Bill curates: Monday musings on Indigenous Australian writers

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

The feature of Whispering Gums that we all most look forward to is Monday Musings. But when did they start? It took me a while to locate – WordPress really needs the ability to scroll through post Titles by Date – but it turns out Sue put up the first one on 9 Aug. 2010 (here). Check it out, it’s only short, not much more than a statement of intent. No. 2 (here) covers 5 Australian novels, of which two would have to be my all time least favourite. So I’ve chosen for today, No. 3, from 23 Aug. 2009.

My original post titled: “Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous writers”

Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch (Courtesy: Friend of subject, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It’s important I think that my third post be on our indigenous writers. Again it’s going to be pretty idiosyncratic as my reading in this area has been scattered, not for lack of interest so much as the old “so many books” issue that we all know only too well. I was first introduced to indigenous writing at high school where I had two inspirational teachers who encouraged us to think seriously about human rights. It was then that I bought Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s (or Kath Walker as she was then) book of poetry, My people.

In my first Monday Musings post, I mentioned David Unaipon who is generally recognised as the first published indigenous Australian author. However, it was Oodgeroo Noonuccal, with her book of poetry, We are going (1964), who heralded contemporary indigenous Australian writing. So let’s start with her.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal My people (1970, poetry)

Noonuccal’s poetry is largely political. She wrote to right the wrongs which indigenous Australians confronted every day: the racism, the white-colonial-slanted history, the lack of land rights, and so on. Much of her poetry is therefore strong but accessible “protest” poetry. My people collects poems from her first two books and includes new works as well. Here are just a few lines to give you a sense of what she was about:

… Do not ask of us
To be deserters, to disown our mother,
To change the unchangeable.
The gum cannot be trained into an oak.
(from “Assimilaton – No!”)

Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest walls
And wild bird calls.
(from “Municipal gum”)

I love the way she uses gums to represent her people – who they are, where they should be. Some of the poems are angry, some are conciliatory, and others celebrate her culture. I loved the book then, and I still value it now.

Sally Morgan My place (1987, memoir)

The next book in my collection, chronologically speaking, is Sally Morgan’s memoir My place. Sally Morgan is primarily an artist but her memoir became a best seller when it was first published. In it she chronicles how she discovered at the age of 15 years old that her colour did not come from an Indian but  an Aboriginal background, and her subsequent investigations into her family’s rather controversial story. I don’t want to go into the controversy here. Rather, the point I’d like to make is her story-telling: it is warm, funny, and thoroughly engaging.

Women of the centre (1990, short life-stories); Black chicks talking (2002, short life-stories produced in film, book, theatre and art)

Telling stories is an intrinsic part of Indigenous Australian culture. It’s how traditions have been passed on for 40,000 years or more. It’s probably simplistic to draw parallels between traditional story-telling and the telling of stories in general. After all, we all love stories. Nonetheless it is certainly clear from the little experience I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, that story-telling is an intrinsic part of Indigenous Australian culture and is becoming an important way of sharing their experience with the rest of us. This was powerfully done in Bringing them home: The stolen generation report of 1997 which contained not only the history of the separation of children from their parents and recommendations for the future, but many many first person stories which drove the drier points home.

Two books that I’ve read which contain personal stories by indigenous women are Women of the centre and Black chicks talking. The introduction to the former states that its aim is to help we non-Aboriginal Australian readers to understand lives that are so different from our own and “to provide personal written histories for the descendants of the women involved”. This latter is becoming an urgent issue in indigenous communities today – the capturing of story before more is lost. In Black chicks talking Leah Purcell interviews nine Aboriginal woman – some urban, some rural, some well-known, some not – about their lives. Another wonderful read.

Life stories/memoirs represent, in fact, a significant component of indigenous literature. Another work worth mentioning, though I’ve only seen the film and not read the book (shame on me!), is Doris Pilkington’s “stolen generation” story of her mother’s capture and subsequent escape involving an astonishing trek home, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Alexis Wright Carpentaria (2006); Tara June Winch Swallow the air (2006); Marie Munkara Every secret thing (2009)

Finally, a brief mention of three recent fictional works, two of which I’m ashamed to say are still in my TBR pile. These are the two David Unaipon Award winners by Tara June Winch (reviewed since then) and Marie Munkara (reviewed since then). If you are interested in the latter, please check Musings of a Literary Dilettante’s review.

