What is it like to be a writer in Australia today?

Australia is a nation of many Countries. Mine’s Wiradjuri, which means of the rivers.

I thought about this and in response I am Aboriginal first and every thing I do is within that context. In writing as in life, it is impossible to separate the personal from the political. The political context is an integral part of the landscape in which we as first people operate. I’m an activist and when people ask me when I became one I say it was October 7 1961, my birth date & it’s like that for most Aboriginal people I know.

I was born in Wagga and grew up around Gundagai- two Wiradjuri words meaning crows and bend in the river. These places were heavily marked by settler presence. Despite the fact I grew up surrounded by places such as Tumut, Wanterbadgery, Goobarralong, Adjunbilly, Junee, Illabo, Bethungra all of which have a story attached to a particular land and or water feature and were not re-named like a lot of other Australian towns, when I grew up in the 1960s and 70s Australia was a nation that was obsessed with being white. Geoffrey Dutton said to understand a nation one has to read its books and to do that in the Australian nation, up until the late 80s for me is like a journey deep into the white psychic of writing an imagined white nation over many black countries and appropriating black identities and culture. So the nation had been written until most recently as a white settler, specifically British nation. Social commenters & scholars have in the last few decades argued that Australia has become less Anglo-file, but I’m not so sure- not from where I stand anyway. 

Two aunts raised me and my grandmother who had a great concern for land and said the most important reading you will do despite what you learn at school is reading the country. They were storytellers we all are because that’s how we keep in touch with land and family. At school in Gundagai in the late 1960s I was given a textbook for Social Studies on early explorers that looked at apparently ‘great discoveries’ and stated quite explicitly that early settlers faced many serious obstacles and challenges such as ‘droughts, fires, floods and Aborigines’ (with a lower case A). When I took this book home we pawed over it in awe. Not so much because of that sentence, but because of all the explicit pictures of the explorers and pioneers pillaging and ravaging the country. We were given pioneering poems too and one of my aunts made the comment that not only do the settlers wreck the country they are also so noisy. Many of these poems started with triumphant exclamations such as ‘Hail’ and ‘Ho’ and ‘Go forth…’ But of course it never would have done for any of my family to go and complain about this book, or anything else for that matter as we were told that we were lucky to be able to attend the school with other children and our family, like a lot of other families were trying to fly under the radar and not come to the attention of Welfare authorities. And, yes, ‘being taken away’ was a very real concern and fear that all Aboriginal families had & just down the road was the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Home and we were constantly reminded at school that ‘some kids end up there’.

My grandmother had twelve children- eight girls and four boys and a few of my older aunties worked as domestics for wealthy white people and all that generation of my family worked in some way or other as unskilled labor for settlers. The two aunties who raised me developed a fascination with white people- having worked in their homes. They’d been to primary school so they read and one of them was responsible for the care of an elderly lady who she read to and she became fascinated in the histories of western empires and battles of which there were plenty to talk about. My other aunt looked after children and read a lot of novels and was particularly fascinated by English landscape, of which she found plenty in Wuthering Heights, Return of the Native and The Rainbow.

So at school I was encouraged to learn more about how white people work through reading their books and bringing them home. Apart from white psychic we learnt a lot about how whitefellas imagine their nation and write their landscapes and where they place us as Aboriginal people contained within the national white imagination. I remember reading Coonardoo (1929) by Katharine Prichard, hailed as a great classic and a sympathetic, realist portrayal of Aboriginal life. Apart from the fact that someone proudly announced to me in the school ground that now they ‘understand where the word coon comes from’ the book really bothered me. I could see the way that whiteness defined itself through blackness and by what it is not- the black woman is simple and promiscuous and by comparison the white woman is rational and modest. I took it home and the aunties said it plays to popular beliefs of whitefellas. I went on with Australian literature because I became fascinated with nation writing. At my first literature lecture at the University of New England, a Professor whose grandfather was an armchair expert anthropologist on Aboriginal people- there’s a big armchair academy on Aboriginal people still dubiously welcomed us. The political context is important here as it was the late seventies and the only reason I got to university was because of the abolition of fees and the introduction of means tested assistance and scholarships- so many students were the first generation of their family to study and some academics really had a problem with that as did some of the students with a sense of entitlement. This Professor said in his best Oxbridge accent that ‘some of us would struggle because it takes more that one generation to appreciate a fine body of literature’. I was a little bit intimidated, but I thought I had the best teachers at home who taught me how to read my country and other people’s nation so I kept on with Australian literature. 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. These are classics of settler quest to ‘own’ a nation that is many countries and its people has talked each landscape into meaning. The term classic implies that a work- a book and art-fact is culturally endorsed- it speaks to a culture from a particular standpoint- but these and other classics speak differently to those ‘other than white’ and such standpoints should be considered in a re-reading of the Australian literary landscape. For example, consider that A Fringe of Leaves has over written a Badjala history of an event that is quite different- it becomes a white story of an encounter with generis ‘noble savages’.

