Women Writing: Views & Prospects 1975-1995
The Theory, the Practice and the Frustration* / Jackie Huggins
In preparing this paper I was not quite sure if I should address indigenous women's writing from 1975 to 1995 in a formal way or if I should speak about what is the most important book of my life. That book is the biography of my mother Rita Huggins and is called simply Auntie Rita. I've done the latter, hopefully bringing new insights and fresher jokes into my analysis.
How does one write about one's mother? People tell me I am a very brave person to have done this, but a crazy one to have done it with her. I do not think my mother's story or the production of her story and of our book (we say it's her story but our book) is very much different to the stories that I have heard from other indigenous authors in this country. It is a good case study to follow through.
I can say unashamedly that my mother has been the inspiration of my life. She is probably my best friend, and my worst enemy at times, and I think the relationship between mother and daughter is one of the hardest relationships to negotiate. I'm sure that we all know how that feels.
My experiences in writing Auntie Rita have rigidly followed the topic for this session, that is 'The Theory, the Practice and the Frustration'. [This panel session was intended to concentrate personal perspectives on the practice, the frustrations and theory surrounding women writing.]
I want to elaborate on and talk about the voices of Aboriginal women in a real and tangible way. For me, past autobiographies of my own people had a narrative that was not straightforward. That is necessary and it is very honourable, but in writing as a daughter, a person a generation removed and with all other variables institutionalised as well, it was very important for me to also have my own voice. When you write closely to a subject that you know very well, it can at times be a great frustration, a great pleasure and also a great burden.
Well, Aboriginal women's voices in the past have been voices of the silent majority. My mother, in fact, is one of those women who, like many Aboriginal people, Aboriginal women right around the country, is not a famous person in any sense. When I say I've written a biography about my mother people say, 'Well, who was she?' I say, 'Rita Huggins, have you heard of her?', 'No', 'Oh, okay'. There is an assumption when you write a biography or an autobiography that you are writing about someone who was known out there, who was in public life. Certainly, that was not the case in non-Aboriginal society. Certainly, in Aboriginal community life she is a most honoured and a most respected person, but there is no acknowledgment of her efforts. That's probably why I wrote the book; to give a voice and to give a name and a face to an Aboriginal woman who represents many Aboriginal women.
Rita's story is a typical story of what has happened in this country through years of colonisation since the invasion of our lands by white people. Her story serves to name the nameless, to put forward a chapter of history, the chapter of a woman who has lived her life in a twentieth century fashion. Thank goodness she's 74 years young and, although she has suffered quite ill health in the last few years she is nevertheless still here and still attempting to do things within our own community and in the broader sense.
I think she is a great tool for reconciliation. It used to irritate me how she would be very friendly with white fellas at a time when I was very angry. As a young Aboriginal woman, I had just graduated from university and had been taught about all the lies that I didn't necessarily learn at school and I am sure that many of us in this room have never had the 'privy' of knowing and hearing the history, the true history of this country, if I can call it that, the indigenous history. I think that until Migaloos, or as we say here Gubbahs or white fellas, come to terms with that Aboriginal history and the people that were here and still are here in Australia, they will never understand their role and their place in this country that we all call home. They will always be refugees in their spirit of place, an identity of what constitutes Australianness.
So, with this in mind I began to write. My mother has seen many changes; the '67 referendum, the Bicentennial and has reared her children and grandchildren, has reared many children and has fostered many others. To put this into context, I wanted to give a story to her. Where once our elders were forced to forget their history, now they are being forced to remember it through such exercises as the Native Title debate and the popularity, resurgence and pride of documenting indigenous family and community personal histories.
So much for the theory behind the book. The practice was not so easy. I wrote and researched for seven years and I always say to other writers: it's not easy and it's not a quick fix. Don't expect to write a book, put it into the publisher and get it back as a glossy book, because that doesn't happen. It can take years. Of course my tradition is an oral history tradition. I set about recording and transcribing my mother's material. I wouldn't let anybody else transcribe it for me because they would leave out the precious quirks and the language that is Aboriginal English. I did not trust anybody with those tapes, nor would I send it out to anybody. I did that all myself. As we know with transcriptions, they can take a long, long time.
The book has two voices, the voice of my mother and the voice of me talking to her, with her and about her. I guess I have three audiences; my mother, the people who are going to read the book and myself. Because I reflect a lot about her story in terms of being a generation apart-being two women of very different world views and political identities-I had to, in a sense, try to divorce myself from being her daughter as I attempted to write the book, but it was not so easy.
