Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2019

Vale Mudrooroo (a.k.a. Colin Johnson) (1938-2019)

Cultural warning: Indigenous readers are advised that this obituary includes the names of deceased persons.

The Australian and Books & Publishing are reporting the news that Mudrooroo a.k.a. Colin Johnson, has died, aged 80.

Mudrooroo was born at East Cubelling (near Narrogin WA), and brought up in a Roman Catholic orphanage.  He lived in India for six years, including three as a Buddhist monk.  He was married to Sangya Magar and had three children, and since 2001 was living in Nepal.

He published as Colin Johnson between 1965 and 1983, and after he changed his name in 1991, as Mudrooroo (or Mudrooroo Narogin, Mudrooroo Nyoongah).  While his Aboriginality is contested by some, (see my summary here) according to the Danish academic Professor Eva Rask Knudsen his significance as an Australian author ought not to be.  See my summary of her position here, where amongst other things she writes:

It was hard if not impossible […] 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.

His achievements were many: he graduated with a BA (Hons) in 1987, and lectured at the University of the Northern Territory in 1987.  From there he lectured at the University of Queensland in 1988 and subsequently in 1991 held the Chair of Aboriginal Studies at Murdoch University in Perth.  His awards included the the Wieckhard prize, 1979; the Western Australia Literary award, 1989; the WA Premier’s Book award for most outstanding entry and for poetry, 1992; and he was awarded an Australia Council Writer’s grant, 1994.  He was also the cofounder of the Aboriginal Oral Literature and Dramatists Association.

He was a prolific author.  His novels included:

  • Wild Cat Falling. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1965. (This first novel was reviewed in the NY Times, and the catalogue at the NLA shows that it was translated into a number of different languages.  Bill at The Australian Legend reviewed it here.
  • Long Live Sandawara. Melbourne, Quartet, 1979; London, Quartet, 1980.
  • Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1983. (See my review).
  • Doin’ Wildcat (as Mudrooroo Narogin). South Yarra, Victoria, HylandHouse, 1988.
  • Master of the Ghost Dreaming. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Wildcat Screaming. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1992. (A sequel to Wild Cat Falling).
  • The Kwinkan. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1993.
  • The Undying. Pymble, N.S.W., HarperCollins, 1998.
  • Underground. Pymble, Sydney, NSW, Angus & Robertson, 1999.

He published poetry:

  • The Song Circle of Jackie, Hyland House (Melbourne, Australia), 1986.
  • Dalwurra: The Black Bittern (as Colin Johnson). Nedlands, WesternAustralia, Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, 1988.
  • The Garden of Gethsemane. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1991.
  • Pacific Highway Boo-blooz: Country Poems. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1996.

and he wrote across a variety of other genres:

  • Before the Invasion: Aboriginal Life to 1788 (as Colin Johnson), withColin Bourke and Isobel White. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Writing from the Fringe (as Mudrooroo Narogin). South Yarra, Victoria, Hyland House, 1990.
  • The Mudrooroo/Mueller Project (a play). Sydney, New South Wales University Press, 1993.
  • Aboriginal Mythology. London, Aquarian, 1994.
  • Us Mob: History, Culture, Struggle: An introduction to Indigenous Australia. Sydney and New York, Angus & Robertson, 1995.
  • Indigenous Literature of Australia/Milli Milli Wangka. South Melbourne, Victoria, Hyland House, 1997

Memoir:

  • Balga Boy Jackson, 2017.  See my review.  This was to have been the first of three (?) books about his life, but there is no listing at the NLA for a subsequent book, though given the problems Mudrooroo had finding a publisher, and the possibility that he may have turned to alternative publishing without knowing the deposit rules, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a sequel.

According to the Australian academic Chris Tiffin:

Colin Johnson’s novels deal with the displacement of modern Aborigines and their inability either to find a place in white society or to hold to the traditional ways. His first novel [Wild Cat Falling, 1965] was [like his memoir Balga Boy Jackson, 2017] concerned with the world he knew growing up in Perth—a world of the bodgie subculture often in trouble with the law—while subsequent novels confront events from the Australian past and their implications for Aborigines today.

His novels were sometimes absurdist, and explored the struggle to find a moral core by which to live.  His memoir Balga Boy Jackson (2017) reflects the same opposition between a directionless “modern” Aborigine and a decayed though still integral Elder, that was identified by Tiffin in Long Live Sandawara (1980).  Tiffin’s summary of the novel includes mention of a character called Noorak, who as a child saw the clash between an Aboriginal resistance fighter, Sandawara, and the whites.

