Monday musings on Australian literature: Reconciliation Day in Canberra

National Reconciliation Week 2018 LogoToday, 28 May 2018, we in Canberra celebrated our inaugural Reconciliation Day Public Holiday. We are the first jurisdiction in Australia to have such a public holiday*. From this year, this day will be held on the first Monday after 27 May or on the 27th if it is a Monday – the 27th being that anniversary of the 1967 referendum which resulted in a change to the Australian constitution to enable indigenous Australians “to be counted in reckoning the Population”. Our Reconciliation Day falls within Australia’s National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June), whose theme this year is Don’t keep history a mystery: Learn. Share. Grow.

The aim of the Week (which commemorates both the Referendum and the MABO decision) is, as Reconciliation Australia says on its website, for “all Australians to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories, to share that knowledge and help us grow as a nation. And for this year’s theme, their aim is for us “to learn more about the Australian story.”

Now, to my mind there are two incontrovertible facts – no matter what interpretive layer might be added to them. These are that:

  1. Indigenous (Aboriginal) Australians were here first, tens of thousands of years first in fact.
  2. Non-indigenous Australians arrived in the late eighteenth century and took up land will-nilly to suit their needs, with no formal, practical recognition of the existing inhabitants and their ownership of the land.

Stan Grant, Talking to my countryWhen I decided to write this post I wondered how best to make it fit the Monday Musings subject, but the Week’s theme – Don’t keep history a mystery – gave me my angle. And so, although I recognise the importance of fiction to understanding history and its impact, here I’m going to share a selection of non-fiction works, by indigenous writers, which tell their history and/or the impacts of their history on their lives. (I’ve read some of these, including some before my blog, but not all). Here goes

  • Eric Wilmot’s Pemulwuy: the rainbow warrior (1987): a rare history, particularly at the time, of an indigenous Australian hero. We all know about Australian “heroes” from our past but how many of us know – or were taught about – Pemulwuy or Jandamarra, for example.
  • Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Don’t take your love to town (1988) is now regarded as a classic indigenous memoir, one documenting her survival in spite of the poverty and tragedy surrounding her.
  • Sally Morgan’s My place (1988): Although my consciousness had already been raised by reading books by non-indigenous writers, like CD Rowley, in the 1970s, it was Sally Morgan’s My place which really brought home for Aussies some of the ways dispossession had impacted indigenous people’s lives – the shame, in particular, that her ancestors had been made to feel.
  • Doris Pilkington’s Follow the rabbit-proof fence (1996, Bill’s review, The Australian Legend): one of the first stories – better known to many Aussies via the feature film – about Stolen Generation children’s experiences to come to the wider Australian public.
  • Anita Heiss’s Am I black enough for you (2012, my review) is a contemporary urban successful indigenous woman’s manifesto about the challenges of being indigenous in modern Australia, setting assumptions and expectations against facts.
  • Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay: A rightful place: race, recognition and a more complete Commonwealth (2014): the title says it all. I should have read this one.
  • Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu, black seeds (2015, my review) which publisher Magabala Books says “attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession.”
  • Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (2015, my review) which he was inspired to write when he realised that the booing of footballer Adam Goodes “was about our shared history and our failure to recognise it.” Exactly this week’s theme!Bruce Pasco, Dark emu

Reconciliation Australia lists more books and reports, including fiction and works by non-indigenous Australians. It’s well worth checking out – and contains many works I have never heard of, let alone read.

Meanwhile, there were many ways to celebrate Reconciliation Day in Canberra, including a Reconciliation Day Eve concert with Archie Roach and Tiddas, a Reconciliation Day in the Park event, and special events at various cultural institutions including the National Museum of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, and the National Gallery of Australia.

This is an important day for itself, but it’s also important to help redress the imbalance created in recent years by over-emphasis on the importance of Australia Day and ANZAC Day. I am not averse to these days but I am to suggestions that they, individually or together, define Australia and Australians. They don’t. They contribute to what makes us Aussies – but we have a bigger history that we must (personally and politically) also recognise and accept as being part of what defines us.

Do you have any favourite books on the topic? (Or on a similar critical topic, if you’re not Aussie?)

* It was created by replacing a previous holiday, rather than by adding an additional holiday to our calendar.

19 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Reconciliation Day in Canberra

  1. Great idea, Reconciliation day (I hope it replaced Queens Birthday) with what sounds like achievable aims, to know our history better. I have some of your suggested books (and you can use my review of Rabbitproof Fence instead of wiki if you like). I’m probably the only person in Australia who didn’t like My Place, and for that reason I won’t review it. But I do have Don’t Take Your Love to Town very high on my TBR.

