Altitude: an e-journal of emerging humanities work

December 3, 2005

Volume 5: Reading Indigenous Australian Texts (2005) Part 1

Filed under: Volume 5: Reading Indigenous Australian Texts 1 (2005) — Clifton Evers @ 12:46 am

Editorial by Anne Brewster, Altitude, Volume 5, Editorial, 2005.

bangarraIndigenous people continue to make a very visible contribution to the production of the arts in Australia. Indigenous texts, which convene a non-indigenous audience (in addition to indigenous audiences), perform crucial work in brokering new configurations of intersubjectivity. These essays, which span two editions of Altitude, mount close readings of indigenous literature and song, ranging over the genres of life story, poetry, the novel, drama, country and western and traditional song. They extend our understanding of the significance and transformation of these genres and their impact on a range of difference audiences.

Jacqueline Lo, Tropes of Ambivalence in Bran Nue Dae
Jennifer Jones, As Long as She Got Her Voice: How Cross-Cultural Collaboration Shapes Aboriginal Textuality: Article
Angeline O’Neill, Navigating through time in Bulmurn, a Swan River Nyoongar: Article
Penny van Toorn, Re-historicising ‘Racism’: Language, History and Healing in Wayne King’s ‘Black Hours’: Article
Anne Brewster, Fractured conversations: indigenous literature and white readers. A reading of the poetry of Lisa Bellear: Article


September 3, 2005

Navigating Through Time in Bulmum, A Swan River Nyoongar

Filed under: Volume 5: Reading Indigenous Australian Texts 1 (2005) — Clifton Evers @ 12:31 am

by Angeline O’Neill, Altitude, Volume 5, Article 3, 2005.

It’s the Dreamtime that’s calling in the wind,
in the trees; it’s calling our people to listen.
For our ancestors’ sake we must do what it takes,
to keep all our children together and free.
Walter G. Eatts, ‘Ancestors in the Wind’

Richard Wilkes’ multifaceted novel, Bulmurn, a Swan River Nyoongar, is an intriguing treatment of Nyoongar myths and Law, spanning thousands of years as it traces the creation of cultures (even worlds) in continuing conflict. Set in the early 1800s, it depicts a significant period in the life of Bulmurn, a traditional spiritual healer of the Darbalyung Nyoongar people, following his movements across an area stretching from Murin Morda to Walyalup and Wadjemup (Watson 214-224).[1] The novel works to transpose Nyoongar oral traditions into the written word in English, making them more accessible to contemporary Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal readers, and giving hope for race relations in a future born, at least partly, of the darkness and desperation of the past. One of Wilkes’ major aims is to reinforce the contemporary value of Nyoongar traditions and the Law, while yet acknowledging that change is inevitable and the sort of cultural purity fiercely defended by Bulmurn is no longer possible. Against a background of miscegenation and racial objectification, Wilkes invokes a wealth of traditional songs, stories and corroborees. In so doing he directly addresses the sort of colonial misrepresentation of Aboriginal myths and oral tradition perpetuated, for example, in the work of early twentieth-century novelist and so-called anthropologist EL Grant Watson, whose short story ‘Out There’ will be discussed later in this paper. Wilkes does this by establishing an opposition between the history and law of the invaders, or the wadjbullas, and the myths and Law of his own people. This opposition brings into sharp relief the enduring power of the Dreamtime [2] and ancestral spirits in maintaining a sense of self and place among the Darbalyung Nyoongars, transcending the restrictions of space and timeĀ  as elucidated by Paul Carter – and the restrictions of the written word so earnestly propagated by the wadjbulla community. Ronald Wright suggests that myths are ‘an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations. Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time’ (Wright qtd in Wilson 4). If this is so, then myth is at the centre of this text.


Fractured Conversations: Indigenous literature and white readers

Filed under: Volume 5: Reading Indigenous Australian Texts 1 (2005) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 12:11 am

by Anne Brewster, Altitude, Volume 5, Article 5, 2005.

Like Douwe Edberts
Freeze dry coffee
I stand motionless
But full of feelings
Gin, native, abo, coon
An inquisitive academic
Then asks ‘are you Aboriginal?’

Do I punch
Do I scream
Do I raise my arms
To ward off
The venomous hatred
Which institutionalized
Racism leaves unchallenged
As they collect their evidence
To reinforce their ‘superiority’,
And our ‘inferiority’

Am I Aboriginal
Am I Torres Strait Islander
Am I South Sea Islander

I laugh inside, at her ignorance
I shake my head,
But how can I pity
A person who is identified
As the expert exponent on
Indigenous Australians

Eh Professor, big shot,
Big cheese, or whoever
You claim to be
You’ve really no idea

Love to chat sister,
But there’s faxes to send
And protest letters to write

I turn and walk away
Preserving my dignity
Without humiliating hers.

