I woke up in the middle of the night feeling distressed—the book I’d been reading, The White Girl by Tony Birch, lay open on the bedside table. Odette Brown, an Indigenous woman and the protagonist of the story, must try and protect her granddaughter from the welfare authorities that threaten to remove her. Odette is no stranger to the perils of living under white rule; she has lived on the fringes of society all her life. Tony Birch’s story is set in post-war Australia, when Indigenous people were treated as less than human. Were controlled by the state. Not counted in the census.
I leaned over and turned on the radio. Sometimes lying in the dark and hearing the soft crackle of the radio can soothe me back to sleep. I recognised Larissa Behrendt’s voice and knew I was listening to Speaking Out, Radio National’s Indigenous program. Music played. I felt myself begin to drift. I didn’t hear words, only the comfort of conversation. One of the major issues for justice advocates in recent years has been the use of strip searches by the police. . . I was still half asleep. Strip searching? Research has found the system disproportionately affects First Nations communities. I was somewhere between sleep and language. What was that. Strip? What did that mean? That word? There has been a twenty-fold increase in the practice. . . Over 5500 cases were reported in 2018. I was awake now, listening carefully as Samantha Lee, the Police Accountability Officer at the Redfern Legal Centre, explained that 10% of the strip searches in NSW were conducted on Indigenous people even though Indigenous people only make up 3% of the population. The youngest child to be strip searched was ten years old. Pictures formed in my mind. Children forced to remove their clothing in the presence of police. I shuddered. Wide awake now. That was about power. Taking power. Abusing power.
In Tony Birch’s book, the heroine, Odette Brown, is not free to move around the country. She must avoid the police in order to protect her granddaughter. Odette’s artistic talent is exploited. She lives in a broken-down shack on the outskirts of town and suffers from poor health. What is her power? Her power is her determination. Her humanity. Her spirit. But no more.
Children in the presence of the police don’t have power either. And what they do have is taken away when they are forced to remove their clothes. I lay in my bed and felt upset. The world of Tony Birch’s novel mixed with the world of today—where police don’t always report the searches they conduct, where the law fails to reflect any child protection principle. What has changed? How will the gap ever be closed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples? The night wore on.
When I next fully woke it was morning. I blinked against the light through the windows. I was unsettled. Asked myself what had gone wrong in the night? I saw Tony Birch’s novel on my bedside table. And remembered.
I switched on the radio. Fran Kelly, Radio National’s morning presenter, was speaking with a man called Michael L’Estrange—the non-executive board member of Rio Tinto. Michael L’Estrange was explaining that the chief executive of Rio Tinto and two other senior executives were losing their bonuses as a consequence of authorising the destruction of ancient Aboriginal caves at Juukan Gorge.
Fran Kelly pressed him on this. She asked Michael L’Estrange was it enough? Should these men lose their jobs? Michael L’Estrange explained that no single error or particular person can be blamed for the decision to blast the caves. Ministerial approval for the site to be blasted was given almost ten years ago. It did not seem to me that Michael L’Estrange answered Fran Kelly’s question. His voice struck the right note of empathy and pain. But I didn’t believe him. An archaeological report commissioned by Rio Tinto explained that these caves had the potential to radically change our understanding of the earliest human behaviour in Australia. And yet they were destroyed legally. For what? For money. $135 million worth of iron ore.
When Fran Kelly asked Michael L’Estrange how Rio Tinto could regain the trust of the traditional owners of the Pilbara, when all that happened after Rio Tinto had destroyed ancient caves at Juukan Gorge was that senior executives had lost their bonuses, he answered that ‘these three executives, with the appropriate penalty that’s been imposed can take Rio Tinto forward’. He avoided her question entirely.
I walked up the corridor of my house, bleary eyed and furious. Those men lost their bonuses. Was this some kind of joke? Not their actual wages. Not their jobs—their bonuses. No attempt was made to conceal how offensive that might sound. How can the loss of a bonus and the desecration of ancient Aboriginal caves be in the same sentence?
Power and powerlessness. It’s all the wrong way up. It doesn’t matter what any of us do or say, Rio Tinto has the money. The rock shelters are lost to the traditional owners of the site forever. And they are not lost only to them, but to the rest of the world and generations to come. They are lost to all of our kids. There aren’t words for a loss like that. Djinyini Gondarra, Senior Yolngu Elder, wrote, ‘When the land is taken from us or destroyed, we feel hurt because we belong to the land, and we are part of it’.
When I heard about the desecration of the caves in May I felt myself shut down. It was too awful to contemplate. Irrevocable, terrible, unnecessary loss.
Power and powerlessness.
How far have we come since the post–Second World War days of Birch’s novel?
Not far enough. The gap is still too great between the health and life expectancy of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in Australia. Too many Indigenous people suffer poor health. Too many Indigenous people are incarcerated. Too many Indigenous people die in custody.
Since I read Tony Birch’s book and decided to write this piece, I have been worrying I will write the wrong words. Cause offence. I feel certain that I will. What do I know? I am in the business of making up stories. Of imagining. The way Tony Birch is, I guess. His novel asks me to walk in the shoes of an Indigenous person, asks me to feel how unsafe the world is, asks me to experience the fear of losing my granddaughter to welfare authorities. Asks me to feel persecuted by the police. That’s what writers of fiction do. Invite readers to imagine.
I try to imagine now, what would it be like to know my own people are dying in custody? I close my eyes and picture it. The way writers of fiction do when they are building a story. Taste it. What would it be like to know that my people’s children are being strip searched at a rate higher than any other people in this country? What would it be like to bear a history where I was rendered less than human? Rendered invisible? What would it be like to be Indigenous and to see mining companies blasting rock caves that belong to my people? And to see the executives that run those companies lose their bonuses as a consequence?
What would it be like?
Even me writing of these imaginings might cause offence. How can I come close to imagining what it’s like? I’m white. A product of white privilege. How could I ever know? But then, if I believe in the power of fiction to take us into new worlds, to cross barriers, then I have to believe we can all imagine a great deal, if we care to. The capacity to imagine is what makes us human. It is the best thing about us. Imagination empowers. Creates empathy. Enables survival. Connects us. Gives meaning. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.
Tonight I will finish reading The White Girl. The rhythm of the story suggests to me that the ending will be a positive one. Positive endings—how satisfying they can be. In real life, there are no endings, only change. Change is our constant. Kirstie Parker, formerly CEO of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, wrote, ‘We have our eye on the same destination—a sustainable future where Indigenous people are recognised for their wisdom and honoured for their culture’. I like to imagine how it might feel to be part of a change in the lives of Indigenous people in this country. How it might be for us to look the past in the eye. Own it. Know it. Better it. How it might be to feel proud the gap is closed.
To move forward.
Sofie Laguna has written many books for both children and adults, and has been awarded numerous prizes, including the 2015 Miles Franklin Award. Sofie will release her fourth novel for adults, Infinite Splendours, in October 2020.
*Image: Folded jaspilite banded iron formation at Hamersley Range, by James St John