My original objective in starting this blog was to expand on the Independent Woman as an alternative to the Lone Hand/Brave Anzac, the central myth in Australian Literature and popular culture. It is a determining feature of the Lone Hand that both Women and Aborigines are absent, and that the Bush is both the Lone Hand’s home and the adversary against which he is defined. These myths are both reflected in and propagated by our literature, and, without for a minute giving up on the Independent Woman, I have become increasingly interested not only in how Aborigines are represented (or in many cases, not represented) but who by.
In The Australian Legend Ward posits (p.247) that Australia’s Lone Hand grew out of the Noble Frontiersman of late 19th Century American and Empire popular fiction. That’s probably right, with the proviso that the Lone Hand was made unique by the popular and ongoing acceptance of the defining myth of Australian geography, the ‘Dead Heart’. It very rapidly became an accepted tenet of white occupation that the interior of the continent was both hostile to settlement, and that to the extent that settlers would tolerate any idea of prior occupation, that the original inhabitants were hostile, disorganized, primitive and dying out. Even now, I think, we often picture ourselves confined to a narrow strip of coast by an Arid Centre peopled only by a few adventurous whites and impoverished blacks.
Sue at Whispering Gums recently directed me towards a post she did on the representation in literature of Australian Aboriginals a couple of years back based on a thought-provoking essay by Margaret Merrilees. I thought I would go one step further and so purchased the book referenced in the essay, Anita Heiss’s Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight (2003). As I started reading it I remembered I had another book in my TBR which I had bought years earlier with good intentions and never got round to reading, Literature and The Aborigine in Australia by J.J.Healy (2nd Ed. 1989), and so I am reading them now simultaneously and will introduce them in this review and no doubt bring them up from time to time again in the future.
Dr Heiss (1968- ) is a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW. Interestingly, her book starts off by discussing the case of two well-known Black Australian authors who are not Aboriginal, Colin Johnson (‘Mudrooroo’) and Roberta Sykes. Both have African-American heritage, and both claim to have been brought up ‘Aboriginal’. This is now disputed and all a bit sad, but it leads into Heiss’s fairly hard-line position (with which I agree) that at this time it would be best if only people of Indigenous heritage told Indigenous stories.
On Whites writing on Blacks, Heiss quotes various Aboriginal authors. Here is Alexis Wright, “In Australian literature we have remained almost invisible or often at the mercy of being misrepresented by others. And I include in this the bulk of academic writings and books about Aboriginal people where most of our people would not have a clue what was written about them.”
However, children’s author Nadia Wheatley ‘points out the no-win situation for white writers. She suggests that writers who don’t include Aboriginal characters and themes in their work run the risk of painting a white Australian mono-culture… On the other hand, those who do … may depict Aboriginal people tokenistically, including them to make white writers and readers feel better. At worst, and however unintentionally, they create a new form of exploitation and appropriation.’
J.J.Healy is an Englishman who studied at Leeds, where Randolph Stow was on the staff, and then did his PhD at Texas, which has the Grattan, a large Australian collection, in the late 1960s. He says his study of the Aborigine in Australian literature, which developed into this book, was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights movement of that time. Literature and The Aborigine in Australia is a detailed account of representations of Aboriginal people up to Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country (1975).
Healy writes, ‘Literature is a search for meaning by an individual, which becomes meaning for the writer and his society.’ And goes on to claim that because massacres such as Myall Creek or Pinjarra were not written about they remained ‘acts’, and without reflection acts have no meaning. ‘Governor Stirling lived in his actions of destruction; whatever meaning might have emerged from Pinjarra was stifled’. (My post on the Pinjarra massacre here).
The earliest accounts of Aborigines are of course those of the contacts made sailors like Dampier and Cook, then the journals of the early settlers, starting with Watkin Tench. Healy also discovers interesting material in the trials and enquiries which followed a number of Aboriginal massacres, and a transcript of an enquiry in 1845 into Aboriginal beliefs. Perhaps the most extensive record is Richard Sadlier’s The Aborigines of Australia (1883). On the literary side, Healy believes our best accounts in the 19th century come from writers who had direct contact, the three most important being James Tucker, the author of Ralph Rashleigh (my review here), Rolf Boldrewood and Rosa Praed. Tucker, apart from his own experiences as a convict, was friends with Alexander Burnett who was on three expeditions with Major Mitchell between 1830 and 1845. Boldrewood was a squatter in western Victoria in the 1840s; and Rosa Praed ‘was present, as a child, at the tribal preparations for the Fraser massacre at Hornet Bank station in 1857, returning to this traumatic event again and again in her novels’.
Healy is scathing about Boldrewood. In the early years of settlement, for which Boldrewood was present, the Aboriginal population of western Victoria was decimated, by disease and by shooting, but Boldrewood is unable to acknowledge this in his (much later) writing. In The Squatter’s Dream the action begins some years after a massacre. ‘The issues of guilt and innocence had been corroded by the passage of time, and there was no indication that the events, which the novel confined to history, were still raging in contemporary Queensland.’ In an article in 1903 Boldrewood wrote, “What the pioneers of all lands inhabited by uncivilized races have invariably asserted still holds true; that under an apparently peaceable, even grateful demeanour, lurks an untrustworthy treacherous disposition, ready at all times to assert itself in acts of violence.” And Warrigal, Starlight’s half-caste offsider in Robbery Under Arms, is ‘the sinister archetype of a malignant evil. Fear surrounds him; as indeed, [Boldrewood’s] fear created him.’
Rosa Praed was of the same class as Boldrewood, the squattocracy, but her experiences were radically different. She was present at the corroboree which presaged the murder of her family’s neighbours, the Frasers, and for the slaughter which followed, and in which her father was a participant; and in some of her novels she attempts to deal with the events of those days, with her very real fears, and with some attempt at understanding. Of Praed’s 40 or so novels Healy mentions Australian Life: Black and White (1885), The Head Station (1885), The Romance of a Station (1889), Dwellers by the River (1902), Fugitive Anne (1902), My Australian Girlhood (1902) and Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land (1915).
Heiss’s main interest is in how Aboriginal Lit will look going forwards. Who will it be written by? By Aboriginals. The consensus, which is by no means unanimous, is that the writer needs to be embedded in Aboriginal culture, and to be of Aboriginal descent, although I think that non-Aboriginals such as Colin Johnson and B. Wongar might one day be accepted within that continuum.
Aboriginality will continue to be contested, although the European-imposed system of half and quarter castes and so on is totally rejected. Indeed, Aboriginality itself is a European construct and ‘Aboriginals’ are more and more defining themselves regionally, as Noongar and so on, as they would have prior to European settlement.
Finally, for today anyway, is Aboriginal Lit ‘Post-Colonial’? No, it is not! Kathryn Trees, in a joint paper with Colin Johnson, writes: “Does post-colonial suggest colonialism has passed? For whom is it ‘post’? Surely not for Australian Aboriginal people at least, when land rights, social justice, respect and equal opportunity for most does not exist because of the internalised racism of many Australians.”
Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2003
J.J.Healy, Literature and The Aborigine in Australia (2nd Ed.), UQP, Brisbane, 1989
Russel Ward, The Australian Legend, OUP, Melbourne, 1958