Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian literature, 1970s

Although Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) annual Indigenous Literature Week is officially over for 2020, I thought I’d bookend it with a second Monday Musings, this one on how Indigenous Australian literature looked around 50 years ago. Who was writing then, and what were they writing?

My main sources were Trove, of course, and the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter. In their introduction, Heiss and Minter argue that:

Aboriginal literature as we know it today had its origins in the late 1960s, as the intensification of Aboriginal political activity posed an increasing range of aesthetic questions and possibilities for Aboriginal authors.

With the Constitutional Referendum of 1967, and, as they put it, “the election of the reformist Whitlam government in 1972 [that] saw a new radicalisation in Australian politics”, there was a growing interest in land rights and cultural self-determination. In this world, Aboriginal literature “began to play a leading role in in the expression of Aboriginal cultural and political life”.

Heiss and Minter nominate the period from 1967 to the mid-1970s as being “significant for the sudden growth in Aboriginal authorship across a broad range of genres.” Ha! It was in 1967 that I wrote a little piece for my school year book on “Aboriginal equality in Northern Australia”. (It’s a bit excruciating to read now, being the words of an idealistic young teen, but that was when my interest in Indigenous Australian rights really started – and when I started reading authors like Kath Walker, later Oodgeroo Noonuccal.)

Book coverThe writers they name from that time – Kath Walker, Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Monica Clare (who is new to me), Gerry Bostock and Lionel Fogarty – pretty much mirror the writers who cropped up in my Trove search. Heiss and Minter describe them as

active in the political sphere while simultaneously catalysing a nascent publishing industry and writing their own vanguard pieces of creative literature.

There is another name that they don’t mention, but who comes up in Trove, and that’s the controversial Colin Johnson (who also published under the name Mudrooroo.)

The interesting thing about this group of people is that they are primarily poets and playwrights. Davis, Bostock and Gilbert are both, while Walker (Noonuccal) and Fogarty are best known as poets. The exception is Monica Clare. She was primarily an activist, but wrote an autobiographical novel that was published posthumously in 1978, Karobran: The story of an Aboriginal girl. Why were poetry and drama so dominant at that time? Is it because they were easier to publish (or get published) – or perform? Is it because these forms lend themselves more to the activism all these writers were engaged in? A poem, after all, is a powerful tool that can be performed, learnt and quoted again and again – as Noonuccal’s were, I know.

Now, what did the newspapers at the time have to say about Indigenous writing? First, there were several references to the paucity of Indigenous writing and Indigenous characters in contemporary literature, including in children’s literature. Presumably this awareness marked the beginning of the slow change that led us to the last decade or so in which we’ve seen significantly more Indigenous writing being published across all forms and genres.

There was, though, less awareness of the importance of Indigenous people telling their own stories. The sense I get is that it was perfectly alright for non-Indigenous people to tell Indigenous stories. Reviewer Lyndal Hadow, writing in the Tribune about a book of short stories by someone called D Stuart, praises:

his wide and deep knowledge and appreciation of the Aborigine. I believe there is no one who has written with such understanding in all the literature of the subject. His ear and his pen for the subtleties of altered English as used by his Aboriginal friends are not matched by any one I have read, and I have read them all. Again Stuart shows that those of whom he writes are known to him, not as subjects to be studied, but as old friends whose lifestyle he understands, and whose strengths he respects.

I love her confidence in her assessment because she has “read them all”!

The most comprehensive article I found about Indigenous writing in Australia came from the University of New South Wales’ student magazine Tharunka in 1976. The article, written by John Beston, commences:

Who are the Aboriginal writers? The first person to supply an answer to that question was Kath Walker, herself the best known of Aboriginal writers. In an article entitled “Aboriginal Literature,” in the January 1975 issue of Identity, Kath Walker mentions five writers other than herself — Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Colin Johnson, Wilf Reeves and Dick Roughsey — and concludes that there is an exciting time ahead. I agree with her.

Beston comments on the three main poets of the time, Walker, Davis and Gilbert, and shares this:

Kath Walker has graciously acknowledged Jack Davis to be the better poet, but there is no clear superiority of one poet to the other: Davis is the more skilled craftsman, but Walker sometimes has greater emotional force.

This article is worth reading, because it surveys the gamut of Indigenous Australian writing at the time, across all forms and genres. He concludes, though, by returning to Walker and her significant role, saying (in the tone of his times):

The quality of her work and the success she met with — We Are Going went into seven editions — gave other Aboriginals a needed boost and encouraged them to express the creativity that they have always had. So Aboriginal literature is less than twelve years old. The young tree is certainly flourishing.

Another article I found noted Kevin Gilbert’s being awarded a literature grant to write a book. And, there was a 1979 review of the book Literature and the Aborigine in Australia by a non-Indigenous writer, which seemed to be more about “the history of the efforts of Australian writers to come to terms” with Indigenous culture than about Indigenous literary culture itself, though the review does say:

‘There is also, completing the record, the very new group of writers, Aboriginal or part-Aboriginal themselves, who are producing their own literature.’

