Indigenous Literacy Day 2019

Today, Wednesday 4 September, is Indigenous Literacy Day, which the Indigenous Literary Foundation (ILF) describes as “a national celebration of Indigenous culture, stories, language and literacy”. The day is intended to both promote awareness of disadvantage in indigenous communities, and to  “encourage the rest of Australia to raise funds and advocate for more equal access to literacy resources for remote communities.”

I have been donating annually to ILF for the last few years, but there’s more I can do to support them and raise awareness. Writing this post is one of those ways.

It seems particularly relevant for me to do this this year, because the importance of supporting indigenous literacy, and, related to this, of spreading knowledge about indigenous languages was the impassioned parting message from Tara June Winch, Yvette Henry Holt and Jeanine Leane, at the Canberra Writers Festival Identity session.

Nha Nhunu Nhanjal? project

Book coverA few weeks ago, I received an email from the ILF reminding me about Indigenous Literacy Day and telling me about a book they are publishing, commemorating both this day and this year’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. The book is Nha Nhunu Nhanjal?, and is the product of a special project. It was “written and illustrated by Yolŋgu Matha-speaking students from Nhulunbuy Primary School on the Gove Peninsula in North East Arnhem Land and was launched at this year’s Garma Festival”. An English edition of the book, titled I Saw We Saw, will be launched at the Sydney Opera House today, Indigenous Literacy Day. Students from Nhulunbuy, 4,000 kilometers away, will be present to read and perform from the Yolŋgu Matha version.

In the email, ILF quoted well-known Australian author Richard Flanagan, an ILF Ambassador, speaking at the Garma Festival:

“Every language is a universe, and each universe allows us to understand what it is to be human in a different, larger and richer way. Like a basket woven out of many pieces of grass, many languages make our societies stronger and better.”

ILF says, reiterating Winch and co’s message, that

It is vital for young children to have access to books in their language. And seeing their way of life reflected in books their own children and community have created, ensures that cultural identity and connections to country remain strong.

We all know this don’t we? Many of us love reading about other cultures, but our first home, our starting point has to be, and for most of us naturally was, books about our own culture.

How can you support indigenous literacy and culture?

There are many things you can do, of course, depending on your skills, abilties, interests and wallets. Here are some ways:

  • donate to ILF (here)
  • buy a book (or two) from the National Library of Australia’s Bookshop, online or in store, today, between 9am and 5pm, as they all be donating 5% of all sales made to the  Indigenous Literacy Foundation. (Or from any other bookshop offering a similar donation to ILF today.)
  • buy the English version of the book, to keep, give away and/or donate to your local school.
  • hold your own fundraising activity, such as a Book Swap (doesn’t have to be today!)
  • advocate for ILF on social media, tagging @IndigenousLiteracyFoundation on Facebook and Instagram, and @IndigenousLF on Twitter

Let’s do what we can to help indigenous Australians’ literacy. And let’s also do what we can to increase non-indigenous Australians’ understanding of an ongoing 60,000+ years culture that no other country in the world is lucky to have. I mean, really, how fortunate we are.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The challenge of literacy

Today’s topic may be a bit serious for Christmas week, but I’ve decided to go with it anyhow. I was inspired to write it by an article in the online journal, The Conversation. The article, by Deakin University academic Lyn McCredden, was itself inspired by the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards at which one of the winners, Richard Flanagan, donated his $40,000 prize to the Indigenous Literacy Fund. A good thing, nest-ce pas? McCredden goes on to mention the creation by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that night of the Australian Book Council, and quotes publisher Louise Adler as stating that this Council “declares that Australian writing matters and that building future generations of writers and readers is vital to a civilised and free society”. So far so good, but …

Then she quotes American literary critic Michael Bérubé who wrote in 1996 that:

… it has been some decades now since George Steiner and Thomas Pynchon reflected, in their different ways, on the phenomenon of Nazi officers with a fine appreciation of aesthetic excellence. (Bérubé)

In other words, the importance of literacy is a given but

what is so often occluded or skimmed over in many of the prize-giving activities of the book industry is that literacy on its own [my emphasis] is not necessarily a good. (McCredden)

Are you getting the picture? Sure, she says, not being able to read is a bad thing – it usually implies or leads to powerlessness and lack of privilege – but being able to read per se is not automatically good in itself, as Bérubé implies.  (Though, of course, what is “good” is a judgement isn’t it?). Anyhow, McCredden goes on to refer to Flanagan’s winning novel, The narrow road to the deep north, and the fact that “the figure of the vicious and violent prison guard is also notable for the way he quotes the exquisite poetry of Basho, even as he inflicts maniacal harm on prisoners”. If I understand her correctly, she suggests that for reasons like this, she doesn’t find Flanagan’s book (see my review), “satisfying or cohesive”. However, my reading is that Flanagan addresses the ambiguity contained in the Japanese officers’ love of poetry when he says:

They recited to each other more of their favourite haiku, and they were deeply moved not so much by the poetry as by their sensitivity to poetry; not so much by the genius of the poem as by their wisdom in understanding the poem; not in knowing the poem but in knowing the poem demonstrated the higher side of themselves and of the Japanese spirit … (Flanagan, The narrow road to the deep north)

This, to me, clearly expresses Flanagan’s awareness of the questionable or complicated nature of our relationship to literature. McCredden and I could argue this specific point, but it’s not the essence of her article, so let’s continue.

