a rural setting, or in which landscape plays a part, is impoverished if it does not address in some way the question past and current Aboriginal presence.

The question is how to do this. Taking herself as an example, Merrilees suggests that while she would decide not to write in the voice of an Aboriginal character, she wouldn’t want Aboriginal people to be silent. However, as soon as she made her indigenous characters speak, she writes, she’d be “tramping about” inside their heads “even though I said I wasn’t going to. A character who speaks is generally doing so in first person. So speech is just a form of first-person narrative after all … How am I going to explain this to all those Aboriginal writers who don’t want me speaking for them?”

Australian academics Kenneth Gelder and Jane Jacobs, she says, state that appropriation is implicit in fiction. If we accept this, we are then confronted with assessing the authenticity of the representation, but this raises more questions:

In the present political climate it is not for a white writer or critic to decide what is appropriate. Only Aboriginal people can decide. And of course, there is never going to be a unified Aboriginal view, any more than there is a unified white view. There is no such entity as “the Aboriginal people” to provide answers.

She therefore argues that “questions of appropriation become issues of personal ethics, conscience issues” and that there can be no definitive conclusions. She’s right, I believe. The only answer, I think, is something she says very early in the essay:

the best thing I [we] can offer Aboriginal Australians is to shut up and listen to them, actually find out what they think.

Genuine, thoughtful trial-and-error seems to be the way to go. Listen, give it a go, and listen again. What do you think?

* I will primarily use the term indigenous Australians to refer to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

37 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: White writers on indigenous Australians

  1. My thinking is probably overly simple, but I tend to vote for freedom of expression and, so feel that a writer should be able to write from whatever perspective he/she chooses. If the depiction is wrong with some people, then the ensuing uproar might help to lead to greater accuracy.

    • Thanks Carolyn. That’s mostly how I feel too … There should be no rules other than integrity on the part of the writer, however we define that! But I add a little proviso that when we are talking about longtime power imbalance and appropriation or exploitation, that integrity should be on high alert and our willingness to listen to and hear criticism should be high.

  2. Thanks for these thoughts, WG. I have still to get to reading the novel, though Merrilees’ short stories are really quite stunning. As for speaking for others, it’s such a complicated issue. I think that freedom of expression only goes so far, and there should be a real concern for how / who / what we speak for. I remember that when Peter Gabriel brought out his song ‘Biko’ about Steve Biko, a very powerful anti-apartheid statement, a South African woman complained that he should not speak for them. I was really surprised, because it seemed to me he was standing with them, rather than taking over their voice. But I think that’s different from speaking *in the voice of* an oppressed and exploited minority, as you say. On the Diesel and Dust album, in ‘Dead Heart’, Midnight Oil actually speak as the indigenous : ‘Don’t speak you language, don’t serve your king / White man came took everything …’ and I was very surprised. The album was the result of their tour with indigenous bands, so it wasn’t simply speaking as spectators. Apparently they were criticised: ‘who holds the power to tell whose history?’ I tend to agree.

    • Thanks Robyn … Yes, I think we must tread carefully in these areas. Theoretically, ideally, I believe in freedom of expression, but practically we need to be sensitive to the dynamics – political, social? – of a situation. As Merrilees says, we can’t avoid standing on toes at times, but we’ll only improve relations, recognition, understanding if we try. Even writing blogs like this make me anxious about sounding patronising.

  3. I really value these excerpts, and your take on them. It is such a tricky area. I do particularly appreciate the part about not writing/acknowledging indigenous Australians being to “distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie”.

    • Yes, it’s a good point isn’t it Hannah. She particularly refers to rural settings. I suspect in the past writers may often have ignored indigenous Australians because they just didn’t figure in their world view, whereas I suspect now it may more often be for fear of getting it wrong.

    • Hi lazycoffees. If you get the chance, read Merrilees essay. She does refer to Miller’s book in terms, particularly, of “authorisation”. She also mentions Peter Goldsworthy’s Three dog night. I tried to refer to books that she didn’t – partly to add to the discussion and partly to not simply summarise her totally!

  4. I don’t think we would say more generally that authors shouldn’t appropriate the voice of people outside their own gender, sexual orientation, age group, ethnic background, social or political class or time.

