Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (#BookReview)

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray/River of dreams is Anita Heiss’ second work of historical fiction, her first being Barbed wire and cherry blossoms about the 1944 Cowra breakout in which she imagines a relationship between a Japanese escapee and a young First Nations Australian woman. I have not read that novel, but I have read, over the last year or so, other First Nations Australia historical novels, including Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and the collaborative novel by non-Indigenous Australian Craig Cormick and First Nations writer Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (my review). Long before these, though, was Kim Scott’s unforgettable The deadman dance (my review).

The value of these, and like books, to offering a First Nations perspective on the one-sided history that most of us grew up with can not be under-estimated. Heiss, in fact, wrote in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, that through re-engaging with her Wiradyuri homelands in her early 50s,

I realised very quickly I had to honour those Ancestors who for millennia have lived, loved, and nurtured the land and each other. And I wanted to pay tribute to those who carry on culture, knowledge and language still today. I felt I had a responsibility as an author to write our Wiradyuri heroes – our men and women – into the Australian narrative where they had been ignored or forgotten too long.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is her response to that realisation. It is of particular interest to me because it is set around Gundagai and Wagga Wagga, which are within three hours’ drive from where I live. Although I have been visiting the Gundagai region since the mid-1970s, it was only in recent years that I became aware of the story which is central to Heiss’ novel. This story concerns Gundagai‘s flood of 1852. As Wikipedia describes, the Murrumbidya flooded, killing at least 78 of the town’s population of 250 people. Using bark canoes, four local Aboriginal men, including Yarri, Jacky Jacky, and Long Jimmy, saved somewhere between 40 and 68 people. They were minimally recognised at the time, but, finally, in 2017 (2017!), a bronze sculpture of Yarri and Jacky Jacky, with canoe, was unveiled in Gundagai. Heiss’ novel concerns the life of a young Wiradjuri woman, Wagadhaany, the imagined daughter of Yarri.

The novel is told, like many historical novels, chronologically, but it starts with a Prologue set in 1838, some 14 years before the main narrative starts. This prologue is important. It introduces Wagadhaany who, as a 4-year-old, is with her babiin, Yarri, as he tells a “White man” that the place they are standing on is “not a good place to live, Boss, too flat”, that it’s a “flood area”. Of course, the White man ignores this local knowledge and so the stage is set for 1852 when the devastating flood comes. By this time, Wagadhaany, now 18, is working as a servant for that very White man, Henry Bradley.

The flood and its immediate aftermath occupy the first five chapters of this 29-chapter novel. Only two sons of the Bradley family of six survive, along with Wagadhaany. The rest of the novel follows their lives over the next couple of decades, showing how little the White settlers learnt from the experience – practically, in terms of how to live on the land, and morally, in terms of their behaviour to the true owners of the country. Wagadhaany, who is bound, she is told, by the Master and Servants Act of 1840, has no agency in such a world.

“a witness without a voice”

Into this situation comes the young Quaker widow, Louisa, who, like the Bradley men, lost her family in the floods. I was surprised by the appearance of a Quaker, but Heiss also explains in her Note that there were Quakers in early colonial Australia, and they were interested in “the treatment of the convicts and the Aborigines”.

Louisa is an interesting character because she tries to treat Wagadhaany well. She calls her by her actual name, rather than Wilma, as James Bradley does; she works alongside her in the kitchen and garden; she gives her a bedroom in the house; and she converses with Wagadhaany as a friend. But, she has her blind-spots. She is oblivious to Wagadhaany’s lack of agency over her life, to the fact that, when the Bradleys (now including Louisa), move to Wagga Wagga, she thoughtlessly over-rides Wagadhaany’s wish to stay in the Gundagai area where her family is.

As the novel progresses, Wagadhaany’s homesickness for her family, and her country, increases. We are privy to Wagadhanny’s thoughts, to her awareness that there are limits – albeit unconscious ones – to Louisa’s concept of equality. Louisa is, after all, a product of her time and her culture – and Wagadhaany notices that, for all their “equality”, it is Wagadhaany who does the hardest, dirtiest, heaviest jobs, and that she is not paid a wage.

