Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2021

Coonardoo, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

I’ve departed from my usual practice in reviewing Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo from 1929: I’ve read other opinions about it, both before and after reading it.  I also re-read Mairi Neil’s post about the play Brumby Innes and its place in the history of Australian drama because Prichard first used the theme of the novel in the play.

I did this additional reading because this work has a contentious place in the history of Australian literature.  Coonardoo is the first detailed representation of Indigeneity in Australian fiction, but the author was not Indigenous herself.  So I’ve included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives in my pre- and post-reading of the work.

While the representation of Indigeneity has changed with the passage of time, and the issue of appropriation is ongoing, this book, written almost a century ago, is the subject of attention and scholarship because it’s written by one of our finest writers. Katharine Susannah Prichard makes an appearance in almost all the reference books I have: Australian Classics, by Jane Gleeson-White; the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (Ed. Nicholas José);  the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (Ed. Wilde, Hooten & Andrews), and also in Jean-Francois Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel.  Harry Heseltine writes about KSP extensively in The Literature of Australia (Ed. Geoffrey Dutton).

All of these non-Indigenous authorities refer to Coonardoo, but only some of them address issues of racism.  The Oxford Companion says only that the more polished Coonardoo was joint winner of the 1928 Bulletin novel prize and was praised as the first realistic and detailed portrayal of an Aboriginal.  

The Macquarie Anthology, for example, refers to hostile criticism for its portrait of a loving sexual relationship between a young Aboriginal woman and a white man. Heseltine, however, while stating that the creative treatment is neither sociological, nor patronising, but (at least by intention) tragic, goes on to acknowledge, albeit indirectly, prior occupation of the land on which the story takes place.  Refuting the doctrine of terra nullius, he writes:

It is a matter of some interest that what is probably Prichard’s most complex attempt at characterisation and her most intensely sustained emotional encounter with her material should be inspired by a member of a race whose dreaming, whose search for identity, was accomplished long before white men came to the Australian continent. ( ‘Australian Fiction Since 1920’ by Harry Heseltine, in The Literature of Australia (Ed. Geoffrey Dutton, 1964, ISBN 0140700080, my copy is the 1976 revised edition).

However Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay people analyses Coonardoo more harshly in Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling.  At the conclusion of a lengthy chapter, she writes:

Though some may read Coonardoo as a reminder of the loves lost because of racism, the novel is also a reminder of the unacknowledged legacy of colonisation on Aboriginal women: their inability to freely consent to sexual relations with the white men who had the power of life and death over them was fundamentally constrained.  It is also a reminder that, regardless of any good intention, constructed stereotypes of Aboriginal men and women continue to appear and be perpetuated in even so-called ‘sympathetic’ twenty-first century literature. (Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling, UQP, 2016, ISBN 9780702253904, p.99)

Finally, thanks to Nathan Hobby, whose biography of KSP is forthcoming, I also read Wiradjuri woman Jeanine Leane’s 2016 deeply personal response to the novel at Overland. 

So, what do I think about Coonardoo?

The first thing to say is that KSP is a great writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize because she wrote about important things. Although some of her work is weighed down by her desire to bring issues to the reader’s attention, in the fiction which I’ve read so far, she tackled the big picture issues of her time: poverty, disadvantage, inadequate health care, disability, and working conditions.  (The Oxford Companion tells me that she also wrote about her desire for world peace and nuclear disarmament, and almost all of the commentators mention her commitment to communism.)  The big issue that she tackled in Coonardoo is IMO best expressed by Jane Gleeson-White in Australian Classics:

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo is the story of an Aboriginal woman, the eponymous Coonardoo, and the struggle of white and Aboriginal Australians to live together and work the vast land of the Kimberley, where their worlds come into intimate contact. (Australian Classics, Allen & Unwin, 2007, ISBN 9781741753417, p106.)

That intimate contact is a story of love thwarted by denial, prejudice and racism.  Coonardoo is an unpaid station hand in the Kimberley, alongside Hugh Watt, the son of the station owner.  Narrated from Coonardoo’s perspective, Hugh’s and that of his mother, the formidable widow Bessie Watt — the story shows how their love emerged, was frustrated and denied, was consummated, and then denied again.

