Telling indigenous Australian stories

This weekend is particularly significant for indigenous Australians. No, let me rephrase that: it’s significant for all Australians because what happens to indigenous Australians marks who we are as a nation. And, right now, who we are is not wonderful.

Anniversaries galore

If you’re Australian, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but for everyone else, the situation is that we have two important anniversaries this weekend. Today, 26th May, is the 20th anniversary of the tabling in Parliament of the Bringing Them Home report documenting the Stolen Generations. (On 26th May the following year, the first National Sorry Day was held to keep front and centre our poor treatment of indigenous Australians, so next year will be its 20th anniversary). Then tomorrow, 27th May, is the 50th anniversary of a referendum held in Australia to change the Constitution regarding indigenous Australians. The resounding Yes vote (90% overall) ensured that indigenous Australians would from then on “be counted in reckoning the Population”. It also gave the Federal Government the power to pass legislation specifically for indigenous Australians. And, just to add to the significance, next week, on 3 June, will be the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision which recognised native title in Australia.

These anniversaries are, naturally, causing much reflection about what has been achieved since then, and what we (and indigenous Australians in particular) would like to achieve. The truth is that achievement has been woeful. Indigenous Australians’ health, education, incarceration rates – and so on – are significantly worse than for the rest of the population. It’s outrageous – and a subject too big for me here. However, I did want to mark this time, so am going to return to an issue we’ve discussed here before – who tells indigenous Australians’ stories. I’ve chosen this approach because of a serendipitous find in the National Library (NLA) bookshop yesterday.

Jeanine Leane's Purple threads

Courtesy University of Queensland Press*

You see, I’ve been wondering recently what indigenous writer, Wiradjuri-woman, Jeanine Leane is up to. I greatly enjoyed her book, Purple threads (my review), and was impressed by the forthrightness and clarity with which she discussed this issue of telling indigenous Australian stories at an NLA conference back in 2013. She spoke particularly about classics, and she said this (re-quoting from one of my posts):

Through Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf & more recently Kate Grenville, who among others have been hailed as nation writers & what I saw and still see to some extent in Australian literature to date, is a continuous over-writing of settler foundation stories which overwrite Aboriginal experience and knowledge. Settlers are always re-settling and Australian literature really reflects this and the critics and scholars write of such works as if everyone reading it is also a settler reader.

Now, here comes the serendipitous bit. I was browsing the Library’s bookshop yesterday while waiting for a meeting and noticed a recent issue (No. 225, Summer 2016) of the lit journal, Overland. I find it hard to resist lit journals so I picked it up and, flicking through the table of contents, saw an article by Jeanine Leane titled “Other people’s stories: When is writing cultural appropriation?”. That was all the excuse I needed to buy the issue.

Settler narratives controlling indigenous stories

In some ways it goes over ground I’ve written on before, but that post discussed an article on the topic by non-indigenous writer, Margaret Merrilees. She argued that “questions of appropriation become issues of personal ethics, conscience issues”. However, Merrilees was approaching the topic more from a practising writer’s point of view, and she made some sense regarding the challenge confronting non-indigenous writers. If they leave indigenous characters out altogether they are continuing the dominant culture’s silencing of indigenous lives but if they include them they risk not getting it right.

Leane explores the issue from a broader political view. She’s concerned that the “Australian” story continues to be in the hands of “settler” writers and that their stories – including, and particularly, those involving indigenous characters, like Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo and Patrick White’s A fringe of leaves – become “the authoritative narrative of settler colonialism”. Readers see these books as “Aboriginal stories” but they are not, she says.

She unpicks Lionel Shiriver’s controversial dismissal of concerns about “cultural appropriation” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival last year. She argues that Shriver’s idea of writers using “empathy” to create characters who are “other” to themselves does not recognise what this “empathy” really involves. For Leane, you don’t get this “empathy” from archival research but from social and cultural immersion. She criticises Australian writers for not having “this level of exposure” and, moreover, for not “striving for it”.

Leane accepts that the books by “settler” writers – like Kate Grenville, et al – have a place in the study of Australian literature but they need to be read and studied side by side with works by indigenous Australian writers, who are now emerging and challenging settler representations. She refers to Larissa Behrendt’s analysis of White’s A fringe of leaves in her book Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (a book I’ve still to read but which Lisa, Michelle and Bill have reviewed on their blogs).

Engagement through literature

Leane ends her essay discussing what she sees is the critical issue – which is not whether non-indigenous authors should include indigenous characters in the their books or how they can do it – but the paucity of indigenous writing being taught in schools. She argues there is a link between the higher attrition of indigenous students in schools and “the lack of Aboriginal voice and representation in the curricula”. And,  further, she asks,

if, on the whole, non-Indigenous people are not reading Indigenous self-representation, how can they write about Indigenous lives and experiences? Put another way, if non-Indigenous people are still only encountering Indigenous people via the works of non-Indigenous writers/historians/filmmakers/artists, then are they really encountering us at all? How can they even think about writing about us if you don’t really know us?

Very good question – which addresses both Shriver’s ideas re “empathy” and Merrilees’ concern about including indigenous characters.

