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)

Not Meeting Mr Right, Anita Heiss

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week


Anita Heiss (1968- ) is a Wiradjuri woman, an academic and an author. I have previously reviewed her Dhuuluu-yala: To Talk Straight (here) on who should write Aboriginal stories, and plan hope to review her Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia towards the end of this Week.

As well as her academic work, Heiss has published a number of novels in the genre she likes to call Choc.Lit, ie. Chick.Lit with strong Black women protagonists. From the reviews I have looked at these are all as didactic as they are romantic. Not Meeting Mr Right (2007) was her first.

My younger daughter has been telling me off about using the expression Chick.Lit but I will leave her and Dr Heiss to fight that out between them. To be fair, I think that Gee’s concern was that men were too liable to characterise women’s writing as Chick.Lit. instead of engaging with their valid concerns about personal development and relationships.

Heiss’s mother is a Wiradjuri woman from Cowra in central NSW and her father was born in Austria. Heiss was born in Sydney and went to an eastern suburbs Catholic girls school. Alice, Heiss’s heroine, lives in the eastern suburbs, has an Aboriginal mother and an Austrian father, and teaches history at a Catholic girls school. That is not to say that Not Meeting Mr Right is autobiographical, but rather that it draws on her lived experience. At the time of publication Heiss, “who lives in Sydney, believes in love at first sight and enjoys being single!”, was going on 40. Alice, who lives in a flat overlooking Bondi beach, is 28 and determined to be married before she’s 30.

There is one other issue to be dealt with before I go on. And that is is that I sometimes find fiction by Australian Indigenous writers awkward to read, the most recent example being Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. That is, that the flow of the words doesn’t feel right. In one of the many teaching moments spread through this book, Heiss addresses this:

I’d always thought the written and spoken word were very different in the white world. It’s so obvious in their literature. Aboriginal writing is closely aligned to the spoken word. We write like we speak, and reality is, that’s how our people read too.

What she leaves unsaid is that spoken Aboriginal English has significant differences, in its rhythms as well as vocabulary, from what we might call received English. I feel this sometimes just within ‘white’ English, moving from city to country and from lit.blogging to truck driving.

Two months after her twenty-eighth birthday Alice attends a ten-year school reunion

I’d been a self-conscious teenager who never really fit in – me being a Blackfella from La Perouse and the rest of the girls whitefellas from Vaucluse and Rose Bay. A triangular peg in a round hole, I used to say.

These days, Alice, probably shapelier and prettier than her former schoolmates, doing well as a senior teacher, is made to feel inadequate in another way. All the others are flashing engagement and wedding rings, the talk is all weddings and babies (It doesn’t help that Alice’s mother is applying the same pressure). Of course Alice “loves being single”, but by the end of the night she has decided that she will find and marry Mr Right before she turns 30.

She calls a meeting of her friendship group and they come around immediately to begin strategising – Dannie, happily married with children; Peta, a serial dater, who does something high-powered in Indigenous Education policy; and Liz a lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal Service. The upshot is that she will do what it takes – blind dates, classified ads, attend professional gatherings … to get a man who is ‘single, straight and wanting to be in a relationship’, financially secure, shows affection in public etc, etc. but she will not ‘put out on the first date’, date friends’ exes, or get picked up in a pub. There’s also stuff about star signs, which I ignored.

There follows, over the course of 20 months, a series of meetings with men who might fit the bill. Her friends line her up, her mother wishes to line her up with her best friend’s gay son, her garbo turns out to have a degree in something and to be an altogether nice guy; she dates white guys, Indigenous guys, a Samoan guy – who is just getting into bed when she mentions Wedding Island on the horizon and he disappears in a cloud of dust; she dates a lilywhite guy who is sure he is black – if by dating you mean drinking till you black out and waking up on the floor of a strange flat beside a man you’ve never seen before; early on she dates a friend of Dannie’s who might be perfect but rejects him because his face is pockmarked with chickenpox scars. Yes, Alice is a lookist.

The teaching moments deal with how to introduce your Black girlfriend; ‘significant moments for women in Australian history’ (interestingly she has Cathy Freeman’s gold medal at the Sydney Olympics but not Evonne Goolagong’s 14 Grand Slams); other stuff I forgot to write down; not reading Murdoch newspapers (duh!).

A couple of guys are nearly ok. An awful lot of makeup is applied and gin drunk to not much effect. More desperation comedy than romantic comedy. But enjoyable.


Anita Heiss, Not Meeting Mr Right, Bantam/Random House, Sydney, 2007

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