    • No, we probably wouldn’t Judith, I agree. The gender issue is one I particularly thought about as I wrote this post. It is another one that has had fraught moments, particularly when men presume to be women writing as women. The same concern has not occurred when the reverse situation occurs. Again, it’s sensitivity to power imbalance that results in our rethinking, even slightly adjusting our theoretical position?

  5. I seesaw on this issue. On one side, I agree with Ann Patchett that, as a writer, no one is allowed to tell me where the limits of my imagination are. But the other half of me gets Melissa Lucashenko’s argument that non-Indigenous writers are likely to draw on a deep, poisonous well of mythologising about Indigenous people, producing damaging work that perpetuates stereotypes. There are no clear-cut rules. It is the job of fiction writers to imagine their way into the interior life of people who are very different from them, and some writers have the awareness, empathy and imagination to do this more successfully than others. If the character is Indigenous, the writer needs actual experience and knowledge for her imagination to work on. And the whole process is interactive: attempting to write fiction is a way of developing the empathy that a writer needs, and of becoming aware of what we don’t know about people whose lives are different to ours.

    • Thanks Bryce – I replied to this comment this am on my iPad but clearly it got lost. I think you realise that I agree with you. Theoretically, I don’t think there should be rules either, but neither should we continue or exacerbate a history of exploitation/appropriation. Merrilees quotes Huggins as saying “the best books written about Aboriginals by non-Aboriginals are by those who have some relationship and friendship with Aboriginal people themselves”, which is the point you make. And it is, hopefully, an interactive, developmental thing as you say.

  6. Thanks for this post & the essay, Sue, which is fantastic – I’ve printed it out & put it in my folders. Melissa Lucashenko talked about this issue in depth in her Colin Simpson Memorial Lecture (now online here: When I heard her speak on this too at the Brisbane Writers Festival, her first proviso was that white writers shouldn’t write of Indigenous characters, but I don’t see how this is possible when they are part of the fabric of our history. Later in the talk she modified this to the advice of ‘First, do no harm’, as writers are dealing with fragile people, which of course makes sense.

    In my own novel I strove not to include Indigenous myths or names because that would have pinned them to a particular place and, as it was fiction, that place didn’t exist. I also tried to imbue the Indigenous characters with agency. Ultimately I don’t know how successful I was; sometimes I feel like it was ok, at other times I feel like I whitewashed everything. The issue is always going to be fraught but it continues to interest me, and I’m really glad you’ve written about it.

    • Thanks Jessica, I’ll read that. Merrilees ends by telling us that Larissa Behrendt says “that our mistakes are useful in that they lead to discussion. That discussion, however painful, is our best education”. (I’m quoting Merrilees here) I think Behrendt and Merrilees are right. It’s better to give it a go, rather than ignore, but be prepared to listen even if what you hear is painful.

  7. Most interested in your comments on non-(Australian) aboriginals speaking for aboriginals. I suggest what a non-indigenous writer can best is to be aware of the rich differences of thought-myths and speech among and between groups on both “sides” – and pay attention to what is actually said and done. This is not speech alone: in the poem “Lament on Yuranigh’s ground” you see: “Yuranigh was the last of his tongue … who found nothing in the mouths of grass men/whose feet hear nothing” (approved by a senior Elder of the relevant group); or
    to write how the writer or reader/listener responds to a particular occasion e.g. in the poem “Now we weep and take up our shadows – The Apology” we see “Now we weep till nothing happens/smoke over the island”.
    We must continue to engage.

  8. At least there are dialogues exchanges, books written about Aboriginal writers and the relationship with whites. I can’t think of any such kind of exchanges here. Maybe it’s just my ignorance, but maybe this has not been an issue therefore no voices had been raised. or maybe there are and I’m just ignorant about them. But, thanks for an interesting and necessary post, WG.

    • Thanks Arti. I don’t know enough about your indigenous peoples, beyond the bits I see in documentaries. That’s embarrassing really. But, yes, it’s an issue here and I think it is healthy. I wrote a little about it in one of my posts on the Writing about place seminar I attended last year, and also, I think, in my post on Anita Heiss’s biography. Dialogue is good – for us, here anyhow, given our particular colonial history.

