In an interview I gave on this website in July, when asked to recommend specific books by Indigenous women, I said people should read all of them, because it is only by reading them all that non-Indigenous readers can begin to grasp the diversity and complexity of Indigenous women’s lives.
The stories that people read about us matter, especially because, for many non-Indigenous people, stories are all they know of us. When those stories are false, distorted or simply misinformed – and the legacy of colonialism means there are many stories like this – it has real-life consequences. It shapes how Indigenous women (and Indigenous peoples more generally) are perceived and consequently how we are treated. That is why the continued production of stories by (rather than just about) Indigenous women is of such critical importance. And if it matters that the stories are written, it matters just as much that they are read.
So, in the spirit of my suggestion to read all the stories, I am offering reviews of five very different publications by Aboriginal women (including one by an Aboriginal community) that offer insights into Aboriginal culture and existence. It is my hope that in so doing I will encourage others to begin to come grips with the vast diversity of Indigenous literature published in Australia.
All the books can be purchased from online retailers (such as Fishpond or Booktopia); the essay is part of a special Indigenous edition of Westerly magazine which can be downloaded free of charge.
Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia by Judy Atkinson (Spinifex Press)
Trauma Trails, written by Jiman and Bundjalung psychologist Judy Atkinson, details the harrowing effects of colonial trauma on Indigenous peoples and communities – but trauma is only the beginning of this story, and not the end. Just as our individual and collective experiences of colonial violence are not all of whom Indigenous peoples are, so Trauma Trails takes the reader on a journey from heartbreak to hope. The many harms inflicted by colonisation, sometimes referred to by Indigenous peoples as a ‘soul wound’, are complex and difficult to address; this book does not suggest otherwise. But nor does it underestimate the capacity of all human beings, and of Indigenous peoples in particular, to defy and overcome the worst of experiences. What Trauma Trails ultimately offers is a pathway to healing through the listening to, and telling of, stories that is based in Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices (the We-Ali program). This book speaks to the wisdom of the elders, to the incredible strength of Indigenous peoples, and to the enduring power of women. In Judy Atkinson’s words:
“My great-grannie gave me a gift – she taught me. We are Women. We are not victims. Nor are we merely survivors. We are women. We have creation powers.
We are the Creators of the Future.”
Our World: Bardi Jaawi Life at Ardiyooloon by One Arm Point Remote Community School (Magabala Books)
This is a story of life – and it is particularly a story of the life lived by the boys and girls who attend the One Arm Point Remote Community School (located in the Ardiyooloon community on the tip of the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley region of WA). Beautifully and joyfully illustrated with both photographs and with drawings done by the students, it displays the experiences of the Ardiyooloon community in all its complexity, containing everything from traditional stories, to fishing techniques, to a Bardi language word list and kinship chart. This is a book that seems to speak and move; for in the photos of children walking on the reef at low tide, in the images of their expressions as they listen to a story, or in the drawings showing their own interpretations of the world around them, the reader becomes a part of the saltwater and the campfire smoke and the cries of triumph when a fish is caught. It is a story which more than lives up to the words of the One Arm Point Culture Team in the introduction to the text: “In this book, we share our world.”
Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What it Means to be an Aboriginal Person by Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM (IAD Press)
The book offers exactly what the title suggests it does – a view into an Aboriginal reality, through the art and writing of Arrente elder Margaret Kemarre Turner. In her words: “Non-Indigenous people often wonder just how Aboriginal people really are, just what it is to be an Aboriginal person….That’s one reason why I’m writing this book about my experience…So that those white people can see things through our eyes.”
I once wrote about the stories of Aboriginal elders as gifts that can be continually unwrapped because there is no end to the wisdom that the tales hold or the comfort they can bring. This is one of those stories. Every page, every picture offers profound insights, grounded in the rich culture and life experience of the author. Iwenhe Tyerrtye speaks of land, of healing, of kinship and ceremony and the power of story. It speaks of life. And in opening a window onto an Arrente reality, this book is a bridge to the greater understanding that must surely be nurtured between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples if we are to move forward together, and which is not out of reach. Or, as Margaret Kemarre Turner puts it: “Two cultures can hold each other.”
Down the Hole by Edna Tantjingu Williams and Eileen Wani Wingfield (authors); Kunyi June-Anne McInerney (illustrator), (IAD Press)
This is a picture book, and it is not. It is a picture book in that it is an illustrated narrative; it is not a picture book in that, like so many Aboriginal stories, it defies the boundaries of Western story-categories. It is a work of art, of history, of resistance; and it is an incredible bilingual testament of the Stolen Generations. The stripped-back narrative is both immediate and powerful. Whether speaking of being hidden down a hole to avoid the authorities who’d come to take them (Ngaltutjara wiya! – No, poor things! No kids used to play around here in Coober Pedy…all the kids were in the piti – in the holes), or the panicked instructions given to the children by their terrified parents (Just GO – and keep going!), this is a book which conveys the reality of the Stolen Generations era as can only be done by those for whom it was a lived experience. And the text is beautifully accompanied by Kunyi June-Anne McInerney’s illustrations which capture the tale to perfection as it winds from fear and flight to ultimately, escape and triumph: I been still hiding away – and here I am today.
Bronwyn Bancroft, ‘The Invisible Sleeper’ in Westerly 54:2 (downloadable free of charge at http://westerlymag.com.au/issue/54-2/)
This essay is a reflection on the complexities of being an Aboriginal person and a working Aboriginal artist in contemporary Australia by award-winning Bunjalung artist and illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft. The title of the essay, ‘The Invisible Sleeper’, refers to Bronwyn’s father: “…my father worked as a sleeper-cutter. He was the invisible Aboriginal man who left home early and came home late, spending a month at a time in the bush alone. He was the invisible sleeper.”
The Invisible Sleeper is the story of Bronwyn’s struggles and those of her family; of her career and her frustration at having to deal with stereotypical conceptions of Aboriginal art and culture; and of some of the many strands that make up her existence. It is one woman’s story, and like the story of each and every Aboriginal woman, it is not a simple one nor one that is free from hardship and pain. And in Brownyn’s thoughts and experiences, articulated in a clear and insightful voice, the reader is able to step into a world of art, culture and Aboriginality. In Bronwyn’s words:
“Creating art is not just about making pictures – it is about challenging the stereotypical that attempts to contain our visions as Aboriginal people. I have been constantly challenged by ignorance – that anyone can allow themselves to pass judgment on others is beyond belief. It creates a division in our society that is ‘us’ or ‘them’. It is not right that anyone feels or asserts that they are superior to another human being – we are all just different.”