Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2018

Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss

There is much to learn from this anthology, but if there’s one thing that stands out it’s the diversity of Aboriginal experience.  The 50 contributors include voices from everywhere, and editor Anita Heiss pays tribute to the land first of all:

The stories cover country from Nukunu to Noogar, Wiradjuri to Western Errernte, Ku Ku Yalinji to Kunibídji, Gunditjamara to Gumbaynggirr and many places in between.

Experiences span coastal and desert regions, cities and remote communities, and all of them speak to the heart. (p.1)

These life stories comes from

… all around the country, including from boarding schools and even inside prison; and from schoolchildren, university students and grandparents.  We also have recollections of growing up Aboriginal in Australia by opera singers, actors, journalists, academics and activists.  In many ways this anthology will also serve to demonstrate how we contribute to, and participate in, many varied aspects of society every day. (p.2)

There are voices that I know because I’ve read their writing:

There are also famous names from other spheres of influence: Deborah Cheetham; Adam Goodes; and Miranda Tapsell – but when I turn to the back of the book I discover that all the contributors are doing awe-inspiring things with their lives, even 13-year-old Taryn Little, who knows that her ancestors would be proud of her, that her grandmother would have loved all her hard work and effort, that she is a strong young woman and that she makes her family proud.  Susie Anderson is a writer and producer who’s been published in The Lifted Brow, the ABR and Voiceworks while her sister Alice is a singer-songwriter, with a beautiful haunting voiceBebe Backhouse is a classical music pianist, repetiteur and teacher who organises festivals and events in Melbourne; while baritone Don Bemrose is the first Aboriginal person to perform with Opera Australia.  So much talent and hard work is here on display in this book and yet each story is a reminder that there is a long way to go in terms of recognition of its black history and reconciliation with its Indigenous people.

Tamika Worrell is a secondary school teacher and a Kamileroi woman.  Her contribution begins like this:

‘What percent Aboriginal are you?’
‘You don’t look like an Aborigine.’
‘You’ve done really well for an Aboriginal.’
“You’re not like those other ones – you’re one of the good ones.’
“You wouldn’t have had it hard growing up.’
‘I’m darker than you are.’
‘Are you really Aboriginal?’
‘So do you get all the benefits?’
‘All Aborigines are angry.’
‘Get over it, it happened two hundred years ago.  No one alive today was there.’
‘I’m not racist, I have an Aboriginal friend.’

These are phrases I hear constantly.  I’m an Aboriginal woman, I’m a Koori woman.  I’m not a percentage, I’m not part Aboriginal and I’m not an Aborigine.  My skin colour does not dictate my connection to country, my attachment to culture or my understanding of who I am.  I’m not your ever-available resource to learn about culture, but being sick of ignorance I’ll probably be inclined to share what I know.  I’m not an expert.  I know my life, my mob and my stories, but I don’t speak for the diversity of Aboriginal Australia.  I do get all the benefits if you’re referring to belonging to the longest-living culture in the world, a culture of beauty and wonder that has guided my identity in every facet of the world.  But, no, I don’t get more Centrelink study allowance than you.  I haven’t done well for an Aborigine. I’ve done well for any twenty-two-year old who has overcome hardship. (p. 283)

Adolescence can be a tough time, but to have your identity questioned like this must make it even more difficult.  If I were a secondary teacher I’d assign one each of these readings to every student in my class, and then open it up for discussion.  If we could make each new generation understand the diversity of Indigenous identity, Australia would be a much better place.

Update 17/12/18 For a thoughtful response to this book from psychiatrist and author Anne Buist, see ‘What I’m Reading’ at Meanjin. 

Editor: Anita Heiss
Title: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia
Publisher: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781863959810
Source: Personal copy, purchased at Readings, $29.99

Available from Fishpond: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia


  1. Sounds like a powerful read.


  2. I think I’ll order this book. The diversity sounds wonderful and I very much agree with your final comment.


    • It’s a good book to dip into as well. None of the pieces are very long, so it’s a good handbag book, for on the train or in the waiting room.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Anita Heiss works very hard to bridge the gap in our understanding. And I think you’re right that readings like this have to be internalized at school level. It seemed a few decades ago that racism was on the outer but these days it seems to be mainstream again.


    • Yes. I know one can’t blame one man but it seems to me that John Howard licensed racism when he sneered at political correctness.


  4. Yes Lisa. He is responsible for the regression of so many things that I once felt proud of as a working class woman who benefited from the progressive policies of the Whitlam era.


    • It was a depressing era, that’s for sure…


  5. Anita is a fantastic, Deadly author and reading her work always makes me proud to be called Indigenous in every way. Well done, tidda xx


    • I agree, Rosie, but you’re deadly yourself too!


  6. […] see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  7. I loved this book – I saw your post on this and had my fingers crossed that it was available as a Kindle version, because new books are typically hardback and therefore pricey and Kindle books do not count towards my “not buying books phase”! – I started it about 30 minutes after I downloaded it and finished it the following day. I absolutely loved it. After my time living in Wagga I have been fascinated with understanding the Wiradjuri people.


    • That’s great, Julie, I will add you to the list of readers and link your comment to the reviews pages too:)


  8. […] got the books of the speakers I’m going to hear at this year’s festival: Anita Heiss, (Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia); Michael Atherton (A Coveted Possession, the rise and fall of the Piano in Australia); Clare […]


  9. […] pride in their identify and the resilience that they are forced to find from very young.  (See my review).  It was also an opportunity to showcase the skills of a diverse range of people, so very […]


  10. […] Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss, see my review This wide-ranging collection of essays brings together the voices of many Indigenous Australian’s […]


  11. […] Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss […]


  12. […] Last but not least, I got to buy Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. It’s a book I actively looked for after reading Lisa’s review. […]


  13. […] not crossed my radar at all until the MUBA shone a light on it.  And yet it’s a book, like Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss, which has revelatory […]


  14. […] (ANZLitLovers) has also posted on this book, and there are several reviews for the Australian Women Writers […]


  15. […] (Billy Griffiths, Black Inc.) Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (ed by Anita Heiss, Black Inc.), see my review The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted (Robert Hillman, Text) The Geography of Friendship (Sally Piper, […]


  16. […] (Billy Griffiths, Black Inc.) Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (ed by Anita Heiss, Black Inc.), see my review The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted (Robert Hillman, Text) The Geography of Friendship (Sally Piper, […]


  17. […] Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia,  edited by Anita Heiss, see my review […]


  18. […] Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  19. […] Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  20. […] 2019, which you can pre-order here); Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (2018, see here, and read my review); and Growing Up Asian in Australia (2008, see here).  These books are revelatory: they share a […]


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