In the 1970s, then, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of Indigenous Australian writing, but there was the beginning of an awareness that Indigenous Australians were writing – and that Indigenous Australians and their culture should no longer be overlooked. We have a long way to go yet in terms of all Australians reading and appreciating Indigenous Australian writing and culture, but it is useful to see where we’ve come from, don’t you think?

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

31 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian literature, 1970s

  1. This will seem like my all-too-frequent off-topic comment, but it isn’t ..
    Reading your post causes me to think of Michelle Obama’s obsession with education, and her insistence upon promulgating it among African American children; for which of our own indigenous population might not turn out to be a writer were education to be available and appealing to them all ..?
    Do we need uni courses that educate students to teach our indigenous kids ?
    Do we already have them ?
    If we do, they’re not good enough.

  2. Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo is only controversial in that although brought up as Aboriginal in rural WA and in a Perth orphanage he was subsequently disowned, as being African American. Bobby Sykes, from Townsville, well known at that time as an Aboriginal activist, had the same experience. Heiss is on the hard-line side of this argument, Kim Scott though accepts that Mudrooroo contributed to Indigenous Lit.

    In the sixties all I knew of Indigenous representations in literature were I, The Aboriginal, The Fringe Dwellers and Biggles in Australia. I’ve since read Frank Davis who I think has always been taught in WA schools, but not Kath Walker.

    • Thanks Bill. Yes, I’m not sure why that means “only” controversial though. Still, I think Kim Scott’s compromise is probably fair, but I understand Heiss. I remember the Bobbi Sykes business too of course.

    • Mudrooroo wasn’t just brought up as an Aboriginal, he was also taken from his mother in exactly the same way as the Stolen Generations were, i.e. he wasn’t in an orphanage because his parents were dead. And it’s not just Kim Scott who acknowledges his contribution to Indigenous Lit, he is recognised internationally in the academic world.
      However, I would hesitate to attribute his exclusion from the PEN Macquarie as evidence that Anita Heiss (who was co-editor with Peter Heiss) was hard-line. I suspect it was more a case of not wanting the importance of the anthology to be overshadowed by a controversy.
      My introduction to Indigenous lit was through the numerous memoirs that came out in the 1970s.

      • Lisa. I mis-read Wiki which, yes, says he was separated from his mother (his father died earlier) and anyway you have his biography I think.
        “Hardline” follows from Heiss’s Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight, which she begins by saying Mudrooroo and Sykes should be disavowed.

      • Thanks Lisa … I know you have read and reviewed some of his work.

        I remember Wild cat falling coming out, but didn’t read it at the time. Because of the controversy, I’ve been a bit hesitant when it’s come up later. It’s not that I refuse to read him but that given the time constraints, I give other works higher priority. I appreciate your fleshing out your understanding of the situation.

        You may be right about the Macquarie PEN anthology – and Bill may be right too. It was probably one of those decisions that had multiple reasons. Such a decision rarely has just one cause I think!

  3. I was in high school in the 1970’s and will be forever grateful to my English teacher who introduced me to the poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal. The first literature by an indigenous writer that I had ever read, it opened the door for me to future experiences and learning at a time when there were few other opportunities to do so for a teenager who had only met one indigenous person in her life to that point. Thanks for this thoughtful summary of indigenous writing in this period. Hard to believe it is 50 years go!

  4. I was doing my English Honours year at Sydney University in 1970. I remember Oodgeoo, Kath Walker as she then was, reading a poem at La Perouse that year in the gathering on the other side of Botany Bay from the re-enactment of Cook’s landing: the sheer power of her words resounding out over the heads of the crowd – ‘When our race does, so too dies this land.’ Also from the 70s, I have a copy of Kevin Gilbert’s End of Dreamtime (1971), a beautifully produced volume of his poetry, which he repeatedly and publicly disowned because the well-meaning editor-publisher ‘tidied up’ the poems in a way he didn’t see until they were published. It’s a stunning case of good intentions not being enough.

    • That would have been a great experience Jonathan. I was still in high school that year.

      Tidying up the poems. Do you reckon an editor would have done that to a non-indigenous poet without consultation? Perhaps back then those less consultative days they may have, but it doesn’t sound good does it?

      • It’s an interesting question. Certainly in my days editing a children’s magazine we routinely edited without sending the edits back for approval, sometime making complete idiots of ourselves. We at least had the excuse of time constraints, and writers often thanked us for our intervention (one spiky New York writer once memorably thanked me for removing some racist language). But now I’m not easy about having done that.

      • *that* Where’s autocorrect when you want it? I should add that I’ve edited texts by First Nations writers and been made very aware that as a Settler I wasn’t to change a word. There’s too much history of settlers speaking about, for and over First Nations people fur us to be trusted or to trust ourselves as we may do with other non-Indigenous writers.

  5. This was such an interesting time. Through the world many members of so called Western culture began to be aware that other cultures were worth trying to understand. Thus the indigenous writers. Here in America, there was something called The Native American Renaissance in literature.

    • Thanks Brian, that’s great to hear. We hear so little about your Indigenous people, they get lost in the Black Lives story and I feel many people are completely unaware of the Native Americans and their situation.

  6. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2020 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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