Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally (Writers on writers) (#BookReview)

Book cover for Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally

Stan Grant’s On Thomas Keneally is the second I’ve read in Black Inc’s Writers on writers series, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings (my review) being the first. As I wrote in that post, the series involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. Hmm … the way Keneally inspired and influenced Grant is not perhaps what the series editors envisaged, but certainly his essay meets some of the other goals: it is “provocative” and it absolutely starts “a fresh conversation between past and present.”

Most Australians will know immediately why Grant chose Keneally, but for everyone else, it’s this. In 1972, Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was published. It is historical fiction based on the life of Jimmy Governor, an Indigenous man who was executed in 1901 for murdering a white family. Keneally is on record as saying he was wrong to have written the book from an Indigenous person’s perspective, but he did, and the book is out there (along with its film adaptation by Fred Schepisi).

That’s Keneally, but what about Stan Grant? Of Wiradjuri and Irish heritage, he is no stranger to this blog. He’s an erudite, thoughtful man, always worth listening to, but, here’s the thing. I find it difficult, with this book, to be a white Australian discussing a First Nations Australian writing about a white Australian who wrote a novel about a First Nations Australian. The politics are just so complicated. I’ll do my best, but will just focus on a few ideas. At 86 pages it is a short piece so, if you are interested, I recommend you read it yourself.

If you have ever listened to Grant, you will know that his thinking is deeply informed by history and philosophy, and so it is here. He is also palpably angry, and pulls no punches. He writes, just over half way through the essay that

This entire essay is about writing back to the white gaze. I need to write back to the white author who would steal my soul. I must prove I exist before I can exist.

Grant starts his essay by reminding us of Australia’s history and how “in a generation or two, my people were nearly extinguished.” He introduces us to Jimmy Governor, who was executed just three weeks after Federation. Jimmy becomes the lynchpin for his argument, because he, “that grotesque murderer”, is also, says Grant, “the memory of a wound. He is a scar on our history that runs like a fault line between black and white.” He is “a spectre that will not let us bury our history.”

The problem is, argues Grant, that the real Jimmy is nothing like Keneally’s Jimmie:

Keneally’s caricature of a self-loathing Jim­mie Blacksmith is a lost opportunity to explore the complex ways that Aboriginal people … were pushing against a white world that would not accept them for who they were; that would not see them as equal; that, in truth, would not see them as human.

But, of course Keneally’s novel is historical fiction, and, historical fiction, as most of us realise, says as much about the time it was written as about the time in which it is set. In Keneally’s case, The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was written in 1972, a particular time in Australian history, Grant recognises, “a time of anti-Vietnam protests, the election of the Whitlam government and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy”. Grant continues:

Keneally was writing a protest story for a protest era; he needed Jimmie Blacksmith to be the freedom fighter that Jimmy Governor never was. Jimmy was a man who wanted respect. He bridled against injustice, yes, but this was a crime of anger, not an act of war.

Grant though wants something more. He wants exploration and understanding of how history, how Australia, has negated First Nations Australians’ very beings. He refers to Jacques Derrida’s coinage of

‘hauntology’, to describe how the traces of our past – our ghosts – throw shadows on our world.

Grant believes that “the West thinks it can vanquish history; that the past can be entombed”. I don’t personally ascribe to that. It’s not rational, to me. But I can see how the course of Western “progress” does in fact manifest that way of seeing, and it leaves people – like First Nations Australians – in its wake. This, really, is the theme of Grant’s essay.

However, at times Grant lost me. He says Christos Tsiolkas is “copping out” when he says that it is not for white Australians to write “a foundation story for the first peoples of this country”. Grant suggests Tsiolkas can, and that he could “look to the First Peoples to enter our tradition; to understand that story and his place in it before he writes a single word about what it is to be an ‘Australian'”.

I’m uncertain about how a white Australian can do this right now, but that is probably my lack of imagination. Regardless, I feel that Grant is refusing to recognise the respect behind Tsiolkas’ statement. It’s a respect many of us feel when we contemplate writing about First Nations Australians. We don’t want to presume we know what we can never understand. Grant says it himself, late in the book:

No one who has not lived through our interminable loss could capture what it is to be Indigenous in Australia.

