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Anita Heiss (ed.), Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (#BookReview)

February 28, 2019

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in AustraliaAs 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.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also posted on this book, and there are several reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

* “bundi” is a Wiradjuri hitting stick I believe.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAnita Heiss (ed.)
Growing up Aboriginal in Australia
Carlton: Black Inc, 2018
311pp.
ISBN: 9781863959810

26 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2019 7:54 pm

    Thanks for the mention, Sue:)

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    February 28, 2019 8:12 pm

    Dear WG: I admire the passion with which you have written this review of stories about Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia – as collected/edited by Anita HEISS. My own serious readings in the literature in this field go back to the early 1980s – as I looked to literature to fulfil my teaching objectives in finding writing reflecting the realities of my Indigenous students while at the same opening windows of understanding to my non-Indigenous students, too. It became even more important to me as I began to uncover kinship connections with Indigenous Australians – building on from the “country” parts of NSW where I had lived and taught. It all became truly a part of me – not some abstract intellectual identification. I was born in Eora country – grew up in Gomeroi country – began teaching on the far western parts of the Wiradjuri/southern parts of the Baakandji countries – then other Gomeroi and Wiradjuri regions – Dharug country – Worimi country – now Awabagal (eastern side of Lake Macquarie). Kinfolk are Worimi and Wiradjuri – and Gurindji – albeit a distant connection – but a connection nonetheless. Having just finished Alexis WRIGHT’s complex and amazing TRACKER – I am even more impressed by the book you have just reviewed – but especially by your personal response WG

    • February 28, 2019 8:28 pm

      Thanks Jim, very much, but you know I wrote my first piece about indigenous rights and racism for my school magazine when I was in my teens sometime in the 1960s. I read it recently and I realise now that it was rather simplistic, but I felt serious about the issue. I then chose to do a course on Aboriginal Australians at university in the 1970s. It was, technically, anthropology, but one of the books we did was CD Rowley’s The destruction of Aboriginal society. Although I don’t regard myself as an expert, and I haven’t always kept up with the politics, the fundamental human rights issue has never left me.

      I do need to read Tracker.

  3. March 1, 2019 8:49 am

    Very nice review, Sue, of as you say a very important book that should be very widely read across the community.

    • March 1, 2019 11:07 am

      Thanks Ian. And of course teachers could just choose one story at a time to have students read and talk about. One a week, one a term, whatever, would make a difference wouldn’t it.

  4. ablay1 permalink
    March 1, 2019 8:56 am

    Thank you for your insights; gives me a clearer idea of the book’s power and worth.

    • March 1, 2019 11:08 am

      If I’ve done that Anna, I’m really pleased. And what an interesting combination it was to read it straight after Atkinson’s bool.

    • March 1, 2019 2:16 pm

      Thanks David. I’m glad you like it. I only discovered the honest history blog recently. It’s… Hmm, dare I say, tremendous!

      BTW I’m Sue. Lisa is my blogging friend in Melbourne.

  5. March 2, 2019 1:03 pm

    I have this book to read, in fact I won a copy off Lisa, but your reviews say it all so well that I’m not sure I’ll post one of my own (well.maybe for Indig Lit Week). You allude to the next big thing we whites have to learn – we don’t get to decide whether or not what we say is offensive. The same lesson has come up in the Me-Too debate – we men don’t get to decide that our actions are acceptable to women.

    • March 2, 2019 2:55 pm

      Oh you should, Bill. Indig Lit Week would be perfect for it – a bit of space and you know you have at least one to contribute.

  6. March 2, 2019 2:08 pm

    Thank you so much for your comprehensive review!

  7. March 5, 2019 2:34 pm

    My partner is using this book as part of the VCAL (Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning), so at least one High School cohort is coming out having read some of the stories in one of my favourite works.

    Great review!

    • March 5, 2019 4:51 pm

      Thanks spicejac. That’s really great to hear. I think reading and discussing selected stories is the way to go with school students. Then those who are interested could go the whole way with the book on their own.

      • March 15, 2019 2:34 pm

        I think we need to get the books into schools so the discussions can begin….I know from my partner’s experience it’s been a great way to start the conversations…..

        • March 15, 2019 4:07 pm

          That’s great to hear spicejac. I can imagine the stories working really well with a good teacher.

        • March 19, 2019 1:33 pm

          Yep, and they work so well with all levels of Secondary School students….

        • March 19, 2019 3:28 pm

          I can imagine … I’d love to be a fly on the wall in classes doing it. I love it when education can engage with very real things/issues like this.

  8. March 6, 2019 9:08 pm

    Great review of a great book.

  9. March 11, 2019 7:24 am

    I’ve read it too, a you know and I agree with everything you say in your review. Of course, I’m not Australian, so I lack a lot of keys to fully understand it.

    This book is humbling and should be read in Australia but also abroad because, even if the Aboriginal experience is unique to Australia, some of what us told here is pure racism and happens elsewhere.

    The repetition of the stories puts the reader in front of what they had to endure and forces empathy. Instead of just reading statistics and generalities about generic and disembodied people, the reader sees another humanbeing and cannot hide behind any excuses.

    Yes, I believe that this kind of book, properly studied in class at the right age has the power to change things.

    • March 11, 2019 8:53 am

      Thanks Emma. I’d forgotten that you’d read it too. Yes, good point re racism … In fact I more or less made that point in my latest post on Alice Pung.

      • March 11, 2019 4:04 pm

        My billet is on the list of the AWW challenge, you haven’t forgotten me. 😊
        I missed your Alice Pung post, my inbox is overflowing with unread book reviews. I don’t think I’ll manage to catch up.

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