Since the late 1980s, particularly since the bicentenary of the invasion the landscape is being re-written by Indigenous writers. I’d like to spend a moment discussing the national landscape, the broader political context of Indigenous writing and how I believe it has changed the national writing climate and the ideas about Australian identity.

In the two decades since the publication of Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987), Aboriginal activism has continued to draw attention to historical and ongoing injustice and the need for redress on the stage of national affairs. While different governments have responded in partisan and at times retrograde ways, there has been a general movement towards social justice and reconciliation agendas that have at times garnered widespread public support from non-Aboriginal Australia. This support was stimulated by a series of major public inquiries into past practices in Aboriginal affairs, by legal challenges, and by the emergence of historical accounts from the Aboriginal standpoint.

For example, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was instigated by the Hawke Government in 1987 and brought down its final report in 1991. In addition to investigating individual deaths in custody, the Commission investigated the wider historical, social and economic factors underlying the rates of Aboriginal incarceration and deaths. As a result, the Recommendations went beyond police, justice and custody matters to make recommendations in a range of areas, such as the importance of self-determination principles in health, education, housing, and the importance of infrastructure, service and funding provisions, and economic opportunity and land. As well, attention was also placed on the role of media and the importance of cultural awareness training for non-Aboriginal people in relevant workplaces. Reconciliation between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Australia was considered to be essential and an outcome of this recommendation was the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991 which undertook a decade long program. The culmination of this decade of activity were the 2000 Corroboree and its series of Bridge Walks around the nation, which saw hundreds of thousands of non-Aboriginal Australians walk in support of Aboriginal people.

In 1990, the Hawke Government also established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC) that, until its disbandment in 2005 by the Howard Government, brought the Aboriginal standpoint into greater prominence in the non-Aboriginal media. Although heavily criticised on a range of fronts, this Aboriginal-elected representative body provided a national Aboriginal voice at the highest level for a decade and a half, providing regular commentary on Aboriginal issues.

In 1992 the High Court of Australia ruled in Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) that the common law of Australia recognised Native Title to land and in 1993 The Native Title Act was established. Despite the ongoing struggle over Native Title played out in the ensuing years via the Wik Peoples v Queensland 1996 case and the Howard Government’s Native Title Amendment Act 1998, ordinary non-Aboriginal Australians indicated support through Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR). This organisation provided public education to promote support for co-existence with Native Title, beginning in 1997 with its Citizens Statement on Native Title petitions followed by The Sea of Hands promotions that drew hundreds of thousands of signatures from non-Aboriginal Australians[1].

Since 1996, when seven Palm Islanders won a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) case against the Queensland government over the underpayment of wages, attention has been on the broader issue of ‘stolen’ Indigenous wages during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders wages were underpaid, access to wages controlled and/or to varying degrees percentages paid into single funds and withheld from them. Following reparation schemes developed in Queensland in 2002 and in New South Wales in 2004, a concerted effort by Indigenous groups, some political parties, and Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation culminated in a Senate Inquiry (Commonwealth of Australia 2006), opening up the issue in other States. Although, not producing a pan non-Aboriginal mobilisation, these inquiries have led to substantial uncovering of the facts of racial discrimination in Australia and various publications of reports and historical accounts (see Kidd 2006). In 1997, the tabling of the Bringing them home: Report on the National inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (Wilson, 1997), highlighted the large silence in Australian history. The report made fifty-four recommendations including the importance of including the history of the stolen generations in the school curricula of all Australian students.

All these major events, and many minor local ones not cited here, broadened understanding and knowledge of Aboriginal experience across at least some sections of the Australian public, drawing attention to the strong continuing Indigenous presence and the traumatic effects of colonial and ongoing policies and practices. Of particular significance, the various inquiries and legal challenges took submissions and oral testimony from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors of these laws and policies, opening up a legitimate space for silenced standpoints to be heard. Oral testimony was not always public however due to the sensitive nature of revelations and concerns for privacy. Nevertheless, the voices of Aboriginal people did move into the shared spaces of Reconciliation groups, classrooms, and the media, shifting national consciousness in the process.

Re-writing the context of Aboriginal historical experience

In the same period, much broader grounds for understanding Aboriginal standpoints on our historical experience became available in the academic, literary and artistic corpora. This reflected the changing position of Aboriginal people in a range of public and shared spaces and provided another level of context building for understanding contemporary expressions of Aboriginal identities and the erasures and exclusions of Aboriginal historical experience from the national history, imagination and consciousness. These shared spaces became important sites for renegotiating the meanings of the past in contemporary productions.

This gradual unfolding of the substance of historical injustice and its effects has brought to light for public consumption the previously subverted, silenced or invisible Aboriginal standpoints. Many of these challenge the national myths of peaceful settlement and ‘protection’ of passive Indigenous peoples. The relations between history and the emerging field of Aboriginal fictional literature are strong, if not fundamental. (See for e.g. Kathryn Trees (1991 & 1992). The historical and social context for understanding Aboriginal fiction and narratives has arguably been building as a result.