Johnson treats the freedom fighters of the past with seriousness and dignity as true spiritual products of the soil. The sort of holistic integrity in Sandawara and his fighters contrasts strongly with the rootlessness of the modern characters.

[For many Australian readers in the 1980s, this would surely be one of the first times they had ever heard of Aboriginal resistance to white settlement.]

But, Tiffin argues, the theme of glorious and inspiring resistance to the whites, shifts to developing a philosophy of survival in Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World (1983). This is the only novel I have read, so I was interested to see Tiffin’s thoughts about it (which of course are more academic than mine) but were obviously written before scholarship about the continuing existence of Tasmanian Aborigines, see my review of Lyndal Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines).  So Tiffin writes (as ‘Colin Johnson’ did) that the novel is about  … the annihilation of the Tasmanian Aborigines in the first half of the 19th century. Well, they weren’t annihilated, and ironically, given the controversy about Mudrooroo’s identity, they have had a long struggle to have their Aboriginality accepted.

Anyway, (in part) Tiffin summarises the novel like this, reinforcing his thesis about Mudrooroo’s focus on the catastrophic impact on Indigenous life:

The controlling viewpoint is that of a learned man of the Bruny Island tribe who sees his land polluted by the aggressive practices of the whites. The focus of the novel is on Wooreddy’s attempts to understand the processes of change where there had been no change before. Wooreddy is obsessed with the belief that he has been chosen to survive to see the imminent end of the world. This insight comes to him as a child when he sees his first sailing ship which he takes to be a floating island drawn by clouds from the domain of the evil spirit, Ria Warawah. Wooreddy’s sense of being select enables him to avoid the worst pangs of outrage and regret as the dispossession of the Aborigines proceeds. He retreats into a fatalistic numbness which cannot be termed cowardice, for bravery and cowardice are no longer meaningful concepts.

[…]

Johnson uses historical events and characters in this novel to investigate the state of doomed suspension in which the Aborigines found themselves after the arrival of the white man. Since there never was any chance of the Tasmanian Aborigines resisting the invaders, their world effectively ended from the appearance of the whites. […] The whites are a force of history as much as a manifestation of the evil of man. Wooreddy is denied even the satisfaction of having someone to blame.

As was noted on Twitter, (thanks @nathanhobby) there is a curious silence about Mudrooroo’s passing.  At the time of writing, his death has been marked only in two paywalled sources.  Considering that there is a wealth of scholarship, here and overseas, about this Australian writer who was still publishing only a year or so ago, it seems rather shabby to me.

My sources for details of Mudrooroo’s life and career are those that are freely available online:

  •  Australian Studies academic Chris Tiffin’s Mudrooroo Biography at j.rank.org  which offers this rider to researchers: Content on this website is from high-quality, licensed material originally published in print form. You can always be sure you’re reading unbiased, factual, and accurate information.
  • Wikipedia (mainly focusses on the controversy)
  • Encylopedia.com (Includes summaries of some of the novels)
  • National Library of Australia (NLA) catalogue

 


Responses

  1. Thank you, Lisa, for stepping up and filling the gap. It’s a very helpful summary of his career, of which I knew so little, having just read Wild Cat Falling and Brenda Niall’s account of Mary Durack mentoring him in True North. What a strange and interesting life he led, and what complicated questions for Australian literature he leaves behind. The silence about his death troubles me – as if either writers matter even less than I thought or else that someone could be written out of literary history. People like David Ireland are rediscovered at the end of their lives; others never come to the other side of obscurity.

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    • No, thanks go to you for your alert because I would otherwise know nothing about his death.
      I wonder if the reasoning behind his exclusion from the PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature has influenced the silence? Or is it just that my usual sources don’t do much in the way of reporting on books and writing anyway?
      One thing I do know: relying on information from amateur genealogists in Australia, where concealing an Aboriginal past was until fairly recently an expert phenomenon, seems fraught to me. I can’t believe that anyone seriously relies on what’s in BDM certificates… as recently as my own father’s death, a typist wrongly recorded his place of birth and it was too much of an admin nightmare to fix. That was an accident, how much harder to interrogate documents of the past where there were endless reasons to lie…(convicts, Aboriginality, extra and pre-marital scandals etc)

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  2. “Shabby” is a good word. I’m grateful for the existence of the blogosphere that allows gaps to be filled like this, and grateful to you for taking on the task.

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  3. Thanks for that Lisa. He was at Murdoch when I studied there and his lectures were so enlightening and confronting. It’s a shame that he has been ignored in literary and academic circles. Similar to the treatment of Roberta Sykes who I also had the pleasure of meeting a long time ago.

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    • I read Vols 1 & 2 of her autobiography… very revealing about the racism she endured.

