Monday musings on Australian literature: “You don’t walk away until the work is done”

Book cover

This is a different type of Monday Musings, but its relevance will become apparent, I promise you! It’s inspired by Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence which I read a couple of weeks ago. In my review, I mentioned that one of the book’s four main sections is devoted to failure and imperfection, but I didn’t share much about this section, which is titled “We are all wiggly”.

Its opening chapter, after her usual intro, is called “The activist’s attic”. In it she tells of 9 boxes of papers she’s carried around with her for decades. They relate to her “spectacularly unsuccessful endeavour”, when a young woman, to win ordination for women in Sydney’s Anglican church. It’s a failure that has hung heavily on her, and that brought her to ask, in this book, “how to think of these years of effort?”

She shares the stories of other activists, like William Wilberforce who fought against the slave trade for forty-six years, and Nelson Mandela “who spent much of his life, including twenty-seven years in prison, fighting apartheid … “

And then she talks about climate change:

… think of all the scientists who have been warning of the dangers of extreme climate change since the 1960s, and of all the criticism of their work and the dismissal of anything resembling agitation and or activism as the lunatic alarmism of the left. The public burying – or attempts to discredit – the crucial findings of thousands of our finest climate scholars will prove to be one of the greatest (if not the greatest) acts of political and intellectual corruptions of our age.

But then comes the paragraph that is the focus of this post, because this week is NAIDOC Week, and in her book – in this Activist chapter – Baird also writes about Indigenous Australians’ long fight for recognition:

And what of the Indigenous people of Australia seeking constitutional recognition, truth-telling and a voice to parliament, those people who have been mistreated, stymied, rejected, ignored and discriminated against and who continue to ask non-indigenous Australians to walk with them in a makarrata, a Yolngu word meaning peace-making, a coming together after a struggle? The grace of this approach after more than two hundred years of suffering racism, along with their patience, strength and resilience, is astonishing.

The lesson is: you don’t walk away until the work is done.

I should explain here that NAIDOC Week is usually held in July, but it was deferred this year to protect, wrote the Committee, “our elders and those in our communities with chronic health issues from the disastrous impacts of COVID19. I post most years for this Week, and did write two posts back in July, anyhow, to align with Lisa’s ANZLitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week. But, I wanted to also honour this year’s actual week, so decided to let Baird be my inspiration.

Finally, this year’s theme is “Always was, always will be”, which recognises that “First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years”. It also asks

all Australians to celebrate that we have the oldest continuing cultures on the planet and to recognise that our sovereignty was never ceded. 

C’mon, Aussies … let’s get this thing done!

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: “You don’t walk away until the work is done”

  1. Julia’s book is still on my TBR pile – so – many thanks WG for coming back to it. And for explaining why NAIDOC Week is so much later this year – I thought it a more sensible time – perhaps. I was in Tamworth last week-end – where I grew up – to see family – an amazing WWII War Artists exhibition at the regional gallery – a lot of female artists apart from Nora Heysen – and female subjects – sourced from the NGA I think – and to attend an amazing Cultural Spectacular at the TRECC (my first time to attend any event there) led by senior Gomeroi man – and friend – Len WATERS (named for his uncle who has a street named after HIM in Ngunnawal in Canberra, btw, – first Indigenous fighter pilot – WWII) with lots of noted singers and dancers as part of the journey through Gomeroi (Gamilaraay/Kamillaroi) history – the stories (all guides to life – lessons for living), the stars – reminding the people on Earth of the lessons) , the contemporary world from the time of the Missions and Stolen Generations – those who came back (those who never came back) David Leha singing without accompaniment the Archie Roach song: “Took the Children Away” – a deep bass Paul Robeson-like moving rendition. And the audience 600+ (?) deeply moved by the event – not least me. Jim

    • Nor did no child being in poverty by 1990 as I recollect, Lisa! But yes, this is taking way way too long. If only the powers that be realised how much better we’d all be if they just got on with it.

  2. ‘The activist’s attic’ is a good reminder to practice determination and fortitude. Sometimes though, things take a while to shift and we can’t always feel the guilt of personal responsibility when things don’t go our way. As an independent anthropologist I’ve been trying to shift reconciliation issues in my region for years. But it was only with a general groundswell of interest in Indigenous culture, and that big win by the Yindibarnji against Andrew Forest in the courts, that’s things have begun to really shift. Like Mark Hunter sang recently, ‘it’s a slow dawn rising.’

  3. Midnight Oil have just released an album called the Makarrata Project, which is a collaboration with lots of indigenous musicians and singers, focused on indigenous issues. But of the Uluru Statement from the Heart are read by prominent First Nations people (Stan Grant, Adam Goodes etc). It seems unbelievable to me that the band still have to do this consciousness raising / musical activism … Diesel and Dust, the album that began it all, was released in 1987!!!

    • Yes, I’ve heard some of it kimbofo, but thanks for mentioning it here. I’m so disappointed in Turnbull’s out of hand rejection of those recommendations. While I didn’t support his party, I did think he had a bit of a social justice small-l liberal heart!

  4. Hi Sue, I think more recognition is gaining on the need. Sports clubs, news outlets and community organizations are pushing for the ‘work to be done’. I have hope.

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