If I think about it, one way to explain this fascination is that the Aboriginal struggle in some ways intersects and mirrors stories of the Palestinian struggle [which inspired my Boots in Faces poem] and the asylum seeker debate in Australia, topics that resonate deeply with me, and which, at their core, can arguably be categorised as a battle over a historical narrative; a paralysis of human empathy.
Despite my economics background – and maybe, because of it – I am growing to realise that it is not ‘statistics’ that people react to. Time and time again, my experience has shown me that what people react to are stories. The more closely people can relate these stories to their own experiences, the higher the likelihood that a story will touch them and force them to act. Without that human connection, the same set of statistics can be chopped and wielded to support any stance and course of action to an acquiescent public. So you can throw all sorts of statistics about the number of Palestinians killed, the devastatingly high mortality rates amongst Aboriginal peoples, or the relative size of asylum seekers applying to Australia versus overseas; until you have a Palestinian voice, an Aboriginal voice and an asylum seeker voice that can bring to life their story, then you might never achieve that critical human connection with the wider community.
This is why I was very excited when I found out that Melbourne Conversations would be hosting “Blak Literature: Stories about Writing Blak Australia”, as part of the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival (5-16 Feb 2014). The panel, made up of some of Australia’s leading indigenous writers, including Tony Birch, discussed the importance of black literature and reflected on their perspectives on non-Indigenous writers actively connecting with Indigenous people as part of their research.
I won’t go into minute detail about what was discussed, as it is already up on Melbourne Conversations’ youtube page.
What I do want to mention is how refreshing it was for the discussion to actually feel like a conversation. I’ve been to a few Melbourne Conversations, which usually feature too much Q&A style and are too MC-driven. The conversation this time around between the panelists was free-flowing, with panelists often asking inquisitive questions of each other, genuinely interested in how they individually tackled this prickly pear of an issue.
Best of all, the panelists approached the discussion in a down-to-earth manner. In fact, in explaining why he was so interested in writing about ‘no-hopers’, Tony Wright said that he came from a long line of no-hopers himself! It was great to have an unguarded and truthful conversation, rather than a highly qualified one that might certainly look impressive on a CV, but would see my eyes hit the snooze button very quickly!
Naturally, another point of difference from previous conversations was the importance the writers placed on protocols, particularly in terms of introducing oneself. I felt that Jared Thomas was unable to really begin answering the question without referring to his Nukunu heritage; his identity was inseparable from his writing, and he could only truly speak from this context. It was this connection to land that explained why he wrote what he wrote, including how to maintain ‘country’ (i.e. Nukunu land) likely to be heavily affected by climate change.
As Jared was explaining his heritage and history, I wondered, in the context of the continuous nature of their cultures, the strict protocols to be observed, and the belief of ‘belonging’ to land, how Aboriginal people would view the direct, pointed Western method of questioning. Where western style answers have a ‘beginning’ and ‘end’, perhaps Aboriginal cultures may not readily view such a way of answering a question as doing justice to the question. It dawned on me that perhaps this was the reason why many of my Aboriginal clients answered questions in what I, a Western-educated person, perceived as a ’round about’ way.
In terms of answering the question, I think Tony Birch did raise some of the most thought-provoking points. In writing black literature, an Indigenous voice is needed to interrogate the white voice, and flowing from this, I guess, hold it accountable for what it says (or doesn’t say). Indigenous authors writing about black culture also inspired Aboriginal peoples in general, especially younger generations, to realise their potential as writers.
But, just because someone is Aboriginal, doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be a good writer. A writer needed to be able to defend his/her writing and write what was true for the character. Still, what the panelists seemed to agree on was that some form of self-censorship was necessary when dealing with the sensitive issues of Aboriginal history and current conditions, especially in remaining conscious of the added suffering you may impose on people who already are subjected to vilification.
The burden of responsibility in telling the story ‘right’ by Aboriginal peoples seemed to be felt quite greatly by all the writers. Ellen van Nerveen needed to feel ‘ownership’ of her work and write in a way that did not do any further damage to her peoples. This meant that she had often gone against the advice of her publisher, because she didn’t feel the story was right or that she ‘owned’ it.
This burden explained the tone of the conversation when it came to discussing non-Indigenous authors writing about Aboriginal people and culture.
For Jared, it depended on how such writing was done, recounting how offended he was by a non-indigenous writer who contacted him about writing about Aboriginal peoples in Nukunu country who were not Nukunu and had their own customs and cultures. If you are going to write, Jared cautioned, you are going to have to explain who these people are, and actually go and ask Aboriginal people how they feel about it. Representation is important for the story to be done the right way.
While Jared emphasised consultation, Tony qualified this by saying that most Aboriginal peoples suffer from people requesting all sorts of permissions from them that they can not give. For him, he did not want to be involved in such consultations, because no matter the quality of writing, his ‘endorsement’ will be used to defend a story when subjected to critique. According to Tony, an author needs to be responsible for their own story. Regardless of whether someone is happy or dissatisfied with your story, you need to still defend it. If you make a decision to write material, you can’t back away from it. The weight of responsibility should inform how you go about writing black literature.
Personally, I came away feeling that there is too much I don’t know about Aboriginal peoples, let alone their different cultures, to be brave enough to write black literature. The fact that Aboriginal writers themselves grapple with this weighty issue proves that writing about Indigenous peoples is something that, while extremely important, should only be undertaken when you can justify yourself and ensure that you do not burden an already heavily scrutinised and stigmatised section of the Australian community.
This doesn’t stop me, of course, from reading black literature! It just means that I appreciate the effort it took to (hopefully) get it ‘right’ that much more! 😉