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Bangarra: Thirty years old and still going strong

July 19, 2019

Bangarra 30 yearsLast night we attended Bangarra Dance Theatre’s current touring program, 30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand. This title refers to the fact that Bangarra, Australia’s indigenous dance company, is thirty years old this year and that, as they write in their program, they present “stories through a dance form that is forged from more than 65,000 years of culture”. It was, in a word, stunning.

Now, I am not, as I’ve said before, a dance critic. That is, I don’t have the “right” language to describe dance, but I do have the words to describe the impact of this particular program. It was, essentially, a triple bill designed to showcase and celebrate Bangarra Dance Theatre’s story, so I’ll briefly describe the three works in the program.


Unaipon (45 mins) was created in 2004 by Frances Rings (whom I first encountered, long before blogging, in Leah Purcell’s book Black chicks talking). At a Bangarra event we attended in Sydney in May, Rings talked about the research she’d done for this work and the thinking behind the dances in it. Regular readers of this blog will know who Unaipon is, because I named him in a recent Monday Musings as the first indigenous Australian writer to publish a book. I also, in 2015, devoted a Monday Musings to the literary awards made in his name. He was an amazing man – inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller.

Bangarra Artistic Director Stephen Page writes in the program that the work was “a pivotal moment in her [Rings’] transition from dancer to dance-maker … it was also the first time in our repertoire that we focused on the biographical story of one character”. Since then, they’ve done a few that Mr Gums and I have seen, including Mathinna, Patyegarang (about which I posted) and Bennelong. They’ve also done, as readers here will be interested to know, a dance adaptation (on which I also posted) of Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark emu.

Anyhow, Unaipon captures the diversity of its subject’s life and interests, from his traditional Ngarrindjeri origins, his scientific interests in such topics as perpetual motion, and his interest in religion. The work comprises seven dances under three subjects: Ngarrindjeri, Science and Religion. “String Games” (Ngarrindjeri) is exciting to watch – and to wonder about the work involved in creating and choreographing it, and then in learning and performing it. “Motion” (Science) is a fun and evocative piece. Who knew physics could be so visual! And, the final piece, “Religion” is quietly moving, and perfectly accompanied by that spine-tingling choral music from Allegri’s Miserere.

You can watch the whole of Unaipon on YouTube, from the recent Sydney Opera House season of the program we saw.

Stamping Ground

Stamping Ground (20 mins) is the first work created by a non-indigenous choreographer to be performed by Bangarra. It was created in 1983 by Czech Jiří Kylián, after attending a “huge corroboree” on Groote Eylandt, which in fact he initiated, in 1980. This work was preceded and concluded by video footage, in which Kylián describes its genesis (with footage of some of that dancing from 1980), explaining that the work he created three years later (and which he cleared with the indigenous people) was inspired by but not intended to imitate (or appropriate) what he’d experienced. And that’s how it came across.

What an absolute delight it was. Witty, but respectful, it was performed by six dancers, who all performed solos, as well as dancing together. Stephen Page, at the after-event, described it as “a cheeky humorous take on the dances he saw”. It sure was – as anyone who has seen traditional indigenous dances could see – and we’d see it again in a flash, as we would the whole program, in fact.

To Make Fire

To Make Fire (40 mins) was something different again, a sort of medley of excerpts from previous works (including Mathinna) and organised into three sections, “Mathinna”, “About” and “Clan”, all performed against the rock-face style backdrop used in Patyegarang. The title, “To make fire”, is the English translation of the Wiradjuri word, Bangarra. I wondered how they were going to make this conglomeration work without its being bitsy-piecy but, drawing from the fire theme, the transitions were managed by small groups of dancers coming on stage carrying smoking sticks. As they crossed the stage, they left the dancers for the next dance behind, and picked up the dancers who had just finished. Clever, moving, and seamless.

