Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2021

Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (2018), edited by Anita Heiss, guest review by Sonia Adams

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post may contain the names of people who have passed away.

It is with great pleasure that for #IndigLitWeek, I am hosting a guest review of the anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Wiradjuri woman Anita Heiss, by regular reader and now guest reviewer Sonia Adam.

Sonia Adams is an educator, poet, and PhD candidate from the United States. Her areas of scholarship are contemporary American multiethnic and global literatures. Sonia is currently at work on her dissertation, which examines Black Diasporic Feminist literature, centred on Black and Black Indigenous writers from Australia, England, Canada, and the United States. When she’s not busy with teaching and other academic tasks, she enjoys watching movies, socializing with family and friends, listening to music, and reading great literary novels, memoirs, and poetry.

In the introduction to Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, editor Dr. Anita Heiss asserts that the richness of Aboriginal identity, life experience, and cultural heritage evince imprints of “invasion and colonisation”, yet it creates a tapestry of stories that are bold in voice and vivid in detail and imagery. A dominant narrative propelled by mainstream media is that Australian Aborigines are prone to addiction, poverty, and violence. The writers featured in this collection counter this prevailing narrative by embracing Aboriginality as a state of being in country. They embrace “personal and family histories, their pain and heartache” as well as knowledge of “what it means to grow up as a First Nations person” (2).

The diversity of life stories across age, gender, culture, and place are evocative and compelling. Resiliency is a central thread woven throughout this tapestry of essays. In “It’s not over”, Bebe Backhouse discusses the conundrum of having to prove or justify his Aboriginality as a mixed race person. Backhouse learned through living experience that he needed to combat the falsities of racism and classism to claim his authentic identity and place in the world as an Aborigine and pianist: “I became more than what was expected of me. I was dedicated to becoming someone, for my teacher, for my family, for my people, for myself”(20). The threads of resiliency and memory are shaped into patterns of ancestral lineage, cultural knowledge, and community in Carol Petterson’s essay “Too white to be black, too black to be white”. White supremacy and the government’s removal policies permeated Petterson’s Noongar family, resulting in her removal and placement into a native mission home. The caste system deeply impacted her sense of self where she internalized racism and colorism. Racist epitaphs like “worthless boong” and “filthy boong” as well as the myriad forms of abuse at the mission home became ingrained in Petterson’s consciousness. Being stuck between the binaries of ‘black vs. white’ and ‘subject vs. other’ are difficult to deal with, but Petterson conveys to readers that painful memories of the past can be used as ‘fuel’ to ignite a passion for education, tribal sovereignty, and social justice activism. Petterson’s mother was a central force in helping Petterson claim her Aboriginality: “My mother had instilled in me our tribal identity and told me to never forget who you are and never forget where you come from” (190). The pattern of tribal identity runs through the rest of the life stories in the collection.

There are some essays that take on a satirical approach to addressing issues or white racism, cultural intolerance, and identity politics. “Dear Australia” by Don Bemrose is a rigorous epistolary essay, tackling myriad forms of discrimination used against him and other Aborigines within the white-dominant society. What is particularly striking about Bemrose’s writing style is that he uses humor and sarcasm to reveal official language, false sentimentalism, and cultural assimilation perpetrated in society to pacify what in reality is white fragility. I want to highlight three key passages from his essay here:

“I’m sorry I identify as Gungarri and Aboriginal. I know you would prefer I added ‘part’, ‘quarter’, or some other quantifier to signify that I am less than full” (26)

“Please forgive me for being unsuccessful with my suicide attempt at the age of twenty-three. I know, one less loud-mouth, thinks-he-is-educated Abo would have been a great addition to your incredible world-leading youth suicide statistics” (27).

“Please forgive me

“Thank you for teaching minorities to hate other minorities” (29).

Bemrose use of the phrases- ‘I’m sorry’, ‘Please forgive me’, and ‘Thank you’- subverts the stigmatization of Aborigines found in some past and present legal reports and news reportage as means of sympathizing with their plight, which Bemrose suggests is patronizing and simply phony. Bemrose ends his essay with a strong connection to country and confidence as a gay Aboriginal man who is educated and artistically inclined.

Dr. Heiss commemorates the life of the late bilingual teacher, spoken word poet, and land-sea rights activist, Alice Eather. I found Eather’s essay “Yúya Karrabúra” particularly poignant for her honesty in sharing her personal challenges with mental illness, cultural displacement, and the stigma of being a mixed-race Aboriginal woman navigating both black and white communities. I also admire Eather’s desire to unapologetically claim her Aboriginality within the public sphere, advocate for the reconciliation of Black Indigenous and white people, and preserve her Maningrida community from oil fracking companies. The poem that opens her essay offers snapshots into her ancestral histories. It also invites readers to partake in the custom of Yúya Karrabúra, ‘fire is burning’, where healing and restoration can take place. Since reading this essay, I sought out more information on Eather through online articles and the documentaries The Word: Rise of the Slam Poets (2016) and Stingray Sisters (2016). The few articles I’ve read were skewed by speculations on what led to Eather’s death. I refuse to see Vale Alice Eather as a tragic figure. Toward the end of Eather’s essay, She offers words of encouragement and affirmation while charging herself and readers to claim responsibility:

“Out of all of this, this whole story, I believe we have to take responsibility for ourselves and what we do in our lives” (84).

Eather’s life story is a testament to the legacy she has left behind for her family, students, and Maningrida.

The essayists featured in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia range from being newly published writers like sisters Susie and Alice Anderson to accomplished authors like Tony Birch, Terri Janke, and Ambelin Kwaymullina. As an African American women of Caribbean heritage, I discovered common ideas and values amongst the camaraderie of voices in this anthology. I became more informed about the intersectional issues that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders face along with other Black diaspora folks. I’ve included Eather’s essay in my ‘Literature in a Global Context’ course because I wanted to expose my students to literature that explores different facets of Black Indigenous life in Australia. For my upcoming ‘Satire in Literature’ course, I plan to teach Bemrose’s essay. The conception and publication of this essay collection signifies literary and social justice activism. As Dr. Anita Heiss informs readers, “this anthology is not one of victimhood: it is one of strength and resilience, of pride and inspiration” (2).

Anita Heiss is a Wiradjuri woman from NSW.

Editor: Anita Heiss
Title: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia
Publisher: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781863959810

Thanks, Sonia, for your contribution to #IndigLitWeek!


  1. […] see Sonia Adams’ guest review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  2. Thank you, Sonia, and Lisa for sharing.


  3. Thank you… this is a great review. The closing line by Anita Heiss could well apply to Naidoc week – “this anthology is not one of victimhood: it is one of strength and resilience, of pride and inspiration” – which seems to have moved from a protest organisation to one of celebration/education.


  4. […] Literature Week over at her wonderful ANZ LitLovers blog, and has posted reviews of Homecoming and Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, among many others—all of them well worth checking […]


  5. Great review Sonia. So interesting to have the perspective of someone from a different country and culture. I love that you plan to use two of the pieces in your courses.


  6. Thank you Lisa, Jennifer, Amanda, Kim, and Whispering Gums for your feedback on my book review. I have a great admiration for informed readers like you all who contribute to sustaining online literary platforms. I wish you all a great reading season.


    • You’ll be pleased to hear that Anita who follows me on Twitter saw your review and was delighted by it!


      • I’m happy to hear that Lisa. I admire Dr. Heiss.


  7. This sounds like a great resource. Anything to assist in the process of broadening our understanding. And some of those passages are so sharply funny: wicked! (In a good way.)


    • It’s one of the best, most illuminating books in this series.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: