Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2022

Decolonising a Blog… a work in progress #2: Learning about the emergence of Indigenous life writing

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post contains the names of people who have passed away, and uses some terminology which may offend.

This time last year, for Indigenous Literature Week 2021,  I was pleased to host a guest review by Margaret (Meg) Broughton, of Margaret Tucker’s If Everyone Cared (1977).  This year, I read it myself, and share Meg’s opinion that it’s a fascinating story of an outstanding woman who was one of Australia’s earliest female Aboriginal activists in the 20th century.  It’s not just an important life story—a significant first-hand account of Stolen Generations policy—it’s also interesting to explore how this book published nearly half a century ago, fits into the literary history of First Nations in Australia.  This is what I have focussed on, so I recommend reading Meg’s review first, for her insights into Margaret Tucker’s life story.

Please note that I am not a scholar, I am a reader of First Nations literature on a learning journey. I am open to correction if I have made errors, but this post is intended for a general readership and not for academic or political discourse.

Margaret Liliarda Tucker (1904-1996) was born in NSW, of Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta descent.  She moved to Melbourne in 1925 and was inducted into the Aboriginal Victoria Honour Roll in 2013, where her life and achievements are outlined. There we read that…

If everyone cared, is seen as an important account of the early policies of child removal. Margaret also featured in the acclaimed documentary Lousy Little Sixpence, broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Her story was also featured in the TV mini-series ‘Women of the Sun’. 

Consulting my copy of the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (2008, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter) I find that Tucker’s autobiography is not included.  So, within the limitations of my own personal library and what I could find online, I’ve had to do a bit of research to confirm my belief that she was part of the first wave of Indigenous writers to write her own personal story, and may indeed have been the first Aboriginal woman to publish an autobiography.

The PEN Anthology comprises all kinds of texts from speeches, letters, newspaper articles and petitions, to poetry, story and song.  As the Introduction makes clear, while many of the texts in the Anthology shine a light on the lives of their authors, life writing as we know it is not represented until the second half of the 20th century.  Until the Sixties and Seventies, the anthology’s excerpts are examples of of Indigenous writing in texts specifically requesting or demanding improved conditions and resources, or political rights such as citizenship, self-determination and land rights.  These texts became more radical as the century progressed.  Though life writing can be, and often is political in intent, from my reading of what’s included in the Anthology, First Nations authors in this era exercised their agency through other forms of writing, directly addressed to those who could respond to it.

(For example, the very first text in the PEN Anthology is a letter from Bennelong (c1764-1813) to Mr Phillips, Lord Sydney’s Steward, dated August 29th, 1896.  He conveys his decision never to travel overseas again, he thanks Mrs Phillips for nursing him when he was unwell, and he requests the provision of some articles of European dress: two pairs of stockings, some pocket handkerchiefs and two pairs of shoes.  The introductory note explains that he had returned from his diplomatic voyage to England in poor health, unable to rebuild relations with his people and out of favour in the colony.)

Between the 1967 Referendum and the mid-1970s, however, the Anthology’s Introduction notes that there was a sudden growth in Aboriginal authorship across a broad range of genres.  As far as I can make out, it was in this era that life writing and autobiographical fiction began to be published in book form for a general readership, and in 1977, Tucker’s autobiography If Everyone Cared was published.  Among her contemporaries who are included in the PEN Anthology were Monica Clare (1924-1973) whose autobiographical novel Karobran: the story of an Aboriginal Girl was published posthumously a year after Tucker’s in 1978, and (almost a decade later) Ida West (1919-2003) who in 1987 published her autobiography Pride Against Prejudice: Reminiscences of a Tasmanian Aborigine.  (See Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large.) Through my current reading of Black, White and Exempt, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lives Under Exemption (2021) edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones, (see my review), I stumbled on another early autobiography called Through My Eyes by Biripi woman Ella Simon (1902-1981). It was published a year after Tucker’s.

But were there other First Nations authors emerging in this era?

Also not included in the anthology and published long before there were any protocols about copyright ownership of a story dictated to a scribe, I, the Aboriginal was published in 1962) by Waipuldanya, a.k.a. Philip Roberts, of the Alawa people from Arnhem Land. He told his story to the journalist Douglas Lockwood, whose name is on the front cover. (See Bill’s review at The Australian Legend). Should we distinguish between a storyteller who told his story to another, and one who wrote it herself?  I’ve read some publications which follow careful co-authoring and collaboration protocols, but this practice is comparatively recent.  For examples, see

  • Two Sisters (2016) by Ngarta (Ngarta Jinny Bent); and Jukuna (Jukuna Mona Chuguna) of the the Walmajarri people; with Pat Lowe and Eirlys Richards, see my review;
  • Old Man’s Story, the last thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, (2015) by Bill Neidjie as told to Mark Lang, see my review); and
  • The Town Grew Up Dancing, The Life and Art of Wenten Rubuntja, (2002) by Wenten Rubuntja, with Jenny Green , see my review.