What the presence of Louisa does, though, is to add richness and nuance to the depiction of colonial society. She is a foil to the brutal, racist attitudes of James Bradley. She does not mitigate them but shows that his were not the only views around. Wagadhaany, on the other hand, tells it as it is from the First Nations’ perspective. In the early days after the flood, Heiss writes that Wagadhaany

feels like a witness without a voice. She was there, she lived through the horror of the flood, the fear, the physical exhaustion, the loss of those she knew. But no-one asks how she is, what she thinks or knows, or how she feels.

For all Louisa’s kindness, there is much Wagadhaany feels she can’t say, and so throughout the story she continues as a silent witness. Here she is reflecting on Louisa and work:

She wondered why Louisa had to be protected from hard work but the Wiradyuri women didn’t. And she wondered if that thought ever crossed Louisa’s mind, because that made them different, unequal …

Gradually, though, she starts to stand up for herself:

“I know I will have to work for you, I know about the masters and servants law, but you cannot keep me living here in the homestead against my will if you honestly believe I am your equal and that I should be as free as you”.

And Louisa, to her credit, “lets” her live with the river family.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray has strong characters, but it is also a genre novel with a strong plot, including of course, romance. I don’t want to spoil what is a good page-turning story, so I will leave the story here.

Heiss has several novels under her belt now. She knows how to tell a good story, and she is also very clear about her message. She uses her fiction to show what she wants the rest of us to know. In this novel, it’s the way First Nations people lived, the way they tried to work with the settlers, and the way they were gradually pushed off their land. She also, through Louisa, forces us to confront what really is being “a good White person”. So, not only does the novel tell some truths about Australia’s settler history but it is also immediately relevant to today.

In this novel, Heiss also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, incorporates language into the writing. There is a glossary at the back, but you rarely need it because most words are self-explanatory in context. Seeing “our” nation’s words in Australian literature is a truly exciting development.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray isn’t a perfect novel – and I struggled particularly with Louisa’s falling in love with the man she does. But this is a genre novel, and a bit of belief-stretching is allowed. The end result is a book that engages the reader with its strong protagonist in Wagadhaany, that wraps its vital messages in a compelling story, and, significantly, that ends authentically.

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) has also recommends this book.

Anita Heiss is a Wiradyuri woman from NSW.

Anita Heiss
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray
London: Simon & Schuster, 2021
ISBN: 9781760850449

Anita Heiss (ed.), Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (#BookReview)

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

As many others have said, including my reading group, Anita Heiss’s anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, should be required reading for all Australians. At the very least, it should be in every Australian secondary and tertiary educational institution. Why? Because it contributes to the truth-telling that is critical to real reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Truth-telling comes in many forms. There are formal processes, as through truth-telling commissions, but there are also the informal processes that we can all engage in while we wait for the government to fiddle-diddle around deciding whether it can front up and do the right thing.

Essentially, truth-telling means all Australians acknowledging and accepting “the shared and often difficult truths of our past, so that we can move forward together”. These truths include the original colonial invasion of the country, the massacres, the Stolen Generations, and the ongoing racism that results in continued inequities and significant gaps in almost every health, educational and occupational measure you can think of. Informal truth-telling encompasses all the things we do to inform ourselves and each other of these truths. Heiss’ anthology, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which contains 50 stories by indigenous Australians on their experience of growing up indigenous in this so-called lucky country of ours, contributes to this informal truth-telling. Taken as a whole, the book provides a salutary lesson, for all Australians who care to listen, on the experience of being indigenous in Australia. Taken individually, each story has the potential to break your heart. If you think I’m laying it on a bit thick, then you haven’t read the book!

“a stranger in my own land”

The above line from William Russell’s story, “A story from my life”, brought me up short because it replicates a line I read in Atkinson’s book The last wild west (my review). Atkinson describes his Indigenous friend and co-worker Sno as being “an alien in his own homeland”. There is strength in this replication between books, just as there is strength in the repetition of experiences within Heiss’s book, and the strength is this, that every repetition reinforces the truth of the historical (and continuing) injustice faced by Indigenous Australians. The stronger, the more inescapable the truth becomes, the harder it must surely be to ignore.