This work, as a whole, evoked past wrongs (represented by the sad story of Mathinna) followed by dances conveying traditional and contemporary life and culture. There were solos, and small ensemble pieces, with, as you’d expect, the full company on stage for the finale. As To Make Fire, and thus the night’s performance, drew to a close, the dancers were bathed in a warm glow of light – sunlight, I presume – which I read as suggesting hope, for Bangarra, for indigenous Australians, and for a unified Australia.

After Event

As subscribers, we had tickets to the Gala Opening after the show. We were treated to an inspired Welcome to Country by local elder Paul House, who spoke in language and then translated into English, telling some stories about this country that we, here in Canberra, live on.

I’ve said nothing about the individual dancers. It’s hard to single people out in what is truly an ensemble company. We wondered how the company would be without the presence of Elma Kriss who retired from dancing this year but who has been such a luminous presence on Bangarra’s stage for so long. Some dancers did stand out for us, including the sinuously, lithe Tyrel Dulvarie and the powerful Beau Dean Riley Smith. I also watched out for two particular dancers – Ella Havelka (about whom the documentary Ella was made a few years ago), and Baden Hitchcock whom we met at the Bangarra event back in May. Both featured in the six-hand (is that how you say it?) Stamping Ground. I loved the opportunity this provided me to really watch and enjoy their expressive, engaged dancing. But, as I said, this is an ensemble company, and every dancer captured our attention at one moment or another.

We left the theatre on a high, realising that we had seen something special. Bangarra has well and truly established itself as a classy, sophisticated dance company, and yet still manages to keep itself real, relevant and true to its origins.

If you’ve never seen Bangarra perform, do go see this if it comes to a theatre near you.

30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand, by Bangarra Dance Theatre
Canberra Theatre
18 July 2019

Australian Women Writers 2019 Challenge completed

July 17, 2019

As has become tradition, I’m writing my completion post for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge, around the middle of the year, though I will continue to contribute until the year’s end, and do a final round-up then.

I signed up, as always, for the top-level, Franklin, which involves reading 10 books and reviewing at least 6, and as always I’ve exceeded this. In fact, by June 30, I had contributed 16 reviews to the challenge, including 3 guest posts by Amanda.

Here’s my list in alphabetical order (by author), with the links on the titles being to my reviews:

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AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeIn last year’s completion post, I said that I didn’t have specific goals for the rest of that year but that I’d like to read more indigenous writers, more classics, and more from my TBR pile. These continue to be my non-goal goals, but I’ve not done particularly well with them so far this year, but I have read two classic writers (Capel Boake and Louise Mack) and I’ve also read three works by indigenous writers, two of which are anthologies. I’m pleased with all this, and hope to read more indigenous authors, in particular, men as well as women, as the year progresses. And, I’ve returned to my preferred fiction/non-fiction ratio, with 9 of my 13 being novels and short stories. Around 2/3 is my comfort zone!

I’m also pleased to include, this year, three guest posts by Amanda who offered to do these reviews to fill gaps in the Challenge. As Amanda doesn’t have her own blog, and didn’t want to review on GoodReads (another option for our participants), I happily offered her my blog for the purpose.

Watch out for my 2019 AWW Challenge wrap-up post for the year’s full story!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Listen to Indigenous Australian authors

July 15, 2019

BannerSome years, I’ve written an indigenous Australian focused Monday Musings post to start and conclude NAIDOC Week and Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. I have been researching a topic for this year’s second post, but it’s taking longer than I expected, so have decided to hold it over to next year. Meanwhile, having committed to a second post, I decided to change tack and instead share some podcasts comprising interviews with Indigenous Australian authors …

So, I’ve put together a sample list of interviews conducted this year with Indigenous Australian writers. They are from ABC RN programs (AWAYE!, The Book Show, and Conversations) and The Wheeler Centre. You can search those sites for earlier interviews with these, and other writers.

I am listing them alphabetically by author to make it easy for you to see if your favourite is here! And I am providing website links, but most if not all of these will be available through podcast services on tablets and smart phones.

