To celebrate Australia Day 2012, Australian Women Writers approached a number of prominent indigenous Australian women, including well-known fiction writer and National Year of Reading Ambassador, Dr Anita Heiss. Dr Heiss had a prior commitment writing for Mamamia and instead sent a list of her 10 favourite fiction titles (see below). Another Australian woman writer, Dr June Perkins, stepped in to discuss Indigenous women writers who paved the way for the success of contemporary authors such as Dr Heiss and others. Thanks, both Anita and June.
AWW’s first guest blog: “Aboriginal Women Writers – The fight for Literacy and Literary Freedom and a true name calling” by Dr June Perkins
My search to understand and identify Aboriginal women’s literature began naively and in earnest with a letter to Oodgeroo (Noonuccal).* I was probably twenty and had heard a lot about her work in Aboriginal people gaining citizenship rights and was keen to interview her for an article I was writing. Instead she said I should contact younger people like Lydia Miller (Kuku Yalanji) as she was more contemporary than Oodgeroo.
I was interested in Aboriginal women’s literature because as a girl (Bush Mekeo/Írish/French Australian background) I wanted to find out about the stories of the original people of the land I lived in and see if they had anything in common with my own experience.
I had forward-thinking teachers who had shared the sorry history of the treatment of Aboriginal people in Tasmania and so-called Aboriginal issues were not invisible to me. From a young age I was mistaken as Aboriginal and subsequently subjected to a lot of racist comments at school.
This made me both upset to be name-called and curious – and I was lucky to have people around me, including an Aboriginal girl from Mornington Island who was boarding and went to my school, and another classroom friend, to see that Aboriginal people were in many ways just like everyone else and I wondered why they were so put down.
They were not token friends, but very caring girls, and the girl from Mornington told the best ghost stories! Actually, come to think of it, my friends were all a mini united nations and we didn’t fit any moulds of what you might call “mainstream”.
Many of the early writers like Oodgeroo and, with respect, the recently passed away Ruby Langford Ginibi (Bundjalung), began with a sense of connection to place, people and history. They wore the mantle of spokesperson for the cause of Aboriginal rights to be respected, acknowledged and treated the same as any other human being because they had realised the pen is a mighty tool in the fight for justice. There are so many writers that should be mentioned, like Jackie Huggins (Bidjara), a fearless academic and wonderful writer who wrote an innovative biography with her mother, Aunty Rita, who is still an active intellectual teaching in the university system.
For Langford-Ginibi, incarceration, justice and identity formed the themes of her life writing whilst for Oodgeroo, a poetry exploring people, place and environment was a major concern. Oodgeroo was also noted for her friendship with Judith Wright.
This fight for justice was often a heavy burden to bear, and it could have led to the pigeonholing of Aboriginal women’s writing, to be eternally from the fringes and fixated upon the human rights agenda, but instead they became the footsteps to follow in and add to. Aboriginal English made its way into Aboriginal literature so that writers were not forced to simply fit the canon of other Australian literature, but this in itself was a battle.
Now many years later, and having been mentored at a playwrights conference by Lydia, a wonderful actress, I am happy to say that I always look out for up-and-coming Aboriginal women writers. For me they can write about any topic from Murri lives in the Bush, like Vivienne Cleven‘s, Bitin’Back, to an Aboriginal woman bureaucrat in Paris like Anita Heiss (Wiradjuri). The beauty of Aboriginal women’s writing is its current diversity and moving away from set definitions.
There are many Aboriginal women writers in Australia who created the opportunities for the writers of today – not only Anita Heiss, but also Kerry Reed-Gilbert (Wiradjuri), Alexis Wright (Waanyi Nation), and Jennifer Martiniello (Arrente/Chinese/Anglo-celtic). I was happy to interview several of them when I was a uni student and to learn not only about
their writing but their philosophies on life. They are different and yet many maintain close friendships with each other – Anita and Kerry are in constant touch, and another friend of theirs working in radio put me onto interviewing them. They encourage each other and the new generation of up and coming Aboriginal writers, both men and women.
They are happy to share their perspective as specific to a language group, urban or rural environment – and have pulled apart what it means to be black, Aboriginal, Indigenous and an Aboriginal woman. Aileen Moreton Robinson (Geonpul) and Leah Purcell (Goa Gungurri Wakka Wakka) both have works that tackle that diversity and need not to be subsumed into other’s agendas. Purcell’s Black Chick’s Talking is a remarkable set of interviews with a diverse group of creative Aboriginal women – which has an accompanying film, paintings and explores Aboriginal women’s creativity.
Aboriginal women writers have branched out to become fully part of the mainstream, and participate in genres like the “chick lit” written by Heiss in books like Paris Dreaming, as well as in film making. Although Heiss is not a writer anyone can pigeonhole having tackled almost every writing genre you can imagine and given it the stamp of her witty writing style.
Aboriginal women do not feel confined to write literature that is expected of them (there is a whole school of research into Aboriginal literature and art), but rather literature where they can explore new horizons. Yet, their unique ways of seeing the world can be incorporated into whatever fiction they write in subtle ways. They can pose questions like Am I black enough for you? and interrogate their own position with a freshness and humour past generations would not have even dreamed of – perhaps because back then it would have been a luxury and there were other more pressing needs.
Many Australians, particularly Aboriginal and well educated, are concerned at the low rates of literacy for many Aboriginal children. The Aboriginal Literacy Foundation states that 87% of Indigenous children in regional and remote areas struggle to read and write and fall well below the national literacy benchmarks. Many Aboriginal women (Heiss does lots of work in this area and so does runner Cathy Freeman) work extremely hard to encourage Aboriginal children to consider writing and reading cool things to do. Their commitment to education, literacy and in Heiss’s case the promulgation of other Aboriginal writers they respect and admire is inspiring. This is something that Aboriginal writers do not shy away from but embrace as communal responsibility.
The Aboriginal women of today, like those of the past, form footsteps for future Aboriginal women to walk in. Perhaps today’s dream is that one day Aboriginal people will walk alongside not only other Australian writers but Australian readers in terms of achievements in literacy.
*June’s note: The language group/nation of Aboriginal women is included in brackets where I have been able to find it. June Perkins is a guest blogger for ABC open, poet and digital storyteller who is about to launch ebooks on the recovery from Cyclone Yasi process. She has guest blogged for Ilura Gazette and Critical Mass, and is currently a guest blogger for the Aftermath project for ABC Open in North Queensland. You can find June on Facebook, Twitter (@gumbootpearlz), Flickr, as well as at her blogs: Aftermath, Pearlz Dreaming (WordPress), Unity Garden, Gumbootspearlz and at Book Creators Circle.
AWW writes: Which writers did Oodgeroo and early Indigenous Australian women writers pave the way for? Indigenous Australian writer Dr Anitia Heiss shares her list of “10 favourite novels by Indigenous Australian women”:
- Butterfly Song by Terri Janke
- Bitin’ Back by Vivienne Cleven
- Too Flash by Melissa Lucashenko
- Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
- Swallow The Air by Tara June Winch
- Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara
- Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane
- Watershed, by Fabienne Bayet-Charlton
- Legacy by Larissa Behrendt
- The Boundary by Nicole Watson