Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, Anita Heiss ed.

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (online) (1).jpg

Late to the (ILW) party! Growing up Aboriginal got lots of rave reviews a year or so ago when it came out. I seem to remember I put my hand up for a giveaway and so received my copy, autographed by the author!, from Lisa. So a belated thank you Lisa and thank you too for Indig.Lit.Week which doesn’t seem to be replicated anywhere else in the blogosphere.

There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible. [Anita Heiss]

 The anthology consists of 50 autobiographical pieces, each about 5 pages, by people including some writers and sports people that I recognise and lots that I don’t. I enjoyed reading them but I struggled reading them, struggled with the lack of continuity. The standard was good, not uniformly good of course, but ranging from strings of ‘I did .. and I did’s to quite beautiful prose (and poetry).

My favourite piece might be the first, “Two tiddas” by sisters Susie and Alice Anderson who interview each other – on the difficulty of being Aboriginal and pale skinned, which a lot of the contributors discuss – and then start reviewing what they’ve written

S. Hey, I actually think this is a really strong arc but that could be because I’m tired as.

A. Well, I’m reading it back and I got really emotional. maybe I’m just really tired too. I feel like this is a conversation that could go on forever. This is literally a conversation that will go on forever.

But then there’s the rush of Evelyn Araluen’s writing in ‘Finding ways home’

In high school, Aboriginal didn’t mean time immemorial as much as it meant the boys calling me shit-skin and abo. Aboriginal meant I was always angry in History class, and fridge magnets and beaded bracelets at NAIDOC, and the digging stick in the study and nangarra above our door.

These two stuck with me over the ten days or so as I made my way through the rest. The standard by which all the others were judged. Dom Bemrose writes a letter to Australia –

Please forgive me for being unsuccessful with my suicide attempt at the age of twenty-three ..
Please forgive me for identifying as gay ..
Please forgive me for not being lazy: I know how you want your natives to want nothing but a free handout ..
Please forgive me for being a success! ..

The saddest, to contemplate if not to read, is Yúya Karrabúrra by Alice Eather who committed suicide between writing and publication. On the completion of her schooling in the city she returned to her mother’s community in Maningrida –

A lot of my friends I grew up with had had babies. There were so many different stories. The stories you don’t tell kids. The stories you hear when you’re an adult. That really shook me up. All I did was write … Why are all of our families in this state? What has happened? … Why was my brother in jail?

Eather trains as a teacher. She has put depression, suicide attempts behind her. “I can actually help. I can sit with kids and family members and say ‘I can feel your pain.'”

That’s a tough one to follow, but I read on. Adam Goodes, an absolute champion Australian rules footballer who was booed into early retirement by racist supporters writes a straightforward account of his childhood. I think he wishes he’d chosen soccer.

Most of these stories are by young people, in their twenties or thirties, so Doreen Nelson’s story, ‘Different Times’ is important for the contrast it provides and for the link back to the old days. Dooreen was born in the WA wheatbelt town of Kellerberrin (200 km east of Perth) in 1947 and she grew up on reserves outside Kellerberrin and the neighbouring township of Doodlakine. Limited schooling, her parents had none, a mother at 15, problems with alcohol, a child in care, slowly growing into responsibility and ordinary middle class prosperity.

Carol Pettersen is another older woman, though she doesn’t give her age, brought up in a mission and segregated from her siblings because her skin was paler, to protect her from the ‘natives’, like her bother, who were darker. Dragged away by the missionaries’ daughter from the fence keeping out her mother.

Western Australian writer Ambelin Kwaymullina provides the perfect summation –

People ask me sometimes if I experienced any racism when I was a kid. Questions like that always make me wonder where the other person was living. They seem to be speaking from some kind of magical Australia where it’s possible for an Indigenous person to escape the effects of racism in a colonised land..

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe.

Like most of you I was brought up in an Australia that believed it didn’t have a race problem. Even now I am surrounded by people who are offended when it is pointed out, yes we do. Those people are probably beyond educating, but hopefully schoolkids everywhere are reading and discussing this book.


Anita Heiss ed., Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2018

see also:
Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu Yala: To Talk Straight (here)
ANZLitLovers Indigenous Lit. Read List (here)


21 thoughts on “Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, Anita Heiss ed.

  1. Thanks for this contribution, Bill:)
    I found that piece by Alice Eather really hard to read, and I couldn’t make myself write about it either.
    This whole series is really good: I’m looking forward to seeing Growing Up Disabled in Australia. It was going to be published this year, but they’ve deferred it due to COVID_19.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, themed reading like this is a good way to increase our understanding. I sometimes wish I could go back to ‘easy’ books, but we need challenge and effort to hold off old age, well I do anyway.
      Eather’s suicide is sad, but at least her writing made it personal. Aboriginal youth suicide numbers are terrible and really beyond our understanding, they should be as potent as those buddhist self-immolations in forcing politicians to act. Seeing them as individuals who came to think they had no future might be a start.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really lovely response to the book Bill. I like the way you’ve tackled it. Anthologies are so hard to write about.

    I love the one you chose to end on. The line “Questions like that always make me wonder where the other person was living.” And her analogy for the experience of racism is so good. I think that although I have been aware of and concerned about racism from my teens, it’s only in recent years, when I’ve read/heard so many first person stories like this that I have begun to understand just what it must be like to live as a coloured person in a white culture. The insistent, ongoing racism, the being always aware that at any moment someone will react in some way to your perceived difference, must be just mentally and emotionally exhausting.