Contemporary Aboriginal writing

Heiss and Minter (2008, p. 2) have noted that “from the early days, writing became a tool of negotiation in which Aboriginal voices could be heard in a form that was recognisable to British authority”. It is not incidental that as the continuing assertion of our politics of self-determination and historical experience from the Aboriginal standpoint infiltrates and re-shapes national consciousness, Aboriginal writing gives expression to the many facets of this historical and contemporary Aboriginal experience and presence, including in the scholarly domain across the range of relevant disciplines of the academy. It is not surprising, then, that within the narrower field of imaginative literary expression, which is the focus of this thesis, the last two decades has seen an expansion of a field “grounded in the shared experiences of contemporary Aboriginal men and women” (Heiss & Minter 2008, p. 7).

 The field of fiction as a way of telling history from Aboriginal standpoints has seen a proliferation of Aboriginal work across the genres of poetry, social realism narrative prose, young adult fiction, plays, historical fiction, neo-traditionalism, magical realism and popular female literature genres. For example, there are now a range of Aboriginal writers publishing poetry, including Lionel Fogarty (1995, 2004 & 2007), Lisa Bellear (1996), Yvette Holt (2008), Elizabeth Hodgson (2008), Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1996, 2000 & 2002), Barbara Nicholson (2000) Jennifer Martiniello (1999, 2000 2002) and Ali Coby Eckermann (2009). There is a growing field of narrative prose in social realism represented by such authors as, for example, John Muk-Muk Burke (1994), Kim Scott (1993, 1999 & 2010), Melissa Lucashenko (1997, 1998 & 2002), Vivien Cleven (2001), Larissa Behrendt (2002, 2009), Marie Munkara (2009). Jared Thomas (2005) and Tara-June Winch (2006) have made a mark in the Young Adult fiction category.

The written genre of plays is another staging ground that builds the larger context of Aboriginal experience from our standpoints. Contemporary examples in this category include Ernie Blackmore (1999), Wesley Enoch (2007) and Leah Purcell (2002). Historical fiction is another important vehicle for representing Aboriginal standpoints and Eric Wilmot (1987) and Bruce Pascoe (1986, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 & 2007) are well-known. The Murri, Sam Watson (1990), has gained recognition for his crafting of the neo-traditionalist narrative form, and Alexis Wright (2006) similarly so for her narrative of magical realism. Anita Heiss (2007, 2008 & 2010) has explored the popular female genre in more recent times. These authors represent only some of the more well-known and recognised Aboriginal authors who are constructing the growing field of Aboriginal literature. The plots and characters in their various productions give creative expression to a range of themes and realities emerging from within Aboriginal experience. These include generational stories of exile and longing, identity stories of becoming and home-coming, stories of urban life, mission life, small town prejudice, racial intolerance, broken lives and survival. But they also cross themes of Aboriginal dreams and aspirations, of Aboriginal success and of participation in non-Aboriginal society on Aboriginal terms.

I would argue that no Indigenous writing today is free of the impact of the developments I spoke of earlier, and that it is all anchored in a landscape that is both imposed and which has always been there. For those who have read Alexis Wright, you will not fail to notice the continuous juxtaposition of the settler landscape over a much older set of stories and meanings.

And now a few quick examples form my own work to finish with. The Wiradjuri landscape is as much a character in my work ‘Purple Threads’ that I describe as a collective memoir told in fictionalised form. Alexis Wright once again said that ‘fiction is the best way to tell an Aboriginal truth- more so than non-fiction which isn’t really true anyway. Purple Threads reflects a concern for the land drying up long before people were talking about climate change. It also privileges the Aboriginal order of things- Foucault spoke of the western order of things that is greatly emphasised but I look at another order and particularly emphasise how the settler farmers are illiterate when it comes to reading the land.

I’d like to share a story on that note that highlights the difference between these two orders.

I was getting very concerned and distressed about how the country was getting so dry (Jess’s presentation, last time I saw the Murrumbidgee in flood was 1984- the water rose over the bridge, my children had never seen the river in flood.)

Last year I lived overseas from August & just before I left it started raining- my sister and I were really excited. It kept raining while I was in NY and she gave me regular reports. I ask her to let me know straightway if the water got over the bridge & she did- it was late January- 4am in the morning NY time. I was hoping like crazy that that the river would still be in flood when I got home and it was. The guy I sat next to on the plane couldn’t understand why I was so excited looking out the window at the swollen Murrumbidgee. He pointed out to me that a flood, along with a drought and a fire were natural disasters (I thought he was going to say & Aborigines- like my school text book). I felt compelled to point out that droughts, fires & floods are NATURAL & they only become disasters when settlers can’t read the land and are injured or killed. It is settler discourse that labels such natural phenomena as disasters.

Within the narrative the river is the life- blood and the consciousness and conscience of my people as it has always been. An undercurrent pervades many of the stories. The river is a continual motif of what appears on the surface doesn’t always reflect or fathom the depths below. Appearance versus reality – the women are like this- in public they appear meek, mild and very un-calculating but in reality they are anything but. There is also the undercurrent of secrets that will never be told and things unresolved.

I’ll finish with a word-scape of my country- a landscape in words.  Reading from ‘Lying Dogs’ p. 110 & Epilogue p.155