‘Feelings’, Lisa Bellear

In this article [1] I take the poem ‘Feelings’ by Lisa Bellear and a discussion of students’ reactions to this poem in the classroom as a starting point for an exercise in what Michelle Fine calls ‘witnessing whiteness’ (57-65) – that is, making whiteness visible to white people. The poem does this through a process of denaturalising or defamilarising whiteness; making it strange. Alterity, as Michael Taussig reminds us, is a relationship, not a thing (130), and a recognition of the relational imbrication of whiteness in its others makes apparent the hierarchical structure which endows white people with ‘unearned privilege and conferred dominance (McIntosh qtd in Dyer 9). In foregrounding whiteness and making it visible for the white reader, the poem points to the ongoing colonial relation between white and indigenous constituencies. It reminds us yet again of how the postcolonial nation has been contracted through the figure of race[2] and of the objectification of the indigene. The poem, I argue, makes the white reader stand apart from and ‘witness’ the embeddedness of whiteness within the zone of racialised intersubjectivity. A recognition by white people of the racial location of whiteness within the intimate social relations of the everyday in turn allows for the possibility of the democratisation of racial identity and a ‘rearticulation of cultural, social and political citizenship’ (Giroux 130).We can read the academic figured in the poem as indexical of whiteness. Although she is not identified literally as such, her unmarked racial identification and her institutional status place her, at the very least, in a position homologous to that of a white person. That her racial identity is not named can, in fact, be seen as symptomatic of the invisibility (to white people) of whiteness – its significance as the category against which (racial) difference is measured. As Richard Dyer observes, ‘white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular’ (qtd in Lipsitz 369). Or, as other commentators have put it, ‘people [are] not favoured socially because they are white; rather they [are] defined as ‘white’ because they are favoured’ (Ignatiev and Garvey). Whiteness derives its meaning from its relationality; it is precisely the racialisation of minoritarian groups that enables the consolidation of an imagined community of whiteness, that is, the bringing together, in a collective, of ‘white’ Australians of diverse and otherwise often antagonistic class, regional, generational, ethnic and religious backgrounds (Lipsitz 370).


July 3, 2005

Re-historicising ‘Racism’: Language, History and Healing in Wayne King’s ‘Black Hours’

Filed under: Volume 5: Reading Indigenous Australian Texts 1 (2005) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 12:21 am

by Penny van Toorn, Altitude, Volume 5, Article 4, 2005.

During times of political crisis, certain verbal signs become a focus of intense social struggle. Rival groups try to capture each other’s biggest word-guns and turn them against their former owners. Debates erupt over what these powerful words ‘really’ mean, how they might legitimately be used, by whom, and for what purposes. As different groups fight for control of these strategically crucial signs, the latter become manifestly multivoiced and semantically volatile.[1]

Recently in Australia, the words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ have become a subject of contention. These terms were once monopolised by supporters of Aboriginal and migrants’ rights, who used them – sometimes glibly in a shorthand manner that emptied the words of their meaning – to castigate those who practised discrimination, prejudice, or intolerance towards non-Anglo-Celtic peoples. Today, in the late 1990s, this monopoly has come to an end. A new, right-wing, nationalist rhetoric has emerged which identifies the ‘real racists’ as those who want special rights and benefits for Aboriginal people. In her 1996 election statement, Pauline Hanson claimed that the Government was ‘looking after the Aborigines too much… I simply think everyone should be treated equally. If Aborigines get paid to send their kids to school or get this or that benefit, I should be able to get the same’ (qtd in Kingston 29). John Howard has implicitly endorsed Hanson’s re-definition of ‘racism’ by stating that the Liberal Party has ‘clung tenaciously to the principle that no one group in the Australian community should have rights that are not enjoyed by another group’ (29). Similarly, the anti-Native Title lobby (in a semantic switch that denies a two-hundred-year history of racial oppression) vilifies its opponents as ‘racists’ in an effort to win the high moral ground and hence the land itself. In each case, Aborigines and ‘ordinary Australians’ are envisaged as two mutually exclusive groups, yet the charge of being racist is deflected by redefining ‘racism’ as discrimination against non-Aborigines. In 1990s Australia, racism thus disavows itself; it wears an egalitarian, anti-racist mask (Lattas).


June 3, 2005

As Long as She Got Her Voice: How cross-cultural collaboration shapes Abroiginal textuality

Filed under: Volume 5: Reading Indigenous Australian Texts 1 (2005) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 12:37 am

by Jennifer Jones, Altitude, Volume 5, Article 2, 2005.

Aunty Marge spoke on platforms, going back years ago, in Melbourne in the city here, when we wouldn’t have had a voice at all. I can go as far as saying ‘black was a dirty word’, you know, and you had to be really very careful. But Aunty Marge spoke on platforms, she joined the Communists, because they were the only ones that listened to Aboriginal people in those days, you know. So Aunty Marge jumped on the wagon there too, as long as she got her voice.
Walda Blow, Interview with Author

By the time Aunty Marge (Margaret) Tucker started to write her life story, If Everyone Cared in the early 1970s she was a seasoned campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Margaret Tucker knew how to use cross-cultural affiliations to the advantage of her cause. In order to gain her literary voice she undertook the familiar process of negotiation and compromise entailed in any cross-cultural political alliance. By this time she had moved away from the Communist Party (Jones, ‘The Black Communist’) and drew instead upon friends and fellow travellers from the religious movement Moral Re-Armament (MRA).1 In this era, an absence of supportive discourses in literature and politics (Whitlock) (social contexts that valued Indigenous perspectives and their public expression) limited audience access and made it difficult for Aboriginal women writers to attract the interest of mainstream publishing houses. In order to achieve publication Aboriginal women like Margaret Tucker harnessed available pockets of interest within white society, particularly drawing upon the resources of communities of ideological commitment. ‘Jump[ing] on the wagon’ of an interested and well-resourced community of commitment enabled Aboriginal women to gain a literary voice, but such alliances also influenced the style that Aboriginal writers could adopt. This paper examines how cross-cultural collaboration both enabled and curtailed Margaret Tucker’s textual expression.


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