This week, from 8th-15th July, is NAIDOC week, which draws attention to the history, achievements, strength, and resistance of Aboriginal people. We are delighted to feature a guest post from Michelle Karen Vlatkovic, a writer of Kamilaroi and Croatian descent. Michelle’s work has been published by Overland, Southerly and Review of Australian Fiction. She is currently undertaking a doctorate in creative writing at Griffith University and is a regular broadcaster on 4ZZZ in Meanjin (Brisbane). In her wonderful post, she writes about how her identity as a Kamilaroi woman shapes her life and work.
It is a privilege to be asked to write a post marking NAIDOC this year, especially in light of the theme of Because of her…..we can. This theme celebrates ‘the invaluable contributions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have made – and continue to make – to our communities, our families, our rich history and to our nation.’
In the past twelve months, I have started to write creative non-fiction. In the course of my research I’ve been reading Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Aboriginal Women and Feminism. Moreton-Robinson uses the term ‘life writings’ to describe Indigenous women’s texts that do not fit the usual strict chronological narrative of autobiography. Typically, autobiography has also been understood to be the narrative of one life, but Moreton-Robinson points out experience is social and relational, not something separately ascribed by the individual (2000, p.2).
‘In this sense the life writings of Indigenous women are an extension of Indigenous relationality in that they express the self as part of others and others as part of the self within and across generations (Moreton-Robinson, 2000, p.2).’
This understanding is very much at the heart of Aboriginal beliefs around community and the purpose of sharing story.
My writing currently looks at family history, five generations that have experienced colonisation and a culture going back thousands of years. I also examine the experience of dispossession, occupation, war and banishment in my father’s family for four hundred years.
Mum taught me the moral framework that guides this work. I didn’t have to get the best grades at school, or be on the sports team. I could dodge chores, forget to put away my shoes and school bag, but there were three things Mum insisted upon. Stand up for what you believe in; never compromise on your principles for anyone; tell the truth.
Telling the truth means being led by the heart not the head. My heart is my moral compass. I listen, I understand, I speak, first with my heart and then with my head. To have a writing process that starts from the heart can mean honouring what might be unpalatable for others to digest. I identify as Kamilaroi because I was born here. On paper, I can trace my Kamilaroi bloodline back to fifty years after settlement. Oral stories, I was told as a child connect me to country around Gunnedah going back thousands of years. I grew up on the land of the Eora where the Bidjigal clan lived pre-settlement. I am aware that I challenge notions about Aboriginality with my fair skin and blue eyes. I talk proper and grew up in a blue ribbon Liberal suburb. The privilege I have been afforded makes it my responsibility to draw attention to your privilege, dear reader. All of us can elevate others and deflate oppression with action.
Never compromising on my principles means I appreciate stories are shared to elevate our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Stories teach us our place and responsibilities. They offer layers of knowledge which take on significance serving different life circumstances. When I share words, I do this with an intention to lift others within my community, impacting social outcomes by increasing the understanding and knowledge of non-Aboriginal people.
Words, whether they be for policy, journalism or literary purposes have public as well as private impacts on their subjects. I do not believe everything is up for grabs to write about. Permission is not merely about clearing something with a subject or an elder. Permission means writing with an awareness of the experiences of Aboriginal people in terms of trauma experienced and representation of Aboriginal people in the past and present by non-Aboriginal people in government policy, literature and the media. Considering what is mine to share and what is appropriate, I have an obligation to think about the consequences to others. This means considering not only how people might be perceived by others; it is important also to consider how those subjects will feel about themselves reading the work.
Standing up for what I believe in: I’m interested in expressing how in spite of the attempts made to sever our connection to country, make us forget who we were, strip us of our dreaming; for me, it remains and always will be Kamilaroi. By writing about my Kamilaroi-ness, in relation to my family history and events that predate my life, I seek to challenge readers to grapple with the realisation of their own cultural identities within the context of their culture’s antiquity.
Many Aboriginal women writers producing literature and commentary describe experience that is relational across generations. We know our responsibility to tell the truth, stand up for what we believe in and never compromise on our principles. This is because of our mothers, grandmothers and aunties. These women taught us the resilience, respect and responsibility to live and approach our writing with these concerns in mind.