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  4. I found him an interesting writer irrespective of his Aboriginality, and I understand he was an important academic in the area of Indigenous Lit. It’s a shame if his passing wasn’t noted in what remains of our local newspaper, the West Australian, and also that his contribution to Indig. Lit was contested (though not by Kim Scott I think).

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    • Exactly, Bill, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The two books I’ve read, your review of a third, and the academic commentary I’ve been able to access all clearly indicate that his books are well worth reading.
      I suspect that his passing hasn’t been addressed by the media because it’s too much work to deal with a controversy over someone who is now an obscure writer. (It took me two hours to do this post, and I already had done most of the research for my previous reviews). The Oz wouldn’t have a journo on staff who’s ever read Mudrooroo, but is always happy to stir up identity politics, especially Aboriginal ones…

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  5. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never heard of him, but sounds like I’m probably not the only Australian reader in this position. I’m heading to a giant second hand bookstore in Fremantle today and will see if I can hunt out any of his work…

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    • Don’t be embarrassed – I’d never heard of him either till Karenlee Thompson recommended his book during an Indigenous Lit Week. I just checked Readings, they’ve only got one of his books in stock, (Balga Boy Jackson) though it looks as if they can be ordered, maybe through print on demand. I can’t recall them ever advertising Balga Boy either, though that doesn’t mean they didn’t, of course.

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    • Hi Kim, Elizabeths generally do have copies in my experience. If you get Wild Cat skip read the beginning and you’ll see where the narrator gets out of Freo jail and walks down to the beach. I’ll be back in town Tues (arvo probably) if you’re still around.

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      • Local knowledge! thanks, Bill:)

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      • Didn’t have any luck but might try the other store opposite New Edition. We are around Tuesday & Wednesday if you fancy a quick coffee or a beer. Email readingmatters@gmail.com

        Liked by 1 person

  6. While making no judgments on any of your comments Lisa or those of you readers, while Colin was blessed with enormous talent he genetically is of Irish, British and African heritage. His paternal grandfather traveled to Sydney via USA and whilst it can not be narrowed down to a precise area in Africa it includes the Ivory Coast and Sengal. Africans were part of the first fleet and I feel that their part in the Australian story should be embraced.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Kathy, and for the way you have explained your position.
      However, my position remains the same. I have no authority (or desire) to become a gatekeeper in the complex politics of Aboriginal identity.
      And – short of a DNA test, I don’t see how anyone else can have a definitive position on it.

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  7. Hello Lisa. Your discussion of the late Mudrooroo. I haven’t had the opportunity to read his writings yet but based on your as well as other critics’ perspective of his writings and scholarship, he was committed to preserving the history and culture of Australian Aborigines.

    The controversy around the authenticity of Mudrooroo’s Aboriginality is very striking because of the cultural protocols and policies currently in place for protecting the artistic works, writings, cultural rites, and clan traditions of Australian Aboriginal people. I did some brief online research inquiries into Mudrooroo. I would be interested in knowing how Aboriginal wrriters and scholars feel about Mudrooroo’s work.

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    • I’m sorry, Maxine, I can’t help you with that. I didn’t do an extensive search but I didn’t find much on open access.

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      • Lisa, I posed that inquiry for the readership to think about, not necessarily pursue through research.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Anita Heiss in Dhuuluu-Yala devotes nearly all chapter one to arguing that Mudrooroo and Roberta Sykes should not speak for Indigenous Australians. She writes:
          “It is sad but true that after 30 years as ‘the Aboriginal author’ Johnson must now reassess everything that he thought about himself and his writing. But it is perhaps more important that he find out who he is rather than continue to write as an Aborigine,”

          Heiss quotes Noongars who opposed Johnson’s adoption of the name Mudrooroo. Elsewhere I’ve read Kim Scott – himself a Noongar – argue the opposite, but I’m not sure where (and Kayang & Me doesn’t have an index).

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          • I think that Kim Scott himself has had his Aboriginality questioned. But you know, there’s an interesting comment on the Google Books page for Dhuuluu-Yala… in part, it says:
            “It’s possible to not know your race. or be raised to believe you must be some race. If your sent to live with Eskimos at a young age and society label you and say you belong there then after a few years I guess you become a Eskimo maybe not have the spiritual connection which ended up being used as stereotypical behaviours not like indigenous Australians. So only think I got was the real life story of Colin Johnson and how great it is to find out how he was imaged by society and his life living the battles of a aboriginal man as that’s exactly how he was treated. He wasn’t aboriginal and both cultures turned on him.”
            That last sentence says it all, I think.