Tony Birch

Fighting for family in Tony Birch’s The White Girl, The Book Show, (ABC RN), 24 June 2019, 17mins

Book coverBirch speaks to Claire Nichols “about trauma, bravery and writing stories of the past” regarding his latest book The white girl (my review) He discusses, among other things, the “contradictory and unpredictable” way in which the Act (which limited the freedom of indigenous people to travel, and made children wards of the state) was enforced in towns, and how this increased the level of insecurity and anxiety felt by indigenous people, somehting experienced by his character Odette Brown. The reason for this unpredictability could be incompetence in the local police, or the presence of a genuinely benign policeman, or because there was no law in the place or town.

Stan Grant

Book coverConversations: Stan GrantConversations (ABC RN), 24 April 2019, 52mins

Coinciding with the publication of his latest book Australia Day (about which I reported in another conversation with him), Grant talks with Richard Fidler about his book, and specifically his thoughts about the push to “change the date” of Australia Day. He believes, as the show’s promo says, “that … for now, 26 January is all that we are and all that we are not” and thinks that there are deeper questions to discuss about who we are than simply changing the date. I like his comment on protest – his dislike of “certainty” and of “slogans” – because I feel similarly uncomfortable, much as I agree with the heart of most protests. “I like to live in the space between ideas”, he says.

Melissa Lucashenko

Melissa Lucashenko in conversation at Sydney Writers Festival, AWAYE! (ABC RN), 11 May 2019, 33mins

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipConversation with AWAYE!’s Daniel Bowning, including Lucashenko reading from Too much lip (my review). The show’s promo says “we talk about our grannies, the meaning of place, the role of humour in serious literary work, the fetishisation of Black suffering and why she would never kill off one of her characters.” Lucashenko talks about how the book is about oppressed people (of whatever ilk) standing up. (As she says on another podcast, “if you don’t fight you lose”.) Because she included some negative depiction of indigenous lives (particularly black-on-black violence), she expected backlash from the black community, but it hasn’t come. She feared being honest about this issue at this time in Australia’s history – was it the right time, she wondered – but then realised that “silence is violence”. She says the job of the writer being “to see what’s going on and write about it”.  Oh, and she wanted to write a funny book – which she certainly did.

Other interviews with Lucashenko on this book are available on ABC RN’s The Book Show, including one after its Miles Franklin shortlisting (12 July 2019, 10mins).

Bruce Pascoe

Book coverA truer history of Australia, AWAYE!, 25 May 2019, 12mins

Pascoe talks about Young dark emu, his junior version of his bestselling Dark emu (my review). It includes a reading by Pascoe from the book. He talks about the importance of teaching the true history of Australia to young people in schools, arguing that “ignorance makes you scared, knowledge makes you wonder”.

Alison Whittaker

Book coverAlison Whittaker in conversation at Sydney Writers Festival, AWAYE!, 18 May 2019, 32mins

Whittaker talks about (and reads from) her latest work, Blakwork, reviewed for Lisa’s ILW week by Bill and Brona. She talks about the “transformative power of poetry” and says her aim is “to provoke and upset white readers because they are the main readers” of poetry. This issue, that we middle class, white, educated people are the main readers of indigenous writing, is something I often think about. It’s a complex interaction, methinks. Whittaker talks about the paradox of using the English language, the language of the imperialists, to convey feelings and ideas from a very different culture.

An aside. I appreciated her discussion of the word “important” as in, “an important book”. I agree with her dislike of it, and avoid it in my reviews, albeit the temptation can be great. She says that “important is not an interesting thing to say”. The challenge for me, often, is to find the “interesting thing to say” that is also succinct!

Tara June Winch

Book coverDocumenting ‘the old language’ in Tara June Winch’s The Yield, The Book Show (ABC RN), 15 July

Winch talks to Claire Nichols about her new book, The yield (reviewed by Lisa/ANZlitLovers), and also reads from the book. In the book, the character Albert Gondiwindi is writing a dictionary of Wiradjuri language. He says that “every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language – because that is the way to all time, to time travel!” Given the current interest in reviving indigenous languages, and the criticality of using our own language to express our own culture, this book sounds really timely.

Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright, TrackerAlexis Wright in conversation with Elizabeth McCarthy, Books and Arts at Montalto, The Wheeler Centre, 14 January 2019 (though recorded in 2018), 1hr 3mins

Wright talks to Elizabeth McCarthy about her collective biography Tracker, which won the 2018 Stella Prize and the Non-Fiction Book Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. The interview focuses mostly on Tracker Tilmouth himself, rather than on the form of the book, and the approach Wright took to writing it.

Do you listen to literary podcasts? If so, I’d love to hear your favourites.

Stan Grant, On identity (#BookReview)

July 13, 2019

Book coverStan Grant seems to be the indigenous-person-du-jour here in Australia. I don’t say this disrespectfully, which I fear is how it may come across given Grant’s views “on identity”, but it feels true – particularly if you watch or listen to the ABC. He pops up regularly on shows, sometimes as presenter, other times as interviewee. He therefore needs no introduction for Aussies. For everyone else, though, a brief introduction. Grant is described in the bio at the front of his book, On identity, as “a self-described Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish.” The bio goes on to say that “his  identities embrace all and exclude none“. He is also a Walkley Award-winning journalist (see my Monday Musings on this award), and the author of Talking to my country, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.

Grant could also be described as a (modern) Renaissance man. I say this because of the way he synthesises his wide range of reading – including philosophy, history, psychology, history, anthropology, and literature – into coherent ideas that support his arguments. He did this orally at the conversation event I attended a couple of months ago, and he does it in this long-form essay called On identity.

In my post on that event, I wrote that his main point about identity was its tendency to exclusivity. In On identity, he explores this “exclusivity”, and its ramifications, starting with those boxes we see on all sorts of forms – including the census – that asks whether you are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. As a person with a keen interest in the pros and cons of “labelling”, I’m aware of the obvious implication of this, that is, that it marks or separates people out. However, as Grant points out, it also, in cases where heritage is mixed (like Grant’s, like many indigenous people’s), forces them to deny other aspects of themselves, to exclude other members of their families.

And so it forces Grant, for example, to deny his Irish grandmother Ivy.

If I mark yes on that identity box, then that is who I am; definitively, there is no ambiguity. I will have made a choice that colour, race, culture, whatever these things are, they matter to me more than my grandmother.

Through her, through this conversation about ticking boxes, Grant introduces his theme of “love”, of growing up surrounded by unconditional love, and how a focus on “identity” becomes a cold substitute for what truly sustains and binds, love. Now, this might sound a bit corny, or simplistic, but bear with me …

Grant then leads us through his argument. He discusses the work and ideas of Noongar author Kim Scott, whose trajectory as an indigenous person, Grant admits, has been quite different from his own. Grant grew up knowing he was indigenous. Scott, on the other hand, was raised with very little contact with Noongar people. On discovering his ancestry and wanting to know more, he felt forced to make a choice – was he black or white? And that decision, Scott writes in his family history, Kayang & me, was a “political imperative”. There are no references to “love” in this book, writes Grant, which confirms, he says, “what I have come to believe is true: identity – exclusive identity – has no space for love”.

Grant “deeply” admires Scott, but feels sad that “in writing himself back into a Noongar identity … it isn’t love that calls him, but politics”. Scott is not oblivious to this, worrying that his decision may strand his children in “no man’s land”, making them targets from both sides of “a historical, racial fault-line”. This concern leads Grant back to his mantra that “identity does not liberate: it binds”. He talks about other writers including Jewish ones (like Kafka) and Irish (like Yeats), about their attitudes to the problematic and limiting notion of “identity”. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, he says, “knows if he is to write anything he must find freedom; he must shake loose the chains of identity.”

