Telling indigenous Australian stories

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.

Anniversaries galore

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.

Jeanine Leane's Purple threads

Courtesy University of Queensland Press*

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.

45 thoughts on “Telling indigenous Australian stories

  1. You write about a question that’s been discussed a lot, with no easy answers. The Overland article is fascinating. We have published a collection of poetry by an Indigenous author (Brenda Saunders) but the other indigenous books are by white writers who have lived and worked for extensive periods with Aboriginal communities (Andrew Stojanovski, Howard Goldenberg). Cultural appropriation is relevant for Holocaust stories too. I had to reject a manuscript written by someone who clearly had not experienced it herself but wanted to write a love story with a happy ending.

    • Yes, good point Anna about its being an issue across all sorts of “other”. It’s something all writers need to be aware of. I guess it becomes more than imagining, more appropriation, exploitation sometimes even, when there are power (or some other sort of) imbalance between writer and subject?

  2. Yes, yes, yes. I agree with every word you have written here. I would also mention that there are lists of books by Indigenous writers updated annually under the heading of Indigenous Lit Week, corresponding with NAIDOC week, at ANZLL. (And thanks for the link)

    • Yes, thanks Bill. I decided not to go down the path of losing books that could be part of that conversation-by-literature, and just focus on the issue, but I’m glad you’ve mentioned Lisa’s list.

  3. Thank for this post WG. I am particularly interested in the inclusion of indigenous characters when writing Australian stories but, because the area is so fraught with repercussions, many writers shy away completely (therefore, continuing the exclusion) and I understand Leane’s point that empathy can only come through total cultural immersion. It seems there has been a [painstakingly slow] push to get indigenous studies (language, stories, history, contemporary literature) into schools and it would seem that, whilst it is taking time to filter through, it is a part of the answer to the way forward but still only part . . .

    • Thanks Karenlee. Yes, and I can’t help thinking that continuing the exclusion is worse than giving it a go, but “giving it a go” is fraught and requires goodwill on all sides doesn’t it? As you say this education aspect is only a part but I think we could argue it’s a fundamental part. Of course I listen to commentary and hear indigenous leaders speak, but I think the deepest “knowledge” I have has come from reading indigenous writers, like Scott, Wright, Eckermann, Leane, Birch, van Neerven, Winch, to name just a few.

      • This ‘fraught issue’ specifically addressed at the History Summer School I attended back in 2007. One of the lecturers on the subject of Australia’s Black History was Margo Neale, an indigenous woman who is Adjunct Professor in the history program at the Australian National University’s Australian Centre for Indigenous History. Amongst a sea of secondary teachers I asked her myself how primary teachers who have responsibility for so many curriculum areas could ethically teach indigenous history and meet the expectation that we address our local area’s specific history – when the time available for research was so very limited for us. (Primary teachers get two-and-a-half hours away from face-to-face teaching each week).
        Her answer was that it we should do our best, find out as much as time allowed, use reputable resources (and she listed some which I subsequently bought for the school library), be open to correction, and to share what we learned with other teachers in the same area. The message was clear – and it was given in the context that I had mentioned in my question a conference that I had been to, where an Aboriginal activist had roundly castigated his audience for being racist and demanded that all teachers should do postgraduate study in Aboriginal issues (an extreme version of Leanne’s expectation of total cultural immersion).
        Neale said that although there would always be criticism from some quarters, but that it was better to do the best we could with good will – even if we made mistakes – rather than not do it at all. This stance of hers gave me ‘permission’ to start tackling indigenous history in a new way at my school, and although I did make mistakes (e.g. when teaching ‘Bush Food’ I hadn’t then read Bruce Pascoe’s book about indigenous farming), it was an ethical choice that IMO enriched our students’ learning.
        I think the same applies to writing. I think all writing schools should include a research and writing component where the writer finds out about the indigenous history and issues of their own area. Having an intimate knowledge of country is the first step to getting there. Imagine a love scene under the stars or a tale of getting lost in the bush where the writer shows an awareness of the ancient indigenous names for the stars and planets, and you’ll know what I mean.
        Karenlee, if you look at the RHS of the flow charts here:, you can see resources that I used. I particularly recommend Australian Dreaming and the atlas, but it’s very expensive – if your local library doesn’t have them perhaps you could ask them to get it in for you.

