Student review of 'Turning the Tide: Indigenous writers'
26 May 2013
As I navigate my way to the venue, through crowds of festival-goers, and blue-shirted volunteers, one phrase repeats in my head: "potentially explosive".
Potentially explosive! It's a description that has a more natural context in a Smith and Wesson catalogue than a writers' festival, and like the Smith and Wesson catalogue, I can't help but wonder if its inclusion in the Sydney Writers' Festival program is supposed to be a disclaimer: a waiver against any emotional injury suffered from or offense taken to the content to be disclosed within, as often happens around discourses on race.
My paranoia is mostly, but not entirely, unwarranted. Upon being seated, Debra Reid, senior manager of Indigenous Trust and Engagement at the University of Sydney, and facilitator of the event, begins by formally recognising the traditional owners and status of the area – an acknowledgement that has arguably become hollow in its overuse, but which here, in this environment, feels both appropriate and dignified.
Reid's introduction of the panellists, equally, is drawn from Indigenous traditions in its combination of familiarity and respect. Award-winning novelist Melissa Lucashenko, whose work is concerned with exploring the stories of those "on margins on the first world"; Jeanine Leane, a poet and academic from south-west New South Wales; and acclaimed speaker, performer, poet and artist Lionel Fogarty.
Listening to each of the panellists read from their work, two things soon occur to me. Firstly, that the much talked-about "Indigenous voice" (read: "identity" or "character") is strong here, which should surprise no one. Secondly, and perhaps, marginally more revelatory, all three writers, consciously or not, invoke a text from the Western canon in their own writing: the opening of Lucashenko's new novel, Mullumbimby, is an impish riff on Pride and Prejudice; Leane's autobiographical account of children questioning the ritual of being prepped for and hauled off to Sunday School has echoes of other juvenile narrators like To Kill a Mockingbird's Scout Finch; and upon hearing a line in Fogarty's poem – "The houses that be/ Was never to be" – my mind went immediately to Shakespeare.
I find myself in awe about how many different things get braided together to produce this wonderfully distinct cultural voice: literariness, and authenticity, and a bold sense of place, not to mention the juggling of the languages – English, various Indigenous languages, and Aboriginal English.
The use of languages is a politicised subject amongst the panellists. Leane explains that the sparse use of Indigenous words and phrases in her memoir derives directly from her experience of being forced to speak English as a child, and her limited but significant opportunities of making the language her own. Fogarty argues that it is a writer's responsibility to write in his or her own natural voice and language – be it English or Aboriginal English – and it should be the publisher's responsibility to translate that writing into other voices so that people of different cultures can read and understand the texts. The plethora of rising independent and small publishing houses in Australia may be well positioned to do exactly that.
My molotov-cocktail moment comes when a question from the audience brings the panellists to the long-contested and highly controversial issue of non-Indigenous authors writing Indigenous characters and culture. Lucashenko shares a personal anecdote from her experience as a consultant film script editor.
"Don't write major Aboriginal characters," she says, firmly, but without malice. She acknowledges the pervasive permission, granted by white privilege, to accept and ignore racial stereotypes, and the difficulty of escaping the sheer weight of the history of the use of stereotyped representation of Indigenous Australians in our national literature.
"You have to ask yourself, 'who benefits from your writing about Aboriginal people? Is this the best thing for your writing? Or is it better to spend your energy elsewhere?'"
Leane points out that a number of texts in our literary canon, such as some by David Malouf and Patrick White, perpetuate these problematic stereotypes, and expresses some reservation that these books remain on teaching curricula around the country.
Any anxiety felt by white writers (and readers) around cultural sensitivity is relatively recent. I don't disagree with any of what's being said, but I find myself suddenly uncomfortable, and it takes me a moment to realise why. Somewhere along the way, the discussion has defaulted to the white Australian/Indigenous Australian dichotomy, and as someone who doesn't identify with either of those groups, I'm struggling with the implicit exclusion from the discourse – that whatever opinion I may form on the subject, with my own experiences on the receiving end of racism or being subjected to racial stereotypes, will never be relevant, and that, as a result, I am being pushed into a kind of complicit silence which is, in truth, the opposite of what I believe.
Looking around the room, I estimate that I am one of less than a handful of audience members who is neither white nor of Indigenous background. I can't recall a time when I have felt my minority subjectivity so acutely pressed upon me.
It's a humbling experience, and I find myself exiting the venue somewhat polarised between emotions of hope and resolve for the future of Indigenous writers and their writing, and a subtle personal sense of disorientation.
Contact: Emily Jones
Phone: 02 9114 1961; 0405 208 616