Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2018

Balga Boy Jackson, by Mudrooroo #BookReview

I don’t need to justify reading or reviewing this book by Mudrooroo a.k.a. Colin Johnson, but I do need to explain why I am including a book by a writer whose Aboriginality is contested in #IndigLitWeek (Indigenous Literature Week).

The short answer is that it’s not up to me to decide who and who isn’t Aboriginal.  I have said this before: if an author identifies him/herself as indigenous, that’s good enough for me.  I have no authority (or desire) to become a gatekeeper in the complex politics of Aboriginal identity.

But in the course of exploring online why this book has been so very poorly edited and proof-read, I discovered that Mudrooroo and his travails have been the subject of academic interest on the other side of the world in Copenhagen.  Professor Eva Rask Knudsen – whose article ‘Aboriginal Affair(s), Reflections on Mudrooroo’s Life and Work’ appeared in LiNQ (Literature in North Queensland) Vol 39, 2012) before the publication of his three-volume project of life writing in the form of fictional autobiography – had this to say:

As the strict policing of what may pass as “authentically Aboriginal” favours verifiable fact over credible composition, Mudrooroo is likely to divide the waters between believers and disbelievers with his current work-in-progress. Accepted narrative standards of life writing challenge notions of objectivity and verifiable truth and place greater emphasis on lives as ‘storied’ and shaped through language and memory (Eakin; Rosenwald and Ochberg). This, however, conflicts in the Australian context with current Indigenous politics of authenticity’ where ethnic or racial identity is a matter of immense political concern. (LiNQ (Literature in North Queensland) Vol 39, 2012, p.106)

Reviewing Mudrooroo’s creative output since 1965, Professor Knudsen alludes to his difficulties in finding a publisher (LH: hence the shabby treatment of this book) and is forthright about Mudrooroo’s position in Australia’s literary landscape:

While this appeared, from my position at the opposite end of the world in Denmark, to be the outcome of misconceived political correctness, it also seemed sadly absurd that the man who had been instrumental in establishing contemporary Aboriginal writing as a distinct genre had been abandoned by his publishers and so effectively cut off.  (p.105)

Not just abandoned by his publishers. As I noted in my review of Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, Mudrooroo is excluded from the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature but he was listed on the AustLit database BlackWords last time I looked.

As an academic who has studied the writing of Mudrooroo for some considerable time, Professor Knudsen has a professional investment in his identity as an Aboriginal person.  Bearing that in mind, she does however, ask uncomfortable questions about identity politics in general…

It was hard if not impossible, I thought at the time, to think of contemporary Aboriginal writing as a distinct genre if Mudrooroo was to be excluded. For every phase in the development of Aboriginal writing—from the formative years that were documentary and probing, to the consolidating years that were archaeological and re-constructive, and to
the more recent years that were experimental and transformative—there is a seminal text by Mudrooroo. I thought about the sad irony of the Mudrooroo story. While theoretically
speaking we all agree that identity as a fixed and stable concept is under erasure in the age of globalisation, it is also at the same time being rigidly reinforced and policed in Australian-
Aboriginal identity politics. With what license, I wondered, does a general public decide that a citizen’s identity is fictitious, a sham? What fuels the need in both academic and Aboriginal camps to weed out the hybrid from the premises of Aboriginality? In my mind Mudrooroo remained a significant Australian writer whose work was of prominent quality regardless of his contested identity, but to me he also remained an Aboriginal writer and person. He had lived the life of an Aboriginal person all his life. His colour had ostracised him, named him ‘Aboriginal’ since birth, he became a Ward of the State at the age of nine when removed from his mother and placed in a boy’s home, he had lost contact with his family, he had been convicted of crime and imprisoned at a young age and become part of an Aboriginal youth rehabilitation program that offered employment as a means of integration into mainstream society. He identified as an Aboriginal person and had been recognised by others as an Aboriginal person. He had committed himself actively to Aboriginal politics since the 19705 and was, until 1996, a high-profile advocate of Aboriginal rights and a vocal cultural critic. If this all did not qualify his Aboriginality, what would? (p.109)

I repeat: it’s not up to me to decide who is and who isn’t Indigenous.  I chanced upon this book at the Dandenong Library, where it forms part of their collection of Indigenous Literature, and it has a sticker on its spine to identify it as such.  I took it home and became utterly absorbed in the story of a boy called Balga, born in WA in 1838 to an Aboriginal mother and an African-American father who had disappeared out of his life, as had his older siblings as one by one they were removed from his mother’s care and sent off to institutions.  In 1947 Balga is taken away from his mother too, and Part One of the novel vividly retraces the misery of his early years:

And so the black boy, Balga, found himself in a place he had never known could exist. He hated it and didn’t settle down.  He sobbed for the first week and then as his tears dried up, he decided he wanted to go home.  Everyone, the other kids and even the brothers addressed him as ‘Skinny.  He used to say that his name was Balga, but then the brothers said that it was no Christian name.  He retorted that neither was Skinny and received a blow from one of the straps that all the adults carried hung over the tops of their sashes or pushed through it.  Do or say one wrong thing and out it came and down it came.  They put Balga to work washing the dishes after the meals.  He dropped a plate and out came the strap.  He had to wash dishes in scalding water.  He sought to make it bearable by adding cold water and out came the strap.  ‘Tuck it, tuck it, he thought.  He had stopped crying as his anger grew.  He wanted it out.  (p.38)