    • Thanks Bill … and when I get to my computer I will indeed swap over your review of RPF. NO it wasn’t the Queen’s Birthday. That would probably be a step too far!!

  2. ACT leads the way!
    I am hopeful that our progressive state government gets re-elected and that we too will do the same. It is after all, though very Australian in its own strange way, bizarre that we in Victoria have two public holidays for sporting events (a horse race and a football match) but none for indigenous recognition. OTOH there is work being done on a Treaty here.
    There’s not a lot of NF on my Indigenous Reading List, though there’s a fair bit of memoir, but I would add to your list Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza, power and colonial storytelling because it’s a good analysis of how language and representation influenced dispossession. And also, though not written by indigenous authors, Tasmanian Aborigines, a history since 1803 by Lyndall Ryan and anything by Henry Reynolds is well worth reading too.

    • Thanks Lisa. You’d probably have to get rid of a holiday to add this in, as you have 13 already and that seems to be about the maximum any state has. Your government could be progressive though and lead the way for 14 public holidays!

      But darn it. When I was planning this post Finding Eliza was one of the first two in my head, and then it completely slipped out again. Thanks for bringing it up. I’m toying with reading it this year for your Week except we’ll be in Arnhem Land at the time and I’m thinking I should read something set there, something too that I could put on my Kindle app rather than carry. Decisions, decisions.

      • Gosh, I don’t know anything set in Arnhem Land. I’ve read Old Man’s Story by Bill Neidje (a Kakadu Elder) but I don’t think that’s very portable…

        • Marie Munkara comes from that way I believe Lisa – and I haven’t read her latest, the memoir, so that’s what I’m seriously considering. I think you’ve read it? I’m guessing most of it is about her life away from her country but at least she’s from there?

        • Thanks Lisa … that language is I believe in the Arnhemland area. At least, her author biography at Overland, for example, says that “Marie Munkara was born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhemland”.

        • Well, that means you’ve got three fine books to choose from: if you’ve only got time to read one, I’d suggest A Most Peculiar Act, it was excellent.

        • Ah, thanks Lisa. I have though read and reviewed Every secret thing, way back when it came out, which is why I felt I’d remembered the Arnhemland business. I loved it. Before I got this recommendation from you for A most peculiar act, I ordered (this morning) the memoir for my Kindle app so I guess I’ll stick with it, and try to read the one you recommended another time.

  3. It continues to amaze me how big ANZAC day history continues to be and next to nothing re indigenous history and culture. It really is disgraceful. I value the information I learn by posts such as these.

    • Thanks Pam. Yes, agree, and it really got to me this year with some strong comments that ANZAC defines us. I’m so glad our government which really has some vision did this. We have some problems in the health
      provision area but in social and environmental areas they are leading the way.

  4. Hi Sue, a great idea to celebrate “Reconciliation Day”. It would be wonderful if it was celebrated by all in Australia on a special day. I have read all the books you mentioned, and often read Noel Pearson articles in the ‘Australian’. I read Sister Heart, a verse novel by Sally Morgan and it was very emotional. Some more books I would also suggest If Everyone Cared, autobiography of Margaret Tucker, Koori A Will to Win by James Miller, and Tjakamarra Boy Between Two Worlds by Mary Durack.

    • It sure would. Thanks for your suggestions Meg. I’m particularly interested to hear about Sally Morgan’s verse novel. I’d heard OF it but nothing much ABOUT it.

  5. Thanks for the list. I have a basic knowledge of Australian history, but it is only basic. I really should be digging deeper. I should give one or more of these books a try.

  6. Hmm, I think wadholloway is on to something suggesting a changing out the holiday for Queen Victoria’s birthday to Reconciliation Day.
    My Place was the first book I read by an indigenous author and it was eye-opening for me.

    • Haha, yes, it’s a good idea isn’t it, Rose, but I think if that was the alternative we’d probably never get a Reconciliation Day up. Some sacred cows are hard to shift.

      I agree that My place was (is)n a great book. I had read a couple of indigenous authors before, including Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker as she was when I read her). I think she was probably my first, and I still have that book.

      • I don’t know what the demographic is in Canberra these days and I know rural areas are much the same as when I grew up, but in Melbourne a large proportion of the population have been born overseas and would probably not feel connected to England and might vote for a change.
        I’ll look out for something by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, don’t know why I haven’t read anything by her before.

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