In the last part of the essay, Grant discusses other Australian writers. Besides Tsiolkas, these include Patrick White, Joan Lindsay, Randolph Stowe, from the past, and contemporary Indigenous writers like Tara June Winch and Bruce Pascoe. His thoughts are often surprising. He clearly approves Eleanor Dark who “knew that blackness hovers over everything that is written in this country”.

The final part of essay reads like a manifesto. Grant states exactly what he will and won’t do and be. But, he also says he is glad Keneally wrote his book because it has stayed with him for forty years. In it, he felt “the weight of my history”. The results weren’t always positive, but the book has, I think he’s saying, kept him thinking.

And he says this:

Like me, Thomas Keneally made his own pilgrimage to the old Darlinghurst Gaol. Standing near where the real Jimmy Governor was hanged, he said he was sorry for “assuming an aboriginal voice”. He should have sought permission, he said. “We can enter other cultures as long as we don’t rip them off, as long as we don’t loot and plunder,” he said. I don’t think we can police our imaginations. I don’t think we need to ask permission. Australian writers have never done this and, frankly, I see them in my country more clearly because of it. It is like the debate about Australia Day; why move the date if it will only hide the truth.

I will leave you with that.

(My third post for Lisa’s 2021 ILW Week.)

Stan Grant
On Thomas Keneally: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2021
ISBN: 9781760642327

Adam Thompson, Born into this (#BookReview)

When my brother gave me Tasmanian author Adam Thompson’s Born into this earlier this year, I told him I’d save it for Lisa’s ILW 2021, which I did – and which means I can now thank him properly for a yet another well-chosen gift, because this is a strong, absorbing and relevant read. If you haven’t heard of Thompson, as I hadn’t, he is, says publisher UQP, “an emerging Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania”. 

Born into this is a debut collection of sixteen short stories about the state’s Palawa/Pakana people, and based primarily in Launceston and islands in the Bass Straight. It reminds me a little of Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Too much lip (my review) because, like it, these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian – in setting and in dealing with issues and conditions specific to that place.

They may live in two worlds, but they are still mob (“The old tin mine”)

I like to think about the order in which stories in a collection are presented, although I can never be confident of the assumptions I make about the reasoning. How can I, I suppose, as I’m not in the heads of the authors and their editors. The first story here, “The old tin mine”, is an interesting choice: it introduces various issues and ideas which are picked up through the collection and it sets a sort of resigned tone. The issues include the relationship between black and white in Australia, the introduction of city Indigenous kids to country and culture, the clumsy conscientiousness of white people who want to do the right thing, the politics involved, and the world-weariness of older Indigenous people in dealing with all of this. The story is told first person through the eyes of “Uncle Ben”, the Indigenous leader on an “Aboriginal survival camp”. He is tired, and cynical, and not particularly interested in dealing with these

Aboriginal teens. City boys. Three from Launceston, three from Hobart. “Fair split, north and south”, according to the organisation that had won the black money.

But it’s a job, and these jobs are becoming less frequent, so he takes it on.

The second story, “Honey”, is told third person, and concerns the interactions between white man Sharkey, who has a honey business, and his Palawa employee, Nathan. Sharkey is arrogant, condescending and oblivious of how his behaviour might affect Nathan. He asks Nathan for the “Aboriginal word for honey” because he thinks using it to brand his honey would “be a good gimmick for selling honey … ‘specially with the tourists”. Not all stories work out this way, but in this one, Nathan has the last laugh.

“Honey” also introduces another idea that peppers the collection, which is land rights, and non-indigenous Australians’ fear of losing land. The collection, in fact, references many of the issues confronting contemporary Australia’s relationship with its First Nations peoples: land rights; Invasion Day (or “change the date”); dispossession, the loss of Indigenous culture and attempts to reclaim it; social issues like incarceration, alcoholism and suicide among Indigenous people; and the Stolen Generations, to name some of them.

Some stories, however, respond to a particular Tasmanian issue, that regarding the definition of indigenity. As I wrote in my post on Kathy Marks’ Channelling Mannalargenna, Tasmania’s history has resulted in a specific set of circumstances regarding loss of identity, which has caused, and is still causing, complications and conflict over Indigenous identification in the state. One of the stories on this subject is “Descendant” about a bright, politicised but ostracised young schoolgirl who runs her school’s ASPA (Aboriginal Students and Parents) committee. Dorothy is assiduous about who is and is not “P-A-L-A-W-A”, and has family-tree records to prove it. Aboriginality, she says, is about “being”, not “choosing”. The story provides an excellent example of Thompson’s use of imagery to underpin his themes: Dorothy’s prized mug is accidentally broken, and Cooper, the supportive (of course!) librarian, tries to repair it, but

Bold, white cracks now intersected the Aboriginal colours like a tattered spider web.

Thompson’s writing in this collection is accessible but evocative. His dialogue varies appropriately from speaker to speaker, and the imagery, particularly that regarding colour – red, blue and white, representing white Australia, versus the red, black and orange of First Nations Australia’s flag – is pointed but not overdone. Thompson clearly knows his country. His descriptions of the islands, and the plants and birdlife endemic to them, take you there (or, at the very least, teach you about them.)

I would love to write about more of the collection’s stories, but I should leave you some surprises. I will say, though, that Thompson’s wide cast of characters – from young, disaffected palawa to smart activists, from genuine white people, who want to understand, to the smug and/or rich ones (as in the incisive “The black fellas from here“) – ensures that this collection hits home. No reader, really, can hide from the truths here because they touch us all.

White makes you wary (“Aboriginal Alcatraz”)

Born into this, then, is clearly political, but it is not all bleak. Some stories end with a bang or a twist, which skewer their points home, while others are more gentle. The title story, “Born into this“, is one of the more poignant ones. It tells of Kara, who works as a receptionist at an Aboriginal housing co-op. She’s jaded. Her boss is “a tick-a-box Aboriginal” who “could never prove his identity”, and she is tired of the struggle to survive. So, deep in the forest, where she had learnt about country from her uncle, she spends her spare time working away on her own quiet, little subversive project, a project that involves

Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive. She took in the surrounding devastation and thought again about her own life.

“Born into this”.

She knows she won’t make a difference, but “fulfilling some cultural obligations in her own small, secret way” keeps her sane.

It would be great to think that books like Born into this could make a difference – and I think they could, if we all not only listened to Indigenous writers like Thompson, but also took on board, really took on board, what they tell us about ourselves.

For more reviews of this novel, please click Lisa’s ILW 2021 link in this post’s opening paragraph.

Adam Thompson
Born into this
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702263118

Monday musings on Australian literature: Recovering Australia’s Indigenous languages (2)

2021 National NAIDOC logo.

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2021 Indigenous Literature Week which coincides of course with NAIDOC Week, and, again, I’ve decided to contribute this week’s Monday Musings to the cause. The topic I’ve chosen, the reclamation of First Nations languages, was partly inspired by last week’s Monday Musings on Eliza Hamilton Duncan, but also follows up a post I wrote early last year on the topic.

According to academic Elizabeth Webby, Dunlop was the “first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and [w]as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture”. Dunlop also created vocabularies of the local language. Consequently, her work, like that of other colonials, is helping language reclamation projects around Australia. Of course, if settlers hadn’t stolen land and destroyed culture, and hadn’t actively suppressed language, in the first place, this arduous work would not be needed.

Each year NAIDOC week has a theme, and 2021’s is “Heal country, heal our nation” which, the website says, “calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.” Given the significant role played by language in maintaining culture, a post on language reclamation is, I think, relevant to this theme.

‘The living voices of our past giving strength to our future’

This heading is the goal of a 2013-established organisation, First Languages Australia. They are working, they say, to “a future where Aboriginal language communities and Torres Strait Islander language communities have full command of their languages and can use them as much as they wish to.” This is just one organisation working on the goal.

Another is Living Languages, founded in 2004 under another name. They describe their purpose as “to support the sustainability of Indigenous languages and Indigenous peoples’ ownership of their language documentation and revitalisation.”

It is difficult to assess the magnitude of the challenge because so much is lost, but Living Languages says that some 250-400 languages were spoken across Australia, or up to 700 and 800 if you include language varieties and dialects. However, they say, Australia has been “identified as one of five language endangerment hotspots worldwide, with only around 13 languages being passed on to children today”.