When his attempt to run away fails, and he is asked where the little wanderer was off to, there is a moment so poignant it pierces the reader’s conscience:

How could Balga answer him?  He had lost his voice and was senseless with dread.  What would they do with him?  He wanted to sob, but couldn’t.  Unable to escape physically, he was building a wall around his heart.  He felt nothing as the car turned through the gateway and wheeled towards his prison.  What was to be was to be and he gave up the struggle and much of the right to think and feel as a free human being.  (p.40)

He was nine.

Parts Two and Three trace his adolescence and young adulthood.  It’s harder to pity Balga because he does some reprehensible things and his behaviour towards women is unpleasant to say the least.  But what this book teaches the reader is that judgement should be suspended.  Throughout his childhood, he had no contact at all with females.  When he finally stumbles on his mother by accident in Perth, after she’s been thrown out of the shack she’s lived in for year, they barely recognise each other.  Using his limited resources he tries to get her a better place to live, and he goes shopping to fill her empty cupboards.  But his efforts to celebrate his birthday with her is a debacle because they don’t know how to relate to each other any more.  And with girls and young women, he’s got no idea how to behave, because he’s built his identity around characters in pulp fiction.

Pertinent to the discussion around identity is that he grows up denying his Aboriginality.  His mother, in a futile attempt to protect her kids from discrimination, told them never to mix with the community not far away because they were ‘dirty’ and ‘no good’.  It makes no difference: because he’s dark he’s still stolen from her, and he’s still subjected to all the discrimination that was institutionalised in WA in that era.  Conversely, he gets a second chance after a stint in prison because the Aboriginal Advancement League intervenes.

In Melbourne, then as now a progressive state, he finds that by focussing on his African-American heritage, he is accepted, at least in the sleazy parts of St Kilda where he hangs out. But when he sets off for a short trip to Sydney, he isn’t sure whether there are laws that apply to him or not.

After feeling the pull of the bush and a swim in the Murray, he begins to be apprehensive:

They crossed the border over into Albury in New South Wales and Balga’s mood persisted.  He suddenly realised as his identity returned to him in a rush that he was an Aborigine.  He didn’t know what laws might confine him in that state.  Why, he might even end up on a reservation.  he hadn’t even thought of this.

‘Cheer up, the water wasn’t all that bad,’ Ross said easing the car into a service station and parking in front of a restaurant.  ‘Come on, let’s eat,’ she said and Balga reluctantly followed her.  Were Aborigines allowed to eat in restaurants?  He didn’t know, but it could be as bad as Perth where they were only banned from hotels.  (p.327)

(Pause for a moment, and consider that.  Crossing the state border which was and is a non-event for other Australians, meant fear of possibly different laws that only applied to Indigenous people.)

Balga soon finds out that NSW didn’t need legislation to discriminate.  He gets told that he’d better just be passing through.  A young man starts chatting up his girl and tells Balga that he has to wash before... and Balga knows what’s in store:

‘He goes and gets his mates and they beat me all to hell and who knows what they’ll do to you.’ (p.329)

Despite all this, the book ends on an optimistic note as Balga resumes his real name, and finds his metier singing the blues…

BTW The artwork on the guitar that graces the front cover is by the Indigenous artist Revel Cooper.

Author: Mudrooroo
Title: Balga Boy Jackson, a Novel
Publisher: ETT Imprint, 2017
ISBN: 9781925706055
Source: Dandenong Library

 


Responses

  1. I’m glad you’ve gone to this trouble to discuss Mudrooroo’s aboriginality. I have been meaning to write about him, and the similar case of Bobbi Sykes for some time. His experience as a child and young man certainly seems to have been ‘Aboriginal’ and as Colin Davison Johnson he as you say has been important academically in establishing Indig.Lit. From my reading Kim Scott seems to be pro and Anita Heiss anti. I reviewed one of his novels some time ago, forget its name now. And finally, I don’t know if it’s relevant but Balga is Perth’s most vegan suburb.

    • It’s a very tricky topic, but he seems to have a champion in Professor Knudsen. Her article is long, and necessarily academic, but it’s well worth reading because she makes such a good case for his place in the development of Indigenous writing.

  2. […] See Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review […]

  3. I remember the shock of his fall from grace. He was an excellent tutor and quite fierce in his delivery of facts. I do feel a bit guilty that have not pursued his writing but your generous review has prompted me to rectify that. Bobbi Sykes too was lovely woman that I met when doing an Arts Degree at Murdoch University. Those heady times seem a long way in the past when you see how regressive this country has become. Never knew Balga was vegan heaven but glad to hear as a practising vegan.

    • What I would like is for some publisher worthy of his talents to pick up the baton…

    • Fay, I wrote Bogan! Bloody autocorrect


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