If we put all the wrongs to one side just momentarily, we can recognise that in 1929 Indigenous people were not then telling their own stories as they do today.  Even if they were literate, and most had opportunity only for rudimentary education, the publishing gates were firmly closed against them.  As well, there was a great veil of silence about Indigenous dispossession and disadvantage, and we can assume, I think, that marketing of a novel that fractured that silence was problematic.  Enter KSP, fearless and marketable.  She held power in her pen and she used it as nobody else ever had, to depict her Aboriginal characters as people with emotional lives within a work of popular fiction that admitted the history of wrongs done against them.  Readers could no longer say they didn’t know.

Still, some of the language grates.  All the racist terms that were common parlance in that era are used.  Even though it’s authentic dialogue, the mind fights against getting used to it. It is a persistent reminder that this book demands to be read in context and that the issues within it be addressed.

Gleeson-White’s 2007 summary and interpretation of Coonardoo is impressive, but flawed. (Though to be fair, Australian Classics is a collection of 50 classics, and each entry is covered in only about five pages, precluding great detail for any of them.) She writes about the way Coonardoo grows up with Hugh Watt and they become deeply bonded through their shared love of the land and horses, but how they come to maturity hundreds of miles apart makes no mention of the gulf in their opportunities, and their shared love of the land is not equal in any respect.  Coonardoo’s love of the land is her birthright which has been stolen.  Hugh’s love of the land is a mere possession which derives from a brief moment in linear time. Indigenous people, as I understand it, have a different conception of land: for the millennia in which they have occupied this land it has had what we might call a religious significance and it involves mutual obligation: they belong to and care for the land and the land belongs to and cares for them.  Hugh has no conception of this chasm in their relationship to the land, and KSP probably didn’t either at the time.

But as Larissa Behrendt points out in Finding Eliza, Coonardoo is never accorded the status of an equal partner, which we can see quoted in this passage from Australian Classics.  Hugh has returned from school in Perth with a fiancée so…

…his old ease with Coonardoo has gone, but their rapport remains.  When he eventually takes over Wytabila, his need for Coonardoo has become so overwhelming, complex and fear-filled that he buries it.  ‘She was like his own soul riding there, dark, passionate and childlike. In all this wide empty world Coonardoo was the only living thing he could speak to, Hugh knew; the only creature who understood what he was feeling, and was feeling for him.  Yet he was afraid of her, resented a secret understanding between them.’ (Gleeson-White, p.106-7).

Prichard’s word ‘childlike’ signals a conception of Coonardoo that is, contrary to Heseltine’s view of it, patronising.  Indeed, Gleeson-White goes on to say that in the twenty-first century, Prichard’s view is necessarily anachronistic, and she quotes Behrendt as saying in 2004 that Coonardoo is ‘a story about white sorrow, not black empowerment.  The book leaves out any possibility that Coonardoo and her community could benefit from the assertion of their own authority or autonomy.’ 

Well, yes, that’s true.  It is patronising.  But would that possibility of such an assertion have been an authentic representation of how things were in the era being depicted? KSP was a writer of realism.  In 1927 KSP also produced a play called Brumby Innes which I have read but not reviewed.  Her portrayal of this awful man, a drunken, violent station owner who exploits his black workers and abuses the women is very much like Sam Geary in Coonardoo who is loathed by characters both black and white.  From my reading of Indigenous-authored literature, it seems to me that there is a grotesque authenticity about this character Geary who ends up taking ownership of Wytabila when drought ruins Hugh and he is not able to ride it out as his mother had done.

However, Prichard’s realism does allow for what may well be the first acknowledgement of dispossession, massacres and other atrocities against Indigenous people in Australian fiction.