Grant turns to other writers of colour, who have found their “identity” limiting. Toni Morrison sees that the “very serious function of racism” is to distract, preventing you “from doing your work”. Writing for her, says Grant, “has been the struggle to live free from the white gaze”. Similarly, James Baldwin sought to be “free of identity” by going to France:

Baldwin did not wish to escape being black, but he desperately wanted to be rid of other people’s ideas of blackness.

Unfortunately, Baldwin returned to the USA, and got caught up in black protest. Thus, argues Grant, the man “who had been raised in the church … had forgotten the lessons of his own childhood. He had forgotten about love”:

When Baldwin turned to politics, his words lost no power–perhaps they grew more powerful–but he made the worst bargain I think a writer can make: he swapped freedom for identity and the identity writer can only write propaganda.

Strong words, for another day, perhaps! For Grant, it is the Baldwin of France he returns to “because he taught me that a black man could have the world”.

And here, really, is the paradox that I see in Grant’s argument. It’s sophisticated, erudite, and elegantly written. He makes a strong case for his belief that identity binds rather than frees, and that in so binding, if this makes sense, it keeps people divided. But, I’m not sure that he answers for me what can be done about the division (that is, the oppression of people on the basis of race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, etc) that has given rise to “identity” in the first place. It’s all very well to point to the limitations of and the problems inherent in the politics of identity, but what is the answer to the underlying problem?

Grant returns at the end of the essay to love. He discusses the relationship between totalitarianism and love. Antebellum America, Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and other regimes, he writes, turn unity (collective identity) into totality, and “crush love because it is the surest way to crush freedom”. What he means by this is that “we banish love, when we no longer see ourselves in each other”, when “we see instead an enemy”.

So, Grant eschews any identity that would cage him, any identity that would deny any aspect of himself or that would pit himself against others. But, acknowledging at last my paradox, he does admit that there are privileges in identity – whiteness, masculinity, sexuality – which need to be called out. It’s just that they are political, and he’s not about politics*. All he’ll say is that “we find no liberation behind walls”. Amen to that!

On identity is not simple reading. Neither does it provide answers to the “identity” problem. But what I like about it is that it offers a way to think about identity that is positive not negative, that would bring us together, not divide us. Where to next?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Janine (Resident Judge of Port Philip) have also posted on this book.

* What he actually says is: “I have no desire to be the writer of politics” p. 95

BannerStan Grant
On identity (Little books on big ideas)
Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2019
ISBN: 9780522875522

Tony Birch, The white girl (#BookReview)

July 10, 2019

Book coverWe need more novels like Tony Birch’s The white girl and Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip. This is not to say that we don’t need all the wonderful Indigenous Australian literature I’ve read and reviewed here over the years, but some of the books, as excellent (and as beloved by me) as they are, can be more challenging to read. The white girl and Too much lip, on the other hand, are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience, but will they? I sure hope so, because the truths they tell are crucial for all Australians to know if we are to ever become a more mature and united nation.

In other words, it’s not only for their page-turning quality, that I paired these two novels. They have some other similarities, which I’ll briefly address before focusing on The white girl. Both novels are set in rural areas, though Birch’s novel also spends some time in the city, and both have female protagonists, though Birch’s Odette is a grandmother while Lucashenko’s Kerry is a 30-something, not-yet-settled woman. Most importantly, though, both reference long-term issues (the aforementioned truths) that have affected indigenous lives for generations, including, of course, the stolen generations, dispossession and powerlessness, past atrocities, and entrenched institutional discrimination.

However, beyond these, the novels are very different. For a start, Birch’s The white girl, being set in the 1960s, fits into the historical fiction genre whilst Lucashenko’s novel is contemporary. Moreover, Lucashenko’s is more complex and has more humour, albeit of the black sort, than Birch’s more straight drama, so let’s now get to it. Unlike Birch’s previous novel, Ghost river, which is set in Melbourne, The white girl, is set in a fictional town, Deane, and an unnamed city. This effectively universalises the story to suit any part of Australia, making it difficult to shrug off the issues as not relevant to our own places.