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  8. I have been wondering how to respond to this. Wild cat falling is a book I became aware of at University in the earl 1970s because it was on an Australian Lit reading list. I didn’t read it though. And then the questions came. As did those for Bobbi Sykes. I’m very uncomfortable about people pretending to be what they are not – though as we know, sometimes people don’t know their backgrounds – so have never known quite what to do or think about Colin Johnson. Theoretically I think that the work is the thing, but when minorities and power differences are involved it does get murky. I still down know what to think about Colin Johnson!

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    • That is a most interesting response!
      I missed all the ‘questions’: I’d never heard of him till Karenlee Thompson suggested reading Doctor Wooreddy, and didn’t know anything about the controversy until I looked for some bio details when I came to write the review.
      I had fresh eyes, if you like. So, to me, you see, it is just as possible that it is his sister who is pretending something that she or he is not. And perhaps that is also more likely, to want to hide something thought back then to be shameful, than to take pride in it?
      IMO it is not for me to have an opinion about his identity. To me, he is a writer who writes under the name Mudrooroo, and with an intimate understanding of Indigenous life and issues, he writes books that are well worth reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, theoretically I agree, but in practice this sort of issue is a fine line, and comes down to some degree to intent. If you intend to mislead… Like say Elizabeth Durack or Helen Darville… versus you didn’t know. The issue is not so much about identity but about whether there was deception and appropriation. I don’t know in Johnson’s case but the discomfort I felt about it all at the time has attended his name ever since.

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        • Everyone accepts that he is not Indigenous, but you cannot ignore that he was a Black man brought up in a racist WA country town, imprisoned as a young man, then a Bodgie in inner Perth. That is both his experience and the experience of many Indigenous men and that is what he writes about. Unlike B Wongar for instance, but like Sykes, he writes out of his own experience.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Budgie!!?? BODGIE

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            • PS Have edited ‘budgie’ to Bodgie… what would we do without predictive text and Spell Check to liven up our days, eh?

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          • Which is why it all feels uncomfortable. Think Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race – non-fiction I know – but her experience mirrors much of indigenous experience of racism yet it is subtly different. Of course times are very different now; I think we understand more now the nuances.

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          • Actually, I don’t think ‘everyone’ does accept that he wasn’t Indigenous. The birth rate for the early years in Australia far exceeds the number of white women who could have produced it. And we know (in my case, from Bobbi Sykes book) that it was routine for white men to ride into camps, rape the black women and have no consequences except for the birth of a mixed race child. There are generations of Australians who think they have no Aboriginal ancestry when they do, because they believe what’s written on BDM documents.

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  9. While not ‘everyone’ may accept that he is not an indigenous man. He is the second youngest child of a large family who are described in various historical books written about the area.

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    • Fair enough, Kathy, but as I think I’ve made plain, I am not going to get into an argument about whether he is or isn’t Indigenous.

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  10. Hello, I’m his son. Thanks for a good write up on him since he has been generally ignored. It’s a big shame that one of australia’s most important writers will go down as barely a footnote because he might have been the wrong kind of black.

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    • Hello Kalu, thank you for taking the time to comment. Please accept my condolences on the loss of your father.
      As you can tell, I admired his writing greatly, and I also admired his courage and determination, and his commitment to keep writing despite the criticism. I’m not an expert in these things, but from what I’ve read by scholars, I hope that in time the controversy will cease to affect his place in Australia’s literary history.

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  11. Thank you Lisa and all your recipients for your positive responses to the author Mudrooroo aka Colin Johnson, who I have published for thirty years. Blaga Boy Jackson was met by silence, which prompted me to produce an audio with original blues music on it for Bolinda.It should be remembered that the author has read Wild Cat Falling (Bolinda) and also his Old Fellow Poems (ETT e-download). ETT has brought out a new edition of Dr Wooreddy’s Prescription, and Mudrooroo’s memoir of the period 1965 to 1968, Tripping With Jenny, with an afterword by Gerhard Fischer. New editions of Long Live Sandawarra and Master of the Ghost Dreaming will be out in the new year. Lisa can you write me on ettimprint@hotmail.com for review copies. Regards Tom Thompson, Publisher, ETT Imprint, Exile Bay.

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    • Thanks, Tom. I’ve got a backlog of books for review at the moment, but I run Indigenous Literature Week every year during NAIDOC Week, so if you contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom in about March next year I’ll schedule it into my reading for that week.

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      • Dear Lisa
        Where do I send you review copies?
        Tom

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        • Hello again, Tom, please email me at the address I’ve given you above and I’ll reply with a postal address.

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          • Well pop me a preferred address

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            • Tom, I don’t put my address online anywhere.
              You need to email me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom and then I’ll supply it to you when I reply.

              Like


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