        • Thanks Lisa for all that. It confirms what I’ve said in previous posts, that is, that we should give it a go under the criteria you give, such as doing research, getting good resources etc AND then be prepared to be criticised. Hopefully if we’ve been respectful, that criticism will be also, but it won’t always, as Neale says I think? We just have to have broad shoulders and empathise with the frustration many indigenous per role must feel at our clumsiness. We can only get better, can’t we, by dipping our toes in and by recognising as we do it the history that hangs off our relationship with indigenous people.

          Anyhow, good on you for giving it a go and for building resources.

        • Oh, and I thought Leane was taking a fairly hard line re total cultural immersion, but her ending about conversation-by-literature suggests a manageable way in which some of this can be achieved? All of us can engage in reading and discussing indigenous literature and I know I’ve learnt a lot that way. My goal is to get my bookgroup to commit to reading more indigenous writers.

    • And of course as soon as I sent that I realised that I missed mentioning two other writers that have particularly interested me… Behrendt and Lucashenko. There’ll probably be more after I sent this but you’ve got to stop somewhere.

        • Yes, slowly, slowly. I’ll be interested to see what awareness there is in my reading group tonight when I suggest we read an indigenous writer in the second half of the year. We’ve read a few but nowhere near as many as I’d like to think we would/could.

  4. This is indeed serendipitous, Sue. I’m writing a chapter of my PhD on cultural appropriation and have cited Jeanine Leane’s article. Ambelin Kwaymullina is an articulate writer on this topic. I will look up the Merrilee’s article, having come to the same conclusion that for privileged writers like me, cultural appropriation is a question of ethics/politics, not dogma.

  5. Thank you, Sue, for writing about this important issue of cultural appropriation. For those of your readers who are interested in reading more about it, perhaps they might want to look at my post on this issue on my blog Learning Writing from Reading. I wrote it in the wake of the debate following the speech by Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, and it refers to a number of additional voices on the issue.

      • Hi Annette, twice I commented on your excellent post, and twice it got rejected as “blocked as suspected bot”. Here’s what I wrote (I copied before I submitted!):

        Excellent analysis Annette, thanks. Those three points really describe the issues in a nutshell.

        I may say I get irritated by people who line up behind cries of this-is-political -correctness-gone-mad, which is what I assume is behind Shriver’s supporters, because it stops them actually grasping, tackling, the underlying issues. Easy cop out!

        BTW, as you probably know Thomas Keneally says he wouldn’t write The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith now, or, not the way he did.

        Last year I read short stories by Cassie Flanagan Wilanski who discussed her presentation of indigenous characters with local indigenous people before her book was published.

        • Thanks Sue. I’d heard that about Tom Keneally, yes, and it shows how we can all learn ever more and change as a result. I reviewed Flanagan Willansky’s book, too, and even though I didn’t like it as much as you did, I thought that the prior consultation she did with indigenous people was a great ethical step to take. Though there are difficulties with that, too, because indigenous people may differ in their responses (eg Larissa Behrendt versus Anita Heiss) and some are hard-line and don’t want any non-indigenous people writing on their issues at all – even though that’s perfectly understandable.

        • Exactly, Annette. Indigenous people, like all of us have different opinions and ideas about issues that concern us. Like you I can understand both sides of the argument. There are no right answers just an open mind and a willingness to tread softly. I think Melissa Lucashenko was hard line but has relaxed a bit through conversations, but I’d have to go searching to confirm that.