The basic plot of The white girl concerns Odette’s determination to save her grand-daughter, Sissy, from falling under the control of white authorities, because this novel is set at a time in Australia when indigenous people came under the Act, an act which meant they could not travel away from where they lived without permission. It also meant that the state was legal guardian of children like Sissy. Things come to a head for Odette and Sissy when a new and more officious policeman, Sergeant Lowe, comes to town to replace the alcoholic, and generally more laissez-faire Bill Shea. Odette feels the time is ripe to reunite Sissy with her mother, Lila, who had left soon after Sissy was born, and who, Odette realises some way into the story, had good reason to disappear.

Birch has set his novel at a time of transition. It’s well into the Menzies era, and indigenous people are becoming more actively engaged in fighting for their rights. Sergeant Lowe, though, is not impressed. When Odette approaches him for the necessary permissions to travel, he refuses, telling her (with the about-to-retire Shea also in his hearing):

‘The whole business of native welfare has been neglected in this district for many years. I will not allow it to continue. Your people need certainty, just as we do, as officers of the Crown. None of this is helped, of course, by those trouble-makers arguing for citizenship of behalf of your people.’

The divisive language (“your people”) and the assertion of absolute power (“I will not allow it to continue”) reflect classic colonial behaviours that ramp up the level of threat felt by Odette. This threat is exacerbated by the presence of a brutal white family in the district, the Kanes, comprising a father and two sons. Lowe is somewhat aware of their trouble-making, but only insofar as it affects another white person in the district, the gentle, brain-damaged Henry who owns the local junkyard. To some extent the book’s characters are stereotypical, but Birch’s story-telling is such at they don’t become – at least not unreasonably so – caricatures. This is partly because they are fleshed out with back-stories. It’s not particularly complex story-telling – the back stories, for example, are common ones – but the novel is believable, perhaps because they are common.

As Lucashenko does in Too much lip, Birch also references traditional culture and its ongoing role in people’s lives. Odette, like many indigenous people, listens to messages from birds (“a morning doesn’t pass without one of them speaking to me”) and to the “old people” from whom she believes her strength comes. Birch also beautifully conveys indigenous people’s resourcefulness in the face of a dominant white culture. For example, Odette’s father tells her, when she’s a young girl, why she should sing in the mission church even though they don’t believe in “their God”:

‘Because it’s best to keep them fellas happy, keep their meanness down.’

And Odette’s response, when asked for her “tribal name” by a patronising white woman who offers her piece-work employment as a card artist, provides a typical example of indigenous response to such self-interested nosiness:

It never failed to surprise Odette how white people were always going on about uplifting Aboriginal people, yet they would demand information about the old ways when it suited them. She looked over to the honey jar sitting on the bread board and read the label to herself. It sounded tribal enough. ‘We’re the Bilga people, ‘ she explained. ‘That’s my tribe. the Bilgas.’

What Birch shows, then, is that survival for indigenous people was (and mostly still is) quite a cat-and-mouse game. It involves “taking a chance with these white people”. This is a risk, Odette and her friends realise, but is often all they have. And that, I think, is the main message Birch wants to leave with his non-indigenous readers. The question is, can we rise to the challenge, and be trusted? Are we prepared to heed the truths being shared? So far, I’d say, the jury is still out.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book. Read for ANZLitLovers ILW2019.


Tony Birch
The white girl
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
ISBN: 9780702260384

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Monday musings on Australian literature: early Indigenous Australian literature

July 8, 2019

BannerSince 2013, I’ve written an indigenous Australian focused Monday Musings post to coincide with NAIDOC Week and Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. NAIDOC Week, for non-Aussies out there, occurs across Australia each July “to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. One way litbloggers can recognise and celebrate it is to read indigenous Australian writers and contribute to the list of reviews maintained by Lisa on her blog. (Lisa also accepts reviews of indigenous authors from other nations.)