As I wrote in my previous post, First Nations communities vary in their attitude to sharing language outside their communities. This statement by the Kaurna people on the University of Adelaide’s language courses webpage clearly states their position:

Kaurna language and culture is the property of the Kaurna community. Users of this site are urged to use the language with respect. This means making every effort to get the pronunciation, spelling and grammar right.

Kaurna people reserve the right to monitor the use of the language in public. Users of this site should consult with Kaurna people about use of the language in the public domain.

Random projects and activities

There’s no way I could document all the projects – big and small – that are happening around Australia, so I’m going to share three (adding to those I mentioned in last year’s post) which exemplify the sorts of things that are happening.

Eidsvold State School Wakka Wakka program

Located in Queensland’s North Burnett Region, this school has developed, says the Teach Queensland website, a “unique language program” that engages the whole school with the local community and in learning the local Aboriginal language, Wakka Wakka. The local First Nations people support this program:

After several years of planning and consultation with Traditional Owner groups, the Wakka Wakka Corporation and the community, Eidsvold State School encourages all students and staff to speak to each other in Wakka Wakka using short phrases.

Mawng Ngaralk language website

Mawng is spoken in the western part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The site tells us that Warruwi School runs a Mawng language program and supports the 2014-established Warruwi Language Centre which runs other Mawng language activities. Do check out this website, because it contains a dictionary and many, many videos in which local speakers share their knowledge in ways that both document vocabulary and pronunciation, and show how the language is used in song and dance.

Paper and Talk workshop

This was a two-week workshop held in 2019, led by Monash University, in collaboration with Living Languages and AIATSIS. Its aim was “to help revive languages from five Aboriginal communities”: Anaiwan (NSW), Wakka Wakka (QLD), Yorta Yorta (VIC), Ngunnawal (ACT) and Wergaia (VIC). The workshop gave language researchers from these communities “the opportunity and skills to access archives and transform them into usable language resources”. They were, for example, introduced to resources, like an 1800s surveyors’ notebook, in which language were documented by early settlers (like Dunlop).

What about irretrievably lost languages?

Maïa Ponsonnet, who researches Aboriginal languages, though is not Indigenous herself, makes the point that “while there are very good reasons to deplore the loss of small languages, assuming this loss condemns cultural identity may be unhelpful and reductive to those who have already shifted away from their heritage language”. In her article in The Conversation she argues that reclaiming languages is important, but that over-focus on it can be hurtful and, in some circumstances, politically damaging for those whose languages are lost. Language, her research is showing, is “plastic”. Post-colonial languages like Kriol can be “shaped by culture”, she writes. “Even when language is replaced, culture can continue”.

Thoughts, anyone?

Click here here to see all my previous ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Archie Roach, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music (#BookReview)

Book coverGood things come to those who wait! At least, I hope so, because Lisa has had to wait a long time for a review from me for this year’s Indigenous Literature Week. Finally, though, I finished the main book I chose for this year’s challenge, Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music.

Most Australians will know who Archie Roach is, but international readers here may not. A member of the Stolen Generations, Archie Roach is an indigenous Australian singer, songwriter, guitarist, and political activist. The story he tells in his memoir, Tell me why, is not an unusual one in terms of people of his background and generation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading, because not everyone can tell this story in the way that Roach can. Perhaps this is because he’s a songwriter, or perhaps, more correctly, he’s a songwriter because he can tell stories.

Roach starts his story with a Prologue set in 1970. He is 14 years old, and receives a letter from one of his birth sisters telling him that his birth mother had died. This is a surprise, because his adoptive parents had been told his parents had died in a fire. He then flashes back in Chapter 1 to tell us about his life, as he knew it, up to 1970. This life involved being stolen from his parents, and being placed in two foster homes, one abusive, before being placed, in 1961, with the Melbourne-based Coxes with whom he was still living in 1970. In Chapter 2 he picks up that point in 1970 when he received the letter, and tells his story chronologically from then on, with some flashbacks to fill in his family’s early life as he learns it himself.

Although Roach had had a good life with the Coxes, who had loved him and whom he loved, the discovery that members of his birth family were still alive brought with it a desire to learn who he was, and he left home. He managed to make contact with his family, but before that he was introduced to drinking (having “a charge”) and life on the streets. Not surprisingly, his story, like those of many young indigenous people who have lost contact with their culture and thus with their bearings, involves alcoholism and related illnesses, run-ins with the police, prison, unemployment, and all-round instability. Archie would obtain work, would be appreciated as a worker, but the demons would return and down he’d plummet again. It’s a common cycle.