So, what are the repeated experiences in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia? Well, there are recurring references to the Stolen Generations, to being questioned about identity (“are you really Aboriginal?”, “you look too white to be Aboriginal”), to feeling disconnected from culture, to being called racist names, to being humiliated in myriad ways too numerous to list, and to being physically attacked. These are the experiences that we’ve all heard of, but Heiss’ contributors enable us to feel them. And that’s important. I’ll share just a few quotes from a few stories:

Thankyou for your acknowledging every 26 January with such grace and humility. Thankyou for your encouragement – and advice to me – to let the past be in the past, to simply ‘get over it’ on the day my people’s land was invaded and dispossessed. (Dom Bemrose’s biting “Dear Australia”)

My father cut to the chase. ‘Olly, you can’t go telling people we’re Aboriginal … It isn’t safe’. (Katie Bryan, “Easter, 1969”)

I would paint and draw and sculpt about being Aboriginal. I would see people twitch uncomfortably and sometimes even let their ignorant thoughts out: ‘But you don’t look it’, ‘From how far back’, ‘Do you get lots of handouts?’ (Shannon Foster, “White bread dreaming”)

In Year 2 I was lined up with Aboriginal classmates to be checked for nits and, as I stood there with fingers being raked through my hair, I felt angry and embarrassed as my non-Indigenous classmates watched. I realised that … for some reason it was only supposed to be us Aboriginal kids that had nits. (Jared Thomas, “Daredevil days”)

None of us kids are allowed to go anywhere outside after dark by ourselves. We can’t ever go to the toilet at night: we gotta go in twos, and Mummy stands at the door and watches. She has a big bundi* ready in case there’s trouble … Terror is outside the door, and we can’t do anything about it. (Kerry Reed-Gilbert, “The little town on the railway track”)

It was hard selecting these quotes – not because they were hard to find but because there were so many options that it was hard to decide which ones. That’s the shame of it. And these stories come from all ages – from teenagers to those in their 70s or 80s –  and from all parts of Australia, from, as Heiss writes in her Introduction, “coastal and desert regions, cities and remote communities.” They come from “Nukuna to Noongar, Wiradjuri to Western Arrernte, Ku Ku Kalinji to Kunibídji, Gunditjamara to Gumbayanggirr and many places in between.”

The contributors include many well-known people – writers like Tony Birch and Tara June Winch, sportspeople like Patrick Johnson and Adam Goodes, performers like Deborah Cheetham and Miranda Tapsell –  but there are also lesser-known but no less significant people, many of whom are actively working for their people and communities.

Despite the devastating picture being painted, the book is not all grim. There are also positive repetitions in the book. They include deep connection to country, the importance and support of family, and particularly, the strength of mums. There’s humour in some stories: you can’t help but laugh, while you are also grimacing, at Miranda Tapsell’s story of her friends expecting her to turn up to a party as Scary Spice, but opting for Baby Spice instead (Miranda Tapsell, “Nobody puts Baby Spice in a corner”).

“two divided worlds”

One of the early stories is particularly sad because its 29-year-old author, Alice Eather, took her life before the book was published. In her person, in her story, in her life, she represents the challenge Indigenous people face in Australia today. Her story “Yúya Karrabúrra” starts with a poem. At the end of the poem she writes:

This poem is about identity, and it was a really hard thing to write in the beginning because identity is such a big issue. It’s a large thing to cover. The poem is about the struggle of being in between black and white.

Now Alice, like many in the book, had an Indigenous parent and a non-Indigenous one, but the struggle she names here is faced by every person in the book, regardless of their family backgrounds, because every one of them must contend with white society and culture, and it’s clearly darned hard.

I’m going to close on this idea of identity, because identity is the well-spring from which everything else comes. The stories are organised alphabetically by author, which I’m sure was an active decision made to not direct the conversation. Coincidentally, though, the last story – Tamika Worrell’s “The Aboriginal equation” – provides the perfect conclusion. It constitutes a strong, unambiguous statement of identity. She says:

I will not sit quietly while my identity is questioned. It doesn’t matter how many times you say you didn’t mean to be offensive, that doesn’t dictate whether or not I’m offended.

Then concludes with a hope that she

will live to see a future that is less ignorant, less racist and at least somewhat decolonised. Until then, I’ll continue to be an angry Koori woman, educating those who don’t understand and those who choose not to.

She’s not asking for the moon here is she? The least we can do is choose to understand – and we can start by reading books like this.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also posted on this book, and there are several reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

* “bundi” is a Wiradjuri hitting stick I believe.

