This is an adaptation of the Context Writers Festival closing address given by Karen Wyld, which was followed by a conversation with Associate Professor Anne Brewster. Held 8 to 10 October 2021, Context was presented by Writers SA, hosted by Adelaide City Library and guest curated by Dominic Guerrera.
Context Writers Festival has provided the opportunity for writers and readers to gather in a library—a safe space to have conversations about story and truth. As a novelist, my contribution to this discussion is fiction with a serving of truths. This being more conscious of white lenses, Blak stories and stolen land.
Reading through a white lens refers to how white readers interpret literature though their world views and cultural backgrounds. Writers also apply lenses to their writing processes. I occasionally get asked to beta-read work by white writers who have imagined Indigenous characters. I’ve learnt to say ‘no’ as some ask for evaluations but actually want validation.
I’m not interested in dictating what people should or shouldn’t write. I’m interested in how we include truth in works of fiction. How we write narratives that honestly portray First Peoples, settlers and refugees living on stolen land.
To do this, we must not erase the impacts of colonisation. So how do we write about colonisation? First, we need to determine when colonisation ended. This should be easy enough.
Was it the summer of 1836/37, when those aboard nine British ships funded by the South Australian Association first sighted Kaurna Yarta? Or was it when this association of British businessmen, who’d purposely established the Provence of South Australia to be a model of systematic colonisation, handed over control to the British Government in 1842?
Perhaps colonisation ceased when white people voted in the Federation referendums that in 1901 led to the declaration of a nation called Australia.
Was it in 1964, when patrol officer Walter MacDougall was instructed to clear out Aboriginal people living in the soon-to-be path of Blue Streak missiles; which the British launched from Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia. In the Western Desert of WA, MacDougall and other men chased a Martu family of twenty women and children for several months, eager to remove them from their lands. In the year of my birth, these Martu women and children had not even heard of cars or planes, let alone white people.
Or did colonisation end in 1984 when a Pintupi family of nine walked towards a campfire and saw clothed people for the first time. They were the last of a larger family group that became disconnected when Pintupi were forcibly moved by the colonisers in the 1950s.
Did colonisation finish in the mid 1990s when Ngarrindjeri lost a lengthy fight to protect Kumarangk and the mouth of the Murray River from developers and governments.
Can we see the end of colonisation in the ongoing failure to implement all of the recommendations of the 1997 National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Otherwise known as the Bringing Them Home report, this Inquiry highlighted government, church and white Australia’s violence and misguided ‘care’ that the Stolen Generations and their families endured. The ramifications of state-endorsed eugenics continue today.
Or did colonisation finish in 2020 when Rio Tinto maliciously blew up the Juukan Gorge caves in the Pilbara region of WA, which contains some of the worlds oldest art. Capitalism and colonisation just don’t give a damn.
There are countless instances of colonial violence and unsettling settlement—past and present. First Peoples are still deprived a voice in the protection of Country. Significant sites are still being destroyed by settlers without repercussions. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still over-represented in prisons, and under represented in parliament. The colonisation process has not ended.
Settler-colonialism has taken root in the southern continent. This is a form of colonisation that seeks to replace First Peoples with the descendants of colonisers and waves of selective migration. This process is not without violence. This process is generally never ending. Settler-colonialism is a system of power built on the attempted genocide and oppression of Indigenous peoples and cultures. Canada, America, New Zealand and Australia are all examples of settler-colonialism. Indigenous lands invaded by the British, and now controlled by their offspring.
Is this notion that colonisation has not ended confronting? I write truth, not post-colonial fiction. No one writing on this continent can be post-colonial writers when the colonisation process is firmly stuck in the settler-colonial stage. Occupation won’t be resolved by becoming a republic. We write on unceded land. I write colonisation as an ongoing act—past and present. I write truth to encourage others to imagine an alternative present and future. I write with imprudent hopefulness that my words might encourage others to take action.
Before a writer can write honestly about colonisation, they need to accept how they came to be on stolen land. And then consider how others may have come to be here. What are our shared stories and what stories lie hidden—untold or unheard. As writers, how do we respectfully include characters that arrived to these shores from other colonised lands; carrying their own histories of trauma, violence and war? How do we humbly place refugees and asylum seekers into the narratives of this continent?
By asking questions, I’m planting seeds. And I’ve a challenge for writers: let’s commit to writing honestly about settler-colonial violence—past, present and possible futures. Let’s do this without resorting to trauma porn. Let’s be more careful in our truth-telling.
What is trauma porn? This is what happens when writers, film-makers and other creatives depict the suffering of others for audience consumption. It’s also media and government co-opting grief and hardship to manipulate the conversation. Overall, it’s a perverse fascination with others’ hardship and pain. And it propagates myths, trauma and harm.
There is no valid reason for writing gratuitous violence towards Blak characters for the white gaze. This is not truth-telling. It’s not justice-based. If you think your work calls for violence towards characters from outside of your own existence, think deeply of why and how. I’m not suggesting writers gloss over the truth, or hide colonial violence. Instead, I’m asking writers, specifically white writers, to be more conscious of what they are writing. To do no more harm.
We can and should write about real events. Write of histories many would prefer be kept hidden. This includes colonial violence and injustice. Racialised violence and injustice. Racialised gendered violence and injustice. However, before we can write about racialised violence and injustice, we need to know how to write of racial justice. And before we can write of racialised gendered violence, we need to know how to write of Blak matriarchal strength, survival and sovereignty.
My novel, Where the Fruit Falls, contains minimal violent scenes but has multiple instances of racism and microaggressions that I wanted to have big impacts. I wrote this from a place of care, respect and truth. While there are references to earlier colonisation and migration eras, the novel is set in the 1950s to early 70s.