The fact that the book has two voices is its 'unusualness', I guess. I feel that what I have done is to offer other writers, particularly those who work with oral history, an alternative way of writing biographies when you stand so close yet so far away from your subject. So, we set about separating the paragraphs into different voices, which was the idea of my second editor who was very different from the first one. (I write about editors in the frustrations part of this paper, a little later.)
I think Efi Hatzimanolas's paper stole my thunder by raising the issue of white women editors writing in ethnic and black voices through indigenous and ethnic women writers. I soon found out that battles with the publisher, as Sara Dowse has indicated in her paper, are real no-nos. I learnt about that very quickly. I probably would never publish any books with the Aboriginal Studies Press again-but ironically, I am now on the board of that press. I don't know how that happened. I am on the board of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and I have the publications portfolio-sweet revenge, you might say, but I love it. If you can't beat them, join them and shake them up in the process. Maybe I have also been put on the board so that the conflict of being a board member doesn't clash with getting another book published by them. How much can a poor girl take?
I am on a dream run now though with my next book, which will be published by University of Queensland Press through the Black Writers' series on History, Racism and Colonialism in May 1997. I have also been short-listed, along with The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska, in the Annita B. Kibble Australian Women Writers Award; it is the most lucrative women writers' award in the country. Drusilla got $14,000 and we got a certificate each, which was nice, but I could have done with the $14,000 at that time. But we are still trying. I think this is where indigenous women's writing is going in the sense that our works can stand alone and can stand with respected writers throughout the country.
Frustrations, well there were obviously frustrations throughout: mechanical, emotional and technical. The emotional aspect was how to convey the story from a mother/daughter perspective. It was a brave thing to do but then again I'm not known for my backwardness in coming forward. It was also a generational thing. I have no problems with my education but my mother tells me that I am the educated one and I usually tell her in response that she has got a hundred degrees on me, in temperature as well as IQ! In terms of a lived experience, a lived life, she has certainly lived through more.
Another one of the frustrations is about viewing the world as my mother sees it, accepts and values and attempts to reconstruct it, as opposed to my viewing and reporting of the incidents-another act of bravery, let me tell you. The frustrations entailed the tape recorder being switched off and 'non-communicado' for three weeks, and being challenged by my mother to a title fight on a weekly basis. There were many more frustrations, but those personal things will give you a bit of an insight there, and it is nothing unusual I suspect.
In terms of the technical aspects, the insidious editing process that I had to endure as an Aboriginal woman and was subjected to in the first instance, was quite appalling. I actually had two editors. I don't think the first editor ever came to terms with what constitutes an Aboriginal woman's story or life, so therefore she had no cultural knowledge at all before she got the job.
The next editor also had no knowledge of our culture. However, we said we needed to spend some time with her, she needed to come to our country, and we needed to show her around the Aboriginal community. We took her to a funeral in Cherbourg, to some community activities, and immersed her totally for two weeks. She came out of there a transformed person. With her we gladly worked together. She was absolutely astonishing and got stuff together in a way that the first editor could not and all the time it was about trying to write in, and trying to determine, indigenous women's voices and texts.
Seven years was a financial burden of course. I am a single mother-proudly a single mother. I had to opt in and out of part time jobs just to make a living, and Sara Dowse has already talked about the madness of giving up a well paying job to become a writer. I figure that if I go back into the bureaucracy full-time I would be earning approximately triple the amount that I earn now as a writer. I left the bureaucracy 12 years ago but I gravitate through the Aboriginal community, bureaucracy and academia and I couldn't hope for a better mix in my working life.
In conclusion, in taking the place of the late Oodgeroo Noonuccal for the David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writers in this country, I am incredibly delighted and heartened to witness the emergence of Aboriginal women writers across all genres, and particularly in the fiction area. While autobiography, biography and children's literature have been the domain of my sisters for so long, fiction, film, theatre and script writing are now appearing. New names will be the stars of the future. Of course some of those are not such new names but have been doing it for years in the private areas of their communities, as writers often do.
The fact that we are women makes getting a book published more urgent and difficult to accomplish, but women are emerging in ways which will take the literature world by storm. I was fortunate to be a part of a contingent of black Australian writers who visited Germany in 1995. It looks like the international world awaits more of our works too. Aha! The cultural cringe is being tested. As we know, Aboriginal art finds more appreciation in Europe and the US than in our own country; literature looks like following that example.
There are not too many rosy futures to look forward to in Aboriginal affairs. I despair of the gloom and doom which permeates every mention of the word Aboriginal but I can safely predict a positive outcome for Aboriginal women writers in the future and, as they say in the movies, 'Things can only get better'.
*This paper is based on an edited transcript of an audio recording, with the permission of Jackie Huggins. Copies of Auntie Rita can be ordered from the National Library of Australia Shop
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