Saturday, June 23, 2012

My writing week: Issue 25, Year 5

I have finally been able to quieten urgent demands to start or complete other activities and write my weekly blog post. There are so many things that I need to do. It is getting to the stage that crashing and burning seems like a viable option, especially with my ulcerative colitis becoming active and forcing me to take more energy sapping medication.

One good thing about not writing my blog until the last day of the week is that I heard today’s Ockham’s Razor on Radio National.  Suddenly I had an idea for a post that didn’t suck, at least not in my mind. 

Indigenous Literacy

Ockham’s Razor had Jeannie Adams from Black Inc Press talking about Indigenous literacy. She posed the question: why should Indigenous Australians read fiction if there are no characters they can identify with? Sure there are plenty of books on Indigenous culture, but what about novels containing indigenous characters having adventures and experiencing life’s dramas. I reckon she’s right: it’s like expecting me to read if all that is available is chick lit.

Adams’ talk got me thinking about Indigenous characters in books I have read. One character quickly came to mind: Norman Shillingsworth from Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia. Norman was a half-blood Indigenous Australian who is told by his father that he is descendent from a Javanese prince. Consequently, Norman believed himself superior to his own race and held them in racist contempt.

One of the minor characters in The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, was an Indigenous Australian. He was a reformed alcoholic who felt much empathy for the mother of the child who was slapped as her husband was a drunk. 

After reading Patrick White’s The Tree of Man and not finding one mention of Indigenous Australians, I began to think White might have been racist. The novel was set in the bush outside Sydney around the beginning of the 20th Century. It had immigrants from all over the place, but where were the Indigenous Australians?

I then read White’s Voss, which had an Indigenous Australian, Jackie, who is central to the story’s resolution.  Jackie is torn between helping to guide Voss’ inland expedition and the demands of the tribes whose lands the expedition crossed.  

One novel that really generated a negative reaction in me for its portrayal of interracial interactions was Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It is set along the Hawkesbury River at the turn of the 19th Century.  The novel seemed to be trying to excuse the treatment of Aborigines by colonists.  The central character was an ex-convict who had had a very harsh life, and therefore treated the Aborigines the way he had been treated.  So the attempted genocide of Indigenous Australians wasn’t because the colonists wanted to steel the land from uncivilised savages, it was because they had been treated badly as convicts and didn’t know better. Tell that to the American Indian.

The most positive portrayal of Indigenous Australians in a novel I have read was in George Turner’s Genetic Soldiers. It is set centuries into the future when an intergenerational fleet returns to an earth that was abandoned to its indigenous tribes. A ship lands in what used to be Australia, and encounters a tribe of genetically engineered telepathic Indigenous Australians. The tribe politely refuse to be recolonised. When the colonists insist, and use their technology to try and gain a foothold on the planet, the Indigenous Australians use tribal telepathy to force them to leave.

I am curious what Indigenous Australians would think of Genetic Soldiers and the other books I mentioned above. Would they think them a good attempt by a white man or racist or patronising crap? Are books like them part of the solution or problem to improving indigenous literacy?  

Jeanne Adams’ solution to improving indigenous literacy was to have more Indigenous Australians write books with indigenous characters in them.  But, I have to mention, that with only 2.5% of the Australian population identifying themselves as Indigenous Australian, any such books will need to be accessible to the non-indigenous population for them to create a sustainable market.     


traciemcbridewriter said...

I recommend "That Deadman Dance" by Kim Scott.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Very well written article Graham.

I confess to not having read any of those save The Slap, which I thought was good, but not great.

Graham Clements said...

Hi Tracie,

Just had a look at the Deadman's Dance and it sounded interesting - Won the Miles Franklin award I see. I will put it on my too read list.

Graham Clements said...

Hi Anthony,

Of the books I mention, I really recommend Genetic Soldier for anyone who is into science fiction. And for any Aussie who wants to read an all out assault on our racist culture, I recommend Capricornia. It was written in the 50's.

As an Aussie writer I felt obliged to read some Patrick White. Voss was the more enjoyable novel - an expedition into the Australian inland by an group of explorers as inept as Burke and Wills. The Tree of Man left me thinking that White was saying that life is short, harsh and pointless.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I love the idea of sic-fi with Indigenous characters, they are after all, part of Australia's past, present and future. That's the novel that's got my interest now :)