Telling the untold stories: Alexis Wright on censorship

This is a transcript of Alexis Wright’s 2018 Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture, delivered at the State Library of Victoria, 3 December 2018.


I would like to acknowledge the Boomwurung and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respect to their elders, past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal people here today.

I would also like to acknowledge the ancestral stories of our people which we safeguard in the world’s oldest library – the land, seas, skies and atmosphere of this country.

It is a great honor and privilege to give the 2018 Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture. One small thing that I have in common with Stephen Murray-Smith is that I also came from a home that was bookless, but even so, I would not have traded a childhood that was enriched every day by the oral storytelling culture of my family and our people. Now I live more than a thousand miles from my home in this beautiful city of literature. I read that Stephen Murray-Smith had unswerving principles about the things he believed in, and I am sometimes like this too.


The great nineteenth-century French modern realist novelist Gustave Flaubert once wrote to the Russian author Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev: ‘I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.’ The world around the ivory tower has since grown. It is now the globalised world of the twenty-first century and its realities beat rapidly at all walls. Storms hit in every direction. Stories have a problem.  Writers are not keeping up with what is happening in the world to help us understand what in hell is going on, but one of the major threats for writers and thinkers whose ideas and work disregard the barriers is censorship of the truth. The British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie once explained: ‘Good writing assumes a frontierless nation. Writers who serve frontiers have become border guards.’

Amitav Ghosh, another award-winning Indian writer of novels such as The Hungry Tide, in his latest book titled, The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable, examines the reasons why catastrophic events are not more readily seen in literature, and why writers find it hard to move from the backdrop of normal reality in the familiar world of the individual. Ghosh claims that writers do not know how to, or cannot change, or believe it is too difficult to try to change other peoples’ worldview. I know my novel, The Swan Book, which was about climate change, was marketed in America as a science fiction book, which it most certainly was not. Amitav Ghosh believes that the climate crisis is a crisis of culture and of losing our roots in the environment, and thus a crisis of the imagination. He hopes that out of this strugglewill be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes … that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art in literature’.

The question for the writer of stories is how to fight your way through imposed boundaries of indifference, ignorance, or political interests, and to perhaps learn how to do this by not getting directly into the ring and wrestling the pig ‘because a. it is only going to get dirty, and b. you will get dirty as well’. This old cliché was how Bill Whalen, a seasoned analysist of US elections from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, explained how to fight Donald Trump’s method of relentlessly making the US mid-term elections all about him. The advice Bill Whalen gave was not to take the bait, but to play the game differently, and the way to do this was by dealing with issues affecting people, and by telling the story another way.

While thinking about this huge subject of silencing, the muting of voices, and bullying tactics used to oppress, humiliate, manipulate, create fear, and exclude, I thought about how to tell this story about censorship in another way  by visualising an extreme situation where the world was stopped from telling stories. Let’s say we lived in a story-less world where our rich literary traditions no longer existed, and have been excised from memory. What if we become censored from enjoying the simple pleasure of reading any book, or from hearing an amazing story told that made us laugh, or stories that have continued to bring a smile or chuckle when we remember the story, or storyteller? Although I present this scenario as an imagined situation, it is close to the reality in which Aboriginal people have lived for the past two centuries, and I will come back to this later.

What would perish if we could no longer tell stories? The word? The world? I wonder if we are already controlled by our own inertia in a censored world of our own making. Are we fast reaching the point of not realising how we are being censored from speaking out, or banned from telling the truth, or through our fear of the consequences of creating waves, of bringing unwanted attention, surveillance and criticism to ourselves? The storytellers who cross boundaries, will soon learn in almost vigilante fashion to guard their work from being tampered with or altering its meaning, in the process of publication where decisions are more often than not made to suit market interest. We learn how to preserve the integrity of our work by becoming more skillful as writers, negotiators, fighters for words, fighters for truth. Dr Sanaz Fotouhi, a scholar from Monash University, writes about the commodification of censorship in Iranian writing in English, and explains how the popularity of Iranian narratives in the West,

framed in a way that appeals to a buying market through an emphasis on censorships and oppressions, could in some ways be seen as somewhat beneficial … But, this pattern which might get books flying off the shelves because readers pick them up to learn about the oppression and censorship that is going on in Iran, is riddled with all kinds of socio-political and ideological problems, that is inherently repeating a vicious cycle of oppression in a new framework.[1]

A most insidious form of self-censorship is the way in which we distract ourselves from the truth, through our deliberate self-chosen ways of shielding ourselves from what we either do not want to hear, or see. We do not want to know about what happens down the road, or what happens over the fence we have built around our yard, or what happens at the politically defined borders guarded with slogans such as, Asylum seekers who arrives in Australia by boat will no longer be able to set foot in the country under any circumstancesNo Way: You will not make Australia home.

