Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia by Anita Heiss (editor), Black Inc 2018.
I picked this book up because I was researching a psychological thriller, to be set in central NSW in a region with a substantial Indigenous population. After agonising about authenticity, appropriation and the possibility of causing hurt and harm, I decided to include an Indigenous woman as a key character in my story.
As a Melbourne-based psychiatrist, I hadn’t worked closely with the Indigenous community, with the exception of a research project twenty years ago which took me to Townsville and Palm Island, and an occasional patient or colleague. My knowledge of Indigenous culture and issues was probably much the same as that of most of my middle-aged colleagues and friends—woefully deficient. I was uncomfortably aware that I shouldn’t have needed the excuse of writing a book to do something about this.
After reading a paper on the ethics of writing Indigenous characters, my next stop was Anita Heiss’s Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. I knew Anita as a ‘choc lit’ author and had met her through the Indigenous Literary Foundation where she is a larger-than-life presence. Her anthology offered true stories, diverse voices and approachability.
The book is promoted as being about childhood memories of family, country and belonging. It covers that, and more. It spans the recollections of old and young, people of different places and family backgrounds, different gender identities, singers and musicians, actors, writers (from first-timers to the already decorated), lawyers, and young people still finding out where they are heading. If the reader wants to scan the book for issues, to generalise, that’s their choice. For me, it was an opportunity to hear from individuals—individuals that I was unlikely to hear from otherwise. This is a book of stories. That said, the theme of Country is pervasive: ‘Quiet truths, unspoken history, that’s what lurks growing up, that’s what’s never dredged up straight from the mouths of rivers’ (Tara June Wynch, First, second, third, fourth).
As a psychiatrist, I listen to stories. The stories we tell—which one we choose, and how we tell it—have a much deeper meaning than just the words. Each of these stories bleeds humanity. In a world where much of the discussion of Indigenous issues (and indeed issues in general) is confrontational and angry, these stories are seldom so. When they are, we are moved to empathise with the writer: we have some understanding of the background.
While the book’s attraction is difference, most of the stories are testament to the oneness of the human condition, no matter skin colour, cultural heritage or identity. The patients I work with are frequently struggling to make sense of their childhoods and who they are—in this they have commonality with the fifty contributors to this book. But the added struggle that is ubiquitous to these stories is how growing up was complicated by a hostile world and its casual racism. Among Tamika Worrell’s list of eleven statements she grew up with some cringeworthily familiar (you’ve done really well for an Aboriginal) there was an echo of the late Stella Young’s observations of attitudes to the disabled. Marginalisation can share some of the same threads—but for many of these authors some of whom experienced separation from family or not looking Indigenous, it was a case of growing into being Aboriginal rather than growing up Aboriginal (John Williams-Mozley, Split Affinity).
Part of growing up is discovering and defining who we are. We know what it does to a child to be separated from their own parents, whether permanently or temporarily; how their self-belief and confidence is eroded if they don’t feel they are loved and how this translates to a high risk of mental illness. But what if they don’t know where they fit?
If they are ‘no good at dot painting’ (Shani Wellington, Life lessons, or something like them) and yet their language and depth of their culture is for many is a mystery? Where at school the Indigenous kids are pulled out in front of the class for nit inspection…like only Indigenous kids get nits (Jared Thomas, Daredevil days)? It’s a lot to take in—and for some too much. This is at the base of the alarmingly high suicide and incarceration rate. Before we can really address this as a nation, we must acknowledge the pain. This book helped me feel this pain.
A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey, Penguin 2017
When I travel, I read even more voraciously than when I’m at home, mainly on an e-reader. On holiday last month, however, one of my travelling companions finished a print book and I grabbed it. On the face of it, it had little in common with Growing up Aboriginal: a (white) literary writer; a conventional novel; the look of a white-boys’ adventure. And that’s how it starts, but the final third introduces a strong Indigenous component as the main male character discovers truths about himself.
As a novelist, I’m conscious of craft, and (hardly surprisingly) Carey’s is immediately obvious. Not only in the writing but in his confidence in challenging structural conventions and the reader. The author’s name is a better guide to what to expect than the popular-fiction cover. There’s plenty of description around the action, complex characters not fully explained, and a plot that needs patience. The author is, perhaps to be expected, aiming for something more profound than the ripping yarn that the blurb might suggest. Like the Redex around-Australia car rally that provides the setting, it’s hard going at times.
It’s blackly comedic in places. It is firmly set in the 1950s, and though I wasn’t around then, there were enough references to things I remember that was still present in my childhood in the sixties. The tensions between the alternating narrators (rally-driver Irene Bobs and navigator Willie Bachbuber) and Irene’s husband Titch simmer throughout, though ultimately with less resolution than I would have liked. It starts as a 1950s sitcom and diverges into the clash of cultures—European and Indigenous—and its results.
The characters are complex, and perhaps a little larger than life though not to the point of being inauthentic. I could understand and believe their motivations, but something stopped me from fully engaging in their journeys.
On the face of it, I should have been able to identify at least with Irene—an independent woman with a love of motorsport (I once competed myself), but something didn’t click. Perhaps it’s because Carey stands back from his characters and because Irene is missing something essentially female; there is a blokey-ness to Carey’s work, something that works well in a Peter Temple crime novel but feels less comfortable here.
The final section, in which one of the characters discovers their Indigenous heritage, had the same problem for me: the quality of the prose was not in question, but I felt more remote from the characters than I had in Growing Up Aboriginal, where I shared each narrative’s emotional arc. For my research— and understanding and feeling—the first book hit the mark. I can only hope that some of the brilliance of the prose in the second will have rubbed off.
Anne Buist is the author of psychological thrillers, Medea’s Curse, Dangerous to Know and This I Would Kill For, co-author of midlife feel-good journey Two Steps Forward and Professor of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne.