Subjects of the imagination: on dropping the settler pen

In 1857, English journalist and author Frank Fowler visited the colony of NSW and wrote with much excitement that ‘our fictionists have fallen upon the soil of Australia, like so many industrious diggers and though merely scratching and fossicking the surface have turned up much precious and malleable stuff.’ Fowler’s brief nineteenth-century summation of the Australian literary landscape still resonates today.

In his phenomenological study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fictionist representations of the ‘Australian Aborigine’ (sic) in Australian literature, JJ Healy was quick to point out that: ‘The Aborigine was definitely part of the malleable stuff of the sub-literature’. His 1978 work Literature and the Aborigine in Australia is an extensive and, to my knowledge, the earliest analysis of the settler literary canon, ranging from the early 1820s to the early 1970s, and exploring the placement of Australia’s First Peoples in settler consciousness. Healy also examined the way Aboriginal characters were constructed, produced and used as ‘vehicles’ to write about issues that cut right to the core of non-Aboriginal psyche, and how this shaped the emerging construct of a national consciousness – of the white nation.

The ‘first other’ in the literature of invasion and erasure was Us – ‘the Aborigine’. As Healy stated: ‘the literature the Europeans wrote in Australia, dealing with the Aborigine bears the mark of distance; but also, it bears the mark of a continual attempt to overcome the tyranny of cultural distance and to bring the Aborigine into focus.’

While overcoming the tyranny of cultural distance is (was) a colonial problem, always beyond our control, and/or for some beyond our concern, the gaze has been intense, sharp and unremitting. The western lens has never managed to get the focus right. Since the late seventeenth century, Aboriginal Australians have been constructed and re-constructed in Anglo-western literary canons: the exotic, the primitive, the noble savage, the innocent, the child-like, the barbaric, the depraved fringe dweller, the violent demonic aggressor, the tragic half-caste, the Venus jezebel, militant trouble-maker, cultureless urban mob, divisive minority.

Much of the Australian white-settler canon reads for the first one-hundred and fifty years as a litany of othering. Beyond the First Australians, settler fictionists have depicted, almost, if not entirely carte-blanche, the representations of further diasporas arriving – ‘the yellow peril’, for example; as well as elements within Anglo-European society itself, that were/are somehow, in some way, at some time, othered. Ann Summer’s 1975 analysis of the patriarchal gender structure of colonial Australia, for example, reduced the status of women to two narrow roles – virtuous wives and mothers dubbed ‘God’s police’, and the transgressive ‘damned whores’.

Representations from the other side of the silences is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Australian literary landscape. Healy noted that Australia in the twentieth century viewed itself as a new nation that ‘constructed its own myths and ideological sense of itself’ through settler literature and that this ‘excluded the Aborigines (sic) so resolutely’. Healy also predicted that as Aboriginal peoples go on, have gone on, to represent ourselves, ‘white Australian writing will go into, for the moment, the kind of silence Aboriginal writing emerged from’.

The silence of the settler literati though, if there was one at all, was short-lived. In 1990, Chippewa/Ojibwe poet Lenore Keeshig-Tobias noted: ‘Critiques of non-Native writers who borrow from the Native experience have been dismissed as advocates of censorship and trying to shackle artistic imagination but our intentions are prompted by something much deeper’. The essay, ‘Stop Stealing Native Stories’, was republished in 2017, with Keeshig-Tobias reiterating: ‘Stories are not just entertainment. Stories are power. They reflect the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes. Stories are how a culture thinks’.

Writing from the ‘other side’ challenges not only the established settler canon; it cuts to the very core of the settler nation’s sense of itself, and its control of the politics of representation within. In her influential 1990 essay ‘Writing’, American critical race theorist Barbara Johnson demonstrated that ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ are deeply involved with questions of authority and power. Recent debates around ‘cultural appropriation’ and the ‘job of fictionists to create empathy’ or, in some cases, to ‘use their imagination and write what they like’, evidence the interruption that publications by and critiques from writers from the other side have on literary economies of privilege.

In 2016, for example, debates flared around white American writer Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Shriver spoke against the ‘fad’ of cultural appropriation and dismissed the rights of minority groups to call out problematic representations, arguing that such claims stand in opposition to fiction’s role and purpose. Charges of cultural appropriation, Shriver claimed, denied writers the ability to create characters from diverse backgrounds.

In 2018, author and social commentator David Marr and Miles Franklin-winner Anna Funder resigned from the judging of the Horne Prize when editor of The Saturday Paper, Erik Jensen, announced that the prize would not be seeking or accepting ‘Essays by non-Indigenous writers about the experience of First Nations Australians. Essays about the LGBTIQ community written by people without direct experience from within the community. Any other writing that purports to represent the experiences of any minority group of which the writer is not a member.’

Marr responded with his resignation, reporting that he was a ‘big critic of such restrictions. Men can write about women, gays can write about straights, blacks can write about whites.’ Jensen explained that the new guidelines were an attempt to reduce the number of essays that offered condescending or chauvinistic accounts of particular groups of Australians, especially First Peoples. Marr argued that ‘you judge always by quality. That’s likely to be higher when there’s direct experience. You can’t disqualify for lack of it.’ Anna Funder also resigned from judging the prize on the grounds that the new guidelines would disqualify her own work.

Jensen’s concern is significant, though. It illustrates that there is much writing about the other that is not from the other side.

I reflected on Shriver’s comments in a 2016 essay in this magazine, ‘Other peoples’ stories’. I spoke from personal experience of what it is like to be ‘framed’ in someone else’s story, and went on to reflect on how such experience informs my pedagogy as a teacher of writing. In responding, as an Aboriginal writer and academic, to debates around cultural appropriation, representation of the other and voice – of who can speak for whom – I risk charges of ‘cultural gatekeeping’. It’s not my intention to provide open/closed solutions to such complex questions and concerns, because there are none. Instead, I offer a list of considerations informed by my experience of being on the ‘other side of the page – underneath the pen, my construction restricted only by the writer’s imagination’.

It would be convenient, as an Aboriginal writer, to relegate the matter of literary representation, of who speaks for whom, to a set of simple binaries: black/white, minority culture/dominant, abled/disabled, cisgender/transgender etc. But the views of writers of colour, Indigenous writers, minority writers also diverge on issues of representation, voice and authority.

In her 2005 essay ‘Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere’, African American writer Nisi Shawl encourages writers to ‘avoid the biggest mistake of all: exclusion’. In a related essay from the same year, ‘Appropriate Cultural Appropriation’, Shawl reflects on her experiences at the intersection of her position as a Black woman in the USA; a writer of science fiction and fantasy; and a teacher of creative writing with a life-long interest in writing self and difference. She notes that, for many writers, the desire to write about other cultures is prevalent. Shawl argues that if her students ignore non-dominant cosmologies and traditions and exclude them from their writing and reading, then they too are contributing to the invisibility and erasure of minority groups.

But Shawl also points out that one person’s terra incognita is another person’s home. There is a fine line between erasure on the one hand and appropriation on the other, observes African American writer Diantha Day-Sprouse. Both Shawl and Day-Sprouse advocate that rather than looking at a binary choice between appropriating a culture and avoiding its mention, writers can consider a spectrum of roles for transcultural reading and writing.

Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton, also a judge on this year’s Horne Prize, didn’t resign and was in sympathy with Jensen’s aim. ‘I don’t think that you can completely rubbish Erik’s attempt to get rid of rubbish,’ she noted, saying that she ‘had a lot of sympathy for what he was trying to achieve but it crosses the line between censorship and free speech.’ But censorship of the dominant group by First Nations peoples and cultural minorities more broadly is a very recent claim.

Birpai journalist Jack Latimore described Jensen’s new guidelines as a ‘worthy initiative’, adding: ‘Like people of colour the whole world over, blackfellas are sick and tired of having our stories ripped off by historically privileged white writers.’ Latimore’s point on the historical privilege of white writers warrants further exploration. Deconstructing the language in which charges of cultural appropriation and concerns for artistic freedoms are couched exposes previously invisible and unquestioned privileges and assumptions by white writers, ideas that have only recently started to be questioned and challenged.

Articulations of, and concerns around cultural appropriation, have continued to resurface for First Nations Writers, and responses are often framed and reframed through ‘freedom of speech’, ‘censorship’ and the curtailing of artistic freedoms. These articulations are an unfamiliar and unwelcome intervention into dominant group freedoms – an encroachment on previously dominated white authorial territory. But to what extent can someone else’s artistic freedom invade another’s space? What is the gap between artistic censorship, ethics and legacy? Shriver’s comment is representative of a broader, more persistent, and only recently challenged idea that fiction – that is, works of the imagination – are benign.

Hiromi Goto’s six-stanza poem ‘Notes for an Appropriation Panel’ interrogates majority concerns and privileges from the ‘other side’ of the representation paradigm. 


my subject positioning does not reflect

your object placement your anthropological

imperative soothed by your liberal heart

we will agree to disagree on your buddhist mantra

as you keep stuffing geisha

into my house.


I’m frightened

your imagination is not my reality

I do not trust you

I have read from your imagination for five centuries


Goto’s use of the word ‘house’ crystalises what’s at stake for minority groups in other people’s stories; ‘stuffing her house with geisha’ is a powerful metaphor for the type of essentialist writing that invades Goto’s space as a Japanese-Canadian – and the type of writing that constructs minority characters through their difference and distance from the writer’s own unmarked white standpoint.