I have though read Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria (my post). It’s set in a fictitious place, tellingly called Desperance, in northern Australia. Its focus is colonialism (ie European invasion of the land), and conflict within black communities about how to respond. To explore these, Wright touches on lot of ground, including land rights, deaths in custody, mining rights, boat people, and petrol sniffing to name just a few. She flips between the real and the magical, she uses language that is image-rich and often playful, and she tells some very funny stories. It’s a big, wild and rather complex read that manages in the end to be hopeful despite itself.

This is just a small introduction to the wealth of Australia’s indigenous literature. It won’t be the last time I write about it. I will also in the future post on white Australians who have written about Aboriginal Australians, writers like Thomas Keneally who wrote The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith but who now says he wouldn’t presume to write in the voice of an Indigenous Australian. A vexed question really. I believe there should be no “rules” for writers of fiction and yet, sometimes perhaps, it is best not to appropriate voices not your own. But that is a question for another day…

Meanwhile, back to Alexis Wright – and stories:

Old stories circulating around the Pricklebush were full of the utmost intrigues concerning the world. Legends of the sea were told in instalments every time you walked in the door of some old person’s house. Stories lasted months on end, and if you did not visit often, you would never know how the story ended. (Carpentaria, p. 479)


I’m not surprised – and am glad – that Bill chose this one from my early Monday Musings, because this is an area of Australian literature that is dear to his and my hearts (and to Lisa’s who runs her Indigenous Literature Week each year.) And phew, I’m glad I’ve since read those two novels that were on my TBR back there in 2010.

[You can find all my Monday Musings by clicking on the Monday Musings category, or this link]

Would you, wherever you are, like to recommend any indigenous writers?

17 thoughts on “Bill curates: Monday musings on Indigenous Australian writers

  1. Come on, Bill. You can’t drop in “of which two would have to be my all time least favourite” without at least naming them!

    • Cloudstreet and Secret River, Neil, they’re both bogus, to me anyway.
      But Sue, thank you again for starting me on the path to reading Indigenous Lit. Apart from relieving some of my ignorance about what it must be like to be Black and oppressed in your own country, I think that some of Australia’s best writing these days is coming from Indigenous writers.

      • My pleasure Bill, if I did that. I agree that some of our best writing currently is Indigenous. It’s exciting to feel our understanding of our land and culture expanding though that feels awful to say because it’s built on such injustice and pain.

  2. Well… I could, but it would take a long time, and you’ve already provided the link to my reading list! So I’ll content myself with telling you about a new one which arrived in my post box today:
    Published by Magabala Books, it’s called Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja, and it’s a very special kind of biography. Yorna is a Kimberley, Woddordda artist and the book ‘invites the reader to explore an alternative worldview, a different way of being in Country.’ It’s illustrated with lush photography and stunning artworks.
    I’ll provide the link to Magabala because I know you are going to want to buy this as a Christmas present for some lucky person in your family, probably your brother!

  3. I enjoyed Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, and the chic lit of Anita Heise is entertaining. Stan Grant makes me think. There are others, but on my TBR pile!

    • I’m glad you liked Too much lip Neil. And I m glad there are more in your TBR. Has your reading group read any? And why does WP insist on moderating you EVERY time you comment now? I don’t know what you’ve done, but it’s very clever!

  4. The reading group hasn’t, though we had a Stan Grant offered as a supplementary read, which was not further discussed. Eventually I’ll get around to selecting one as my offering.

    I think WP is upset with me because I have created my web site using the same email address but a different user ID. I have the same problem with Bill’s blog. I haven’t worked out how to fix it. What happens when you embark on something new without being aware of the ramifications. And I haven’t published my blog yet. Still a bit of setting up to go.

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