Reviewed: Homecoming, Elfie Shiosaki, Magabala Books / Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Ruby Langford Ginibi, Penguin (1988 edition)
How to punctuate an aesthetics of suffering, its vizibilization regime, with a counternarrative of NDN possibility? Hypothesis: be negative space.
—Billy-Ray Belcourt, ‘Red Utopia’
Something has been bugging me lately, like a seed stuck in my teeth. In a review of Amy Thunig’s Tell Me Again for this same publication, I considered the memoir alongside my own doubts about the utility of exposure: what compromises do I make to be seen, and how much control do I really have over whether I am seen or merely watched?
Like many Aboriginal writers, I’m well aware of the complex nature of publishing autobiographical writing, especially as I navigate the contradictions of describing my existence through a language and a form introduced by a colonising force. After all, our stories first appeared in written English in the diaries and letters of colonisers—told under a gaze that, as Mick Dodson so aptly put it, ‘Aboriginality changed from being a daily practice to being a “problem to be solved”.’1
Of course, there’s a power in claiming and distorting the form and imbuing it with our own cultural practices, so that we can tell our stories in the way we want to. But I’m increasingly conscious of the fact that this telling is often mediated through a market of settler readers to whom publishers are catering—or rather the buyers, whether they read it or not. We are constantly being asked to explain, to help them understand. The irritation at my gums is caused by this kernel: how do these market desires shape my writing, and other writing by Blackfellas, particularly when we write about our lives?2 How can our life-writing resist the settler desire to control and consume Black lives, while also operating within its remit?
There’s a long history of critical interest in texts that deviate from what Oliver Reeson calls ‘memoir of answers’3—the kind of life-writing that offers up too-simple solutions to the problems faced in one’s life or is stapled firmly to a singular identity.4 Yet when you look at the Black books that sell really well, you’ll see that, outside of children’s books, many bestsellers on this continent are life-writing by Blackfellas with a public profile—athletes, musicians and, increasingly, influencers. While this trend may reflect a more general inclination towards celebrity memoir, in the context of Black literature it provides an indication of how book sales hinge on having a coherent identity that a (settler) reader is familiar with, influencing the kind of work that publishers seek out. As Jeanine Leane has written, there’s a kind of ‘celebrity colonialism in publishing and marketing that seeks to sell a particular stereotype or brand of a minority group at a particular time and place at the expense of ignoring the diversity of stories and the life-experiences of the rest of the community’.5
When we trace the genesis of visible Black literature on the continent, life-writing was the genre that first sold big, starting with David Unaipon’s My Life Story (1954), and later Sally Morgan’s My Place (1988).6 From this point the genre proliferated, perhaps catalysed by the publication of the Bringing Them Home report in 1997, which included testimonies from many Blackfellas who were forcibly removed from their families as children. Arguably, for some (settler) readers, this was when Black lives became ‘a human rights story’,7 something to be understood and learnt from, so that they could absolve themselves of their guilt. But to many Blackfellas it was just the latest iteration of a long-held settler stare. As Richard Bell puts it, Blackfellas are ‘the most studied creatures on earth … They are stuck so far up our arses that they on first name terms with sphincters, colons and any intestinal parasites.’8
This gaze has been compounded by an enthusiasm—largely fomented on the internet—for personal essays, which picked up around the mid 2010s when websites began accepting submissions in the ‘true story’ or ‘it happened to me’ genre. The writing was popular and hotly confessional, like talking to the worst one-upper you’ve ever met: Oh, you’ve seen some fucked-up things? Wait till you hear my story. Yet the choice to write such personal stories may have been dictated by market forces as much as it was an (albeit misplaced) desire for catharsis. As the popularity of these stories increased, publishers and editors seemed to seek out stories that would go viral for their provocative and salacious content rather than their artistic sensibilities. A similar kind of sensationalism was in vogue on video platforms too: ‘Storytime’ YouTubers racked up millions of views in 2016–17, often using melodramatic and misleading titles to elicit clicks on their videos. Similar storytelling styles have since appeared on TikTok, with trends such as #DramaticStory keeping viewers hooked.