NAIDOC Week LogoThis year’s NAIDOC Week theme is VOICE, TREATY, TRUTH. How better to celebrate this than through a post on early indigenous Australian literature which, like that of today, aimed to share truths about indigenous Australian experience. It’s a tricky topic because it’s only been relatively recently that indigenous Australian stories (novels, poetry, short stories, plays, memoirs) have been published. However, indigenous people have been writing since the early days of the colony.

This post can only be a brief introduction. The best source for the topic is, I believe, the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature (2008), edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter. Indigenous Australian academic Mick Dodson writes in the Foreword that it contains “a range of works that any serious student of Aboriginal history, life and culture will find valuable”. It also, he says, encapsulates Aboriginal “political and cultural activisms”.

The anthology starts with the first-known piece of written text in English by an Aboriginal author, a letter written by Bennelong in 1796 not long after he returned from England. Editors Heiss and Minter write that the anthology contains

writing ranging from the journalism, petitions and political letters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the works of poetry and prose that are recognised widely today as significant contributions to the literature of the world.

They go on to say that “Aboriginal literary writing grew directly from a complex and ancient wellspring of oral and visual communication and exchange”. This is something that at least some non-indigenous Australians recognised. FS, writes in The Age in 1938, for example, about indigenous Australian “rock literature” or “picture writing”. FS is responding to a planned German scientific expedition to northwest Australia which was intending, among other things, to “study … rock carvings, cave paintings and similar work on wood to ascertain whether it is a desultory art or a method of writing” [my emph.] S/he believes this goal is unnecessary, because the “rock literature” clearly demonstrates that indigenous Australians have had a “literature” long pre-dating the English language.

Anyhow, back to Heiss and Minter who discuss the necessary nexus between the literary and the political in indigenous literature. They note that 19th century Aboriginal literature primarily comprised “genres that are common to political discourse” – letters, petitions and chronicles – and that between Federation and the 1960s, political manifestos and pronouncements of Aboriginal activist organisations were added to these genres.

David Unaipon (State Library of NSW, Public Domain)

It wasn’t until 1929, in fact, that the first book by an indigenous Australian writer was published, David Unaipon’s Native legends. A report of the book’s publication appeared in January 1930 in South Australia’s Border Chronicle. The reviewer says (using the sort of tone and language typical of the time):

Not long since there entered the editorial den a full blood aboriginal who said, in that “moistened” voice that the Australian abo always wears, that he was distributing the only book ever written by an Australian aboriginal in the English language … The legends are told in English that will cause wonder in anyone who has tried to master any speech other than his mother tongue. Claudian, the Latin poet, was born an Egyptian, educated as a Greek, and the world has marvelled ever since that he became one of the great masters of Roman speech. Yet Unaipon, is in his way, as great a marvel as Claudian, since his natural atmosphere differs more widely from that in which he works than did the civilization of Claudian’s Egypt and Greece differ from that of Rome. The style of David’s writing is correct by all the formal rules, but differs widely from ordinary written speech. His legends are fairy tales in color, and in “The Song of Hun garrda”, which is an invocation to the God of Fire, he gets into a highly poetic region. Likewise, he is mysticc and writes of “earthly body subjective consciousness”, “earthly life experience”, as if those things had a real meaning to him, which is more than can be said of some of those who talk on such matters in their native speech. It is an interesting little contribution to Australian letters.

Heiss and Minter say the book is “literary in its adaptation of his cultural imagination to particular modes of authorship and narration”. They see his pioneering role in the development of indigenous literature, saying he “gave subsequent Aboriginal writers a significant precedent by which to imagine their authorship of a culturally grounded future literature”.

