It’s impossible not to be deeply moved by much of the writing in this anthology.
The book begins with a Foreword by Mick Dodson, who tells us that it offers a ‘treasured insight into the Indigenous cultural world of Australia‘ and reminds us that:
Literature and its creation are so important to the lives of everyone. It can be and is used as a powerful political tool by Aboriginal people in a political system which renders us mostly voiceless.
But these calm and measured words don’t really prepare the reader for the emotional impact of the book.
Nor does the Introduction, by the editors, Anita Heiss and Peter Minter. It’s a brief survey of Aboriginal literature since 1796, when Bennelong wrote a letter, the first known text in English by an Aboriginal author. The anthology is arranged chronologically, starting with letters, petitions and journalism which show indigenous people using the ‘tools of negotiation’ in their struggle for basic human rights from the early days of colonisation throughout the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century this literature is marked by a more public resistance to assimilationist policies: activists began to publish political manifestos. There is also the 1929 landmark publication of a new genre in Aboriginal writing: David Unaipon’s Native Legends.
In the 1950s and 60s the struggle for Civil Rights intensified. There was, for example, the Yirrkala Bark Petition, a key element in the demand for equal pay and for land rights. The petition became the first documentary recognition of Indigenous people in Australian law. It was a bilingual document written in Yolngu and bordered by traditional symbols for Yolngu law and rights to land. And a new voice was heard: Kath Walker’s first book of poetry was published in 1964, showcasing a powerful imagination drawing on a distinctive traditional culture, harnessed to political activism.
Political writing was influenced by the 1967 Constitutional Referendum and the reforms of the Whitlam Government (1972-5): the agenda was focussed on land rights and self-determination. At the same time Aboriginal writing began to flourish across a wide range of genres: distinctive voices published contemporary poetry and prose in mainstream and independent Aboriginal media. Heiss and Minter identify Kath Walker’s 1988 decision to readopt her traditional name Oodgeroo Noonuccal as a defining moment ‘reflecting both an individual and a collective resurgence in the confidence of Aboriginal culture‘ (p6) and they also link the growth of ‘autobiographical narrative and testimonial fiction’ as ‘key storytelling genres’ which were for many women in particular a ‘vehicle for both authorial independence and cultural responsibility’. (p7)
Cued in by this introduction with its strong emphasis on political uses of writing, the reader turns the page, not quite knowing what to expect … and finds this:
Sir, I am very well. I hope you are very well . . . I live at the Governor’s. I have every day dinner there. I have not my wife: another black man took her away; we have had murry doings: he spear’d me in the back, but I better now: his name is now Curroway. all my friends alive and well. Not me go to England no more. I am at home now.
Bennelong goes on to express his good wishes for the health of his sponsor Lord Sydney and to ask humbly for some stockings, some handkerchiefs and some shoes …
If only this remarkable man had had the opportunity to tell his whole story!
The next excerpt is from the Flinders Island Weekly Chronicle (1837) which I learned about from Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aboriginals. The author Thomas Brune (1823-1841) warns his fellow inmates
You ought my freinds you must behaved yourselves better than you do or else the Commandant be so angry with you and he won’t give you anything no more. And the Commandant his very soon going away from you Natives and he will leave you alway and he will be so glad you must get another Commandant …
And now my freinds do Let us come to the Commandant with kindness and he now give you every thing what you want and obey him and look out what he says to you and not be going on in the foolish ways that always carrying on.
When you know indeed that the Commandant G.A Robinson sometimes withdrew food rations for ‘misbehaviour’ this simple exhortation is enough to bring a lump to the throat.
Indigenous people do not, of course, speak with one voice, and as well as poignant reminders of the injustice and cruelty meted out by European colonisers, well-meaning or otherwise, there are strong political voices in this collection, and some of them express positions I had not encountered before. One example is the manifesto from Kevin Gilbert, whose speech at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy begins by stating that Australian citizenship had been imposed on Aboriginal people and that they had ‘never joined the company…never claimed citizenship of the oppressor’ (p85). His argument is cogent, and now I think I understand why that citizenship is so deeply offensive to him. That’s part of the power of this book: it illuminates both a shared humanity and a way of looking at things that is different to the mainstream. For those of who care about indigenous issues, the anthology can become part of a journey of learning.
In the wake of the anniversary of Mabo, it is interesting to read Noel Pearson’s take on the contentious Apology to the Stolen Generations. Commenting in 2002 on what he calls the ‘pointless campaign for an apology from then Prime Minister John Howard’, he argued that it was important to distinguish between ‘progressivist’ and ‘progressive’ and as an example of the latter, chose former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s heroic determination to enshrine the High Court’s finding on Mabo in law. His argument – that progressive politics focus on ‘the main game’ – is expressed with the ancient power of rhetoric, using the powerful symbol of a cornerstone hewn by great men, and the risk that it might have turned to dust.
Paul Keating recognised the High Court’s decision in Mabo as a once in a nation’s lifetime opportunity to make peace between the old and the new Australians. Native Title proffered the basis for what he called ‘peace’ and could be the cornerstone for the settlement of fundamental colonial grievance.
Without Paul Keating’s Native Title Act this cornerstone hewn by Eddie Mabo, Ron Castan and their colleagues would have been lost to the nation. The cornerstone would have been turned to dust if protective federal legislation had not been put in place by the Keating government.
Amongst the excerpts from novels and stories, there is superb poetry and song in this anthology too. For me, the poem that says it all is The Bastards (2000) by Barbara Nicholson, a Wadi Wadi woman from the Illawarra district. I wish I could quote from it, because it’s magnificent, and I hope that today’s secondary school students have an opportunity to study powerful poetry like this.
I was pleased to see excerpts from great novels that I’m familiar with, such as Kim Scott’s Benang and That Deadman Dance and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, but (as you’ve probably guessed by now) I’ve also had the pleasure of discovering new authors to track down. I’ve added some to my plans for Indigenous Literature Week here at ANZ LitLovers, and I’ve used this book to develop an indigenous reading list as well.
Highly recommended for every reference shelf.
Editors: Anita Heiss and Peter Minter
Title: Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2008
Source: Kingston Library (but I’m going to buy my own copy)
Fishpond: Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature