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Judith Arthy Essay

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As members of the culture that has colonised Aboriginal Australia, how can European Australian writers possibly represent Aboriginal experience and perspectives? Through a discussion of 3 key texts outline what you consider are important issues for making these judgements. Australian Literature has come a long way since the arrival of European settlers in 1788. As a nation, we have become a nation in our own right with an identity separate from the British Empire (Huggan, 2007).

It is only in the last few decades however, that Aboriginality in a postcolonial context has become prevalent in our literature (Bradford, 2001 and Huggan, 2007). In recent times an issue has arisen: who exactly has the right to tell these stories. In this essay I will be exploring the important issues to consider when making these judgements. I will be referring to the following texts: Deadly Unna? by Phillip Gwynne, Children of Mirrabooka by Judith Arthy and My Girragundji by Meme McDonald and Boori Pryor. I will also make references to other texts where appropriate.

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Before judgements can be made about who should write Indigenous stories, we need to work out whom the story actually belongs to. There are those stories that are personal biographies that celebrate the indigenous culture through first hand knowledge – for example, My Girragundji. Then there are those stories that are set in a wider context, that have indigenous themes as part of the plot – for example Deadly Unna? The difference between the two is crucial when making judgments over the custodianship of the literature. The former is a work of fiction.

Judith Arthy Now

However, it is certainly a personal account of the life of author and Indigenous Australian – Boori Pryor (Scan, 2000 & Scutter 2001). There is no question here about Pryor being entitled to tell this story – after all it is his. Deadly Unna is also in some respects, an autobiography. It belongs to Phillip Gwynne (Ridge, 2000 & French, 2002). It tells the story of Blacky, a young boy growing up in a small country town. There are Aboriginal themes, although they tend to be based on perspectives from Blacky’s narrative point of view rather than assumptions made about the cultural of indigenous people.

With reference to the Aboriginal boys on the football team Blacky makes statements such as “It’s like they’re playing a different game with completely different rules” (Gwynne, 1998, p. 5). This shows he is merely noting differences in the two cultures. So, it can be said, that although Australian European authors are known to write about indigenous matters, they can, in certain situations have as much right to tell the story as their indigenous counterparts provided they write with sensitivity to indigenous cultural practices (Clancy, 1997).

This being said, when a European author wishes to take on subject matter as sensitive as indigenous issues, things need to be considered regardless of who the story ‘belongs’ to. Some might argue that it is an author’s job to ‘get inside’ the characters they are writing about. John Marsden for example, writes many of his stories from the perspective of young female characters (Prain, 1997). The same could be said about a white author writing about a black character in the first person. The difference, in my opinion, is the sensitivity of the issue.

As a woman, I am not offended by the writing of Marsden – in fact I generally relate easily to his methods of story telling, but it has been clear, that the same cannot be said for the writing on the behalf of Aborigines by European Australian authors. Take for example this statement made by Aboriginal writer Ruby Langford (Clancy, 1997) in Old neighbours New Visions (1997, p. 52) “Aboriginal people are sick of the ‘bullshit’ of non-aboriginal people attempting to define and identify the origins of Aborigines”.

This statement suggests that there are frustrations within the indigenous community, with non-aboriginal people speaking on the behalf of Aboriginal people. To confront the issue of custodianship, authors such as Gwynne chose not to write in the first person from an Aboriginal perspective. Bradford explains in Wielding a black Pen, that it is generally the more culturally experienced authors and those more aware of indigenous issues, that often take the most ethical approaches to representation while others are more foolhardy (2002).

Pat Lowe, an author who has done extensive work and research into the Walmajarri culture, says ‘I can’t get in the mind of an Aboriginal person’ (Bradford, 2002 p. 21). This is an important point to look at when making judgements about the telling of a particular story. She tells her stories from a white person’s perspective rather than attempting to understand something she believes is out of her ability to comprehend. Gwynne also resembles this attitude in his writing of deadly Unna? This can be seen in Blacky’s narrative explanation of his Aboriginal mate Dumby.

For example: “‘Nukkin ya’ is Nunga talk for ‘see ya’” (Gwynne, 1998, p. 25). This is a cultural observation made by Blacky. Dialogue such as this reflects Gwynne’s stance of telling the story from the white perspective rather than make possibly inaccurate assumptions from the point of view of a black character. Not all non-Aboriginal authors writing Aboriginal themed stories take this stance. Take for example Diana Kidd. Kidd is a white author that choses to write in the first person from the Aboriginal perspective. In her book The Fat and Juicy Place, Kidd delves quite deeply into the character of a young Aboriginal child.

The use of language is the most identifying feature of this story. For example: “Me and Fleabag had a deadly time hunting in the Fat and Juicy Place. We saw this real giant goanna” (Kidd, 1992, p. 54). This is culturally identifiable language and poses the question: What gives Kidd the right to take this first person stance? Like with My Girragundji, as I will explain in more detail further on, there is an extensive list of external involvement in the making of the story – take for instance the endorsement of the New South Wales Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (Kidd, 1992).

