This weekend is particularly significant for indigenous Australians. No, let me rephrase that: it’s significant for all Australians because what happens to indigenous Australians marks who we are as a nation. And, right now, who we are is not wonderful.
If you’re Australian, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but for everyone else, the situation is that we have two important anniversaries this weekend. Today, 26th May, is the 20th anniversary of the tabling in Parliament of the Bringing Them Home report documenting the Stolen Generations. (On 26th May the following year, the first National Sorry Day was held to keep front and centre our poor treatment of indigenous Australians, so next year will be its 20th anniversary). Then tomorrow, 27th May, is the 50th anniversary of a referendum held in Australia to change the Constitution regarding indigenous Australians. The resounding Yes vote (90% overall) ensured that indigenous Australians would from then on “be counted in reckoning the Population”. It also gave the Federal Government the power to pass legislation specifically for indigenous Australians. And, just to add to the significance, next week, on 3 June, will be the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision which recognised native title in Australia.
These anniversaries are, naturally, causing much reflection about what has been achieved since then, and what we (and indigenous Australians in particular) would like to achieve. The truth is that achievement has been woeful. Indigenous Australians’ health, education, incarceration rates – and so on – are significantly worse than for the rest of the population. It’s outrageous – and a subject too big for me here. However, I did want to mark this time, so am going to return to an issue we’ve discussed here before – who tells indigenous Australians’ stories. I’ve chosen this approach because of a serendipitous find in the National Library (NLA) bookshop yesterday.
You see, I’ve been wondering recently what indigenous writer, Wiradjuri-woman, Jeanine Leane is up to. I greatly enjoyed her book, Purple threads (my review), and was impressed by the forthrightness and clarity with which she discussed this issue of telling indigenous Australian stories at an NLA conference back in 2013. She spoke particularly about classics, and she said this (re-quoting from one of my posts):
Through Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf & more recently Kate Grenville, who among others have been hailed as nation writers & what I saw and still see to some extent in Australian literature to date, is a continuous over-writing of settler foundation stories which overwrite Aboriginal experience and knowledge. Settlers are always re-settling and Australian literature really reflects this and the critics and scholars write of such works as if everyone reading it is also a settler reader.
Now, here comes the serendipitous bit. I was browsing the Library’s bookshop yesterday while waiting for a meeting and noticed a recent issue (No. 225, Summer 2016) of the lit journal, Overland. I find it hard to resist lit journals so I picked it up and, flicking through the table of contents, saw an article by Jeanine Leane titled “Other people’s stories: When is writing cultural appropriation?”. That was all the excuse I needed to buy the issue.
Settler narratives controlling indigenous stories
In some ways it goes over ground I’ve written on before, but that post discussed an article on the topic by non-indigenous writer, Margaret Merrilees. She argued that “questions of appropriation become issues of personal ethics, conscience issues”. However, Merrilees was approaching the topic more from a practising writer’s point of view, and she made some sense regarding the challenge confronting non-indigenous writers. If they leave indigenous characters out altogether they are continuing the dominant culture’s silencing of indigenous lives but if they include them they risk not getting it right.
Leane explores the issue from a broader political view. She’s concerned that the “Australian” story continues to be in the hands of “settler” writers and that their stories – including, and particularly, those involving indigenous characters, like Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo and Patrick White’s A fringe of leaves – become “the authoritative narrative of settler colonialism”. Readers see these books as “Aboriginal stories” but they are not, she says.
She unpicks Lionel Shiriver’s controversial dismissal of concerns about “cultural appropriation” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival last year. She argues that Shriver’s idea of writers using “empathy” to create characters who are “other” to themselves does not recognise what this “empathy” really involves. For Leane, you don’t get this “empathy” from archival research but from social and cultural immersion. She criticises Australian writers for not having “this level of exposure” and, moreover, for not “striving for it”.
Leane accepts that the books by “settler” writers – like Kate Grenville, et al – have a place in the study of Australian literature but they need to be read and studied side by side with works by indigenous Australian writers, who are now emerging and challenging settler representations. She refers to Larissa Behrendt’s analysis of White’s A fringe of leaves in her book Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (a book I’ve still to read but which Lisa, Michelle and Bill have reviewed on their blogs).
Engagement through literature
Leane ends her essay discussing what she sees is the critical issue – which is not whether non-indigenous authors should include indigenous characters in the their books or how they can do it – but the paucity of indigenous writing being taught in schools. She argues there is a link between the higher attrition of indigenous students in schools and “the lack of Aboriginal voice and representation in the curricula”. And, further, she asks,
if, on the whole, non-Indigenous people are not reading Indigenous self-representation, how can they write about Indigenous lives and experiences? Put another way, if non-Indigenous people are still only encountering Indigenous people via the works of non-Indigenous writers/historians/filmmakers/artists, then are they really encountering us at all? How can they even think about writing about us if you don’t really know us?
Very good question – which addresses both Shriver’s ideas re “empathy” and Merrilees’ concern about including indigenous characters.
Leane quotes Canadian scholar Margery Fee who addresses the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people. There needs to be a conversation between us, she says – and that conversation, says another Canadian, Judy Iseke-Barnes, can be had through the sharing of literature. Yes! Iseke-Barnes talks of “conversation-through-literature, of cross-cultural engagement through ‘deep and informed readings’ of Indigenous texts”. She sees this as an ongoing process. Leane argues that “this kind of engagement must precede any discussion of how to ‘write’ Indigenous people.”
She then teases out this engagement, clarifying in simple terms exactly what it means, and concludes that without sincerely trying to understand indigenous culture, it is impossible to properly represent indigenous characters. It is, instead, cultural appropriation, it’s “stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice”.
I like that Leane not only presents the problem here – and argues it lucidly – but she has a solution. And it’s a solution that would surely make sense to any reader – which presumably is all of you who read my blog? I’m glad I found – serendipitously – what Leane was up to!
This essay is available online, free, at the Overland site, but if you’d like to support them, you can also buy it at the link.