My Place, by Sally Morgan is now an Australian Classic, but it wasn’t when I first read it back in 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year. Like many Australians, I was shocked to read this deeply moving memoir which revealed without bitterness or rancour a chastening story of endemic racism in our country. I had thought I was an educated person and this book made me realise to my dismay that I knew nothing about the Aboriginal heritage that underpins Australian identity. When I saw My Place as an audio book, I wanted to revisit this memoir, to test its power in the 21st century when Morgan’s voice is now one of many Aboriginal Australians telling their disconcerting stories. Let me assure you, it has lost nothing of its impact…
Born in Perth, Western Australia, Sally Morgan is a year older than I am. She and her siblings were brought up to answer questions about their colour by saying that they were of Indian origin, a strategy her mother and grandmother hoped would shield them from the racism of the schoolyard. They believed that they were protecting the children by denying their Aboriginal descent, from the Palku/Baligu people of the Pilbara, and keeping the children in ignorance of it.
But Sally’s adolescence brought rebellion and stubborn questioning, and she embarked on a relentless quest to find out who she really was. Despite the equally stubborn resistance of her grandmother Daisy, and the deep reluctance of her mother Gladdie, she began unearthing the truth. Her grandmother, Daisy, had been born at Corunna Downs, a pastoral property owned by the Drake-Brockman family. Under the auspices of the notorious A.O.Neville, Protector of Aborigines in W.A., she had been taken from her mother Annie, a full-blood Aborigine who lived and worked at Corunna. Daisy ended up working for most of her life, unpaid except in kind, at Ivanhoe, another pastoral property owned by the Drake-Brockman family. She never married, and she never saw her mother again, though she was able to have some contact with her brother Arthur who came looking for her.
Daisy’s child, Gladdie, was sent away from Ivanhoe to Sister Kate’s, a ‘home’ for children:
They took you away when I was twenty. The man from the Aborigines Protection Board said it was the best thing. He said that black mothers like me weren’t allowed to keep babies like you. He didn’t want you brought up as one of our people. I didn’t want to let you go, but I didn’t have any choice. That was the law. That was the law.
Gladdie stayed at Sister Kate’s until she was 15. Both she and her mother expected that she would then be allowed to live at Ivanhoe but it was not to be. Gladdie had to leave to board with a religious family who asked her to leave, because she had gone to the ‘sinful’ movies. She married Bill, a war veteran obviously suffering Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, with whom she had five children, but he made their lives a misery with his drinking and violence. When he died, Gladdie was left to bring up the children on her own because his parents had no time for Bill’s part-Aboriginal family.
This brief summary of these damaged lives is gradually revealed as Sally records her indefatigable attempts to give these women a voice. She refuses to be ashamed of her heritage; she wants to know it and to be proud of it, but Daisy and Sally have had their whole lives disrupted by government policies, by exploitation and by racist assumptions so their reluctance to reveal their secrets is well-founded. When finally Gladdie tells her story, beginning with the bleak days at Sister Kate’s when occasional visits from her mother were cherished memories, it is poignant indeed. Separating kids from their families was perhaps not so unusual for Australian pastoral families who routinely sent their kids off to boarding-school, but Gladdie was only three.
When Daisy finally agrees to tell some (but definitely not all) of her secrets, she amplifies Gladdie’s memories of this time. As an unpaid servant at the station, and subject to laws requiring her to work, Daisy had no say about the future of her child. She had been separated from her own mother because she was a ‘light-skinned one’ (meaning that her father must have been a white man not a tribal Aborigine) and she had been sent away on the pretext of getting an education, which turned out to be training as a domestic servant. Ashamed of her illiteracy well into her old age, she could not read or write so there could be no exchange of letters or correspondence about how her child was getting on at Sister Kate’s. She had no money either, being entirely reliant on the Drake-Brockmans to give her leave and transport to make any visits. And knowing that her separation from her mother had turned out to be irrevocable must have made her anxiety and distress even harder to bear.
For Sally, the mystery of her mother and grandmother’s parentage is a scab that must be unpicked. Neither Daisy nor Gladdie know the identity of their fathers, and there are conflicting stories. The Drake-Brockmans claim that there was a ‘Maltese Sam’, but when Sally picks up the trail from the old people in the Pilbara they say that it couldn’t possibly have been him. For the first time Sally suspects the reason for the women’s shame, sending her to old photos of Howden Drake-Brockman where she saw a resemblance that shook her identity to the core.
The only aspect of this memoir that diminished its authenticity for me, was the inclusion of some quasi-religious experiences, such as visions and premonitions. Daisy may well claim that ‘white people need to get educated about this’ but however sincerely it may be believed, this type of spirituality has never been authenticated in any scientific or psychological context. To the contrary, it has always been shown to be linked to perception or memory (or fraud, though I’m not suggesting that this is the case here). People remember that they foresaw something after it’s happened, and they forget the times that they were sure something was going to happen when it didn’t. That’s human nature.
Sally Morgan received the Human Rights Award for Literature in 1987 and the Order of Australia Book Prize in 1990. My Place was also short- listed for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 1987.
The narration by Melodie Reynolds is a little stilted here and there, as if Reynolds has not noticed punctuation, but the voice is superb. It brings this story of three amazingly strong women alive, and is faithful to the Aboriginal English spoken by Daisy, Albert and Gladdie.
If you haven’t read My Place, add it to your wishlist, and make time for it soon.
Author: Sally Morgan
Title: My Place
Narrator: Melodie Reynolds
Publisher: Bolinda Publishing 2011
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $39.99