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 dwellers, Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Kate Grenville’s The secret river, Peter Temple’s The broken shore, and 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.