  9. Hi, Sue, and thanks for another valuable Monday Muse on an important topic. I take Keneally’s point about the two ‘maps’ of our cultures being vastly different, but I agree with Merrilees’s view that as soon as a writer puts speech into an Indigenous character’s mouth they are entering into their (de-facto) POV. And it’s not just speech, it’s actions, reactions, body language, It is all creating a character on the page, and to do that you must enter their minds to some extent, even if their actions remain opaque for the non-Indigenous observer. Also, would anyone think Keneally should not have written Schindler’s Ark because he’s of good Irish Catholic stock and not a German or a Jew? Writers need to imagine themselves into other people. They should be free to create stories. Of course they should do so with as much sympathy as possible, but I think Melissa Lucashenko’s view that white authors should not write *any* Indigenous characters is ludicrous for the reasons Jessica outlined above. How can we write those colonial histories, for instance, if there are no Aborigines on the page?! I’m very proud of our great Indigenous authors like Kim Scott and Alexis Wright, to write stories for us. But stories are in many ways the fabric that holds us together. We should celebrate them all. John

    • Yes, thanks John. I haven’t listened to the Lucashenko talk yet, but I gather from what Jessica says that she might have admitted by the end that it’s not really realistic – and, as Merrilees suggests, for white writers not to write about Aboriginal characters continues the”empty land” attitude. Sometimes I think it’s almost of a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” but giving it a go, with integrity, is surely the best way to move forward.

  10. Interesting post and discussion – thanks WG. I can understand Lucashenko’s anger and can’t imagine wanting to attempt to represent the inner world of an indigenous Australian – the scars are too fresh and it would seem a type of disrespect. But neither would I try to speak as a rape victim from the Congo or an abused refugee from another state. These are such delicate, risky areas and there is nothing worse than further exploitation. But as you state, appropriation is implicit in writing – great point – and stories need to be constructed, worlds examined and common ground sought. The best literature doesn’t seem to suffer borders, and yet it’s all a balancing game, isn’t it? – about authenticity, history, language, characters.

    • Sorry Catherine … Not sure how I missed replying to this. I agree totally. It is a balancing act. There’s theory, the ideal, and then there’s the messy world that, as Merrilees says, we must tiptoe through.

  11. Oh such good questions! It is ever so tricky. Here in the US we have Native American and blacks not to mention a whole multicultural panoply of other cultures and ethnic backgrounds. I think Merrilees has it right, shut and listen, learn what others think and then write with respect and compassion.

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  17. I’ve just stumbled across this in researching this exact question for a character idea for NaNo this year, and in light of current debates around diversity and representation I’ve seen raging, I’ve been very confused about the answer and the whole damned if you do, damned if you don’t – because there’s always going to be someone who won’t be happy with what you do, right?

    My basic idea is I want a character to be Aboriginal in a modern setting – but the novel wouldn’t be about her struggles in relation to that, so I’m trying to see what the consensus is, because I don’t want to ignore the multicultural Australia, yet at the same time, I don’t want to talk over the voices of those who have been marginalised. So for me, it’s about can I make this work in the way I want it to, and what can I do to make sure it does to respect everyone and the story.

    To me, it’s about being able to write the characters that come to me, that fit my story, but also, about doing my best to contribute to diversity if I can and realising that whatever I do, nobody will ever truly be happy, and pleasing every potential reader is near impossible.

    PS: Saved this link to my research files.

    • Hi Ashleigh, thanks for commenting and sharing your challenge as a writer.

      And yes, I’d say, right, there will always be someone who won’t be happy with what you do! My view – but I’m not indigenous of course – is that it’s better to try than not because at least by trying you are recognising indigenous people as part of our society and culture. From what I’ve read and seen other writers do, it’s good if you can show what you’ve written to indigenous people, and, as it sounds you’re doing, for you to speak as little as possible for the indigenous person, but focus on characters you can more easily speak for and their relationship with the indigenous person/s. In doing that, you can’t avoid speaking for the indigenous person in some way, can you, but … (Margaret Merrilees faces this challenge in her novel The first week.)

      • I’m hoping to contact some local Indigenous groups for help once I know what my character is about. It’s definitely going to be a challenge though, to get the balance right.

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