Although Behrendt says on p.86 of Finding Eliza that recent history of violent frontier encounters, along with the backdrop it provides to black-white relations, is missing from the pages of Prichard’s novel, the character of Geary is balanced by the figure of the pearler Saul Hardy.  He is a man troubled by the violence he has seen and by the misrepresentation of Indigenous people.  Saul — in his reproof to Hugh’s racist wife Mollie, who’s from a coastal town and believes in the divine right of white men to ride rough-shod over anything aboriginal that stood in their way — tells her in chapter 17:

“You can’t help seein’ the blacks’ point of view.  White men came, jumped their hunting grounds, went kangaroo shooting for fun.  The blacks speared cattle.  White men got shootin’ blacks to learn ’em.  Blacks speared a white man or two—police rode out on a punishin’ expedition. They still ride out on punishin’ expeditions…” (Coonardoo, by Katharine Susannah Prichard, p.105, Pacific Books, Angus & Robertson, 1961, no ISBN, first published 1929, underlining mine.)

Prichard doesn’t go into great detail but it’s quite clear: writing in 1929, she acknowledged violent frontier encounters in her novel.  Saul then goes on to talk about an episode of ‘black-birding’ where the pearler drove a crew of Swan Point boys all overboard at gunpoint when he got to sea.  He also talks about the bounties paid for Aborigines being hauled in to custody, in chains, leather straps round the neck, fastened to their stirrup irons. 

Twenty or thirty I’ve seen like that, and I’ve seen the soles of a boy’s feet raw when he came in.  Never spent eighteenpence a bob on ’em either. Police’d let one or two men hunt for the rest, bring in kangaroo. (p.105)

He talks about the time when he was surprised by armed Blacks and left alone unharmed, and says that they ‘never kill for sport—only for food and vengeance’ and the blacks have plenty of reasons for vengeance.  He’s been in the country for thirty years and he’s seen things:  “No black” he says, ever did to a white man what white men have done to the blacks”. (p.104)

It would be so interesting to know what Prichard’s contemporaries made of this.  Behrendt says that Prichard’s book scandalised readers with its portrayal of a so-called ‘love relationship’ between a white man and an Aborigine. (Behrendt, p.82)  Were they also scandalised by Saul Hardy’s descriptions of atrocities?

Coonardoo was not Prichard’s only fiction featuring Indigeneity.  There is also a short story called Marlene (1938) in the Macquarie Anthology, which I have yet to read.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: Coonardoo
Publisher: Pacific Books (Angus & Robertson, 1961, first published 1929
ISBN: none, pbk., 207 pages
Source: OpShop find.

Availability: out of print.


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa

    Thanks for your excellent comments on this really important book and the issues that it raises. It was the first book that I read when I arrived Australia more than 45 years ago, (on the recommendation of a friend who was a lecturer in Eng Lit at Monash) and it made a deep impression on me. Firstly, it made me realise that KSP, who I had never heard of at that time, was a major author of enormous talent, who deserved to be read across the world and across time. Secondly, It was my first encounter with a white Australian literature that attempted to come to grips with the troubled history of colonisation and dispossession, as well as the problem of a tabooed love between unequally empowered individuals,

    We can only read any book if we respect the time perspective and place in history from which it was created, To apply 21st century values to such a book is to do it a great disservice. To expect KSP to embrace the perspective of a modern Indigenous commentator is also unfair and greatly disrespectful to her. It also needs to be remembered that she was a lifelong committed communist and I think a founder member of the CPA. This shaped and influenced her personal perspective on life and society.

    You have done a terrific job in creating a balanced review in a difficult area. I hope many people read it and are moved to then read Coonardoo, and other works by KSP. I also greatly enjoyed Working Bullocks and her Goldfields Trilogy.

    Best wishes
    Chris

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    • Thank you, Chris… to say that I was anxious about this review is an understatement!
      I haven’t read Working Bullocks yet — the only left on my TBR now is Intimate Strangers — but I fully intend to read everything I can get my hands on. Nathan Hobby’s bio is coming out early this year, and I can’t wait to see it:)

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  2. I have this somewhere so will eventually get to it. I think Chris said it better than me about your review Lisa. Likewise, I am aware that the language used in some older books I have read will not make it into print nowadays, try the Peter Pinney WW2 novels in his Signaller Johnston’s Secret War trilogy as an example. You wrote “……mind fights against getting used to it” and I relate to that but with that I have made a conscious decision to not let this issue get in the way of rating and reviewing a book from the past that has qualities that make it important for its times, and maybe even in these times.

