Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Literature Week, and, as I have done for a few years now, I’ve decided to devote my Monday Musings to an Indigenous Australian literature topic. This year’s topic is Indigenous Australian biography.
I have previously written Monday Musings on Indigenous Australian autobiographies and memoirs. These have flourished in the last decade or so, particularly, it seems, memoirs from Indigenous Australian women. I’ve reviewed several on this blog. However, biographies are a different form altogether, and in researching for this post, I’ve struggled to find many. Readings bookshop, for example, provides a list of Australian First Nations Memoir and Biography but I struggled to find many biographies in their list. It is a positive thing that publishers and readers have embraced memoirs, but I can’t help feeling that the paucity of biography tells us something about the place of Indigenous Australians in Australian culture.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), self-described as “Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography”, aims to provide “informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of significant and representative persons in Australian history.” This suggests that biography has a formal role in telling the story of a nation. Consequently, the dearth of Indigenous Australian biographies – if my research is right – is surely a measure of the continuing marginalisation or exclusion of Indigenous Australian culture and lives from our national story.
Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem. In 2017, the National Centre of Biography launched a new project “to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography“. It’s being led by Shino Konishi who is of Indiengous descent from Broome. She is on the ADB’s Indigenous Working Party which was established in 2015, and which includes “leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars from each state and the territory”. The main aim of the project is to add 190 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander biographies to the ADB which, they say, has published nearly 13,000 biographies since 1966, but “has tended to under-recognise the contribution of Indigenous people to the Australian story”. The end-result of the project will be a dedicated Indigenous ADB.
Alongside this, the National Centre of Biography, which publishes the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also hosts a site called Indigenous Australia which “brings together all entries on Indigenous Australians found in the NCB’s biographical websites–Australian Dictionary of Biography, Obituaries Australia, Labour Australia and Women Australia.” It also supports the Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive, which is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney. (However, it moves us away from my focus here on biography.)
Of course, the above is all very important, but the ADB is about biographical essays in a dictionary of biography. I’m also interested in full-length biographies. I didn’t find many, but, as always, I’m hoping you will tell me (or remind me of) others?
Indigenous Australian biography – a small selection
- Max Bonnell’s How many more are coming?: the short life of Jack Marsh (2003): on athlete and first class cricketer, Jack Marsh, who died in 1916.
- Kathie Cochrane’s Oodgeroo (1994): on poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
- Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the past (1999): on Ginibi’s son, Nobby, who spent significant time in prison, and the systemic failures in handling Indigenous young.
- Kevin Keeffe’s Paddy’s road: Life stories of Patrick Dodson (2003): on activist Patrick Dodson, and his family, and their commitment to reconciliation.
- Marlene J. Norst’s Burnum Burnum: A warrior for peace (1999): on Burnum, Stolen Generations survivor, sportsperson and activist.
- John Ramsland’s The rainbow beach man (2009): on Les Ridgeway, Worimi elder, who was a farm labourer, station manager and was eventually recruited by Charles Perkins to work in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
- Peter Read’s Charles Perkins: A biography (2001): on activist, Freedom Ride participant and administrator, Charlie Perkins.
- Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen’s Janadamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (1995): on Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, and his resistance against invasion in the Kimberleys.
- Alexis Wright’s Tracker (2017): on the charismatic ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, activist, a book which is described by some as a “collective memoir” but which I’ve included here as an example of new forms of “biography”, particularly for Indigenous life-writing.
So, now, please add to this list …
Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings
- 2019: early Indigenous Australian literature
- 2018: about Arnhem Land
- 2017: Reading Indigenous Australian literature
- 2016: Spotlight on Larissa Behrendt
- 2016: Recent books by Indigenous Australians
- 2015: NAIDOC Week
- 2015: David Unaipon Award
- 2014: Indigenous Australian writers recommend …
- 2014: In Conversation with BlackWords
- 2013: BlackWords
- 2013: Indigenous Australian memoirs