Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading indigenous literature

2017 National NAIDOC Poster (used under Creative Commons licence, CC BY-NC-N4 4.0)

Each July, as well as contributing at least one review to Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, I try to write a Monday Musings post related in some way to NAIDOC week which, as Aussies will know, is a week, usually the first full week in July, during which activities are planned to “to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. Each year there is a theme, and this year it’s a good one, Our languages matter.

I have for as long as I can remember – since high school anyhow – been interested in social justice and civil rights (as we called it in the 1960s & 1970s). I read a lot back then about indigenous Australians and African-Americans in particular, such books as Douglas Lockwood’s I, the Aboriginal and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo. These books helped fire my feelings about injustice: they showed me some of the impacts of the inequities stemming from racism and of course they touched my emotions.

However, the only indigenous Australian writer I remember reading was Kath Walker as she was known then (or Oodgeroo Noonuccal as she became), until I read Sally Morgan’s My place in 1988. These writers started to help me see and feel, under the skin, the experience of being indigenous in Australia.

Now, if you keep up with discussions about the value of reading, you are sure to have read the various arguments for, or theories about, how reading can improve empathy. There was a Scientific American article in 2013 which reported that “Researchers [Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, and PhD candidate David Kidd] in New York City have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.” Another article in The Washington Post in 2016 reported on cognitive psychologist Robert Oatley’s research of over a decade and his conclusion “that engaging with stories about other people can improve empathy and theory of mind”, resulting in improved “social ability”.

There are the naysayers to these arguments, of course, and I don’t know if reading fiction has increased my ability to empathise or not, but I can’t help agreeing with novelist Joyce Carol Oates’ statement that “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin.” “Sole” may be pushing it too far, but otherwise here’s my experience … and I fear I’m a bit clumsy in putting it but hope it makes sense!

I have become aware in recent years that my understanding and awareness of indigenous lives has deepened beyond the intellect and simple empathy, to a level of “knowing”.  In other words, I knew about – and could empathise with – the sense of loss, anger, disempowerment that those earlier, mostly non-indigenous writers described, but now that empathy is increasingly underpinned by knowledge of how dispossession plays out. I can never know what such historic dispossession does to a person’s psyche from personal experience but reading writers like Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Jeanine Leane, Marie Munkara and many others, has given me the next best thing.

To labour it a little more: because I “know” my white anglo culture, I can can more quickly understand the context for a story about a gay man or an abused wife even though I’m neither of these. The leap to real empathy, which I’m arguing requires a thorough understanding of the underlying culture, is not a big one when people come from my own world. When they don’t, I can empathise at a human level – at the level any of us can when we see someone else in pain, struggling, angry, triumphant, and so on – but I sense that it’s a shallow empathy that doesn’t comprehend the forces behind that pain (etc). How do you get to comprehend those forces?

Well, Jeanine Leane, as I wrote in a recent post, says you need to immerse yourself in the “other’s” culture, in her case, indigenous Australian culture. For most of us, however, this is very difficult, if not impossible, but Leane argues that reading indigenous literature, that is writings by indigenous people about indigenous people’s lives, is a way in which we can engage with the culture. In her book, Position doubtful, which I reviewed recently, Mahood talks about the moments she waits for when, in a sense, a lightbulb turns on, when she experiences “a cognitive shift”. It’s that cognitive shift that I feel happening as I read more and more indigenous authors (of both fiction and non-fiction, particularly memoirs). It manifests in the fact that I don’t have to recalibrate my bearings so much when I open a book by an indigenous author. Certain things are givens – such as the original dispossession, the stolen generations, relationship to country. I don’t have to work to understand these, as I read, they’re there.

I hope this doesn’t repeat too much what I’ve written before, and I hope that it doesn’t sound arrogant, because it’s not meant to. I certainly know that I have much more to learn and understand. However, while I read and listen to commentaries in papers, on television, via the radio, it is through the indigenous writers I’ve read that what once felt more like information is now becoming a truth. I think that’s a powerful thing – and is why I’d argue that more Australians need to read more indigenous authors.

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading indigenous literature

  1. It’s very late, and I’m tired out after a big day at Rare Books Week in Melbourne, but I couldn’t resist opening this when it popped into my inbox and now as I head off to bed, I just wanted to say what a beaut post this is:)

  2. I agree with you totally! The Indigenous writers I have read since you persuaded me to read Scott’s That Deadman Dance a couple of years ago have been eye-opening. And in many cases, also leading edge literature.

    • thanks Bill. And yes, good part re leading edge. That’s possibly partly due to different storytelling styles, different perspectives on how the world works, and possibly too not being imbued with centuries of European literature like we have?

  3. Well done on this post. I have to admit to seeing more films than reading books about indigenous people. There is so much to read it is a bit overwhelming. Thanks for raising awareness about this important subject.

    • Thanks Pam — and the question is, are the films you see written and made by indigenous people? Because the same applies doesn’t it e.g. Jedda by Chauvel in the 50s versus Samson and Delilah by Thornton in the noughties.

  4. That’s what I’ve been trying to do too, WG, and there’s so much to catch up on. But I sense a burgeoning consciousness within a large part of the population of the true history of this country. Thousands of years, hundreds of languages. It is truly amazing. It is being felt, and really seen. What is being done to restore and transmit Indigenous languages alone – the theme of this NAIDOC week – is so exciting. I ask myself – can I manage to learn one? I’d like to.

    • Yes, I think you’re right Sara, that there is a burgeoning consciousness. It’s exciting to see, but from an indigenous perspective it must be all so slow. And learn a language? That would be a good thing to do I agree. I love the as pond of the languages I hear.

  5. I must try to find indigenous Australian writers who are published in UK. I think that you are right to say that fiction is one of the best ways of entering other’s internal states. The utter dispossession of Indigenous cultures everywhere, the temptation to conclude that it is impossible for “western” literature to deal with this material in other than exploitative or sentimental ways- and yet always the occasional book that does communicate.

  6. Lovely post Sue. You mentioned Kim Scott… I’m lucky enough to be reading a preview copy of his forthcoming novel Taboo. It’s a shame it wasn’t out for NAIDOC week given its theme, as it deals in part with one of his primary concerns: language and keeping the ‘old language’ – as his characters call it – alive. I’ll let you know how it shapes up when I finish! Cheers, John.

  7. WG: What a thoughtful reflective statement. Thank-you. If only all of us were asked to provide a similar statement – especially those of us who take up public office of one kind or another – of any level – (be it teacher, politician, nurse, accountant, banker, business owner, farmer, miner/mine-worker/law enforcement/criminal justice…you get my drift) – in relation to our understanding of Indigenous Australia – to be placed on record – available for present and reference – with the possibility for its further amendment/up-date as the author’s understanding and awareness grows.

    Over 30 years ago and inspired by Linda BURNEY – we were Education Officers in neighbouring Special Programs units – I undertook a Grad. Dip: “Aboriginal Studies” through Armidale and as a final part of the program/course presented a particular study of the teaching of a unit of Indigenous Literature with an inner city high school class – most of the students of Indigenous background – the go-ahead approved by the local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group – and to whom a copy of my final Project Report was forwarded. Learning to empathise via literature! Indeed. (Magabala Books – Broome WA – was an important part of my sources, too.)

  8. Great post – we definitely all need to keep making a big effort to read more Indigenous writing. The more we read, the more we understand and the more we can connect

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