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    • Yes, I think that what you say is true. The concern is that if people don’t read much, and then this is what they read, that’s a problem. But if readers have accessed contemporary fiction and NF authored by Indigenous people, then they will be able to see for themselves that this was a brave, perceptive and noteworthy book in its time but that it has flaws.

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  3. Thanks for this excellent review, Lisa, which puts things into context. I am aware of this book but never read it and, to be honest, KSP has never really registered with me until very recently when references to her keep popping up on the blogs I read! It sounds like I should be making an effort to explore her work…

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    • I believe that there is a KSP writers’ centre in Perth… maybe they have some museum memorabilia worthy of a Reading Matters blog post?

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  4. As always Lisa you do an excellent review and agree with your perspective. It does trouble me the level of ignorance not just about the outstanding KSP but the general knowledge in the writing community about one of our finest who was nominated for Nobel Prize I believe. Am looking forward to the bio from Nathan Hobby.

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    • Me too… and isn’t it amazing that it’s taken until 2021 for a bio to emerge. (Her son Ric Throssell wrote one, Wild Weeds and Windflowers, in 1975, but, well, it’s better to have one that’s not written by a relation…

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  5. Another insightful post Lisa – even made me revisit that old post. Context is important when critiquing but I can understand why many readers don’t make the effort unless they have study requirements, but you are right about KSP, she was a remarkably talented writer and also a thoughtful intellectual. I do miss activities like those stimulating and enlightening discussions at The Channel!😊

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    • Hi Mairi, good to hear from you, and I miss those days too!
      I would like to have sighted more recent editions which perhaps have some kind of introduction, but I’ll have to save that for a day at the State Library…which is not on the horizon just yet since I don’t fancy the idea of train travel.

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  6. A very thoughtful review.

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  7. Great to finally read your review Lisa! I appreciate your fair-minded approach to KSP and the complexities of reading it today.

    I was surprised to read it was out of print – it was in print until recently, but Harpercollins must have ran out of copies and now it seems to be only available as an ebook. I helped with the successful submission to have Working Bullocks reprinted (soon) in the Untapped project not even knowing her even more famous book had slipped out of print.

    Coonardoo and Brumby Innes came near the beginning of the KSP’s engagement with Aboriginal people and so it’s a pity their popularity obscures her own development. She later wrote she would have given Aboriginal people more autonomy (or something to the effect) if she was writing it again.

    By the way, the short stories she wrote from the Turee Station trip are an interesting comparison – Happiness is a kind of Coonardoo in miniature, but told through an Aboriginal character’s eyes. Cooboo was the story she ostensibly travelled up north to write.

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    • Phew! Thanks, Nathan, your kind words are doubly appreciated because you know more about KSP than anybody else right now.
      But the ultimate test would be a reaction to my review from an indigenous reader… when I look at Jeanine Leane’s article in Overland I don’t even know if they would think it’s even possible for a non-Indigenous reviewer to be fair-minded about this book.

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      • Yes, Jeanine’s article and PhD are very moving and did doubly make me feel white people have had enough of a say.

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        • Well, that’s the thing… has enough attention been paid to this novel to just leave it be? I must admit that I toyed with that, but then I thought that Bill’s AWW could hardly go by without it.
          So I’ve just done the best I can to be respectful…

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          • Yes, I agree. I think it’s good that we now expect Indigenous criticism to be considered, when that was missing for so long.

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            • I think KSP would have welcomed it.

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  8. Coonardoo is often cited as the first novel about an Indigenous person (I’m not in a position to compare her dates with Ion Idriess’s) but I have always read it as a novel about Hugh and his lack of loyalty to his one time friend. Basically, he uses her and abandons her.
    I’ve always been interested in the fact that she wrote such an anti station owner book while staying at the station in question.

