November in nonfiction

there’s still a whole lot we’re not seeing – all of us who’ve been damaged through this shared history of ours. So there’s a whole awakening yet to come, of us as a community … and a sharing, not a glib sharing

Kim Scott, cited in Bill and Jenny Bunbury, Many Maps: Charting Two Cultures: First Nations and Europeans in Western Australia 


Histories that do harm, the need not only to share stories but to do so with rigour and honesty, and the meaning of sharing power: these themes echo throughout the three nonfiction books I buried myself in recently to avoid rolling coverage of the US presidential election.

Bill and Jenny Bunbury’s Many Maps: Charting Two Cultures: First Nations and Europeans in Western Australia employs a combination of historical documents and Aboriginal oral history, together with stunning photography of the landscapes, to vividly illustrate the state’s multilayered past.

As the authors note, Many Maps is not a comprehensive history of Aboriginal-European interactions in Western Australia. Rather, they have focused on ‘events and geographical areas where we had interview material available to highlight what we see as important issues in understanding and misunderstanding … between the late arrivals and First Nations people. ’ Instead of broad-brush strokes, the focus is on the local and the particular. The book offers the reader a view through a series of windows – periods in 1830 or 1890 or 1905 or 1965 – in which white and Aboriginal people stood on the same country and looked at each other with varying degrees of mutual incomprehension. The Afterword finishes on a note of hope, quoting the Uluru Statement From The Heart.

Many Maps explores Western Australian post-contact history in all its complexity, and there are moving stories of friendships across the cultural divide and fragmentary moments when it seemed that colonisation could have taken a different turn. But the brutality of dispossession is laid bare, and was evident to observers at the time. The book quotes an English settler and lawyer named EW Landor, who came to the colony in 1841 and wrote:

We have seized upon the country and shot down the inhabitants, until the survivors have found it convenient to submit to our rule. We have acted exactly as Julius Caesar did when he took possession of Britain. But Caesar was not so hypocritical as to pretend any moral right to possession.

No doubt similar statements, uttered today, would see the speaker accused of black armband history or virtue signalling.

Don Watson is familiar with such banal accusations, and several of the pieces in his absorbing collection Watsonia: A Writing Life respond to the ‘history wars’ of the 1990s. Citing examples from colonial Victoria, for instance, he notes:

Common sense demands that we judge the behaviour of men and women according to the circumstances and the mores of their times, but it does not compel us to assume that all men and women will react identically to those circumstances or observe the mores in equal measure.

Watson is that rare thing: a white Australian writer of a certain age who can evoke deep feeling about the landscape, all the while retaining a clear-eyed ability to see the horrors in our past and the indignities and injustices in our present. Grounded in a sense of place, he writes of a Gippsland region that is summed up by ‘the kitchen and the porridge and the scone and the Anzac biscuit,’ the red dog lying under the stove in a storm, but which is also the site of murderous dispossession. Looking back at his classic 1984 book Caledonia Australis, Watson observes that he had ‘missed some of the most crucial evidence’ that there had in fact been more massacres than he had acknowledged.

Watsonia is enjoyably varied, with its contents ranging from lengthy essays on American politics to discussions of Oscar Wilde, the malaise of the Australian Labor Party, economic rationalism, his ‘kind of crush on’ Tony Windsor, and sport. Watson writes lyrically on Australian birdlife, concluding fairly that ‘No unprejudiced human being could fail to be improved by the presence of magpies’, and takes aim at the corrosion of political and corporate language: ‘I don’t mind if Paul Keating or John Howard misuse the word “fulsome” or mess up their syntax under pressure…But no leader can be forgiven for giving us the same stale fish every Anzac Day’.

Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism was first published in 2000, five prime ministers and half a lifetime ago. Particularly when read in our fast-paced age of internet nonsense, hot takes and think-piecery, its substantial and rigorous nature makes it a deeply satisfying read.

There have long been challenges to notions of a universal sisterhood. Women are not an undifferentiated class bound by shared interests but are divided along axes of race, class, sexuality, disability, power. Many white feminists kidded ourselves that deficiencies within feminism could be remedied simply by including a broader collection of voices, or that the umbrella of feminism-as-it-currently-existed could simply be extended to cover additional women. In incisive, clear prose, Moreton-Robinson dissects this view, emphasising that the feminist project, born of the Enlightenment and ‘enabled by the spread of the British empire’ was simply not designed to meet the needs of Indigenous women. Just as doing feminist history required more of historians than to ‘add women and stir’, then, it is not sufficient for feminism to add a dose of diversity and hope for the best.

The ‘real challenge for white feminists,’ for Moreton-Robinson, ‘is to theorise the relinquishment of power so that feminist practice can contribute to changing the racial order.’ This conclusion may be experienced by some white feminists as a threat, given that power in Australia largely still lies in the hands of men, but it is better viewed as an opportunity to produce real change. As the 1978 Combahee River Collective Statement put it in a North American context,

if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

Too often feminism is seen in nakedly individualistic terms as a brand or identity. Witness the ritual query of female politicians and celebrities: ‘do you identify as a feminist?’ (Who cares? Why not ask them if they support higher pay for care workers, land rights, action on climate change, free child care – anything that might actually cost them something?) As Darug writer Laura La Rosa recently observed:

I am more interested in whether or not white feminists are willing to quietly serve Blak grassroots movements and initiatives without putting their names and faces to them … Are you willing to have your profit disrupted? Your social and cultural capital jeopardised? These are not new, nor particularly radical ideas; instead, they make up many possible paradigms of what practices of feminist solidarity might begin to look like.

Noongar writer Timmah Ball wrote recently that reading Talkin’ Up was ‘difficult, because so little has changed.’ Some things have changed, however. Moreton-Robinson conducts searching interviews with white feminist academics on the basis that ‘since the second wave of feminism in Australia the feminist movement’s strongest presence is strongest in academia and the bureaucracy.’ The hollowness of this achievement is starkly evident in 2020, where so many university staff eke out a precarious existence on rolling casual contracts and students face high fees, isolation and an uncertain economic future.

Of course, to speak of feminism in the singular is to grossly over-simplify. Disagreements between feminists – both productive and otherwise – are intrinsic to the movement, and Moreton-Robinson thoughtfully canvasses distinctions between liberal, radical, Marxist and eco-feminisms. If nothing else, feminism is (as Pieter Geyl remarked of history) an argument without end, and Talkin’ Up is a critically important perspective on that argument.

Sarah Burnside

Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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