Dhuuluu-Yala, Anita Heiss


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

34 thoughts on “Dhuuluu-Yala, Anita Heiss

  1. This is a very fraught issue, one on which I don’t have a firm position.
    I came up against it myself in a small way at school when I was teaching a unit on Aboriginal myths and legends to my year 3 & 4 classes. I sourced picture books written by indigenous authors from around the country, mainly but not exclusively from Magabala Books, an indigenous publishing house in WA. I also had some bilingual stories written by Kim Scott and his community in the Noongar language . Before we read each story we would identify the author’s country and find it on an Aboriginal map of Australia, a map which doesn’t have the states of Australia. The overall idea was to give the kids an idea of the diversity of indigenous peoples and their languages both before white settlement and still extant today, and to give them a solid grounding in indigenous myths and legends much as my generation came to learn the Greek legends.
    But I came up against a blank when it came to Tasmania. There simply wasn’t a picture book about any Tasmanian myths or legends to be had, much less anything from any of the specific language groups, and there was nothing in the reference books we had in our school library. And that was a dilemma, because the last thing I wanted to do was to give the impression that there were no indigenous people or stories from Tassie. I have read Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines, a history since 1803, and my review of it has been viewed over 11,000 times on my blog. I was not going to walk away from including Tasmania in my unit of work.
    Eventually I tracked down a legend about the Tasmanian Devil, but only in a brochure, not in a picture book, not in a form I could read to the children. You can guess what I did – I wrote my own, a digital version using PowerPoint, with words by me and pictures sourced online. I didn’t leave it at that… I contacted two indigenous publishing houses and asked them to commission an indigenous version and also contacted a Tasmanian indigenous community group and asked them to get in touch but I never got a reply.
    I am a big admirer of Anita Heiss, but I wonder if she would call what I did an appropriation?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it’s a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t Lisa – and I reckon “doing” with respect is better than “don’ting”!!

    Good post Bill. Overall, I think it’s better for non-indigenous Australians to include indigenous characters where it seems relevant because I think the mono-culture impression/the invisibility of indigenous people is a worse crime BUT I’m prepared to accept that that can seem like invasion or colonisation all over again. It’s all about baby steps, and moving forward together (I think “moving forward” is the valid use here not that jargonistic one I hate!!) discussing as we go is surely the way, otherwise we risk ending up with literature in silos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, baby steps and respect is probably the best we can offer. Heiss herself makes it clear that Indigenous writers themselves have a range of views. But I am sure it is lack of respect or even awareness by white writers that has caused the most hurt.


      • Yes, they do from what I’ve read, some Asian any group of people being more strident in their views and others more flexible. I have read at least one who has softened her attitude a little over time.


  3. Great post, thanks. Lots of food for thought. I’m with Whispering Gums on this one. I don’t think writers should be told what they can and can’t right about. But, once they’ve written, I do think it’s entirely appropriate for their work to be critiqued. If they get it wrong, they (and their potential readers) should be told so. Hmmm, perhaps an argument for more encouragement of indigenous reviewers?


    • My opinion is slightly different – writers can’t be stopped from writing whatever they like and some writers, or in Eliz. Durack’s case, artists, may have an ‘Aboriginal’ muse they just have to pursue. (Though Durack spoiled whatever case she had by pretending to be Aboriginal.) My job as a reviewer is to ask what do they think they are bringing to what is someone else’s story and with what authority.
      But I believe, above all, the time has come when white writers of goodwill should leave the telling of Aboriginal stories to Aboriginals. Just as men crowd out women, whites crowd out blacks and it needs to stop, and it can only be stopped by white men in particular pulling back. And I think Anita Heiss makes it clear Australian Aboriginals are pushing forward, and good luck to them.
      And hmmmm indeed, maybe you last point means I should make room for indigenous reviewers. I’ll think about it!


  4. Thanks Michelle.

    Sorry for my second comment gobbledygook. “Some Asian any group”? What the? Even I am not sure what I’d typed but the iPad autocorrect clearly thought it knew better.