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    • Hopefully we will learn more about that when we read Nathan’s bio!

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  9. Really interesting post, Lisa and as an outsider of sorts it seems a really balanced look at the book.

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    • Thank you!
      It raises an ongoing issue: though it’s more extreme in this case, there are plenty of books written in this period and earlier that express views or involve stereotypes, that today are considered racist, patronising, colonialist, anti-Semitic etc etc. The obvious example is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but there are plenty more. I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater but such books deserve careful reading and if reissued should include an introduction to give it context.
      I’ve just been reading a bio of Graham Greene, and was pleased to see that after WW2 he realised that some of his early books involved casual anti-Semitism, of the type where a character is referred as The Jew, when no other character is depicted in that way. He insisted that this be changed in all of his books that were reissued.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] I did this additional reading because this work has a contentious place in the history of Australian literature.  Coonardoo is the first detailed representation of Indigeneity in Australian fiction, but the author was not Indigenous herself. Read on … […]

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  11. Well done Lisa … I can see now why it took you a while to write this review. I read this book so long ago – in my teens when I first became interested in Indigenous Australians and racism, but my response to it then would have been simplistic. I have often thought of reading it again, but have been a bit scared too because of the minefield it is. You’ve really nicely teased out the complexity of reading such a book now and what it all means – or can mean – to different readers.

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    • Thanks, Sue:)
      Interesting that you came across it as a teenager. My reading back then was from school of course, and from my parents’ home library which was mostly classics and C20th British authors like Orwell and Huxley, plus whatever I picked up at the library, but I don’t ever remember hearing even of KSP much less this book.
      I’d love to read a contemporary review of it. Maybe Nathan will have something like that in his bio.
      (Yes, I am impatient for his book!!)
      (But selfishly, I don’t want it to launch until I can fly over to be there on the day.)

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      • I was Very interested in Aboriginal Australians. I read Kath Walker. I think it was probably our school librarian who pointed me to it. She and my Modern History teacher encouraged interest in social justice. Also I wasn’t interested in Georgette Heyer etc, was always looking for more contemporary stories (besides Austen et al, of course!)

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I wholly enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one and, in particular, your efforts to give voice to various perspectives on the work, besides your own. Somewhere (maybe on Bill’s blog), I saw you refer to some anxiety about being able to do justice to the topic, and I think you’ve done well to start the conversation. Even though I thought I had a copy of this one and had shifted from the idea of reading one of her trilogy to reading this one (thanks to something Bill said along the way), I discovered that I don’t have one after all (and must have simply recognised the title from the VMCs list and past years of collecting those volumes) and it’s not in the library currently either (only on reference use). So I read an Eleanor Dark novel instead, which I did truly enjoy.

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    • Is this kind of problem an issue in Canada? Kevin from Canada always said we had so much in common as nations, and that includes dispossessing First Nations people.

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  13. […] and you shall receive, they say, and so when Lisa (ANZLitLovers) expressed interest in what Prichard’s contemporaries thought of her novel Coonardoo, I thought I’d love to […]

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  14. […] Litlovers LitblogKatharine Susannah Prichard, Coonardoo (here)Kylie Tennant, Ride on Stranger […]

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  15. Thank you Lisa. As a member and beneficiary of KSP’s legacy and home that exists now as a writers’ centre in the Perth hills, I continue to be deeply troubled by Coonardoo. I’m with Jeanine Leane on this one. I was born in a formerly colonised country and my early literary legacies were depictions of my people by their colonisers, and such depictions continue to haunt modern Indians today. KSP’s privilege lay in her ability to write and market a settler colonial story while infantilising the subject of her sympathy. I understand the context, but am troubled by this novel, and must confess to a feeling of rage as I read it, a rage fuelled, no doubt by my particular experience. You have unpacked the complexity so much better than I have been able to do. As they say, contradictions exist in life and in fiction.

