As many others have said, including my reading group, Anita Heiss’s anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, should be required reading for all Australians. At the very least, it should be in every Australian secondary and tertiary educational institution. Why? Because it contributes to the truth-telling that is critical to real reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Truth-telling comes in many forms. There are formal processes, as through truth-telling commissions, but there are also the informal processes that we can all engage in while we wait for the government to fiddle-diddle around deciding whether it can front up and do the right thing.
Essentially, truth-telling means all Australians acknowledging and accepting “the shared and often difficult truths of our past, so that we can move forward together”. These truths include the original colonial invasion of the country, the massacres, the Stolen Generations, and the ongoing racism that results in continued inequities and significant gaps in almost every health, educational and occupational measure you can think of. Informal truth-telling encompasses all the things we do to inform ourselves and each other of these truths. Heiss’ anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which contains 50 stories by indigenous Australians on their experience of growing up indigenous in this so-called lucky country of ours, contributes to this informal truth-telling. Taken as a whole, the book provides a salutary lesson, for all Australians who care to listen, on the experience of being indigenous in Australia. Taken individually, each story has the potential to break your heart. If you think I’m laying it on a bit thick, then you haven’t read the book!
“a stranger in my own land”
The above line from William Russell’s story, “A story from my life”, brought me up short because it replicates a line I read in Atkinson’s book The last wild west (my review). Atkinson describes his Indigenous friend and co-worker Sno as being “an alien in his own homeland”. There is strength in this replication between books, just as there is strength in the repetition of experiences within Heiss’s book, and the strength is this, that every repetition reinforces the truth of the historical (and continuing) injustice faced by Indigenous Australians. The stronger, the more inescapable the truth becomes, the harder it must surely be to ignore.
So, what are the repeated experiences in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia? Well, there are recurring references to the Stolen Generations, to being questioned about identity (“are you really Aboriginal?”, “you look too white to be Aboriginal”), to feeling disconnected from culture, to being called racist names, to being humiliated in myriad ways too numerous to list, and to being physically attacked. These are the experiences that we’ve all heard of, but Heiss’ contributors enable us to feel them. And that’s important. I’ll share just a few quotes from a few stories:
Thankyou for your acknowledging every 26 January with such grace and humility. Thankyou for your encouragement – and advice to me – to let the past be in the past, to simply ‘get over it’ on the day my people’s land was invaded and dispossessed. (Dom Bemrose’s biting “Dear Australia”)
My father cut to the chase. ‘Olly, you can’t go telling people we’re Aboriginal … It isn’t safe’. (Katie Bryan, “Easter, 1969”)
I would paint and draw and sculpt about being Aboriginal. I would see people twitch uncomfortably and sometimes even let their ignorant thoughts out: ‘But you don’t look it’, ‘From how far back’, ‘Do you get lots of handouts?’ (Shannon Foster, “White bread dreaming”)
In Year 2 I was lined up with Aboriginal classmates to be checked for nits and, as I stood there with fingers being raked through my hair, I felt angry and embarrassed as my non-Indigenous classmates watched. I realised that … for some reason it was only supposed to be us Aboriginal kids that had nits. (Jared Thomas, “Daredevil days”)
None of us kids are allowed to go anywhere outside after dark by ourselves. We can’t ever go to the toilet at night: we gotta go in twos, and Mummy stands at the door and watches. She has a big bundi* ready in case there’s trouble … Terror is outside the door, and we can’t do anything about it. (Kerry Reed-Gilbert, “The little town on the railway track”)
It was hard selecting these quotes – not because they were hard to find but because there are so many stories like these that it was hard to choose. That’s the shame of it. And these stories come from all ages – from teenagers to those in their 70s or 80s – and from all parts of Australia, from, as Heiss writes in her Introduction, “coastal and desert regions, cities and remote communities.” They come from “Nukuna to Noongar, Wiradjuri to Western Arrernte, Ku Ku Kalinji to Kunibídji, Gunditjamara to Gumbayanggirr and many places in between.”
The contributors include many well-known people – writers like Tony Birch and Tara June Winch, sportspeople like Patrick Johnson and Adam Goodes, performers like Deborah Cheetham and Miranda Tapsell – but there are also lesser-known but no less significant people, many of whom are actively working for their people and communities.
As desperate as the reality really still is, the book is not all grim. There are also positive repetitions in the book. They include deep connection to country, the importance and support of family, and particularly, the strength of mums. There’s humour in some stories: you can’t help but laugh, while you are also grimacing, at Miranda Tapsell’s story of her friends expecting her to turn up to a party as Scary Spice, but opting for Baby Spice instead (Miranda Tapsell, “Nobody puts Baby Spice in a corner”).
“two divided worlds”
One of the early stories is particularly sad because its 29-year-old author, Alice Eather, took her life before the book was published. In her person, in her story, in her life, she represents the challenge indigenous people face in Australia today. Her story “Yúya Karrabúrra” starts with a poem. At the end of the poem she writes:
This poem is about identity, and it was a really hard thing to write in the beginning because identity is such a big issue. It’s a large thing to cover. The poem is about the struggle of being in between black and white.
Now Alice, like many in the book, had an Indigenous parent and a non-Indigenous one, but the struggle she names here is faced by every person in the book, regardless of their family backgrounds, because every one of them must contend with white society and culture, and it’s clearly darned hard.
I’m going to close on this idea of identity, because identity is the well-spring from which everything else comes. The stories are organised alphabetically by author, which I’m sure was an active decision made to not direct the conversation. Coincidentally, though, the last story – Tamika Worrell’s “The Aboriginal equation” – provides the perfect conclusion. It constitutes a strong, unambiguous statement of identity. She says:
I will not sit quietly while my identity is questioned. It doesn’t matter how many times you say you didn’t mean to be offensive, that doesn’t dictate whether or not I’m offended.
Then concludes with a hope that she
will live to see a future that is less ignorant, less racist and at least somewhat decolonised. Until then, I’ll continue to be an angry Koori woman, educating those who don’t understand and those who choose not to.
She’s not asking for the moon here is she? The least we can do is choose to understand – and we can start by reading books like this.
* “bundi” is a Wiradjuri hitting stick I believe.