It was a time of global social change. We witnessed some of this on television. On the evening news, Black pushback against white injustices in the United States appeared on small black & white screens in our lounge rooms. On the southern continent, this was also a time to take to the streets in protest.
The vision for my book was born from reflecting on violence. It took years for me to understand how to write a story that did not further the harm. About ten years ago, I was painting while listening to music. On the radio was a recording of Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit; the song that American authorities persecuted Billie Holiday for performing. Listening deeply, I reflected on how Australians are probably more familiar with the historical events depicted in that song than historical events that happened on this continent. As I began to imagine how this story of truth could be told, my painting began to steer in a different direction.
The painting was then abandoned, and instead I wrote the first scene in what would become a novel. For years I tried to take that scene out, but it insisted on remaining. One of the many factors I considered was how to depict the violence of colonisation, and in particular racialised, gendered violence towards Aboriginal women and girls. I definitely did not want to write trauma porn for the white gaze. I did not want to traumatise readers. And I did not want to include scenes of sexual assault or rape.
I rejected overused and unimaginative tropes that have no regard for characters or readers. I wanted scenes that made people think, to feel, to understand. So I reflected on what and how I was writing, and on the narrative I was creating. Then I purposely applied magic realism.
Magic realism is often misunderstood and under-valued. It is a narrative technique, not a genre. It’s realist fiction, not fantasy. Magic realist text is grounded in science, history, the natural world and knowledge; and influenced by local narratives and place. Many writers have found it to be a suitable technique for telling macro stories of colonisation and war through micro stories of family and community.
The ‘magic’ in magic realism is like the magic wielded by a magician, not the magic found in works of fantasy. A practitioner of magic realism will insert in to realist text small moments of wonder or out of place objects and beings to direct readers’ attention. They do not explain these moments, and instead let the symbology describe their purpose.
Magic realism is lyrical, playful, satirical, intelligent and intuitive. It evokes all of the senses, including some rarely used. Magic realism takes a lot of discipline to write, as the writer needs to anchor themselves with reality to resist floating off into the fantastical.
Some of the emotional-laden scenes in my book use magic realism to strengthen the narration. For example, when Brigid, a young Aboriginal woman, is crying beside a salty lake in the desert, her tears become a trickle and then a river. This river travels hundreds of miles, through her late grandmother’s orchard, and past her mother’s home. Brigid’s mother, step-father and brothers are seated at the family dining table. There is no spare seat. Meanwhile, back in the desert, Brigid realises she can’t go home. So she picks herself up and continues to walk.
There are other scenes that I applied magic realism to. Some are playful, others not. I used magic realism to both heighten and soften the most violent scene in the story, which involves racialised gendered violence. I’ll give no spoilers. Instead, simply say that birds and trees make another appearance.
Lesser moments of racism feature throughout the book. As do microaggressions. It is through these moments that I show how small incidents can have big impacts. And to challenge readers to reconsider the myth that white woman were either silent witnesses or victims themselves. White women were also colonisers. And sometimes instigators of racialised violence.
The protagonists, Brigid and her young daughters, are kicked off a bus because a white woman didn’t want her son talking to Blak children. After many years of wandering, the bus was supposed to have been Brigid, Maggie and Victoria’s safe passage home. Instead a series of misfortunes were set in motion. As they watched the bus leave at the highway petrol station, the proprietor sets her sights on Maggie, the white-passing twin daughter. Brigid hides her daughters when the police are called. Then there’s an accident that further changes all of their fates.
Many years later, Victoria learns some hard lessons of her own. Including experiencing what her mother had also faced: misogynoir. That specific blend of racism and sexism. To counter balance racism and injustice, I have Brigid and the twins meeting friends and protectors.
There’s the post-war migrant couple now living on the edge of a desert. Having carried memories of war and loss to a new country, this older couple feel protective towards Brigid and her daughters. Later, Victoria forms a friendship with a young woman that left her own country after losing friends during the civil rights movement. Through her, Victoria learns what it means to be black and beautiful in a white-dominated world. Meanwhile, Maggie attends art classes at an Aboriginal centre, and learns about the importance of community.
And there are numerous Middle Eastern, Asian and Aboriginal men that are supportive without feeling the need to take control. I especially wanted to depict Blak men as nurturing, and respectful of the power of Blak women. In far too many books and movies, and even in news reports, Indigenous men are portrayed unfairly.
I wanted to flip that narrative. To address both racialised and gendered violence in a way that is not trauma porn for the white gaze. Instead, there is matriarchal strength, survival and sovereignty. By the closing page, I provided racial justice for First Nations characters. I could have not have inflicted any violence, racism or microaggressions on characters, but I write truthful fiction.
When writing, I constantly question myself, my writing processes and my intent. Writers should not only question the world around them but to question themselves. With this novel, I explored how to write of racialised violence in a way that shows the strengths of First Peoples. Depicting what it means to be on Country compared to being on stolen land. Imagining powerful Blak women, and showing strengths of nurturing Blak men. Writing about never-ending colonisation without resorting to despair. As a writer, I reject storytelling for the white glaze.
We should write fully conscious of who’s unceded lands we are writing on. And find ways to pay the rent. We should write in ways that honour both our ancestors and our descendants. And commit to truth-telling. We should be more conscious of the lens through which we write and read. And approach conversations about story with integrity.
The pen, as they say, is mightier than the sword, but we don’t need to wound readers to get our points across.
Karen Wyld is an author living on the coast south of Adelaide. Where the Fruit Falls won the 2020 Dorothy Hewitt Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, shortlisted in the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and longlisted in 2021 Australian Book Industry Awards.