Uncovering Aboriginal Literature

As an undergraduate literature major, I developed an allergy to anthologies. Poetry? Let me sink my teeth into Eliot’s Four Quartets and move on from there to the study of poets to whom Eliot owed debts. Short stories? Please, can I have a novel, sir?

And anthologyof aboriginal literatureso I confess that I brought home a copy of The Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, Allen & Unwin, 2008) more out of a sense of obligation than with any real relish for the task of pushing my way through it. Now that I have begun, I am still taking it in very small doses; I’ve learned that to rush through collections like this does an injustice to the anthologized. But my attitude has changed, and I am quite relishing every moment of the experience.

Indeed, the first few pages of the book have proven so stimulating that I’ve decided to make a few comments now, rather than attempting to summarize my reactions after completing the lot. And truth, it might be many months before I reach its final pages. So in the meantime, I hope that you will acquire a copy for your own bedside or commuter backpack and enjoy its treasures along with me.

Any anthology necessarily attempts to select for its pages works that are both representative and superlative. And a browse through the table of contents reveals a roster of familiar authors of political, historical, and literary importance, as well as generous sampling of names unknown to me until now. But the first thing a reader must not overlook, and well might underestimate in this chronicle of the best of two centuries and more of Aboriginal authorship, is the introductory essay, “Aboriginal Literature,” by editors Heiss and Minter. This short piece deserves to be placed alongside all the other accomplishments gathered together in the volume. It is a superb piece of critical writing, offering a concise history of Aboriginal writing in English that is itself a model of style, clarity and insight. If, like me, you tend to skip prefatory material when approaching anthologies, don’t make that mistake this time.

Although limiting their selection to works composed in English, Heiss and Minter have broadly defined “Aboriginal literature” to include not just belles lettres, but personal correspondence, journalism, political writing, critical essays, and popular song. To some extent this decision was forced upon them, else they would have had a mere half-century’s output to work with. But it was nonetheless an inspired decision, as the first pages of the anthology make abundantly clear.

The first selection is the famous letter written by the premier Indigenous celebrity, Bennelong, to Governor Phillip after his return from England in 1796. Often reproduced, this epistle deserves its pride of place as the earliest recorded example of English composition by an Indigenous Australian. But it is with the second selection in the anthology that things start to get really interesting.

Thomas Brune wrote the Flinders Island Chronicle in the late 1830s while under the protection of George Robinson, the controversial Englishman who either rescued or detained the remnants of the Tasmanian population on Flinders Island before moving on to exploits on the mainland at the fledgling colony around Port Philip. It is one thing to know that Robinson was a preacher, and that he sought to Christianize the Indigenous people he led, but it is quite another to hear Brune describe him in terms that have a decided echo of the Old and New Testaments about them:

Now my friends you see that the commandant is so kind to you he gives you every thing that you want when you were in the bush the commandant had to leave his friends and go into the bush and he brought you out of the bush because he felt for you…. [17th November 1837]

You ought my freinds you must behaved yourselves better than you do or else the Commandant be so angry with you and he wont give you any thing no more. And the Commandant his very soon go away from you Natives and he will leave you alway and he will be so glad you must get another Commandant …

And now my freinds do Let us come to the Commandant with kindness and he now give you every thing what you want and obey him and look out what he says to you and not to be going on in the foolish ways that always carrying on …

And now my freinds let us love the Commandant and let him not be growling at us for our greed and let us love him … [21 December 1837] (p. 10-11, sic. passim).

Did Robinson encouraging this deistic vision of himself? Was there an indigenous identification of two “bosses”, one Scriptural, one close at hand? I can only be sure that, with these questions in mind, I will read accounts of Robinson’s career differently in the future.

Nor is this the only question that my reading of a mere thirty pages of this remarkable anthology has raised so far. Did Mary Ann Arthur of Tasmania (c.1819-1871) or her husband Walter (c.1820-1861) ever receive relief from the hard treatment they separately complained of at the hands of superintendent Henry Jeanneret on Flinders Island? And where did Walter Arthur absorb his sophisticated understanding of English law and justice?

And what of Kitty Brangy (c. 1859-1918) writing from Wahgunyah to her sister Edith at Coranderrk? Her distress at never being able to raise the funds required to travel to Coranderrk to visit Edith–indeed she barely has enough to eat–is made all the more plaintive when she tells of friends and family who have died and ends, pitifully, “My dear sister I have not seen our dear Father since last year. I do not know where he has got to. I should like to know very much” (p. 14). I should very much like to know whether Kitty and Edith were ever reunited. I presume that these questions remain unanswered because of the sparse and discontinuous nature of the surviving correspondence and documentation. But perhaps in a future edition of the anthology, the editors may be able to expand the critical apparatus that supports the primary material to provide more context.

Sometimes, though, the critical apparatus itself is a revelation. Consider these two paragraphs from the biographical information given about William Ferguson (1882-1950) and John Patten (1905-1957), authors of the pamphlet “Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights!” and co-organizes with William Cooper of the 1938 Day of Mourning for which it was prepared:

Trade unionist and … activist William Ferguson was born in Darlinghurst Point in the Riverina, NSW, and worked as a shearer from 1896, becoming shed organiser for the Australian Workers’ Union. In 1916 he settled with his family in Gulgargambone, where he reformed the local branch of the Australian Labor Party and was its secretary for two years. He moved to Dubbo in 1933, where he launched the … Progressive Association (APA) on 27 June 1938.

John Thomas Pattern was born in Moama, NSW. Educated in both mission and public schools, he worked as a labourer and boxer. Patten became politically active from the early 1930s when he settled near Sydney and started organizing political groups and protests, including his frequent Sunday lectures on … rights at the Sydney Domain (p. 30).

The three ellipses in the quotation above mark where I have excised the words “Aborigines” or “Aboriginal” from the text; I have made no other changes. As reproduced above, these paragraphs might have been lifted directly from a source like the Australian Dictionary of Biography without anyone ever thinking that they refer to Indigenous rather than white Australians. And yet the pamphlet that they wrote and even its title (“Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights!”) show how wide was the gulf between the treatment accorded black and white Australians by the time of the sesquicentennial.

It is equally telling that the first 30 pages of the Anthology cover 150 years of Aboriginal writing, while another 200 pages are needed to encompass the last 70 years. Although most of what is contained in those 200 pages retains the political and personal qualities of the early entries, aesthetic considerations–literature as art–grow in importance. The editors handle the mix of politics and art in Aboriginal literature with aplomb throughout. Galarrwuy Yunupingu gives voice to pure politics to in the text of the Barunga Statement. A few pages later, Mandawuy Yunupingu’s lyrics to the Yothu Yindi hit song “Treaty” address the same issues, using the blend of English and Yolngu matha to make the point about reconciliation and two-way culture formally as well as polemically. Meanwhile, Jennifer Martiniello’s short lyric poem “Uluru by Champagne” tangles up the personal and political, the tourist and the indigene, the politically correct and incorrect, all in a few short stanzas spoken in an individualized, particular voice.

As you can see from these last examples, I haven’t been able to resist leaping from page to page to sample the treasure, despite my desire to read through the selections with an eye to the chronological and historical education they promise. Rest assured that however you elect to experience its delights, the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature will reward you in ways that you will not have expected.

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