However, Archie had a couple of big pluses in his corner. There was Ruby Hunter, whom he met while still a teen and who became the love of his life. It’s not that her appearance resulted in a miraculous turnaround. Real life is rarely like that. But she became the supportive base to whom he would return and who, eventually, did provide the stability that enabled him to turn his life around and become the success he now is. The other plus was music, to which he was first introduced by the Coxes, particularly Dad Cox who loved to sing and who gave him his first guitar. While the stories about his drinking life were distressing to read, the story about how music “saved” him, and how he gradually came to realise that he could tell stories through music, was moving and inspiring.

This brings me back to my opening comment that “not everyone can tell this story in the way that Roach can”. The memoir is beautifully constructed, from the Prologue that vividly takes us into the classroom where Roach receives the letter about his mother, to the use of song lyrics, most of them Roach’s own, to introduce each chapter. Roach uses foreshadowing at the end of several chapters to move the story on, such as this at the end of the chapter in which he arrives in Adelaide – “This would be the last hours before finding Ruby Hunter”. And this one at the end of the chapter where Jill Shelton is recommended to him as a manager – “Jill would end up saving my life at a time when I didn’t see there was any point in saving it.”

Roach also mixes up the narrative, commencing some chapters with the next part of the story, while others he introduces with something more reflective. I particularly liked the opening to the chapter in which Ruby dies:

Some people see time as a river with a steady current. Some people say we get in and move with that current, all of us ageing uniformly. I don’t believe that’s true, though. I’ve seen people age years overnight.

It happens to a lot of our people, and it happens to an awful lot of us drinkers. It doesn’t just happen while we’re drinking, either; we could’ve been years off the stuff and then something might change. We might lose a sister or a brother, and suddenly we have age in our face and in our step.

Sometimes it happens for no reason. Someone will be living their life and all of a sudden time will heap years on their shoulders.

Of course, Roach also talks about politics, about Indigenous opposition to the 1988 Bicentenary, about John Howard’s  opposition to a national apology and his criticism of the “black armband view” of Australian history, about Aboriginal deaths in custody, about the stolen generations, and more. It’s all told through the prism of his own personal experience or through his involvement in political action. Most readers will know these issues, but the personal stamp offered by books like this helps keep the issues real and in front of us. Roach, like so many Indigenous people, amazes me by walking that fine line between anger at what has happened to his people and generosity towards the rest of us.

In the end, Roach’s message is an inclusive one. His songs, he has found, speak to non-Indigenous people too, with many telling him that “that’s what happened to me”. Consequently, his songwriting, he says, now “feels more inclusive, more universal” because “it’s about all of us – you can’t write about yourself without including everyone.”

He writes:

For so long we have been divided by ‘isms’ – racism, sexism, fundamentalism, individualism – but when we come back to the place of fire, I believe we will discover there’s far more that connects us than separates us. I believe we will be one humanity again, that we will find release, healing and true freedom.

I love the hope in this but, let’s be clear, Roach is not letting us off the hook. That is, he doesn’t believe we are there yet. He is, though, choosing an aspirational path, and for that I thank him.

ANZ LitLovers logoArchie Roach
Tell me why: The story of my life and my music
London: Simon & Schuster, 2019
ISBN: 9781760850166

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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian biographies

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Literature Week, and, as I have done for a few years now, I’ve decided to devote my Monday Musings to an Indigenous Australian literature topic. This year’s topic is Indigenous Australian biography.