Books, she argues, do not always “unite” us. In fact, the controversies they sometimes generate show that culture is “always contested, and always ideological”. The best kinds of books she therefore suggests might be those that challenge our assumptions about ourselves – like Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (see my review) – rather than those that “please us with myths about ourselves”. She argues that:

if we are, like Dorrigo, privileged enough to be able to read, we are opening ourselves to a world of pain, as much as entertainment. (McCredden)

Literacy, in other words, carries responsibilities as well as rights. As citizens we have a right to be able to read and to therefore conduct the business of our lives, but, there’s more to it than that, and therefore

Learning how to read – that is, how to think, analyse and challenge prevailing ideas (including those appearing in many works of literature, many histories) needs to be considered more coherently alongside the mechanics of book distribution, book marketing, learning the alphabet. (McCredden)

A very good point – and much needed methinks in our rush-to-judgement world. Do you agree? And if so, how do we teach this sort of reading without turning people off?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian literacy

I feel a little uncomfortable being a white person writing on indigenous issues. It’s difficult in situations of such immense power imbalance as currently exists between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians not to come across as patronising or a self-congratulatory do-gooder. However, I’m also aware that consciousness needs to be raised and good programs promoted, so here I am. I just hope I don’t offend those who really know what they are talking about.

I’ve been aware of a number of initiatives for some time now – such as the Indigenous Literacy Foundation – but this post was inspired by a small article I saw in my city’s newspaper about an initiative called the Indigenous Reading Project. So, I thought it might be time to talk about some of the things that have been happening in recent times. Indigenous literacy rates in Australia are at scandalous levels, which I find incredibly embarrassing for a so-called first-world nation. The situation is particularly bad in remote areas. According to a National Indigenous Literacy Day press release, “only one in five children living in a remote Indigenous community can read or write to the accepted minimum level”. One in five and only to the minimum level! This really isn’t acceptable.

Here are some activities/organisations that I’m aware of, but there are more, many at local community levels:

  • Indigenous Literacy Foundation: A not-for-profit charity established, I believe, with the support of the Australian Book Industry and other private sponsors. It doesn’t receive government funding. Its aim is “to make a positive difference in the lives of Australian Indigenous children by focusing on ways to improve their literacy levels”. It is a broad ranging organisation that sponsors or supports a wide variety of events and activities. According to its website, it raised $600,000 in 2012, and over the course of its existence has supplied some 85,000 books to over 230 remote communities.
  • Indigenous Reading Project: The project that finally inspired me to write about this issue. The article I read – here – describes a project developed by a Canberra-based public servant. It aims to “improve indigenous reading standards by giving students a Kindle in an effort to boost their interest in reading”. The project, very new still, has had significant success, in terms of the measures they’ve devised. It is geared to 10-15 year olds who are independent readers but “at or below national benchmarks in literacy”.
  • Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation: Describes itself as “the first independent charity in Australia dedicated to raising national language, literacy and numeracy standards, especially in remote and marginalised communities.” Its tagline is, simply, “being able to read and write is a basic human right”. It targets literacy and numeracy throughout the Australian population, but indigenous people clearly form a major part of its constituency. It supports a variety of literacy projects at the individual, family and community level.
  • National Indigenous Literacy Day: Organised by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and now 6 years old, the Day has two main aims: to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to read; and to raise money to buy books for children living in remote Australia. A wide range of organisations are gradually getting behind this initiative including literary organisations like the Wheeler Centre, public libraries, schools, broadcasters like the ABC. I hope it becomes a universally recognised event on the Australian literary calendar.

There are also indigenous writers who are working hard to support literacy programs. Two whom I’ve heard speak (live) are Anita Heiss and Boori Monty Pryor. They are (of course!) both passionate about their cause, and are effective (and entertaining) public speakers.

Anita Heiss is an Indigenous Literary Foundation ambassador. She is actively involved in all sorts of literacy initiatives, from grass roots activities like writing books collaboratively with school children to lobbying and working at organisational levels. Boori Monty Pryor is one of Australia’s first two inaugural Children’s Laureates. He has made sharing and promoting indigenous culture his life’s work, with his main focus being, as I understand him, to encourage cultural pride and literacy skills in indigenous Australians and awareness of and respect for indigenous culture in non-indigenous Australians.

I’ll close with a statement by Heiss, taken from the ILF website:

Literacy is essential to Aboriginal people’s self-determination. If we cannot read we cannot make the decisions that inevitably impact on our lives …

Reading, as we all know, is that important!

If you believe in the cause of indigenous literacy, and have some money to spare, please click on the organisational links above and consider donating.

Oh, and if you know of successful literacy organisations, programs and/or campaigns, I’d love to hear about them.