AWW Challenge 2019 Badge

Anita Heiss (ed.)
Growing up Aboriginal in Australia
Carlton: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781863959810

Anita Heiss, Am I black enough for you (Review)

Anita Heiss, Am I black enough for you?

Courtesy: Random House

Anita Heiss‘s Am I black enough for you? is a challenge to categorise, so I’ll start with writer Benjamin Law‘s description on the cover of my edition. He calls it “part family history, part manifesto” to which I’d add “part memoir” because “family history” does not really cover the self-description aspect of the book.

For those of you who don’t know Anita Heiss, she is a Wiradjuri woman and an activist for indigenous Australians. She has a PhD in Communication and Media, focusing on Aboriginal literature and publishing, and is a writer. (I reviewed her chicklit novel, Paris dreaming, earlier this year, and reported last year on her address to the inaugural Canberra Readers’ Festival.) She co-edited the Macquarie PEN anthology of Aboriginal literature and was the guiding force behind BlackWords (the subject of this week’s Monday Musings). And this is just the start … she has been, or is currently, on many boards and committees, particularly to do with indigenous people and communications. She is an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. She is, in effect, a tall poppy … which brings me to Am I black enough for you?

You see, in 2009, one of Australia’s influential shock jocks, Andrew Bolt, wrote a post titled “It’s so hip to be black” on his blog, asking readers to accept his proposition that there is “a whole new fashion in academia, the arts and professional activism to identify as Aboriginal”. He named many people, including Anita Heiss, calling them “white” or “political” Aborigines. His facts were questionable and his language emotive – such as “madness”, “trivial inflections of race”, “comic”. His argument was that these “white” Aborigines were obtaining unfair benefits from their decision to “be black”. The result was a court case brought by Anita Heiss and eight others against Bolt and his employer, The Herald and Weekly Times, for breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. Heiss and her co-defendants won the case. They did not seek damages. It was ground-breaking stuff that brought out some good discussion about the nexus between racism and free speech, about rights and responsibilities, but it also generated a lot of vituperative commentary. You can research all this pretty easily on the ‘net.

This is the background to Am I black enough for you? which, you might now have gathered, could also be described as an “identity memoir”. On the publisher’s website, Heiss writes that “I wanted to demonstrate that we as Aboriginal people have our own forms of self-identification and self-representation”. She wanted to “challenge the stereotypes” and present “alternative realities of being Aboriginal today”. This she does very well.

Heiss opens the book with her family background, Wiradjuri mother and immigrant Austrian father. She describes herself:

I’m an urban beachside Blackfella, a concrete Koori with Westfield Dreaming, and I apologise to no-one.

This is my story: it is a story about not being from the desert, not speaking my traditional language and not wearing ochre …

In the first four chapters of the book, she tells of her background – her grandmother and mother and their experiences as indigenous women, her father and his values, and her school days. Having laid that foundation, she presents in the fifth chapter, the current working definition of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person used by the Federal Government:

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he “or she” lives.

That seems pretty tight to me, though no definition is perfect. It’s better than using “a caste system defined by blood quantum (half-caste … quadroon)”.

There are a lot of “ah-so” moments for me in the book – some confirming things I’d already believed and some raising my consciousness about how easy it is to say the wrong thing without being aware of it. Heiss chronicles many instances where (mostly, I think) well-meaning whitefellas seem to get it wrong, such as the non-indigenous academics who proclaim themselves experts in “everything Aboriginal” or the critic who argued that Aboriginal literature “must” be in traditional language otherwise it’s Australian literature. It’s good to have these ideas aired publicly. It helps us test our own conceptions.

Am I black enough for you? has, like most of Heiss’s writing, a strong political and educational purpose. She is on a mission to encourage both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to think about indigenous identity and, further, about how we relate to each other. She therefore writes in a bright, breezy, accessible style. She’s acutely aware of the power of words and language to define and to obfuscate (though she wouldn’t use such an obfuscatory word!), and frequently discusses language in the book. She makes a particular point about this in the chapter on her academic life, “Epista-what?”, when she says that using academic language, particularly to discuss indigenous issues, served “largely to alienate the very people it was talking about.”

