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MWF – Writing Indigenous Australia

I’m writing a PhD on Indigenous Australia and have been travelling the Top End researching for six months or so. The Melbourne Writers Festival began the very day after I arrived home. Given the topic of my PhD, attending the Writing Indigenous Australia seminar seemed like an appropriate thing to do.

The panel was made up of one Indigenous and three non-Indigenous writers. Hannah Rachel Bell opened with a brief talk about Storymen – ‘an excavation of converging world views exposed through personal memoir, letters, paintings and conversations’ – which meditates on her relationship with Ngarinyin lawman Bungal Mowaljarlai, the fiction and philosophies of Tim Winton, and the relationships between land, story, and male rites of passage.

Art lecturer and painter Rod Moss followed up with a discussion of how he came to write The Hard Light of Day over twenty years after he first made friends with the Aboriginal families camping near his house in Alice Springs. He talked about how his art, particularly his portraiture, was part of the currency with which he forged cross-cultural relationships, and how the journals that he’d kept throughout that time provided the basis for his memoir.

Archaeologist and historian Gary Presland’s book on the Kulin nation, First People, was launched at the festival. It is a revised edition of what was originally Aboriginal Melbourne: the lost land of the Kulin, and Presland discussed the difficulties he had in writing it and updating the material. Representing Indigenous people and history has become a matter of contention, he said. History, of course, cannot be experienced directly, and the biases and prejudices that pervades a lot of past writing about Indigenous Australia have to be picked apart. Presland also spent a few mornings leading small groups of festival-goers along the bank of the Yarra to the MCG, inviting them to imagine the landscape as it was before the arrival of Europeans, explaining various landmarks and describing some ways in which the area was significant to the traditional owners.

Finally there was Marie Munkara, 2010 winner of the Northern Territory Book of the Year and the 2008 David Unaipon Award. Her collection of short stories, Every Secret Thing, had its roots in the stories her family used to tell about life on the mission. It was the laughter and vivacity in these stories, Munkara said, that drove her to write them down. ‘I don’t write for cultural reasons,’ she said. ‘I don’t need to. I’m lucky like that, I guess.’

I felt the discussion suffered a little from the same problems that plague a lot of festival sessions like this. When it’s anything but totally full of people, BMW Edge becomes an awkward space – it feels empty easily. Most writers are not natural performers and no matter how interesting what they have to say is, if they can’t fill that space with their personalities, the session feels flat. This isn’t entirely their fault, and I wonder whether the festival overall might not benefit from taking this into further consideration.

Despite the technical issues, I keep coming back to comments made by Bell at the beginning of the session. There is a common misconception that Indigenous people have stopped evolving, she said; that development of humankind is linear and traditional Indigenous culture is ‘stuck’ somewhere at the back of the line. Much writing about Indigenous Australia is predicated on this fallacy. It is part of the reason why Indigenous Australia often finds itself with ‘no legitimate political or academic voice’.

Her comments reminded me of a conversation I had with a very conservative, white-bread friend a couple of years ago. We were talking about my PhD. Smothering my surprise (and excitement) at the fact that he was even remotely interested, I remember trying clumsily to explain how deep the differences between Anglo-Western and Aboriginal cultures ran. ‘Western culture is built on an exchange of labour for goods, and on an artificial currency,’ I said by way of an example. ‘We think of work – performing a task for remuneration – as a responsibility, as a kind of duty. But traditional Indigenous culture is tied directly to the land itself. Duties and responsibilities stem from kinship and country, not from the market.’

‘But is that because of a lack of evolution though?’ he asked. It was a genuine question. It stuck in my mind, not just because of what I believed to be the (mostly) unconscious racism that underpinned it, but because of the look of clear bewilderment on his face. It was a genuine question and he was genuinely confused.

‘Blackfellas show us whitefellas ourselves.’ I can’t remember which member of the panel offered up this quote but it resonated with me, I think it resonates with any Anglo-Australian who’s ever tried to engage meaningfully with Indigenous Australia. Blackfellas show us whitefellas ourselves and that is always, always scary.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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