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    • Hello Rashida, it’s good to hear from you.
      Yes, this is a deeply contentious book…
      However, while I recognise the emotions it rouses, I do contest that it is only a settler colonial story. For all its flaws, I think it’s more than that. It’s not triumphalist in tone, and (as I say above) it acknowledges dispossession and atrocities which took courage back then as indeed it does in some racist communities even today. The (white) character who talks about these things is deeply troubled by them. He speaks in direct response to the racism of Hugh’s wife—despite the differences in class and the social niceties of the day—he challenges her view of things when he sets her straight about what he has witnessed.
      I’m not a scholar so I don’t know if this was the first acknowledgement of these things in fiction, but I know from reading Henry Reynolds that there are numerous documented examples of people who were deeply troubled by frontier violence* so this character is a realistic representation of an ineffective minority just as the racism of the other characters is realistic too.
      *Clerics were particularly active in demanding that the Colonial Office take action. Their letters form part of the evidence about atrocities that took place.
      I like to think that if KSP were writing today, she would be mentoring young Indigenous authors to tell their own stories…

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Yes, I accept that it was an unusual book for its time just as I accept that my responses are coloured by my experiences. KSP is highly revered and her home and legacy are a kind of working shrine to her. Again, my experiences as a former working member of the literary committee, whose job it is to foster all kinds of literature, make me to doubt that mentoring young Indigenous writers would happen today in the house where she lived and worked. Whether she herself would undertake such activity is of course debatable. All I know is that there is no effort made at actually setting aside a dedicated mentorship for such activity, while the Centre named for her continues to promote and support non-indigenous writing very effectively. I would love to see an Aboriginal writer engage with KSP’s legacy in WA. Thank you, Lisa.

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    • I think what you say about a need for greater support for Indigenous writers is true. There is well-established support in Qld where UQP have been funding the David Unaipon Award for ages, and there are Black&Write fellowships. (WA’s Claire G Coleman was a recipient). Also, here in Melbourne there’s also the Blak & Bright First Nations Literary Festival, which (from what I’ve seen of its programs) is primarily workshops &c to support the development of Indigenous writing. (It’s funded by the Australian Council of the Arts, Creative Victoria, RMIT and other organisations including sponsorship from Readings.) Writers Victoria has also run workshops by and for Indigenous authors which have included one about protocols for writing about Indigenous people which I attended myself.
      But I’d be the first to admit that I don’t know about other initiatives, and I don’t know what the processes are for enhancing diversity in places like Varuna, KSP house and others like it.

      Actually, I’d really, really like to see a presence of Indigenous reviewers in our literary landscape. Coonardoo isn’t the first book I’ve read that’s made me wish for this. I’ve offered to host indigenous reviews before, and I’ve offered to co-host the Indigenous Lit Week that I run every year, mentoring an Indigenous co-host with a view to handing it on so that it has Indigenous ownership. I haven’t had any response though I put the suggestion to someone who’s got the kind of connections that could make it happen. Maybe one day!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Lisa, here we are entering into historical distrust territory; I mean, Aboriginal and writers of colour have so long been denied a presence in our literary landscape, and the initiatives you mention are attempting to correct that now; but usually there is a disinclination to do *more* work because we are blak/brown, so I’m entirely unsurprised that there aren’t many indigenous reviewers yet. As you know, reviewing is hard work. We do it because we love it and it takes time, dedication and thought. Importantly, it’s a choice. Also a luxury. Most of my reviewing work is unpaid, although I do get a free copy of the book. So I think there would first need to be an assurance that such work is paid in order to encourage different perspectives. Again, WA is a bit of a different scenario. We have a dedicated Indigenous publisher in our state, who only publish work by Indigenous writers and fund an award for them. Things will change. It’s taken a long time to recognise the limitations of a white canon and until the works of Sally Morgan and Kim Scott receive the same veneration as KSP does, there’s still more work to do.

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    • Ah well, I can only do my best to promote the work that I come across. I don’t doubt that Indigenous readers might have a different perspective about some of the books I read, but none of us volunteering in this space are in a position to pay reviewers.

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