This is what helps give Kidd her credibility and integrity as a white author writing from the perspective of Aboriginal characters. According to Linda Burney who is an Aboriginal educator (Clancy, 1997) it can be okay for non-aboriginal authors to tell the stories of Aborigines as long as authors and publishers ‘become more attuned to Aboriginal involvement in the production of the material’ (Clancy, 1997, p. 39). Let’s now look at My Girragundji. The story belongs (at least in an autobiographical sense) to Boori Pryor who is an Aboriginal man. His wife, Meme McDonald is white and worked with Pryor to write this book.

It can be seen when reading the long list of acknowledgments in the book, that there were many stories and many people involved in its production. The thanks Pryor and McDonald give to “Joe and grace for inspiring My Girragundji… also to the Pryor family for so many memories” (1997, p. 81) shows this. It is clear from these expressions of thanks and approval that great cultural sensitivity was taken to complete the book. The fact that Pryor deems it as integral to gain approval from his family highlights just how important it is for authors to understand what it is they are writing about on a deep level.

Sometimes despite their best intentions, authors struggle to shake the constraints imbedded in them by the colonial power. This can work as a negative in terms of their ability to capture the postcolonial context from the indigenous perspective. I will look now, at Children of Mirrabooka. It is generally safe to say that Judith Arthy is writing in the postcolonial context. After all, the themes in the story relate to issues such land rights and the stolen generation and the stance is pro Aboriginal. When one looks deeper at the story however, there are traces of an in ground loyalty to the colonial power.

For example, it could be said that Arthy places the Aborigines in an inferior position that are in need of being ‘saved’ by Jenny – the white girl. It was her role to “… unravel the mystery surrounding the rock pool” (Arthy, 1997, p. 105). This is reflective of the general plight of Aborigines in our country for the past two hundred years (Bradford, 2001 & McLaren, 1996). Throughout the novel, the truth of the ghost children at the rock pool is discovered and the children are left in peace – all thanks to Jenny. In spite of all the themes relating to land rights Jenny is the one that ends up owning Mirrabooka “Mirrabooka was mine.

All mine” (Arthy, 1997, p. 166-167). This Euro centric attitude towards ownership is contrary to the Aboriginal attitude of belonging to the land. This evidence suggests that despite the best intentions of authors, it is difficult to be completely post colonial when writing stories such as these. It is important for non-Aboriginal authors to be aware of issues such as this. Stories like Children of Mirrabooka although it is unintended, don’t always reflect the postcolonial theory of ’emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial power’ (Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin, 1989, p. 1).

Our culture is born from the British Empire; therefore we cannot ignore the stronghold it has on our postcolonial context. This leads me to my next point. We live in a country where Aborigines and European Australians (not to mention immigrants from all over the world) must live together and work towards reconciliation and cultural understanding. Children’s Literature has an important role to play in this issue. As Saxby explains in Images of Australia (2002) it has been argued strongly in recent years that Children’s Literature places readers in a position where they are forced to form a particular world-view.

It is for this reason that it is important to teach the new generation the importance of cultural understanding and identity so we can move one step closer to reconciliation. For this knowledge to be developed in Children’s Literature, it is important for non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal perspectives to be told. The two are often very different in terms of their political points of view but they both can offer much in terms of their purpose. Take for example The Rabbits by John Marsden. I could go into a critical analysis of the book as a postcolonial text, but that would take another essay entirely.

These books raise discussion about topical issues and this is how children learn. Stories told from the Aboriginal perspective are often about the land, and relationships with the land and each other. They don’t tend to be politically loaded like the European contexts. They are generally a celebration of indigenous life and culture rather than an attack on white people. In fact, often there is little mention of white people at all – not as a point for discussion at least. An example is in My Girragundji where there are virtually no references to white people at all.

The story revolves around a boy and his ‘Girragundji’ who he shares his problems with – “our spirits… always… together… you are strong… no matter what” (McDonald and Pryor, 1998, p. 70). It is important to acknowledge the western and indigenous cultures at play in My Girragundji. There are two authors – Meme McDonald and Boori Pryor, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal consecutively. Using the European literary skills of McDonald and the oral story telling traditions (Van Toorn, 2006) of Pryor (Scan, 2000), the two work together to come up with a successful combination that displays cultural sensitivity as well as diversity.

This is an example of how different cultural perspectives can combine to reflect the hybrid lifestyle of many Aboriginal people. Wharton and Pryor refer to this hybrid upbringing in Scutter’s article Writing the Childhood Self (2001). We require both of these perspectives in children’s literature so that reconciliation between both cultures can manifest (Clancy, 1997, p. 52). It is clear that this issue is an extensive one. Each portion of this essay could have a lengthy analysis of its content.

What I have done though, is to point out some of the main issues that non-Aboriginal authors face when taking on the task of conveying Aboriginal stories, points of view and themes. Questions I have touched on ask: Is the story solely an Indigenous one? From whose perspective is the story being told? Is the author unintentionally upholding colonial attitudes in the text? Has there been sufficient Aboriginal involvement in the story? Finally, I looked at the importance of this literature in terms of its role in society and highlighted the fact that both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal can be heard with potentially equal merit.

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