    • Thank you Sue. The title more or less tells you all you need to know about what it’s about, so it was easiest to let the stories speak for themselves.

      I have spoken to very few Indigenous people over the course of my life and only to two I can think of, a girlfriend and a workmate, about what it was like and even then only in very generalised terms. So Indig.Lit and accounts like this are my only avenues to dealing with my upbringing in white picket fence 1950s and 60s rural Australia – an upbringing which I can see now was racist, not explicitly, but by what it excluded.


      • For most of us Bill. My contacts have been pretty minimal, but I did have a couple Indigenous colleagues and I did a contract job over a couple of years for an indigenous organisation in the Pilbara, but our employers were not indigenous. Our contacts with actual indigenous people were superficial really.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I had a taste of that kind of everyday racism in Indonesia. I lived there for seven weeks as a student, in an area that was not a tourist precinct. And every day, walking through the residential streets to university, I was ‘noticed’, remarked on (because they didn’t know I could speak Indonesian), questioned (in halting English) and propositioned by men who think because of what they see in Bali, that all Australian women are ‘easy’. I set out in the morning expecting it, and waited for it with each person I encountered. It was exhausting.
      The difference is, of course, that I came home after seven weeks. But I’ve never forgotten it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m impressed that your Indonesian was colloquial enough to understand what was being said. But yes, to endure that nonsense every day of your life and then to have even well-meaning people doubt your experience of it must be intensely annoying.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That description of racism being like waves is so apt. The waves never stop; they may be smaller if the wind is less blustery, but it’s relentless. I know people may ask, “Where have you been living??” when someone things racism is over, but it’s strange how where you live makes a difference. In the U.S., if you live in a city that has very few people of color, that city begins to think that racism is over because they’re not seeing it or perpetrating it. People in the deep southern states in the U.S. may feel like racism is over because they’re not lynching people anymore.


    • Lynching mightn’t be as overt any more, but it seems to be still going on, in Australia as well as in the US. Racism in Australia if it wasn’t written about would be very easy to ignore, because, as you say, so many of us live not just in the cities well away from the outback towns where it is a constant of life, but away too from the inner and working class suburbs.
      But those ‘crashing waves’. Many of the pieces in this anthology are beautifully as well as powerfully written and that obviously was one of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like an interesting and very important book. I’ve just been reading about young female and non-binary black lives in the UK and it’s very good to be reminded that these things have gone on, and are going on, so we’re better educated and able to help change things in whatever small ways we can.


    • It is important because nearly all the contributors took ‘growing up’ to mean their teenage/school years and so I think the 14-18 year olds who read this at school should get a lot out of it and the ensuing discussions. I hope it gets into schools. My cousin who runs a TAFE (tertiary/technical college) library tells me they don’t have even one copy.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Like you, I was late with my IndigLitWeek contribution this year, but, unlike you, I still haven’t finished my book. I think I’m just not in the right frame of mind for it — because I know Leslie Marmon Silko’s work and I’ve enjoyed it immensely in the past — and perhaps I should start something new, now that the library system is kind of operational now, and save this one for another time.

    I know what you mean about the kind of combination of voices/styles that you’ve described in this volume, but I suspect there’s something to the idea of reaching a variety of readers with this kind of assortment. A piece that doesn’t reach one reader might be exactly what another reader is craving, another way to connect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hinted at it above, but to be honest I’m surprised that Indigenous Lit isn’t emphasised in the US and Canada the way it is in Australia. Perhaps it’s just that it has a newness here that has faded in North America. I’m sure you can point me to posts you have done, and I hope you do. I have accounts with A#$%@n and Audible, which I should use to read books not easily available here. I have a whole list of ‘good intentions’ from Grab the Lapels, which I will read just as soon as I can persuade the Audible app in my phone to talk to my truck.

      You’re right about voices. This is a book that I’m sure was intended to appeal to a wide audience, and the fact that it has literary merit is a bonus.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lisa, ever-ambitious and ever-enthusastic, has included links to all of my indigenous posts on BIP over the years, adding them all a couple of summers ago, to her Americas reading list.

        For you, I would recommend Eden Robinson (because I know you also appreciate a good story, especially while on the road, and her recent Trickster trilogy is engaging in a similar way to Octavia Butler’s novels). And also Richard Wagamese, for his gentle soul and exacting prose, in a coming-of-age story like Indian Horse or a father-son story in Medicine Walk (character-driven, a more ruminative style).

        I wonder if it could also be that there are more different/varied communities here than in your part of the world, so that efforts to promote them are perhaps more fragmented, but maybe that’s only my ignorance of the diversity of indigenous groups where you live: certainly there should be more discussion of them, agreed.


      • Found ‘your’ section of Lisa’s page. I’m impressed! I’ll read some before I ask any more questions, thanks for the suggestions.
        There are of course differences between the various Aboriginal nations. As an outsider looking on, I would say that the biggest difference is between the north and north west – where identity and connection to country has often been maintained – and the south east, where that is much less the case. But I would also say that Indig.Lit is pretty uniform across the country in its focus on unreasonable laws, massacres, and the wholesale removal of pale skinned Indigenous children from their mothers (the Stolen Generations).

        Liked by 1 person

  6. lovely response to the book! i love how you’ve addressed it, it made it way easier to understand. thank you for sharing💞

    Follow @everythingtips for tips and recommendations if interested! It would mean a lot to me!🥺🤍


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