On grandmother stories & creative resilience

‘What did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood,’ wrote Alice Walker in her 1974 article ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South’.

For many people, ‘grandmother stories’ can elicit a kind of magic, nostalgic warm glow. As I think of my two nannas, this nostalgia burns strong. They were salt-of-the-earth women – gutsy, proud and fiercely loving, with fine-tuned survival skills to navigate struggles born of their gender, era and class. I reel when I think of the cruelty one of them faced at the hands of the state, simply for being Aboriginal. She was born into a racialised system of power that imagined, categorised and labelled her; that controlled her every move from the day she was born. Charged ‘destitute’, she was destined to scrub, mop and serve her way through life, in and out of institutions and domestic servitude.

Yet our grandmothers exercised agency too, and were often the centre of our worlds. Their generation is also the source of creative inspiration for many of us in search of missing narratives and connections to country, drawing upon precious memories – including our memories of our grandmothers recalling their own memories – from a long time ago. I join a long line of writers and artists attempting to liberate and transform these old stories from a particular racialised-colonial way of knowing, to one that centres the voices and lived experiences of those we love.

I know intimately this impulse to honour, remember and retell. Lately I have been contemplating what it takes to keep writing through the dramatic highs and lows of a long PhD journey. My thesis is a poetic interrogation of South Australia’s Aboriginal archives – a project that constantly triggers questions about surveillance, representation and agency. My nanna’s records provide the contextual heartbeat to a much larger counter-narrative of history. Considering all that our grandmothers had to navigate, we do indeed find answers, as Alice Walker states, ‘cruel enough to stop the blood’.

The ‘artists’ Walker refers to are our grandmothers, great-grandmothers and their grandmothers before them. They are the painters, writers, weavers, musicians, dancers and poets whose innate creativity was stifled and barely released, or pummelled into isolation, silence and madness. These artists are also survivors of centuries of racialised gendered violence and oppression. Often, their creativity was practical, cunning, and resourceful far beyond any fight-or-flight instinct: these women could create feasts from empty cupboards, make winter quilts from old rags, stoke warm fires from chips of coal and grow gardens from bare rubble. They could sing harmonies to soothe a child’s heart. They could find sustenance, humour and beauty in impossible places. And for every breath they took, they exhaled possibilities for futures without knowing, perhaps not even imagining, a way forward.

Alice Walker advises we must fearlessly identify with the ‘living creativity some of our great-grandmothers knew’, even without them ‘knowing’ or recognising it; to look deep into our history, be open to this uncanny recognition, and come to know their imprint on our lives.

In the moments I contemplate such ‘knowing’, I recall my grandmother and great-grandmother’s handwritten letters found in the state archives – our families had no choice but to engage in a postal dialogue that spanned decades. A stream of correspondence to the Aborigines Protection Board or the Children’s Welfare Board, pleading their case for connection, for truths to be recorded, for access or ‘On Trust’ visits, for better living conditions, and for ‘release’ from certain institutions, from state surveillance and control. These clever, carefully crafted letters from the archive box expose poignant family bonds, challenging the myth that Aboriginal children were ‘neglected’. In these boxes, we can find our grandmothers’ strength and determination, and follow their strategic manoeuvrings as they fight for their families to stay together.

Our grandmothers continue to be tireless workers. Many struggle with the psychological impacts of past colonial policies to barely make it through another day. Many care for their grandchildren, and continue letter writing and campaigning for justice. Many still paint up for ceremony for love and obligation to land, family and culture – in sovereign acts that are sadly mocked or misrepresented by crude media commentators who see only sexualised flesh where they should see feminist Aboriginal authority. Arrernte writer and social commentator Celeste Liddle debates the hypocrisy of social media’s regard of such important sovereign cultural acts and, in today’s political climate, her hard-hitting informed insight feeds my political-poetic sensibilities.

My compulsion to keep writing is firmly grounded in family story; it’s a drive that comes from a particular kind of innate creative resilience that I am only now beginning to understand. I come from a long line of Aboriginal domestic workers and know there is still so much work to be done to clean up this Colonisation mess. There is so much work to be done, and we will keep asking questions with answers cruel enough to stop the blood

        we are asking questions

                                         our blood               still pumps

                  where       hearts

                                                                                 have stopped.


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Natalie Harkin is a Narungga woman, a member of the Chester family in South Australia. She is a lecturer and academic advisor at the Office of Indigenous Strategy and Engagement, Flinders University, and her PhD research is an archival-poetic journey through the state’s Aboriginal family archives. Her first collection of poetry, Dirty Words, was published by Cordite Books in 2015.

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