  6. Dear WG: Thank-you (again!) for this moving testament on this matter of cultural appropriation. I have read Jeanine LEANE’s Overland essay (thanks for the link) and I have purchased Jeanine LEANE’s David Unaipon Prize-winning UQP book Purple Threads. Phew! You certainly motivate! Back in the early 1980s I was engaged in work which involved close association with Australian literature (a) which offered reflections/insights into the immigrant experience (here in Australia) and then (b) which involved examination of the Indigenous experience here. Some of the latter involved Australian poets and writers looking from their own empathetic perspectives – Roland Robinson, Rex Ingamells – but others were themselves Indigenous. In Sydney I was encouraged to approach a local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group in Redfern who gave their permission to me to teach a unit at Cleveland Street HS with students of Indigenous background – over a number of weeks. The school, too, giving permission along other lines – for me to complete what was a mandatory part of my Diploma course through Armidale. I think it was the encouragement I received from colleague Linda BURNEY which gave me the determination – she had herself successfully taught “The Cakeman” by Robert Merritt in a teaching setting before assuming her Education Officer role. It had similarities to the work I had done with literature focussed on the immigrant experience. With such recently-arrived students – secondary and adult – thirsty to see this land and their faces and experiences within it.

    • I hope you enjoy her book Jim. Let me know. As for teaching, that sounds great, particularly talking to local indigenous people first. Showing such respect And interest us clearly a critical start to the process of conversation isn’t it.

      • That teaching and study was over 30 years ago – Linda B. now a rare positive star in the firmament of the national parliament. How slowly progress seems to be – and yet that list of writers whose names you recorded were nowhere on the horizon when I was teaching, researching and writing. (Let me mention another David Unaipon Prize winner – in 2006 – Gayle KENNEDY – the title Me, Antman and Fleabag!)

        • Thanks Jim. I have Kennedy’s book in my sights. It sounds like a great read. As for Linda Burney, yes she is. She’s been on Q&A sometimes hasn’t she? Very impressive.

      • WG: Read and enjoyed the novel from the edges of Gundagai by Jeanine LEANE. Some interesting Indigenous history contained within the novel. For me – all strong women and the survival intelligence and strategies movingly drawn. I think you also might have made reference somewhere in one of your blogs to Kim MAHOOD? In any event I am now beyond halfway through Position Doubtful – an amazing reflection back into the mid+ period of last century and then forward into more recent contemporary times. Just that one book in the hands of a non-Australian will enable them to come fast up-to-speed in trying to understand the Indigenous nature/basis/essence of Australia as met by a range of Anglo/other-engagements/interface. Great!

        • Oh, so glad you enjoyed Leane ‘s book Jim. The woman, their wisdom, is wonderful. Yes, I wrote up an event with Mahood at least year’s Canberra Writers Festival, and in fact will be reading it this month as I suggested it to my reading group. I’m greatly looking forward to it. She’s one who immerses herself in indigenous communities, and therefore must have some authority to write about interactions, cultures, etc, eh?

  7. Could a white Nigerian settler have written a better version of ‘Things Fall Apart’ ? I believe a larger question than that is whether settlers from other cultures would have felt an equal impact as the natives, reading the story? Obviously​, a deeper understanding of the target subject is needed for appreciating the world being invoked. Further, the Aborigines could be fast assimilating into the dominant culture and I fear much of the older ways might be lost even to them. I trust if the writer, of whatever origin, has the knowledge and understanding, and perhaps more important than that, has empathy, (reminds me of Keats’ Negative Capability), he can successfully write about whatever subject he chooses.

    • Yes, that’s an interesting question umashankar re responses.

      As for indigenous Australians, yes some assimilation is happening, some integration, but that too is their story – one that we really can’t “know” from the inside. However, I agree too that technically any writer can with knowledge and empathy write about any subject. It’s just that in certain times and places some subjects are more equal than others and are best faced warily. Does that make sense?