There is much more in this book, and I hope many Australians read it. It’s well-structured, more or less chronologically but in a way that aligns with various themes – academia, the role of literature, her writing, gender – all of which link back to affirming indigenous people’s identity. She comes across as a generous woman – in her relationships with indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. She believes that optimism, rather than negativity and anger, is more likely to get results. It is possibly this optimism which underlies my small frustration with the book: several times she hints at dark times and stresses but, being the optimist, she focuses more on her strategies for overcoming them than on how they have informed her being. I’d like to understand more of that. However, Am I black enough for you? is not a misery memoir, and that’s probably a good thing!

Australian Women Writers ChallengeRead for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013ANZLitLovers Indigenous Writers Week, and Global Women of Color. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Marilyn (Me, You and Books) both enjoyed the book.

Anita Heiss
Am I black enough for you?
Sydney: Bantam, 2012
ISBN: 9781742751924

Anita Heiss, Paris dreaming (Review)

Anita Heiss Paris Dreaming

Paris Dreaming (used by permission of The Random House Group Ltd)

Late last year I wrote a post about the inaugural Canberra Readers’ Festival. One of the speakers was indigenous Australian author, academic and activist, Anita Heiss. I wrote then that I bought one of her books. It was her fourth (I think) chick lit novel, Paris dreaming. This might surprise regular readers here, as chick lit is not really my sort of thing, however …

There are reasons why I was happy to read this book. First was that my reading group chose it as part of our focus on books featuring Canberra for our city’s centenary year. Yes, I know, it’s called Paris dreaming, but the heroine starts in Canberra and Canberra is mentioned (not always positively I must say) throughout the book. The other reason is the more significant one, though, and that is Heiss’s reason for writing the book. I said in the first paragraph that she is an activist and her chick lit books, surprising though it may sound, are part of her activism. In fact, I think pretty much everything Heiss does has an activist element. In her address at the Canberra Readers’ Festival she described herself, an educated indigenous Australian, as in the top 1% of the bottom 2.5% of Australia. She feels, she said, a responsibility to put her people on the “Australian identity radar”.

Does this book do it, and if so how? Well, one of her points is that 30% or more of indigenous Australians are urban and this book, as its genre suggests, is about young urban indigenous women. Anita Heiss manages I think (though I’m not the target demographic so can’t be sure) to present characters that both young indigenous and non-indigenous women can relate to. Our heroine Libby and her friends are upwardly mobile young professionals. They care about their work; they love fashion, drink and food (this is chick lit remember!); and they wonder how to marry (ha!) their career goals and romance.

Indigenous design vase, on hall table, Governm...

Indigenous art vase, Government House, Canberra

So what’s the plot (besides the obvious chick lit formula which this book certainly follows)? At the start of the novel  30-year-old Libby, manager of the education program at the National Aboriginal Gallery, is on a man-fast. She’s been bitten one too many times and has sworn off men, much to the dismay of her tiddas (her “sisters”). She is, though, keen to develop her career and wants a new challenge – all part of the chick lit formula – and so pitches a proposal to her boss that she mount an exhibition of indigenous Australian art at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. Of course, her boss approves and off she goes to Paris where, following the formula, she falls for hunky, sexy Mr Wrong while Mr Right watches on, spurned (and spurned and spurned). But, of course, I don’t need to tell you how it comes out in the end do I? This is not subversive chick lit because that would not serve Heiss’s purpose …

Did I enjoy it? Yes, but not so much as a piece of literature because my reading interests lie elsewhere, but as a work written by a savvy writer with a political purpose. This purpose is not simply to show that young, urban, professional indigenous Australians exist but, as she also said in her address, to create the sort of world she’d like to live in, a world where indigenous Australians are an accepted and respected part of Australian society, not problems and not invisible. She is therefore unashamed about promoting indigenous Australian creators. She names many of them – artists, writers, filmmakers – and discusses some of their work, educating her readers as she goes. Most of the people, works and places she mentions are real but there’s an aspirational element too. The National Aboriginal Gallery does not exist but she presents it as a significant player in the Canberra cultural institution scene. Good for her!

I’ll probably not read another of Heiss’s choc lit (as she, tongue in cheek, calls it) books, but I’m glad to have read this one – and I’ll certainly look out for works by her in other genres (including her memoir Am I black enough for you?). Heiss is a woman to watch.

Anita Heiss
Paris dreaming
Sydney: Bantam, 2011
ISBN: 9781741668933