Book coverIt would be over thirty years before another book by an indigenous writer was published, although during that time “letters, reports and petitions” continued to be written in support of “Aboriginal rights and constitutional transformation”. One of these activists was the poet and activist, Kath Walker (later Oodgeroo Noonuccal), and she was the author of that second book. Published in 1964, We are going was mistakenly described by The Canberra Times as “the first book written by an Australian aborigine”. Heiss and Minter again note its pioneering role, saying it “marks the arrival of Aboriginal poetry as one of the most important genres in contemporary Aboriginal political and creative literature.”

It took more time, however, before indigenous writers got a firm foothold. Heiss and Minter argue that it wasn’t until the late 1980s that “Aboriginal writing was firmly established as a major force in Australian letters. David Headon writing in the ANU’s Woroni in 1990 would agree:

Certainly Aboriginal literature is a growth industry of substantial proportions. The sheer number and range of books now available is all the more surprising when one considers that the first [!] published work by an Aboriginal writer, Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s (Kath Walker’s) book of poems, We Are Going, was published in 1964, and at the beginning of the 1980s the only black writers with any kind of national profile were Walker, Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Mudrooroo Narogin (Colin Johnson) and possibly Bobbi Merritt and Faith Bandler. None of these were well-known outside their community. Australian literature has been profoundly altered by the emergence of so many Aboriginal texts in the last 10 hectic years.

He reviews an unknown-to-me 1990 anthology, the gorgeously titled Paperbark. It predates Heiss and Minter’s Macquarie anthology by nearly two decades. Published by the University of Queensland Press and described by them as “the first collection to span the diverse range of Black Australian writings”, it includes writings from the 1840s to 1990. The Aboriginal and Islander authors include “David Unaipon, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Gerry Bostock, Ruby Langford, Robert Bropho, Jack Davis, Hyllus Maris, William Ferguson, Sally Morgan, Mudrooroo Narogin and Archie Weller.” Like the Macquarie anthology, it also includes “community writings such as petitions and letters”.

Headon’s review is well worth reading for his references to writings, many of which are new to me, but I’m going to leave him on his following point:

Books like Paperbark are in the vanguard of what will surely be one of the great (Australian) cultural debates of this decade: how long can an ex-colony like Australia allow some of its universities to continue to indulge their colonial habits? How long will Old and Middle English, 17th- and 18th-century English literature be the literature major staples at our universities? When will the dominant pressure be post-colonial? Change, Paperbark proclaims, is afoot.

Good question! Interestingly, in 1984, the ANU did offer a 10-week adult education course in ‘Aboriginal Literature’. It may, of course, have only been run that year.

Anyhow, I hope you have enjoyed this little introduction to what I’ll call the first wave of indigenous Australian writing.

Past NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

Six degrees of separation, FROM Where the wild things are TO …

July 6, 2019

Book coverWell, I’ve found the solution to breaking my record of not having read one Six Degrees starting book this year: suggest a book to Kate and hope she likes it! I did, and she did, and so it is that I have read this month’s starting book, Maurice Sendak’s picture book classic, Where the wild things are. I figured it might help a few other people too who have found themselves embarrassed, month after month, like me. Haha!

I plan to have a little fun with this one, but first the formalities. The Six Degrees of Separation meme is currently run by Kate, and you can read all the rules on her blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

So, here goes (on the assumption that you all know the story):

Where is Max?

Well, he went

Into the woods

of the Midnight empire,

where he went Troppo with all his wild friends.

They danced around the Cold sassy tree,

and created a rumpus throwing Big rough stones.

But, in truth, in a Nutshell shall we say,

Where they really were all the time was –


(Links on titles are to my posts.)

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(Those of you who can count will have noticed that I’ve cheated. There are 7 books in my chain. But, I couldn’t bear to leave any out, so I gave myself recommender’s licence and kept them all. Anyone care to take me on?!)

If not, let’s move on to my usual questions. Have you read Where the wild things are? And, regardless, what would you link to?