  8. This is a wonderful and most timely essay. Thank you. In a small way I have tried to contribute to the spreading of indigenous stories through the wider Australian culture by publishing (in 1998) ‘The Stolen Children – Their Stories’ which is a collection of the stories told to the National Enquiry. The Report ‘Bringing Them Home’ contained these stories, but I thought that by making the stories available in a stand-alone volume, the stories would have a good chance of becoming more widely known. The book is still regularly used in schools, and gives students the opportunity to listen first-hand to the narratives of the Stolen Generations.

    • Oh did you Carmel? I don’t think I knew that. But good for you because as you say those narratives are important aids to people’s understanding. It’s so important that we read more indigenous experiences, rather than filtered ones, isn’t it? Did you select stories – or does the book have all the stories?

      Oh, and it’s excellent to hear that the book is still being used. After all, the stories are real, and don’t date do they?

      • I included all the stories from the Report, and added material from Sir Ronald Wilson, Henry Reynolds, and also from a number of politicians and writers. The fifty-four recommendations made by the Report are also included. This material gives the stories context, but of course the central matter of the book is the stories themselves which are written under pen-names. I found it so very sad and telling that the real names could not be used. Would you like me to send you a copy of the book?

    • Carmel, your book was no ‘small way’ at all. It still has pride of place in my bookshelf and I read extracts of it to my children over dinner. I was so appalled when I found out about the stolen generations thanks to Peter Read’s initial report, and then followed up by reading anything on the subject I could find. And your book was not only informative, but heart-breaking!

  9. Thanks for this article. It’s timely to some discussions I’ve been having at work regarding the types of novels our senior students are reading as part of their senior curriculum. I may share this with our teaching staff for their interest.

    • Oh that’s wonderful, thanks Theresa. I’d be thrilled if this post contributed to some increase in reading of indigenous literature in schools. There are some great books these days to choose from.

  10. i read carmel bird’s ‘Stolen Children’ and found it unbearable and invaluable when i first took it up

    years later it remains a key reference and reminder

    this – alongside the stolen country is our country’s great wound

    howard goldenberg

    dear gumwhisperer: an INVALUABLE conversation; thank you for provoking and moderating it

    • Thank you, Howard. And thank you, Whispering Gums, for the opportunity to exchange thoughts with other people on this issue. As Howard says, the matter of the stolen country, its stolen children, is Australia’s ‘great wound’.

  11. and i meant to add the advice i received when i was writing ‘Raft’, which records my observations from working on country in Aboriginal health, over twenty years or so

    i approached a professional writer who had distinguished over a number of decades, himself by his capacity to ask , to listen and to report on Aboriginal people
    he works with integrity and humuility and persistence

    i asked that writer – whose name is household in melbourne : ‘ how can i write and publish on Aboriginal matters without giving offence?’

    his reply” ‘you can never be sure you won’t offend; all you can do is to write faithfully what you saw, what you know, what you think…’

    i knew that my writer friend would write his piece then show it to his Aboriginal informant to obtain clearance; he had done this ,,received the blessing, then published and had been punished by the same informant

    so i wrote and i published and i waited nervously
    my patients were not informants; they were members of remote
    communities; there was no opportunity to clear my material

    white Australia loved what i wrote and read and discussed it widely

    i waited and worried a bit

    then a man in roken hill thanked me: ‘you’ve written my life, my family, my mob; thank you brother’

    and radio presented in Sydney, responded to my question , was it alright thati had written of these matters: ‘you HAVE to’, she said

    and an elegant man in a smart suit bumped into me in collins street: ‘you’re the bloke who wrote that’Raft’ book, aren’t you?
    he congratulated me, thanked me for telling people ‘the truth’ about Aboriginal health

    so those three indigenous people approved

    which proves nothing

    who know how many were – or would be – offended and are silent?

    • There will always be those who will disagree Howard (and I’m not just talking about this Indigenous issue but about anything, really). I don’t think we can avoid that, but we need to be brave, and sensitive, don’t we? Three diverse supportive comments sounds great.

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