I have previously written Monday Musings on Indigenous Australian autobiographies and memoirs. These have flourished in the last decade or so, particularly, it seems, memoirs from Indigenous Australian women. I’ve reviewed several on this blog. However, biographies are a different form altogether, and in researching for this post, I’ve struggled to find many. Readings bookshop, for example, provides a list of Australian First Nations Memoir and Biography but I struggled to find many biographies in their list. It is a positive thing that publishers and readers have embraced memoirs, but I can’t help feeling that the paucity of biography tells us something about the place of Indigenous Australians in Australian culture.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), self-described as “Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography”, aims to provide “informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of significant and representative persons in Australian history.” This suggests that biography has a formal role in telling the story of a nation. Consequently, the dearth of Indigenous Australian biographies – if my research is right – is surely a measure of the continuing marginalisation or exclusion of Indigenous Australian culture and lives from our national story.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem. In 2017, the National Centre of Biography launched a new project “to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography“. It’s being led by Shino Konishi who is of Indiengous descent from Broome. She is on the ADB’s Indigenous Working Party which was established in 2015, and which includes “leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars from each state and the territory”. The main aim of the project is to add 190 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander biographies to the ADB which, they say, has published nearly 13,000 biographies since 1966, but “has tended to under-recognise the contribution of Indigenous people to the Australian story”. The end-result of the project will be a dedicated Indigenous ADB.

Alongside this, the National Centre of Biography, which publishes the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also hosts a site called Indigenous Australia which “brings together all entries on Indigenous Australians found in the NCB’s biographical websites–Australian Dictionary of Biography, Obituaries Australia, Labour Australia and Women Australia.” It also supports the Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive, which is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney. (However, it moves us away from my focus here on biography.)

Of course, the above is all very important, but the ADB is about biographical essays in a dictionary of biography. I’m also interested in full-length biographies. I didn’t find many, but, as always, I’m hoping you will tell me (or remind me of) others?

Alexis Wright, TrackerIndigenous Australian biography – a small selection

  • Max Bonnell’s How many more are coming?: the short life of Jack Marsh (2003): on athlete and first class cricketer, Jack Marsh, who died in 1916.
  • Kathie Cochrane’s Oodgeroo (1994): on poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
  • Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the past (1999): on Ginibi’s son, Nobby, who spent significant time in prison, and the systemic failures in handling Indigenous young.
  • Kevin Keeffe’s Paddy’s road: Life stories of Patrick Dodson (2003): on activist Patrick Dodson, and his family, and their commitment to reconciliation.
  • Marlene J. Norst’s Burnum Burnum: A warrior for peace (1999): on Burnum, Stolen Generations survivor, sportsperson and activist.
  • John Ramsland’s The rainbow beach man (2009): on Les Ridgeway, Worimi elder, who was a farm labourer, station manager and was eventually recruited by Charles Perkins to work in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Peter Read’s Charles Perkins: A biography (2001): on activist, Freedom Ride participant and administrator, Charlie Perkins.
  • Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen’s Janadamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (1995): on Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, and his resistance against invasion in the Kimberleys.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (2017): on the charismatic ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, activist, a book which is described by some as a “collective memoir” but which I’ve included here as an example of new forms of “biography”, particularly for Indigenous life-writing.

So, now, please add to this list …

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

Louise Erdrich, The bingo palace (#BookReview)

Book coverWhen I bought Louise Erdrich’s The bingo palace in 1995, I never expected it to take me 24 years to read it but, there you go. Time flies, and suddenly it was 2019 and the book was still sitting on the high priority pile next to my bed! Truly! It took Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week to make me finally give it the time it deserved – and even then I’m late. Oh well.

I have read Louise Erdrich before, back in 2000 when I read The crown of Columbus with my reading group. She it wrote with her then husband, the late Michael Dorris. While it was an enjoyable read, it didn’t make a big impression. However, I have always remembered it because of her. So now, her!

Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa), and it is among the people of this nation that The bingo palace is set. One of the reasons the novel captured my attention all those years ago is because when we lived in the USA, we became aware of the importance of gambling as a major source of income for many Native American communities. Erdrich’s narrative draws from this fact, but it also provides her with the “luck” or “chance” metaphor – “the drift of chance and possibility” – which underpins the novel. One-third of the novel’s twenty-seven chapters, in fact, include the word “luck” in their titles, as in “Lipsha’s luck”, “Shawnee’s luck”, “Lyman’s luck”, and so on. Luck, good and bad, is a constant in the novel, and Erdrich constantly puts her characters to the test, as they navigate their rocky worlds. How much “luck” is of their own making is a question for them, and us the readers, to consider, I think.