    Re your point Bill, the problem is that if white writers don’t write Aboriginal stories AT ALL what does that say about our culture? It suggests that white people never associate with indigenous people which perpetuates the invisibility of indigenous people. Can a majority white male not write a story in which his/her characters meet indigenous people, refugee people, Asian people, or even, say, a blind person? Surely this has to be possible if they are going to write about the real world, and yet, as soon as one of those non-white-male characters enters the frame the author has to be able to present their story, the author has to imagine what it’s like to be indigenous, refugee, Asian, blind etc – just as Thomas Hardy had to imagine what it was like to be Tess? Don’t you think? Or am I being obtuse here?


    • I guess you typed “some as in any group”. LOL (you have to laugh or else you’d get angry. Grammatical imperialism!).

      Where we differ is only a question of degree, and it is in the difference between ‘Aboriginal stories’ and stories which have Aboriginal characters. Of course I believe Australian stories should reflect our multicultural society but I don’t believe at this time that non-indigenous people should attempt to put an indigenous point of view, and I am emphatically opposed to white people attempting to write (or paint) ‘traditional’ indigenous stories.

      As for stories whose pov goes backwards and forwards from White to Black (which we discussed one other time) I guess we’ll just have to deal with them on a case by case basis.

      Men writing as women I also don’t like because, if I see something thought provoking, I don’t know whether it’s because that’s what a woman would think or if it’s only because that’s what a guy thinks a woman would think. But I can understand why a guy might like to go through the exercise of thinking like a woman. However if women were struggling to be heard then I would prefer women authors were published ahead of men pretending to be women.

      I know I sound dogmatic sometimes, and I appreciate that you covered this issue ages ago, but firstly, I think we mostly agree, and secondly, as I go on reviewing (mostly old) books that do – or more often don’t – have Aboriginal actors, I want to be able to show a solid theoretical basis for what I am saying.


      • I think that’s fair enough Bill – I guess the point is to have a theoretical basis that allows for movement! And at that level, as you guess, I do agree!


  5. Here’s a practical example for you, Bill. Alastair Sarre has just published one of his beaut Aussie thrillers. It involves a mining lease in outback South Australia on land which is owned by traditional owners. There are scenes with one of the characters catching up with his Aboriginal mate, and the mate reminding the character to behave himself by paying respect to their wishes and their rights. The Aboriginal voice is friendly and jocular because they are mates but also serious because he’s representing the traditional owners in this situation. The Aboriginal PoV regarding the potential mine is received with due respect, the respect due to a businessman and to an owner whose cooperation is needed, and also the respect due between mates.
    Now, how could Sarre resolve this without an attempt to put the Aboriginal PoV? Omit it altogether? Everyone in Australia knows mining leases and traditional ownership go together. That would be ridiculous and insulting to pretend this situation is not an integral part of mining in Australia. Include it without putting the traditional owner’s PoV? That would look like racist tokenism, to have a character of such legal, political and social importance voiceless, just a dark face in the palette of characters in the background. Since Sarre has actually lived and worked in the place that he’s writing about, I reckon he would have the life experience to give this character an authentic voice, and I bet also that he would have paid the respect that he talks about in the book, by running his dialogue past indigenous people that he knows from that area.
    This situation is of course entirely different to writing historical fiction where the author is trying to intuit PoVs of all their characters. The author of historical fiction has sources for some PoVs of the era: almost exclusively male, white and powerful. Not servants, not convicts, not ordinary women and certainly not indigenous. Leaving aside the theoretical issue of whether anyone can ever write any authentic historical fiction at all, any writer setting a story in early Australia would be perpetuating the myth of terra nullius not to include the indigenous owners, It’s how it’s done that matters, and I think we probably have a way to go before the students of Creative Writing 101 know enough about it to do it well….


