A literature that refuses to go missing

Southerly 71:2
A Handful of Sand: Words to the Frontline

Ali Cobby Eckermann & Lionel Fogarty (eds)

Aboriginal people are far more written about than heard, more often the subject of journalistic, medical, sociological, anthropological, and fictional narratives than the author. White society has a way of asking what role Indigenous people might play in ‘our’ narrative, even when that narrative purports to be inclusive and generous. When we look for an Indigenous narrative, all too often it is written by and for whites.

Nothing could situate us better in this history of absent voices than Bruce Pascoe’s acerbic, witty essay about the missing black characters in Australian novels, ‘Rearranging the Dead Cat’, an essay arising from passionate discussion at last year’s Aboriginal Writers and Educators Conference. Pascoe exposes the embarrassing silences at the heart of some of our most treasured stories, including Cloudstreet: ‘Winton’s great get out of jail card for Australia was that all of the black characters are dead. You don’t have to deal with them, it’s sufficient to re-invent their dreams!’

There is nothing dead about the voices in this special edition of Southerly, which contribute much to the ongoing conversations about Indigenous identity.

Identity is a slippery fish, and there is no one Aboriginal voice. Last year’s case against Andrew Bolt was a victory against vilification, but also a victory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights to carve out, create and manipulate their own identities. That site of tension is represented here by short statements from Anita Heiss and Larissa Berendt.

It may come as a shock to realise that this is the first edition of an Australian literary journal composed entirely of Indigenous authors, edited by two of Australia’s finest. While there are increasing numbers of anthologies such as the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, covering over 200 years of writing, and the NT anthology This country anytime anywhere (IAD Press) there is something in the journal format which is inherently conversational, less static; a good journal can be a subversive encounter.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, a Nunga author and rising star of Australian poetry, and Lionel Fogarty, a Murri man who has been writing and publishing for thirty years and been a long-time campaigner for social justice, are something of an editorial dream team. Given the near impossible task of representing contemporary Aboriginality, spread as it is over countries, generations, urban and regional cultures, and languages, they have erred on the side of diversity. Here we find people from twenty-five language groups, young and old, established and emerging. There are traditional stories, stories from the bush and the city. Most of the work is realist, and much of it deeply moving.

There are essays on history, culture, and trauma; Alex Bond’s reinstatement of Dali’pie the Statesman and Joy Makepeace’s reflective essay are highlights. There are narratives of loss, of mourning, and explorations of healing; Vicky Roach’s heartbreaking poem for her lost friend Jap was not the only piece which brought tears to my eyes. There are song lyrics and poetry, encounters with mental illness, prison, addiction, death and violence. There are also moments of humour and delight. An extract from Dylan Coleman’s Unaipon-award-winning book had me giggling with the Mission girls over their Christmas presents and the absurdity of belief. The representation of older writers’ voices is strong, and respect is also given to lost elders Ruby Langford Ginibi and Ruby Hunter.

What some of these voices lack in polish, they make up for in raw urgency. The overall effect is of immediacy and a diversity of language, reflecting a range of English usage from the street and the home to the university and boardroom. There are words and phrases of first or rediscovered languages too. I hope to read more work in the future translated from Indigenous languages, as those surviving languages across the country are revitalised. And there will be more Indigenous voices, here and elsewhere: Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lionel Fogarty have joined Southerly’s editorial board permanently and are continuing their work at the Aboriginal Writers Retreat, nurturing a literature that refuses to go missing.

Monday marked the fourth anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations. In considering where that apology has taken us, it is easy to be disappointed. The currency of the discriminatory policies of Federal control in the NT Intervention – currently under expansion through Compulsory Income Management and the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) – is reflected in several pieces, not least Cobby Eckermann’s own ‘Intervention Pay Day’, a punchy, unforgiving poem about the social impacts of the policies, which subtly draws out the ripple-on effect of such policies into families and communities. This journal should wake anyone who doubts that colonisation is a contemporary process.

The apology was a rare moment of optimism in a politics characterised by belittlement and cheap enticements, but it seems that it also made promises which Labor has failed to keep. In a political language corrupted by insincerity, bullshit consultation and media-managed squabbling, the voices in this edition of Southerly ring clear and true.

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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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  1. Thanks for this excellent review Jennifer and for putting this important issue of Southerly out here. Yes to more hearing of Aboriginal voices – and to more listening to, too.
    And yes, very sobering to think that FOUR years have elapsed since the Apology, which has so far gone pretty much nowhere under this Labor government.
    Look forward to reading Southerly 71:2 a lot.

  2. Wish we could also have some acknowledgement of the fantastic Indigenous Australian children’s narratives (across genres and modes) that we have available (albeit, also lacking in number).

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