Late in my explorations into the emergence of Indigenous life writing, I discovered the Indigenous Australia website.  On their (work-in-progress) project page for the Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive page, 46 Indigenous authors are listed along with summaries of the content of their autobiographies.  However, Margaret Tucker, Ella Simon, and Monica Clare aren’t listed so it doesn’t confirm or refute my proposition that Tucker may have been the first Indigenous woman to publish her autobiography.

OTOH There I found three more women life writers emerging in this period, listed below in chronological order of publication:

and three male writers whose autobiographies predate Margaret Tucker’s, and one publishing in the same year:

Somebody somewhere, I hope, is writing a history of Indigenous women’s writing that covers their entry into the world of published books.

*pause, search online*

Someone has.  It’s called Reading Aboriginal Women’s Life Stories, it’s by Anne Brewster and it’s published by Sydney University Press (2016).  I can buy a copy when my new credit card arrives.  (#Trials&TribulationsOfLifeOnline This week someone in the US tried to buy a rather expensive item with my credit card, but #phew my card provider blocked the transaction and is sending me  a new card.)

Relevant to my reading of Margaret Tucker’s If Everyone Cared, which was the catalyst for this article — a new book on my TBR suggests that the audience for Indigenous women’s life writing can influence its tone and content.  Writing Never Arrives Naked, Early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia by Penny Van Toorn (2006) includes a chapter titled ‘Early writings by Aboriginal women’ where she notes that…

… economic imperatives of commercial publishing mean they must attract as large a readership as possible, which means, in effect, that they are writing for white eyes. ( (Writing Never Arrives Naked by Penny Van Toorn, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006, p.218)

She goes on to note, however, that the academic Alison Ravenscroft has suggested that in the work she did with Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins on Auntie Rita (1994), she found that…

… unlike most Western authors who address a readership of strangers, Rita Huggins was writing in large measure for an existing community of family members and friends.  (ibid, p.219)

She goes on to make an important point that IMO anyone reading Indigenous life stories needs to be aware of.  (And I wish I’d known it earlier).

Rita Huggins’ sense of the people she was writing for, and the kind of work her book would do in their world, shaped both the form and content of Auntie Rita.  As Alison Ravenscroft has noted, Rita addressed her readers in quiet, intimate tones, as a known, familiar ‘you’, ‘as someone whom she knows and loves… someone who is standing close by.’  Because she wanted her book to entertain and give enjoyment to this readership, she left out some of her most disturbing experiences.  ‘Her Aboriginal readership already knew the painful and unexpurgated life.  It was their own.’  (ibid, pp.219-220)

By contrast, her daughter Jackie Huggins had a print-based sense of the reader as a white stranger:

Jackie Huggins saw the book as a political document that could open the eyes of white readers to unknown or misunderstood aspects of Australia’s black history.  For this reason, she wanted to include painful incidents that Rita herself wished to omit. While Jackie used a gentle, loving voice, and departed from Standard English when addressing her mother in the book, she addressed the reader-as-stranger in a more academic, public voice, providing background information that places her mother’s life in its historical context.  (ibid, p.220)

This aspect of intended audience helps to explain some aspects of Margaret Tucker’s ground-breaking If Everyone Cared?  My thoughts about that book will be published separately to this article.

Books & websites consulted:

  • The PEN Macquarie Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (2008, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, Allen & Unwin, 2008, ISBN: 9781741754384, see my review
  • Black, White and Exempt, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lives Under Exemption (2021) edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781925302332, see my review
  • Writing Never Arrives Naked, Early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia, by Peggy van Toorn, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2015 (first published 2006), ISBN: 9780855755447
  • If Everyone Cared, by Margaret Tucker, Grosvenor Books, 1983, first published in 1977 by Ure Smith in Sydney. ISBN 0959262202, review forthcoming.
  • Indigenous Australia website.
  • Aboriginal Victoria Honour Roll

I read these books for First Nations Reading Week 2022.

This post was written on the traditional land of the Ngaruk-Willam clan, one of the six clans of the Bunerong (Boonwurrung or Boon wurrung) saltwater people of the Kulin nation.


  1. Great post Lisa. You’ve done a lot of work for this.

    I suppose we should not be surprised about the intended audience issue. Any good writer should consider their audience I would think … but I guess the point is that the audience won’t always know what impact they had on the writing.

    The first two First Nations books I bought in my teens were Katie Walker’s as she was then, and Douglas Lockwood’s.

    BTW we are waiting for new credit cards too after a tiny – like $3 – American transaction. It was Mr Gums who picked it up as he checks the credit card transactions on line most days.


