How to write about Aboriginal Australia

First, be white. If you are Aboriginal, you can certainly speak on behalf of every Aboriginal person in Australia, but it is best to get a white person to write down what they think you should be saying. Non-Aboriginal people of colour will just confuse everybody. Only white people can write objectively about the Aboriginal experience.

Next, establish authenticity by acknowledging the elders. Even if you’ve never met any elders, find some to acknowledge. You can then refer to them at every opportunity as ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’, which will sound so authentic that you can put as many words in their mouths as you wish.

Never bring a fold-up chair. Sitting down in the dirt is a big part of experiencing authentic Aboriginal culture. If you have spent time in an Aboriginal community, always mention that you sat down in the dirt with the old people. Describe the dirt in detail, especially if it is red and dusty. People who work in remote communities are referred to as being ‘on the ground’ because they constantly sit in the dirt.

If you are writing about urban Aboriginal people – that is, Redfern – an equivalent is to set foot in the Block without a police escort. But, really, your story about Aboriginal people should be about remote communities, because the closer an Aboriginal person is to the ground, the more authentic they are.

Tell readers you listened to the old people talk about their country, even if you didn’t understand their language and suspected they were actually dissing your haircut. If you have spent more than two hours in a remote community, talk about how you were adopted by the tribe as family and given a skin name and how this made you feel that you belonged in Australia for the first time. Sprinkle your article liberally with skin names.

When describing the elders, make sure they gaze at things. Aboriginal people are forever gazing mystically into the landscape, because of their special relationship with it. You too should gaze into the landscape – desert hills preferably, but a claypan or a swamp will do. Emphasise the ineffability of the desert/tropical north. This is the literary equivalent of clap sticks in a film soundtrack – it induces a sense of awe for your writing and emphasises that Aboriginal people are strange creatures, basically part of the countryside, like rare trees, and that’s why nobody understands them except you.

Look at the old people. Describe their black, shining eyes and their wrinkled faces that tell an ancient story. Describe how, when you look at the old people’s inscrutable expressions, you feel an understanding of Indigenous people’s relationship to country going back 40,000 years.

The main purpose of writing about Aboriginal people is to emphasise your own insider status. Jargon is vital: write ‘grog’ instead of ‘alcohol’, ‘out bush’ instead of ‘in a remote community’, ‘mob’ instead of ‘group’. Start dropping the definite article whenever you use the word ‘country’. Soon you can comfortably pepper your work with Aboriginal English terms like ‘gammon’. Other terms you might find helpful are ‘business,’ which hints at your privileged knowledge, and ‘tjukurpa’, a handy term for anything you don’t understand. If that seems too hard, try listing the names of communities. From Ngaanyatjarra country to Papunya and the Warlpiri triangle, down to the APY lands and across the wild red dust of Arrernte country, listing Aboriginal placenames serves to make writers sound authoritative and familiar with the mysterious otherworldly landscape of Aboriginal Australia.

With the exception of stories about football or Cathy Freeman, avoid writing positive stories about Aboriginal people. No-one will publish them. When not gazing at country, Aboriginal people are perpetually drinking themselves into tragic oblivion. This is also known as Spiralling Out of Control, Going on a Rampage, and Disappearing into a Vortex of Self-destruction. These stories must be tragic and emphasise that nothing can be done about the Spiralling Rampage-Vortex of Tragedy – at least until just before the next federal election, when you can suggest military intervention.

Successful middle-class Aboriginal people don’t exist. If you have met any, they probably weren’t Aboriginal; you can draw attention to their suspicious lineage. All the real Aboriginal people are troubled and suffering. In stories about urban Aboriginal people, that trouble and suffering takes the form of heroin addiction, crime and loss of culture. In stories about real Aboriginal people – that is, out bush – that suffering is always about grog, crime and loss of culture.

You can write positively about traditional painters, so long as your article ends in tragedy – preferably with the artist’s premature death in the prime of their late-starting career. Since all stories about Indigenous artists are about old people, you should emphasise the mysteriousness of their traditional knowledge, which you have worked hard to acquire and to which you have finally been granted access. All stories about painters should end with a reference to grog or petrol sniffing among the young relatives of the painter, who tragically fail to take up painting, leaving you holding the traditional culture.

Aboriginality is full of secret business, so as a journalist you don’t need to refer to sources. Attribute your ideas to experts, elders or old hands, but don’t be specific. Remember, the point of the story is to emphasise your own insider status, so if you name anyone, especially other white people, it should be with the aim of discrediting them.

You can explain the secret nature of Aboriginal culture based on what you have ingested by osmosis, been told by other white people, or read on Wikipedia. Then give as many of these secrets away as you can, without undermining your status. Remind the reader that only you have the authority (vested in you by the elders) to reveal these secrets. Trail off towards the end of your revelations and say that you can’t continue for reasons of cultural sensitivity. Then invoke the landscape. Make sure you bemoan as a personal and heartbreaking loss the tragic death of Aboriginal culture. This is a good time to mention that you can hear chanting or wailing on the wind in the distance.

If you need a picture, find a skinny flyblown kid and get them to squint hungrily at the camera. Children can, on occasion, be playing football but for most stories they should just be holding a ball disconsolately. If they are about ten and wandering around unsupervised, write about ‘truant children, sometimes as young as eight years’. All Aboriginal children are truants. Even if you are visiting on a weekend or following them around in the middle of the night, their truant nature transcends school hours. Point out the rubbish in the background. Your white readers have come to expect grotesque levels of family violence and the sexual exploitation of children, but they love to be shocked by a bit of ambient litter.

When you write about Aboriginal children, remember that they are in terrible danger of being preyed upon by sinister adults, even as you photograph them. If there’s one thing 2007 taught us, it’s that you can make anyone agree to anything if, from the safety of your armoured vehicle, you invoke at-risk children. The replacement of images of disconsolate, petrol-sniffing children with smiling ones playing football with nice men in fatigues was the first sign of the success of the Intervention – and, arguably, the only one.

While some children can be reformed by football, all Aboriginal men are violent criminals for whom it is too late. When describing an Aboriginal man, always refer to his scars. Images of men should emphasise their dangerous qualities: take badly lit pictures of men in gangs, holding cans of beer and frowning in a sinister manner. All Aboriginal women and children are victims. Pictures of women should show them sitting down with a few children around them, looking vulnerable. You may also photograph the lower half of a person’s body, which is particularly useful for depicting the faceless, voiceless qualities of Aboriginal people and their closeness to the ground, especially when you didn’t get their permission to be photographed.

When you write about groups of Aboriginal people, always use terms like ‘marauding’, ‘rampage’ and ‘gang’. Pretty soon every Aboriginal person you see will be on a rampage and you won’t be able to go down to the shop without witnessing someone spiralling into a vortex of self-destruction, even as they are buying milk.

Finally, remember that as a writer, you have responsibilities. If white people don’t constantly write articles about the tragic loss of Aboriginal culture, there is a danger that it might stop dying. Aboriginal people are not going to spiral into that vortex all by themselves. Keep asserting the demise of Aboriginal culture and you can be guaranteed a Walkley Award-winning career writing about it for the rest of your life.

This essay was inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina’s classic ‘How To Write About Africa’ from Granta 92

Jennifer Mills second novel Gone was recently published by UQP.
© Jennifer Mills
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 39–41

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Jennifer Mills

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

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