    • I might have given the wrong impression. I don’t think Australian books, especially outback books, by non-indigenous authors should not have well drawn indigenous characters, quite the contrary.
      What I’m arguing, and what I think Dr Heiss is arguing, and certainly what some of the indigenous authors she interviews are arguing, is that white authors should back off out of the space that should be occupied by indigenous authors.
      in passing, and without commenting at all on Sarre, whom I haven’t read, a great many of the people I meet who have “actually lived and worked in the place that he’s writing about” have absolutely disgusting opinions about Aboriginals and their right to control their own land and their own destiny. And even the ones like Andrew Forrest who at least talk the talk are mostly patronising, misguided and largely counter-productive.
      Historical fiction is going to be another minefield altogether. I certainly believe that at the time she wrote it Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land was a brilliant attempt to reimagine the early history of white settlement from the point of view of the invaded and well as the invaders. But Kate Grenville’s attempt with The Secret River is shown up IMO by Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance.
      Without looking up what he actually said, I think Keneally, in the case of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, now thinks ‘we’ do not really know how ‘they’ think. And I think there are now plenty of Aboriginal authors out there and it’s probably time ‘we’ stopped talking and started listening. (I am tempted to delete the last para., but I don’t think you and I – or Sue, or Michelle – are in disagreement about this, except may be at the margins, and your promotion of Aboriginal lit. is far more effective than my arguing!)


  6. It’s such an interesting question, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a minefield when we review. We don’t, can’t know everything that some think we ought to know. Get it wrong, and you’ve caused offence where you didn’t mean to. And you can’t plead ignorance: I’ve been at a teacher’s conference where the presenter shouted at us that we should not teach anything about Black history until we (primary teachers)) had made a study of it at tertiary level. But likewise I’ve been at a conference where this issue was raised and we were told to do the best we could with good intentions while at the same time making sure that we consulted authentic indigenous sources.
    That’s the approach I take, doing the best I can to get others to read indigenous authors because that’s the way I’ve learned most of what I know, but I’m well aware that there are some who think that Indigenous Literature Week should be run by indigenous people and not by me. (All my attempts to achieve that have failed so far. Not even a co-host, not even a guest review).
    So it is, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but hey, that’s not such a tough cross to bear when you look at how we all live a privileged lifestyle on land that was stolen.


  7. Yes, and there’s plenty of material out there now so ‘the best we can do’ is not only a good standard, but quite a high standard. As for Indigenous Literature Week, I’m on a break now (guiltily) reading SF again (Electric by NZ writer Chad Taylor), with 3 book reviews ahead, one of which should already be done, but I’d better get stuck into Benang before it’s too late. And in the context of this post I also want to review David Ireland’s Burn and Rosa Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land.


  8. Sue, thanks for the link, I’ll read it when I get home later tonight. I agree with you that it would be wrong to judge a young TK by today’s standards – and old TK is probably a better critic of young TK than I am anyway!


    • Sue, thankyou. Tony Birch writes a thoughtful and detailed commentary on Jimmie Blacksmith. (I read every ABR cover to cover, so I’m sorry now I’d forgotten it). I think the most interesting point to be taken from it is that in reading Keneally’s novel we are reading about the 1960s, we are reading one (enlightened) man’s attempt to change 1960s-70s attitudes towards Aborigines, and the 1890s story of Jimmie Blacksmith is only a vehicle for that. Birch concludes:

      Today we often debate the validity of non-Aboriginal authors writing Aboriginal characters. Keneally has directly addressed this issue. His view, not unexpectedly, is thoughtful and engaging. He says he would not write the character of Jimmie Blacksmith today as he did more than forty years ago – ‘from within a black consciousness’ – but not as a response to political correctness or ‘some sort of no-go zone for writers’. His decision is based on mutual respect, recognition, and a desire ‘to extend a faltering hand across the gulf of culture.’ I believe that The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was written with this thought pre-emptively in mind.

      I’m annoyed he dismisses ‘political correctness’ as though it didn’t directly arise from the virtues he goes on to list, but yes, let us all extend faltering hands across the gulf.


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