Anyhow, the story centres on an unsettled young man, Lipsha Morrissey, and his love for Shawnee Ray, who has had a baby with Lyman Lamartine, manager of the titular Bingo Palace. The novel contains a complex web of relationships, which takes a while to unravel, but for which we are prepared in the first chapter:

The story comes round, pushing at our brains, and soon we are trying to ravel back to the beginning, trying to put families into order and made sense of things. But we start with one person, and soon another, and another follows, and still another, until we are lost in the connections. (p. 5)

Now, you might have noticed something interesting about the voice in the above paragraph – it’s a first person plural voice. This voice – which operates a bit like a Greek chorus, though here it’s the tribal Chippewa – disappears for most of the novel, reappearing near the end in chapters 25 and 27. The other chapters are told in first person for Lipsha’s story, and third person for all the other stories. This is tricky, daring stuff, but it works, partly because of the power of the stories being told, partly because of its unusual tone (to which I’ll return), and partly because of the language. Erdrich’s language is arresting:

As a baby, Lipsha knew how to make his hands into burrs that would not unstick from Marie’s clothing. (p. 28)


Unwilling, I followed him out to the barn, placing no in my mouth like a pebble to throw. (p. 47)


Albertine could see that Shawnee Ray bent her strength like a bow to the older woman’s need. (p. 210)


We get into the car, pull into the pitted road, and I try not to brush too hard against my sorrows. (p. 215)

Now, back to the story, which concerns Lipsha’s attempts to win Shawnee Ray’s love, after being called back to the reservation by his grandmother, Lulu Lamartine. Life is not simple on the reservation, and as we follow Lipsha’s desperate quest, we are introduced, through a wonderful array of characters, to reservation life – to the tension between old traditions and new businesses, between spiritual life and the material one. Lipsha tries them all – he is initially lucky at bingo and wins a van, only to lose it to some white Montana boys. With a degree of easy-come-easy-go nonchalance, he then seeks out his great grandmother, Fleur Pillager, for love medicine. She lives on sacred land around Lake Machimanito, that Lyman has managed to have set aside for another bingo palace. Lipsha also, with Lyman, tries a spiritual retreat run by ceremony man, Xavier Toose.

All this is told with a tone that veers between resigned realism and sudden visions, a tone that effectively conveys the paradoxes involved in trying to retain tradition while surviving in a modern world. Lyman puts his faith in bingo entrepreneurship, while Shawnee sees education as her way. Zelda, on the other hand, has tried for decades to deny love and passion, while Fleur puts her faith in land and spirit.

Near the end, Lipsha, who has his moments of insight, says:

It’s not completely one way or another, traditional against the bingo. You have to stay alive to keep your tradition alive and working. Everybody knows bingo money is not based on solid ground […]

And yet I can’t help but wonder, now that I know the high and low of bingo life, if we’re going in the wrong direction, arms flung wide, too eager. The money life has got no substance, there’s nothing left when the day is done but a pack of receipts. Money gets money, but little else, nothing sensible to look at or touch or feel in yourself down to your bones … Our reservation is not real estate. Luck fades when sold … (p. 221)

Of course, as I read this, I wondered whether I could see any comparisons with indigenous lives and literature here, and one book immediately came to mind, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review). The likeness is loose, but both books have a wildness about them. Both confront the challenge of marrying tradition with contemporary life, and both do it by slipping easily between concrete reality and what we non-indigenous readers see as something more magical, but which for many indigenous people is all part of one spectrum. Both books are exhilarating, mind-expanding, to read.

Our “Greek chorus” tells us near the end, when “the federals” try to get the truth out of Lulu:

anyone of us could have told them they were getting into mazy woods when talking to that woman. (p. 265)

As you’d probably expect, there is no simple resolution at the end. Instead, there is, as the “chorus” says, “more to be told, more than we know, more than can be caught in the sieve of our thinking”. Like “the federals”, I got lost at times in the “mazy woods”, but I thoroughly enjoyed the humour and inventiveness, the warmth and heart – along with the challenge – to be had in reading this novel.

Canadian blogger Buried in Print has also reviewed this novel.

BannerLouise Erdrich
The bingo palace
London: Flamingo, 1995 (orig. pub. 1994)
ISBN: 9780006547099

Monday musings on Australian literature: Listen to Indigenous Australian authors

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.

Tony Birch, The white girl (#BookReview)

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 that 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

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