Leane quotes Canadian scholar Margery Fee who addresses the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people. There needs to be a conversation between us, she says – and that conversation, says another Canadian, Judy Iseke-Barnes, can be had through the sharing of literature. Yes! Iseke-Barnes talks of “conversation-through-literature, of cross-cultural engagement through ‘deep and informed readings’ of Indigenous texts”. She sees this as an ongoing process. Leane argues that “this kind of engagement must precede any discussion of how to ‘write’ Indigenous people.”

She then teases out this engagement, clarifying in simple terms exactly what it means, and concludes that without sincerely trying to understand indigenous culture, it is impossible to properly represent indigenous characters. It is, instead, cultural appropriation, it’s “stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice”.

I like that Leane not only presents the problem here – and argues it lucidly – but she has a solution. And it’s a solution that would surely make sense to any reader – which presumably is all of you who read my blog? I’m glad I found – serendipitously – what Leane was up to!

This essay is available online, free, at the Overland site, but if you’d like to support them, you can also buy it at the link.

Jeanine Leane, Purple threads (Review for Indigenous Literature Week)

What I especially like about Jeanine Leane’s book, Purple threads, is how well she draws the universal out of the particular. That she does this is not unusual in itself. After all, this is what our favourite books tend to do. The interesting thing about Purple threads, though, is that the particular is an indigenous one. Even as I write this post my mind is flicking back-and-forth between thinking about the indigenous themes in the book and the more universal ones about family and relationships. More on that anon. First, I want to say a little about the book’s form, because ….

I’m not sure whether to call Purple threads a novel or a book of connected short stories, except I don’t think it matters much. What is significant is that the stories revolve around a mostly female-only indigenous family living on a small piece of land in the Gundagai area of New South Wales in the 1950s to 1960s. The main characters run through the whole book, and the stories are told pretty much chronologically. There could even be a plot line or two, but they are not strong and are not what drive us to read on. This form had an eerie familiarity as I was reading and I realised it was because it reminded me of another David Unaipon Award winning book I have reviewed here, Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing. Is this a coincidence – after all, there are similar books by non-indigenous writers – or should I go out on a limb and wonder whether this form reflects an indigenous way of story-telling? In addition to this similarity in form, these two books share a particular style of humour. Munkara’s is probably more belly-laugh, and is definitely more gut-wrenching, but both have a self-deprecating element, a willingness and ability to laugh at themselves, to see the absurd. It’s a form of humour we also see in Alexis Wright‘s Carpentaria. Okay, enough of that, back to the book itself.

The stories are told first person by Sunny (Sunshine) who lives with her sister Star, and her grandmother, Nan, and aunts, Boo (Beulah) and Bubby (Lily). Her mother, father, grandfather, more aunts and uncles, and others in the community, also appear in the book, but these five named characters are the focus. They are well differentiated. Nan is the down-to-earth matriarch of the group who doesn’t know how to read but “sure as hell know[s] how ta think”. Boo is independent and feisty, the one who takes action when action is needed. She loves the ancient Romans, particularly Empress Livia “who knew how to work behind the scenes”. Bubby, on the other hand, is the gentle, romantic one, who loves Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. The stories chronicle the first two decades of Sunny’s life in this female-dominated household. There are anecdotes about walks with Aunty Boo, about spoilt Petal (Sunny and Star’s mother), and about interactions with neighbours, teachers and others in the community. Most of the stories are light, albeit with a good degree of bite, but some are dark, such as the story of the young white neighbour, Milli, who is regularly beaten by her husband. This story, in fact, forms a minor plot line in part of the book.

The universal themes are about the way families comprise different and sometimes conflicting personalities and yet manage to love and support each other to ensure their joint survival. The particularity, though, has to do with being indigenous, with being lesser, in a rural community. Leane handles this cleverly, using, for example, the Christian symbol of “the black sheep” throughout the book to tease out the ironies and complexities packed into this idea when it is played out in a sheep-farming community. The symbol is explicitly introduced to us in “God’s flock” where Sunny talks about going to church and being taught the story of “the black sheep”:

‘ … But Jesus, if we pray to him [the priest says], will find all the lost sheep and return them to the fold, even the black sheep that no one  else wants or loves.’

At least this bit made sense to us. Apart from Jesus, we didn’t know any other sheep farmer who loved black sheep. Most hated them, in fact. That’s why every year my Aunties always ended up with a few black lambs to raise ….

Leane shows how Nan and the Aunties navigate life in a world where “black was not the ideal colour” and in which “women livin’ by themselves are always easy targets”. They navigate it with dignity, often by pretending to go along with white society’s ways while staying true to their own values, which involve respecting and caring for other people and creatures and for their little bit of land.

Purple threads, apparently drawn from Leane’s life, provides an engaging but uncompromising insight into a life most Australians know little about. I hope I’m not being too pompous when I say that we need more books like this, and they need to be read by more people, if we non-indigenous Australians are to have a chance of truly appreciating the experience of being indigenous in our nation.

Read for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, for which Lisa has also reviewed it.

Jeanine Leane
Purple threads
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780702238956

(Review copy supplied by University of Queensland Press via ANZLitLovers blog giveaway. Thanks Lisa. Thanks UQP)

* I have assumed copyright permission for this cover on the basis that the book was provided by UQP