Disrecognized Space

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Aboriginality in writing: diatribes and discussions

Aboriginal identity in Australia is a contentious issue. Though legally equal with other Australians, the reality is far different. Like many debates in Australian society recently on the issues of sexism and race, the ethics of how Aboriginal people are presented by writers needs a nuanced approach, yet it is constantly being pushed back to a black and white (pun very deliberately intended) binary of separation and denigration, particularly by rightwing critics such as Andrew Bolt.

Notorious now for his breaching of the Racial Discrimination Act (ABC), Bolt’s reactionary view of a rigidly defined eugenicist categorisation fails to engage with Aboriginal people directly and seek their views on how they are presented. He formalises his own views of colour and associated ‘benefit’ based on inaccurate research and a decidedly politicised viewpoint (Summers). Yet Bolt has his supporters: “being an Aborigine is a positive benefit” (Windschuttle), a fact many disadvantaged Aboriginals would be pleased to learn. Of course, these claims seem to emanate exclusively from white, privileged males. In the trial of Bolt, Justice Bromberg commented that the issue was not what Bolt said, but how he said it – not suppression of freedom of speech, but more akin to defamation action due to the way he said it (Joseph).

Identity, as Clarke points out, is a performative act that moves beyond clichéd signifiers (107). The forced fitting by Bolt and others of Aboriginal identity into a rigid nineteenth-century framework does nothing to explore the meanings of Aboriginal experiences today. Furthermore, it attempts to impose a hegemonic authority to pronounce on these matters from those outside the experience of being Aboriginal, silencing dissenting voices.

What should we as non-indigenous writers do? The Australia Council for the Arts guidelines are certainly a good start but even with the best intentions mistakes can be made, cultural boundaries transgressed, and harm done (as evidenced recently by the confusion over the presentation of Yothu Yindi’s recently deceased lead singer in the media (Holmes)). The Australia Council for the Arts lists a number of principles to follow of which the first three are perhaps most important: respect; indigenous control; and communication, consultation and consent (11). The significance of these three principles is that writing should be undertaken utilising the wishes and knowledge of the people being written about – principles which, of course, extend far beyond Aboriginal writing. Certainly, the more individuals that can speak (or have their words heard) in their own voices, the fuller the conversation can become.

This doesn’t mean that writing about Aboriginal people can’t be critical, but it does mean that we as writers attempt to understand the views of others as well, something Peters-Little urges as a fundamental starting point to any discussion (4). It is the ability to imagine ourselves into the Other so that we write from a position of understanding (not necessarily agreement) rather than prejudice or stereotype (Cole 215). It is the ability, as McDonnell urges, to write not just text but context so that what we write has depth of meaning and resonance for everyone (85).

Works Cited

ABC. Bolt Breached Discrimination Act, Judge Rules. ABC News, 29 Sep. 2011. Web. 21 Jun, 2013.
Australia Council for the Arts. Writing: Protocols for Producing Indigenous Australian Writing. 2nd ed. Surry Hills, NSW: Australia Council for the Arts, 2007. Print.
Clarke, Maureen. 2004. “Mudrooroo: Crafty Imposter or Rebel with a Cause?” Australian Literary Studies 21.4, 101-110 (2004). Web. 20 Jun. 2013.
Cole, Anna.” Making a Debut: Myths, Memories and Mimesis.” Ed. Frances Peters-Little, Ann Curthoys and John Docker. Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia. Canberra: ANU E Press. 205-218. 2010. Web. 20 Jun. 2013.
Holmes, Jonathan. The passing of Mr Yunupingu. Mediawatch, 10 Jun. 2013. Web. 18 Jun. 2013.
Joseph, Sarah. Andrew Bolt, Free Speech, and Racial Intolerance. Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, 29 Sep. 2011. Web. 19 Jun. 2013.
McDonnell, Margaret. 2005. “Locating the Text: Genre and Indigenous Australian women’s life writing.” Life Writing 2:2, 71-90 (2005). Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 20 Jun. 2013.
Peters-Little, Frances. “Introduction.” Ed. Frances Peters-Little, Ann Curthoys and John Docker. Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia. Canberra: ANU E Press. 1-6. 2010. Web. 20 Jun. 2013.
Summers, Anne. The Bolt Factor: Andrew Bolt and the Making of an Opportunist. The Monthly, October 2011, No. 72. Web. 19 Jun. 2013.
Windschuttle, Keith. “The Trial of Andrew Bolt (II): Real Aborigines versus Phoneys.” Quadrant Online 54.12 (2010). Web. 19 Jun. 2013.


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