    • Sue, you know that I have always had enormous respect for the work you do with your Monday Musings week after week… but writing, researching, rewriting, and thinking, thinking, thinking for this one for the best part of a week has made me really realise that I should stick to writing reviews!!
      I don’t mean I’m not glad I did it, because I’m pleased to have learned so much, but I felt as if I were back at university.
      Re the credit card: this has happened twice to me with the card that was once linked to PayPal, obviously PayPal is more hackable than it should be. But this card was not that one. The hackers are getting smarter. OTOH my bank/s have always been onto it immediately so I can’t complain.


      • It does take time but I enjoy it … though most of mine aren’t as intensive as this one is. Some of mine take several hours, but by no means all do.

        We have no idea how ours got hacked. It is the one card we use via PayPal but that’s not necessarily the source of the charge we found. They actually didn’t get anything … it was a small pending transaction that Mr Gums saw. We have had the bank block a card before for a small OS transaction. We buy so much through PayPal that it isn’t going to stop us using it as PayPal is still more secure than most methods I think, BUT it is irritating, particularly when the bank says it will take up to 10 business days for you to get your new one! The hackers are getting smarter but what’s our option?


        • Well, it’s still better than being robbed in the street, which is what used to happen frequently.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Greeting Lisa & Literature Enthusiasts,

    I appreciate the range of First Nations life stories featured in this blog post. The autobiographies by past Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander elders are very striking. I became aware of Black Indigenous people of Australia in the essays “On the Line and The Black Pen” by playwright Eva Johnson published in the essay collection, Word (2004). Since reading those essays, I’ve actively sought to collect and read more literature by Aboriginal writers.

    I admire the editorial work of Dr. Peter Minter & Dr. Anita Heiss in producing the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. Life stories can come in the form of personal essays and book-length biographies and autobiographies. Years ago, I was fortunate to purchase a biography of Oodgeroo Noonuccal Dr. Heiss’ Black Book Choice list (2011) exposed me to established and lesser known writers. The BlackWords Database by the University of Queensland is another important resource.

    Thanks Lisa for sharing your insights on the life stories. I would like to share a brief listing of resources and book titles:

    Dr. Heiss’ Black Book Choice list-
    BlackWords: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writing and Storytelling Database-

    Life Stories
    Oodgeroo by Kathleen J. Cochrane (1994)
    Word.: On Being a [Woman] Writer (On Writing Herself) edited by Jocelyn Burrell (2004)
    Growing up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss
    Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara (2016)
    Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss (2012)
    Sister Girl: Reflections on Tiddaism, Identity and Reconciliation by Jackie Huggins (2022)
    Auntie Rita by Jackie Huggins and Rita Huggins (2005)
    Finding Ullagundahi Island: A story of family, place and belonging
    by Fabienne Bayet-Charlton (2002)

    Literary Criticism
    Aboriginal Women’s Narratives: Reclaiming Identities by Nadja Zierott (2005)

    Happy Reading,
    Sonia Adams, U.S.A.


    • Thanks so much for this Sonia… your responses always offer something more!
      I’ve just searched for the Zierott book, but *ouch* it’s expensive on eBay so I am going to have to hunt around for it. But my first priority is to read something by Huggins, it’s a gap in my reading that I must redress.


      • Hi Lisa,
        Yes, I read the earlier version of Dr. Jackie Huggins’ book, Sister Girl: The Writings of Aboriginal Activist and Historian (1998). I’m going to order the new version as well as the biography of her father Jack of Hearts through the Book Depository website.I just you an email message.


        • Yes, thank you so much, Sonia, I’ve just read it. (The email, not the PDF, not yet!)
          I think it’s exciting that around the world there is so much interest in First Nations writing. I wonder if we in Australia have a specific course about it at our universities…


  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Very interesting from many viewpoints, not least diversity.


    • Yes… you know, I’ve been reading Indigenous memoirs since they first starting appearing in my local library… so long ago I can’t even remember their names… but I realise now that I read them in a rather naïve way. I understood the content, and I recognised the injustice, but I didn’t understand anything about reading between the lines.


  4. Fascinating stuff, thank you. Reading between the lines is a skill we acquire with more knowledge and reading under our belts – I’m sure I read diverse books in my 20s in a more naive way than I do now, for example.


    • Yes, I know I do too.
      *chuckle* The first time I read Pride and Prejudice (when I was about 16) I thought it was a romance, like the Jean Plaidy novels I read.
      But seriously, I read a lot of Indigenous memoirs when they first started appearing at my library. And now I find myself wondering about their sub-texts. I don’t mean that I want to deconstruct them in an academic way, just that I want to understand what I was reading better.

      Liked by 1 person

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