We do not get involved, and allow ourselves to fall into line behind these banners and the slogans of fear. We respond to sound bites. We fall into patterns of self-censoring about what or how much we need to know, and while we form our own private opinions, we do not get involved. Many ensure their privacy, depend on the internet, and do not take the opportunity of acquiring any deeper knowledge such as might be gained by reading great works of literature. We become accomplished in gaining just enough bite-size bits and pieces of information about almost anything by scanning the web. Many become reliant on social media platforms for self-affirmation through a dependency on censoring cyber-based communities which are self-governed by likes and dislikes and commentary.  We need to test and challenge our knowledge and understanding of the world, in the way shown by the great writer of ‘uncensored’ literature on the Middle East, Edward Said, who in his last book of essays, From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap, explained something very important: ‘that dignity has a special place in every culture’.[2]

Surely, we place ourselves at great risk when collectively, we see no value in having any greater or deeper knowledge and understanding, or seeing any real difference between what is true, or what is false. Anything can be asserted or dismissed as false news, anything believed as the truth. We live in the belief of a free for all world where every idea and value can be as meaningless or meaningful, and whatever you want to believe, and of being more likely to succeed because of where you are placed in the hierarchy promoting what line the story will take, rather than a story being based on truth, or objectivity.

We have learnt to fear humiliation and criticism through tactics used by powerful interests to bully, and to ferociously push us to behave against our conscience. We find it difficult to behave towards our combined humanity with responsibility, decency and dignity for the planet on which we all depend for our survival. Instead, we are being trained by forms of censorship based on fear tactics to push our thinking into political directions that we believe will protect us from others, and ensure the continuation of our way of life. We are cowered into silence by those in power who relish having control over the thoughts of others, and will stop at nothing to prevent other points of views from being heard.  We fear not being able to protect ourselves from a barrage of ridicule, humiliation and embarrassment if we speak out, so we cower in silence, look the other way, and do and say nothing. So no matter where you live, here or in some other country, anyone’s freedom of speech can be curtailed or restricted either brutally, or by subtle measures of ridicule, or by those means used to exclude the weakest voices, even in countries where human rights are said to be upheld by their governments.

With no great need to give real depth to our understanding on matters that affect us all, of the kind that would be gained through more intensive research of what is really happening on the ground, or from having a greater sense of the truth from deeper inquiry and interrogation of works of literature, we feel swamped by too much information. We are overwhelmed. It feels suffocating to live in the gilded cage of the globalised world with all of its complexities and fields of knowledge, and conveniently, we allow ourselves to be captured in the safety nets of slogans and banners by political or market agendas and interests that tell us what to fear, and how we should not get involved. We are so unabled, we cannot break the complicity of our silence as we helplessly watch whatever dire consequences come about for the many less able fighting the slippery ideologies of powerful interests. In terms of the big issues of global warming, we appear to be clueless about how to halt catastrophic disaster because we fear change.

Lets say Fahrenheit 451 has been achieved. Lets imagine we have reached the stage where all books are believed to be so treacherous to humanity because of the slightest possibility of dangerous ideas being contained in them – such as climate change and global warming scientific research, or too much compassion for others, and the possibility ‘of sharpening the moral imagination’.[3] Governments might say – but not to you or me – that a free mind not tied to government must be, and therefore is, completely dangerous and should be feared by the general population, because free minds cause madness for governments. In this scenario of imagining a world without books, [the] wonderful State Library of Victoria, a national treasure, is doomed to become a tomb. It will be a forbidden place of abandoned books through the damp winters of time, where spiders scramble over the pages of fallen books coated in mildew and scurry up through the great cobwebbed world gleaming under shafts of light that shine through the grime covered glass of the Dome Reading Room. The book I had left open on page 50 and 51 long ago – say it was Don Quixote – is unreadable under a forest of strange black fungus that grew on top of an apple I had left to hold down the pages. This place is a darkened ghost library now, kept under tight security around the clock. There are strict controls about who can go inside this building to fight their way through the webs of censorship about what must never be removed from its shelves, and who can read a book from here. You will have to jump through many hoops to get permission to even read a page of any book, or to write, even if you are only writing in a bureaucratic formula that is rigorously controlled and policed by the government, or by some world authority controlling what will be written by rules it places on how to think, and what to see.

This future gets worse. The governments that created these controls with their politicians – some of whom look similar to the ones we have now – are joyous in finally achieving what the Nobel Laurate in Literature Toni Morrison described in Burn This Book as the starving, regulating, and annihilation of writers ‘who are unsettling, calling into question, taking another, deeper look. Those who disturb the social oppression functioning like a coma on the population.  To sweep clean all but the “safe,” all but state-approved art.’[4]

Our political masters have succeeded in convincing our families to fear all books and stories. You will never see literary works on the curriculum of any place of learning in the country because of the fear of creating irrationality in the population, because the greatest need to run any country will be by controlling thought. In the web of censorship laws that will be established, almost any form of storytelling will not comply with the list of safe stories to tell. By enforcing tighter laws, it will become even easier to enforce controls as more people believe that the ills of the world will only be defeated by creating an egalitarian world of like-mindedness, by entirely removing the right for anyone to tell a story. How? Simple. By punishing the storytellers? Our stories already struggle to be written through reduced funding resources available to the development and publication of literature. Grants to literature suffer the first budget cuts of government, even though the resources in this field are already miniscule. (One example of disregard for Australian literature was seen in the axing of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards by the Campbell Newman LNP-led government in 2012, for a saving of $220,000.)

The only stories which will be told in our more blatantly censored world will be those that the media giants want told to control governments, to enforce their own ideas – such as occurred in enforcing the NT Intervention of 2007. It’s a Don Quixote world of frenzied but well-meaning and narrow-thinking public servants throwing dangerous books on the bonfire on the advice of whatever holy dictum exists above the rights of others. They relish the job, and are crazed in a task fired by their deep belief that the writers and storytellers of the world have some kind of illness for trying to cure humanity with stories, and just to be on the safe side for humanity’s sake, they have thrown the whole lot – all the books that ever existed down from the windows of libraries to burn on top of the official book-burning bonfires to save people from ever having a thought.

In this precious place, home of tens of thousands books, many of which are so rare and can never be replaced, there is no guarantee that the safety of books is beyond risk, beyond censorship and destruction in future times. Even the thought feels blasphemous and threatening. I wonder if the librarian of Timbuktu, Abdel Kader Haidara, had such thoughts while he journeyed across the baking Sahara Desert in the 1980s as a reluctant young bureaucrat, to track down and salvage tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity? His only thought was that he was just doing his job, what needed to be done. Did he think that anyone would want to destroy this rich heritage he had worked so hard to retrieve and had returned to his city, in a library – the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library – that had been built in Timbuktu to house this treasure for all of mankind? How could such a thing be possible? Had he ever thought that in 2012, he would have to be the one in charge of a highly dangerous and life-threatening exercise of smuggling this library of almost 400,000 ancient manuscripts out of the city, first to safe houses around the city by donkeys, and then on hazardous journeys by boats or motor vehicles across 600 miles of desert to safety? All not so long ago. Perhaps it pays to be ever vigilant about the stories of cultural heritage in case we, too, have to one day use some of our hardened five million feral donkeys to move our national libraries by donkey train across thousands of miles of outback roads along the Birdsville Track, to be hidden in a safe house in Bedourie, or by surmerging libraries in water holes unmarked on any map, and guarded by crocodiles up North.

If the stories that live in all of us were accused of being too reckless for the nation, too dangerous for the country’s ears with assimilatory ideals, or of threatening a narrow view of the world, what would we do? I hope that we would cultivate our memory by continually whispering stories in our mind as Aboriginal people continually do, and be brave, just as our people took great risks to keep the spiritual law stories strong in secret gatherings held in the middle of the night outside missions and reserves, where our people had been institutionalised under state laws and were punished for practising Aboriginal law. And just as our people do today, by continually teaching children the important stories that cultivate memory and cultural imagination, and helping our children not to rely on sound bites, Twitter or Facebook, or to believe that the internet is the source of all knowledge.

We are told that powerful media control in this country can make or break prime ministers, influence who leads the country, and have enormous sway over the political decisions of government. We have governments who will not tell us about the plight of refugees seeking refuge here, or have accused Aboriginal people – of all people – of being unAustralian if we do not agree with their policies to destroy our culture, environments and communities. Do we already live in a censored world right on our doorsteps? The Australian humanities took a heavy blow of censorship in October 2018, with the news that the Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham had rejected eleven ARC grant applications recommended to him by scholars in the humanities disciplines.  Among the heated protests of ‘political censorship or interference’, Kim Carr, a Labor spokesman said: ‘When politicians act in secret and then claim massive public support for what they tried to conceal, it is a sure sign they know the original decision was indefensible.’[5] Does this mean that we should not write about issues that oppose government policy? The world becomes diminished when we cannot tell our own stories in the way we think they should be told, and I hold on to that thought in order to imagine the rich soul of our humanity fading away and dying because stories have been banned from being told.

There have been many times in the history of the world where books were destroyed because of the power literature was thought to hold over readers, and many places in the world where the freedom of expression is controlled, policed and censored. There have been books thrown on bonfires, or pulped, or otherwise destroyed. Authors are watched, still jailed, or killed, or exiled, or have disappeared from the pages of history. There are places in the world today where literature is thought to hold so much power of persuasion, writers are controlled, their work censored and amputated, and governments influence who can write, or direct what writers should write, or what creativity and ideas writers need to focus on and how they will be rewarded, in helping governments build their own homogeneous national narratives.

A world without stories. What would this world look like? Would we become even greater strangers to each other? How would I know who you are or how you felt, or what you thought, or what it is like to be you in a world that is in desperate need of creating greater world competency in our understanding of each other?

Imagine if we were not able to read the stories of anybody else in the world? Imagine no longer having access to the translation of world literature – to be able to read about the lives, thoughts and ideas of people from all over this great world we call home, or of being prevented to read about the places where we feel at home in our homelands? My indebtedness to the translation of literature is enormous. This includes the translated publication of my books in countries where my works are now widely read and studied. I would not be the writer I am today if I had not been able to read translated literature from overseas. Where would stories go if all books were destroyed on the bonfire either in reality, or the psychological bonfire censorship fuels in our mind when we have been forced into destroying the possibilities of our imagination by either official or by self-appointed gangs acting like thugs humiliating others into silence? What would the children of tomorrow be without those stories that help us to think more creatively and more clearly, to think deeper, to help us to imagine our combined future?

We will live in a world where whatever we really feel about anything in life will remain imprisoned in the vault of the mind – never to be thought about, or mulled over, never to be imagined, or to appear in our dreams. We will aim to forget, to have nothing in our thoughts. We will self-censor all influences from ever penetrating the interior walls of the mind, ensure no little thought brewing in the back of the mind is ever spoken about, or known by others, because we will tell no stories and have no need to tell stories. Others, the more powerful, will think for us, and tell us what to believe. We will collectively be one story, the story made for us and forced on us, or the story we have been coerced into believing is true. This is not hard to imagine, because many of us already live like this, proportionally more or less, in what we block out of our mind, in what stories will be alive to us, while others will be so dead that they no longer exist in any of our realities.

What happens next in a world such as this?



I have been talking about a fanatical idea of a world without story, but in this country something similar to the killing of story did happen, to prevent the ancient stories of this country from being told, or of ever being understood by non-Aboriginal people. There is a long, deep-rooted vein of history that runs throughout the country where Aboriginal people remember how their families were actively silenced and banned from practising their culture or speaking their languages, or from telling the stories about who they are, or how they felt.  This practice of censorship worked through silencing Aboriginal people by state laws and official narratives. Our families were governed by control, and forcefully, in an effort to ensure their voices would never be heard in their times, or carried through the voices of successive generations. This history of censorship and its long-lasting effects in the Aboriginal world can also be easily linked to contemporary policies and practices of government, media and public opinion concerning Aboriginal people. I want to talk now about why this happened, and how the practice of censoring the Aboriginal voice from being heard is ingrained in the country’s norms, and how the historical colonial practice of silencing and exclusion still exists in the mainstream fabric of the Australian psyche, and in how we treat people who are regarded as being different. Even the ancient stories of this country are still not understood by mainstream Australia, and this has become a huge hindrance to gaining a fuller understanding and appreciation of the country and its environment.

A deeply rooted belief that persists in the Australian psyche is that Aboriginal people do not have the ability to tell their own story and that others should do the storytelling for us. We can believe so much has changed for the better, but we are still practicing the same thinking of yesterday’s colonial forefathers and foremothers. Even today, we have Tony Abbott as the Australian government’s specially appointed envoy for Aboriginal people speaking on our behalf, to be the voice of the Aboriginal story. His role is in fact about censoring and silencing, to create havoc and disarray, to invent and enforce his own beliefs and policies on Aboriginal people. Mr Abbott began his role in September [last] year by traveling around the country to talk to Aboriginal people, but found that Aboriginal leaders in Borroloola in the Northern Territory were so annoyed with what he was saying that they asked him to leave their community. They told him that they did not want him as their envoy because he did not know what he was talking about after they heard him say ‘that Aboriginal children should not only speak English first, but think in English too.’[6]  His insistence about what language Aboriginal children should speak and think in is a form of censorship with the purpose of destroying Aboriginal languages and culture, and works in the same way as in any other place in the world that tries to control how people think. Abbott was previously criticised for using the term ‘lifestyle choices’ to describe traditional living on remote communities, and along with his previously failed forced ‘direct action’ policies on schools, which he may want to reintroduce in his report to government at the end of the year. He is also considering the idea of allowing police officers into schools in remote communities as a ‘very valuable’ option that he thought should be more widely considered in policing school attendance.[7]

Why are non-Aboriginal people to be more trusted, listened to, or believed in the public and political sphere when it is about Aboriginal people?  What is told about Aboriginal people, who tells it, and even the inability or willingness to understand the Aboriginal story if it does not conform to general mainstream thinking, seems to be grown from deeply rooted prejudices. These prejudices continue at the highest levels in the country and do not go away. In October 2018, the Liberal-National Coalition ruling the Australian Senate backed a far-right motion by Senator Pauline Hanson saying ‘it’s OK to be white’. Then the government blamed an ‘administrative error’ for its decision to vote in favour of the motion when, ‘in the face of enormous backlash’, the prime minister eventually claimed that ‘ the original vote was “regrettable”.’[8] In the same month, the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion confirmed to a Senate Estimates hearing that he had given almost $500,000 from the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) funding program in grants to the Amateur Fisherman’s Association NT (AFANT), the NT Cattlemen’s Association (NTCA) and the NT Seafood Council (NTSC), so that these organisations could obtain legal advice about how they will be adversely impacted by Aboriginal land claims, instead of having to submit their claims for assistance to the Attorney-General’s department, a process already set in place under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The Indigenous Advancement Strategy established in 2014 is supposed to improve employment, economic development and social participation in Indigenous communities, to give them voice, not to short-change their ability to do so.[9]



The Gamilaroi, Torres Strait Islander playright Nakkiah Lui was heavily criticised [last] year by what she calls keyboard warriors, on ‘the thorny question’ of who gets to tell Australia’s history in her work of revenge fantasy, Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death, when the play made its debut at the Sydney Theatre Company. Lui received an avalanche of trolling on social media for her creation of an Aboriginal woman superhero who avenges the massacre of her family by assassinating every descendant of the men responsible. Many arts columns heavily questioned the play’s morality and challenged its funding. The NSW arts minister, when approached for comment, said that he had not seen the work but from the description it was not to his taste. Lui explained that:

We are OK with black trauma, just like we are OK with poverty porn. We’ve become desensitized to it. But if you switch it and portray a character who usually has power and show them as powerless, then all of a sudden it’s an outrage.[10]

She said that she was trying to make the conversation bigger about a history that is all of our history, and she was trying to make change. It is quite normal to expect art to challenge, but the question about her work is that it is seen through a race lens, which seems to have different expectations for art by an Aboriginal artist. Lui explained that it was alright to depict an Aboriginal massacre in art, but not for Aboriginals doing the same or for taking revenge.

When high school children in NSW were faced with an analytical question about the poem ‘Mango’ by the young Yugambeh poet Ellen van Neervan in a 2017 English paper examination for the New South Wales Higher School Certificate, many students attacked her on social media because they were forced to pay attention to her work. A spokesperson for NESA (NSW Educations Standard Authority) said the question was only worth two marks and the poem waschallenging but not that hard’, and claimed the barrage of abuse was disappointing, given how the NSW curriculum condemns cyber-bullying and works to promote tolerance and diversity. The First Nations Aboriginal Writers Network said, ‘Some 2017 NSW HSC students read the inclusion of Ms van Neerven’s poem as a red flag to target, troll and abuse her online.’[11]

I have only used a few examples and of course this is not always the case, but the attempt to censor an important young Aboriginal voice by angry students who had been confronted with having to recognise her work is far more common than one would think in this country. I have heard similar stories by academics who have faced considerable opposition by students when they have tried to introduce works of Aboriginal literature in the classroom.


During the long era of institutionalisation of Aboriginal people in missions and reserves that existed right across Australia from the nineteenth century to well past the middle of the twentieth century, the initial idea was that these often isolated administrations would ease ‘the dying pillow’ – the expected extinction of Aboriginal people, those survivors from the Killing Times – and dispossession of land. This was not only the theft of land, but also theft of the ancient law stories governing Aboriginal culture.

Under the policies of forced assimilation and integration that followed, Aboriginal people were often banned from speaking their own languages. The authorities in charge of institutionalised Aboriginal people under state laws could and did ban cultural practices of keeping the ancient law stories alive, and they did this without any real recompense being given to this day, for the indescribable damage inflicted on Aboriginal culture, and for the massive destruction of the safe-keeping of ancient stories that had been kept over millennia with their practices in Aboriginal Law. Neither then, nor today, have we realised what the terrible harm a genocidal form of censorship has inflicted on the oldest library on Earth. This is the most valuable library in the country because collectively it holds the ancient stories of Aboriginal traditional knowledge. This is a storied land which is tied to memory and story-keeping practices that have ensured the survival of this ancient library through successive generations. Even today, Australia will not fully recognise the fundamental rights of Aboriginal people to own and safeguard their own story.

If you were an Aboriginal person living on a state-controlled reserve or mission who had broken Australian state laws to control Aboriginal people, you could be severely punished for the simple act of speaking your own language, or practicing your customary law stories. The reality was such that you could also be punished for causing trouble by telling a counter story to the officially condoned story about your wellbeing, or other generally accepted official narratives of the state. Aboriginal people were wards of the state, and the state had the power to prevent you from telling stories about your condition, and how you were being treated.

You could be punished for speaking out, or you would be labelled as a troublemaker for practicing your cultural stories. You could expect to be forcibly removed and interned at another reserve or mission far away from ever seeing your family or traditional lands again, and from secretly trying to safeguard the ancient stories tied to your traditional country. Your voice would never be heard again in your homeland. Further restrictions could be made over your life under Australian law, such as losing the right to have control over your children if they had not already been removed from your care and influence, and put into dormitories under state protection. You could have restrictions made on your movement –  where you could not leave where you had been institutionalised, and where just about every other aspect of your life was controlled. These censoring laws would shape generations of our storytelling practices – the way and how we tell stories now, and our story keeping in our communities. Then what had become apparent with the Intervention in 2007 was that, again, Aboriginal people were deliberately muted, silenced and controlled by national narratives of vicious and bullying public campaigns to implement the since failed Intervention policies in the Northern Territory. Now the narrative and way of thinking set in place under the Intervention forms part of the Closing The Gap policies and has left Aboriginal people in a terrible and demoralised state from the impact of its laws. Many of our people are still suffering the consequences of being denigrated through the shameful public accusations that were used by government to implement their punishing policy to control Aboriginal people. In our homelands, there are still many of our people who do not have any control over what happens on our communities, little less having any sense of control over their lives. Through the continuing lack of employment, strict regulations, and having lost any sense of control over their communities, there are now enormous side-affects such as increased alcohol problems in Northern Territory towns, because apart from being on traditional country, people do not have any responsibility for their communities anymore. I have been told by a senior and highly respected Aboriginal leader in the Northern Territory that the problem has always been that white people only have their own view about how Aboriginal people should live their lives, and they do not what to know what it will take to fix the problems that they have continued to cause Aboriginal people.



I was recently in the Gulf of Carpentaria as part of the ARC Research Project Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature, for which Aboriginal oral literature is a feature. We travelled through Gangalidda savannah plains country to Doomadgee, a former Aboriginal Mission, to develop a documentary with Clarence Waldon, a senior Gangalidda man and gifted oral storytelling leader, who is recognised by his people as being one of the great leaders in shaping contemporary Aboriginal politics in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He wanted me to write his story, and we talked as the recording team taped our conversations by the ever-flowing Nicholson River – a tranquil place outside Doomadgee where about 1,500 people from the lower Gulf of Carpentaria language groups live. There was the constant laughter of children playing nearby as their mothers fished and brolgas continuously called their big story from the other side of the river. These familiar sounds of country and family foccused Clarence’s thoughts, and he reminded us on several occasions that the future of children in his community depended on them knowing and understanding their history, and having their own people tell them these stories, which included how the missionaries had treated Aboriginal people in Doomadgee up to the 1960s, and how their harsh treatment had affected his life.

Now at the age of sixty-four, Clarence kept saying that he finally felt a great burden had been moved from him at last, by being able to tell his story to the world. I felt gutted from hearing him say this because, I thought, why has no-one in this country heard this great man’s story before? I know there are many more Aboriginal people whose stories are never heard. Why is it only now in this supposedly modern Australia of 2018, that he has felt the great burden of his story being lifted from him, even though his world had not physically changed through the telling. His life has great hardships, racial inequality is forever present, and his world is incomprehensible to continuing government actions to structure and control his community and tell his story for him. There is little true self-governance by his own people, to be able to give them the ability to really move ahead by creating economies, and determining their future after almost two hundred years of interference and imposed wreckage on his culture.

The story of Clarence’s childhood makes Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist seem like a picnic. His childhood involved long hard chores, hard life in dormitories, and having his mouth washed out with a piece of Sunlight soap in front of the other children, and seeing other children similarly having their mouth washed out with soap if they spoke their own language, or if they spoke in a way that was not allowed by the authorities in charge of looking after these children, or if they gave cheek, or spoke back. His nephew spoke about the punishments of teenagers, young men or women, young lovers who were found out for sneaking away from the dormitories in the night to see each other, who were then forced to go around the community wearing rough sacks with holes cut for the head and arms just to shame them. He spoke of parents being forced to flog their children by order of the Head Missionary who stood and watched, to make sure that the parents did a good job of it. The anthropologist David Trigger, in his book Whitefella Comin’, spoke of physical beatings by parents of girls around the age of fourteen who had ran away from the dormitory. Trigger explained:

They were subject to physical beating by their parents under the supervision of the superintendent and were told that if they struggled during the beating they would have their hair shaved off. Some of the girls struggled and one of them … was among those who had the whole of her hair shaved off … That was a disastrous and traumatic experience for a little girl of 14 years.[12]

It seemed like a miracle to me that Clarence is able to speak his own language and is highly respected in his cultural responsibilities to his ancient story line, and that no matter how hard the mission authorities had tried to stamp out his language and culture and his spirit with severe floggings with whatever they could lay their hand on at the time, they did not destroy the logic of Gangalidda consciousness in his thought and language, even though the scars left on his body are his daily reminder of their treatment of him as a child. The missionaries were obsessed with getting rid of the devil as being ever present and causing all evil in the world. Did they believe that the devil lived inside Aboriginal people and that they could only be ‘saved,’ by being converted to Christianity?[13] This was the reality of government laws to socially engineer the lives of Aboriginal people with the aim of totally transforming Aboriginal cultural consciousness – thought to be evil or witchcraft or sorcery. The idea of institutionalisation was to break down Aboriginal consciousness through harsh rules and punishment under a bureaucratic web of censorship, and by extracting or muting what happened to Aboriginal people across Australia. This reality was condoned by government with its eyes always averted, its view conveniently elsewhere, far from these institutions. The individual lives of Aboriginal people made invisible by being suppressed into figures on broadsheets of outcomes – the statistics, not the realities of what was actually happening that speak to a child who would feel the terrible weight growing larger as he got older, a weight that could only be let go by telling his story to the world. Clarence does not trust other people telling his story. How would he? He is not hidden in statistics. Not hidden in numbers on a spreadsheet. He is real, and larger than the rational words used for convenience to deliberately mute the powerful impact of emotions and feelings with convenient terms such as institutionalisation, or racism, assimilation, integration, intervention, closing the gap, border control.



I began this lecture by speculating about what would happen if all books in the world were banned, and writers were censored from telling stories. I wanted to explain how possible it is for the world to change, as it had for many Aboriginal people who were interned in their own country and had their lives censored. I wanted to think about the loss to the world if one book or one story was never written or never told, or never preserved, and then the next, and the next one.

The American writer Rebecca Solnit wrote in her essay, ‘A Short History of Silence’: ‘If libraries hold all the stories that have been told, there are ghost libraries of all of the stories that have not. The ghosts outnumber the books by some unimaginably vast sum.’ What are we to do with the ghost libraries that belong to the voicelessness of the greater force of humanity, including the increasing number of people who are losing their homes and livelihood because of global warming? The spirit of the land and sea is becoming polluted stories, and the fate of the world more at risk from being dominated by hollow stories to suit the short-term interests of the more powerful. The ghost stories will grow larger and more complex, more inaccessible and unknown, and unretrievable from where they are hidden in the deep crevices of the mind.

The world is at risk of losing the epics of cultural knowledge and survival that enlighten and enrich all of humanity, by the great numbers of the world’s population moving from homelands where they can no longer live, because so too are these stories of place being uprooted, as they move in ever increasing waves of migration to reach faraway places where they are either not welcomed or are struggling to survive. There is so much of the Earth’s knowledge that is at risk of falling into oblivion because it becomes a burden too huge to carry by people forging uncertain paths of survival. Just as stories die when we have censored them from being heard through the cruel act of condemning people to linger without hope for decades in refugee camps or under institutionalisation. The genius in every individual’s story is lost forever when you lose the ability to tell your own story. Books can be written about the victims of censorship – and the American author Lionel Shriver is all for the silencing of other voices in her belief that she has the right to claim greater freedom of expression for those who are more privileged, and by asserting that she could better write the stories of people who desperately need to tell their own stories.

What happens when people feel that they are not in charge of their stories either locally, or in a globalised world, is alienation. This is the problem of censoring, of silencing, amputating parts of the story, or having stories stolen, or writing official scripts, or having your story told on other people’s terms.

Stories have been blown off course. Marooned. Caught in nets. The storytellers will need to fly higher, be braver to capture more of the world, and tell stories more imaginatively, more forcibly, and powerfully enough, to subvert the censoring narratives of inhumanity.




[1]  Commodification of Censorship in Iranian Writing in English, Sanaz Fotouhi, Monash University, Pages 114-5, Sanglap: Journal of Literary and Cultural Inquiry, 2016.

[2] From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap, Edward W. Said, Page 292, pub. Bloomsbury, London, 2004.

[3] Burn this Book, ed. Toni Morrison, Chapter 1, Peril, Toni Morrison, p. 4, HarperCollins, New York, 2009.

[4] Burn This Book, edited by Toni Morrison, Chapter 1, Peril, Toni Morrison, pages 1-2, HarperCollins, New York, 2009.

[5] What was Simon Birmingham really thinking? Kim Carr, Opinion, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October, 2018.

[6] Tony Abbott sent packing on his first Aboriginal envoy trip, Alice Springs On Line News, 28 September, 2018.

[7] Tony Abbott considering police-in-schools policy for remote Indigenous communities, ABC RN Drive, Thursday, 1 November, 2018.

[8] Australian senators say error led to backing far-right motion saying ‘it’s OK to be white, Australia News, The Guardian, Tues, 16 October, 2018.

[9] Indigenous advancement funds given to lobby groups impacted by Aboriginal Land Claims, by Jano Gibson, ABC News, Wednesday, 31 October, 2018.

[10] Revenge is the new black, by Stephen A. Russell, The Age, Thursday, 5 July 2018.

[11] HSC students attacking Mango poem by Indigenous writer Ellen Van Neerven urged to apologise, ABC News, 17 October 2017.

[12] Whitefella Comin’, David Trigger, page 72, quoting Senator Keefe (1972:680-1), pub. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[13] Doomadgee: A study of Power Relations and Social Action in a North Australian Aboriginal Settlement, David Samuel Trigger, 1985, Page 318-319, A Thesis submitted in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Queensland for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy.


Image: Alexis Wright portrait (Vincent Long, 2013).

Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The author of the prize-winning novels Carpentaria and The Swan Book, and three works of nonfiction: Take Power, Grog War and Tracker. Wright is the only author to win both the Miles Franklin Award (in 2007 for Carpentaria) and the Stella Prize (in 2018 for Tracker).

More by Alexis Wright ›

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  1. This is a great analysis of Australian censorship. With any luck, we are entering a new political era that will give voice to these issues Alexis Wright so forcefully presents. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by a torrent of trivial entertainment masquerading as news that conceals a Duttonesque control of information.

    Australia is just starting to recognize its real cultural heritage has been censored for too long. Our children can only be enriched from learning Indigenous stories and language.

  2. Prior to reading this excellent piece by Alexis Wright, I had felt deep inertia regarding current political discussion & lack of it. This article has given me some hope for new way forward. Thank you Alexis Wright.

  3. Well said Alexis. I refer to your work in ‘Earth Emotions’ (to be published on May 15). When discussing alienation from nature I wrote: “As part of the ongoing separation process, humans experience a number of existential extinction events. We lose culture, language and our emotional choreography in relation to disappearing first nature. In addition, we experience biological extinction. However, as we lose our emotions and the language that describes them, we lose contact as a species with our evolutionary past. We disconnect with the tree of life and, in doing so, start a process of self-annihilation and incipient insanity.

    We can read history to see how this has happened to humans before, as Indigenous people were put on this path by colonial powers in places all over the globe. Their experience of emotional loss, then extinction (in some cases), presents a glimpse of our own future. Indigenous literature now contains dystopian plots that tell of solastalgia and other powerful negative displacement emotions for land and places. In Australia, Indigenous writers, such as Alexis Wright in her terraphthoric novel, The Swan Book, transmit the very idea of solastalgic loss to the reader. In non-indigenous literature, the resonance of the eco-apocalyptic in Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, conveys a similar experience for those already thinking about the emotions of displacement and separation due to anthropogenic climate change.” I hope the new meme of the Symbiocene opens up freedom from censorship and offers new possibilities for terranascient creativity for writers and artists of all kinds.

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