Goto’s concerns are close to my own when she asks: How does it feel to be the subject of someone else’s imagination? Her choice of the word ‘subject’ in the opening line strikes a chord too, because of the meaning in the Australian colonial context. All Aboriginal people were/are subject to a colonial rule that continues to overwrite our stories, experiences and voices – and we are subjects of the colonial imagination (in fiction, in art, in cinema). These fictional representations have never been benign; they have impacted on the represented in ways that settler writers could not possibly imagine. White writers have the freedom to imagine what it might be like to be Aboriginal at any given time; as Katharine Susannah Prichard did in Coonardoo. But can she, or any other settler author, know how the subjects of their imaginations affect real people? Can the settler author really imagine how an Aboriginal reader might feel to see claims about their lives on a page, or what imagined representation might do to an Aboriginal student in the classroom? Freedoms of settler imaginations come at the expense of containing and curtailing Aboriginal stories and voices.

In 2012, Muruwari playwright Jane Harrison argued that sharing our histories and our stories is essential to the health of Aboriginal people, but first it must be acknowledged who is in control. Harrison’s comment elicits the underlying issue – control, which goes back to Johnson’s comment on the relationship between writing and the nature of authority.

Control of our stories is essential to our health and wellbeing as Aboriginal people, as the nation’s first people. And this applies to all minority groups within Australia. Stories are powerful. They can cause great damage. Badtjala artist Fiona Foley noted of her ancestral Country – renamed Fraser Island in the aftermath of Eliza Fraser: ‘In 1836, she was marooned for five weeks … and her saga has been allowed to continue throughout two centuries … The absence of dialogue with the Badtjala people has irrevocably damaged and put this people to rest.’ Ellen Roxburgh, a re-iteration of Eliza Fraser and the subject of Patrick White’s imagination, added to the Fraser myth, further silencing the Badtjala story.

Stories can also do great good! For example, how much can be learnt about the diversity, her/histories and futures of Aboriginal peoples through the narratives, across many genres, of such authors as Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Melissa Lucashenko, Bruce Pascoe, Ali Cobby-Eckermann, and many more Aboriginal writers writing today.



Acknowledging who owns the stories and how they are shared is the difference between respectful cultural engagement and reciprocity and stealing someone else’s voice. The very point of writing from the other side is that it comes from the other side. The value of the other voice is that it is spoken by that other voice.

So, we must ask ourselves: how important is it that stories come from the voices, realities, experiences, her/histories, subjectivities of the minorities who live them rather than from the imaginations of the dominant settler culture? In reality, First Nations Writers, minority writers, will never be able to censor or control the artistic freedoms of settler writers. The fact that the new rule for the Horne Prize was later rescinded evidences this – as does the current literary landscape.

As an Aboriginal writer and educator, it is my hope that settler writers who are interested in writing about cultures, people/s and subjectivities outside their own will engage with the following questions, for which there are not necessarily straightforward answers:

– How many times can you see yourself in someone else’s story and still find the space to tell your own?

– Who is most concerned about accusations of cultural appropriation?

– Murri academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson warns that representations are not just benign symbols, they are a means by which we come to know, embody and perform reality. With this in mind, what is at stake in the nature of representation?

– Who gets to decide who tells this story?

– Is fiction more dangerous than nonfiction, because it’s thought of as ‘benign’ – and does that translate to: ‘you can write anything’?

– Who wouldn’t you speak/write for?

– Who will this story benefit – the writer only, or those whom they write about, too?

– And, finally, if those of whom you are writing about have not had time, or means, or power to tell their own story first – structurally, historically and on their own terms – should you be writing this story? Should you be taking this space?


Image: crop from the cover of Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard.

Jeanine Leane

Jeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri writer, poet and academic from southwest New South Wales. Her first volume of poetry, Dark Secrets After Dreaming: A.D. 1887-1961 (2010, Presspress) won the Scanlon Prize for Indigenous Poetry, and her first novel, Purple Threads (UQP), won the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous writer. She has a PhD in Australian literature and Aboriginal representation. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Hecate, The Journal for the Association European Studies of Australia, Australian Poetry Journal, Antipodes, Overland and the Australian Book Review. Jeanine has published widely in the area of Aboriginal literature, writing otherness and creative non-fiction and is the recipient of an Australia Research Council Grant on Aboriginal literature. She teaches Creative Writing and Aboriginal Literature at the University of Melbourne. Her second volume of poetry, Walk Back Over was released in 2018 by Cordite Press.

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  1. Censorship, including self-censorship, is always a thorny issue – also, reading and writing are conjoined activities – so out of interest, do the same taboos apply to reading, I wonder?

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