This is the context we write in today, this realm of readers consuming Black life-writing perhaps because they want to understand the native and/or be titillated by a good ol’ traumatic story. As Black writers, it feels as if we’re supposed to be grateful for anyone even looking at our writing, despite the fact that we’re being watched all the time. This is tempered by a false belief that by having eyes on our stories, we’ll be able to change things. We’re playing right into the hands of ‘neoliberal politics, which [has] seen the incorporation and absorption of dissenting interests into the orthodoxies of power’,9 as Helen Fordham writes, while abandoning our own. It is in this context that I return to some texts written by Aboriginal women in recent and more distant times. I am curious to see how they evade the eyes of the (settler) audience, or refuse to perform to the assumptions of (settler) readers, and in doing so challenge what Maddee Clark has noted as ‘the colonial ontological assertion of progress and nationhood’.10
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many Black writers spend time in the silt of poetry. It’s one of the few places where we can escape the constant call to explain our existence and dwell in opacity, holding ‘that which cannot be reduced’ in order to be understood, objectified and contained within the paradigms of Western thought.11 This is not to say that I am an advocate for the pure potential of poetry—I do not wish to wade into Western literature’s odd demarcation and defence of genres—but that I acknowledge the benefits of a particular kind of poetic approach that appears in some Black life-writing, allowing us to acknowledge gaps and inconsistencies, and not rush to resolve them.
Noongar and Yawuru writer Elfie Shiosaki’s Homecoming disrupts the ‘I’ from the get-go. Her poem ‘Story Tree’ weaves the voices of Shiosaki’s great-grandmother, Olive, and Olive’s father, Edward, with Shiosaki’s own voice. The owner of the ‘I’ in the poem becomes lost over time such that it ceases to matter. The poem is followed by two pages of Edward’s and Olive’s handwriting, retraced by Shiosaki, deconstructing the illusion of authorial ownership or control. After all, we are all just tracing over someone else’s story as we walk through our lives.
Homecoming does not adhere to linearity in its depiction of time and relations. In the poem ‘Reborn’, a grandmother becomes a child, and a granddaughter becomes a mother, a carer, a receptacle of safety: ‘reborn / as mine / comfort you / always / just as / your own mother wanted to’. Likewise, in ‘Legacy’, the logics of Western time do not constrain or control comfort: ‘that time / he broke me / into uncountable pieces / I dreamed / your strength / to piece myself / back together / bit by bit’.
Elsewhere, Shiosaki quotes her ancestor William Harris, who between 1904 and 1927 wrote words that still reverberate today: ‘hundreds out back / die of starvation / without seeing / tasting / the miserable dole / they call Government Rations // can you wonder then / why the blacks don’t love the whites?’ Shiosaki acknowledges this ongoing connection, while also remaining cognisant of the distance between us and our ancestors, particularly if we only know them through words on a page in a colonial publication: ‘I go along thinking / this is what you would do / or say / or how you would be / but I never really know / I’m only guessing.’
There’s a pain in only being able to guess at our ancestors’ subjectivities, when the world we inhabit can feel so far from theirs, and the recordings of their lives—at least in the colonial archive—tend to be patchy. Shiosaki acknowledges, however, that there’s a joy to be found in being illegible and therefore free:
I do not find this story about my great-grandmother enjoying the excitement of her youth in the archive. A story that makes my grandmother’s eyes dance when she tells it to me. These are some of the years of my great-grandmother’s life when she evaded the surveillance of the government. When she cannot be found in the archive.
Ruby Langford Ginibi’s iconic Don’t Take Your Love to Town disrupts the ‘I’ as well, albeit in a different way to Shiosaki, with a style that is beautifully descriptive at times and mercilessly blunt in others. There’s a tender, even soothing familiarity in the way Langford Ginibi writes—she inhabits a somewhat blasé, emotionally distant persona while recounting the traumatic events of her life, reminiscent of many older Black women I know. This may be the only way to speak or write about certain ‘areas of experience … that are, in some fundamental way, unspeakable, expressable only circuitously’12—experiences such as the deaths of a number of children far too young, another child’s escape from the hellish colonial prison system and subsequent persecution in the media, or the generational removal of Blackfellas from Country and kin, which Langford Ginibi expresses:
I told him that was the home of our Bundjalung tribe, they were the Richmond and Clarence River tribe. The river ran into the ocean at Evan’s Head and we were approaching the turn off when we saw a big sign saying BUNDJALUNG NATIONAL PARK and I told him he was now in my territory, and that he was the only one of my children who’d ever been there.
Here, Langford Ginibi is speaking to the reader, but not trying to prove or explain; for the most part, she is merely stating the facts of her existence, even if there was an affective drive behind her work. She has said:
I thought if I wrote about my experiences as an Aboriginal person, it might give the other side, the ‘white side’, some idea of how hard it is to survive between the Black and white culture of Australia, and they might become less racist and paternalistic towards our people.13
It is understandable in the context of the 1980s, when terra nullius was still believed to be a legal fact, and the greater settler populace had not yet begun to reckon with the legacies of colonial violence on which their lives were built. Of more interest is another stated aim of Langford Ginibi’s work, expressed at the end of Don’t Take Your Love to Town: ‘that we are here and will always be here’. She refuses the disappearance of Blackfellas into the annals of history, and reaffirms our sovereignty by simply stating her truth, alongside that of her peers and children:
Halfway into the shop I saw myself in the long mirror, close up. Here was a pregnant woman with blistered hands like a man’s, her face peeling like flaky pastry and black, she started black, but her arms were BLACK and the hair ginger. I stared at myself for a long time and then I bought a sleeveless cotton dress and went outside.
While Don’t Take Your Love to Town centres Langford Ginibi’s experience and is told from her perspective, it’s not just her story—it’s the story of Black women in a particular time and place, and the communities that surrounded them. As she says in the acknowledgements that introduce the book, her work is dedicated to her children and ‘also to every black woman who’s battled to raise a family and kept her sense of humour’. Much like Shiosaki in Homecoming, Langford Ginibi recognises the path she walked is not hers alone: ‘We shared our fun, we were all in the same boat. No money no land no jobs no hope.’
By choosing not to diminish her flaws, Langford Ginibi ensures that she does not become a static individual, to be easily understood and consumed by outsiders. In one section, she accompanies her youngest son, Jeff, to a doctor’s appointment, where the physician states that Jeff is experiencing stress-related chest pain after losing his job. Langford Ginibi narrates: ‘I sat there thinking stress, at nineteen years old, how stupid.’ Then, further down the page, she continues: ‘I knew work wasn’t the real problem. Jeff was three when the older kids died and didn’t understand about death.’
This is not the only instance of multiplicity; Langford Ginibi also complicates the public narratives told about her other sons, Nob and David. Throughout the book she provides glimpses into an aspect of Nob that she, as his mother, knows, and which is made invisible by the mechanics of carceral punishment:
Later Nob went out for my toiletries, Lo-Cal drink and flowers. He hired a TV, put a hundred dollars in my purse and every night he came to visit. His job at the picture framers was going well, he had a car and money in the bank. It really seemed like he’d survived gaol and would be OK. This was the first time Nob had been around to help when I was in trouble and I was glad to have him close … On the day I was discharged, Nob came to pick me up and took me on a grand tour around the city. He realised I’d be stir-crazy from a month in hospital so we sat near the harbour.
While some may interpret this as Langford Ginibi constructing Nob as ‘worthy’ within a Western paradigm (car, job, money in the bank), I am more inclined to think that Langford Ginibi was highlighting the values integral to her world view: the acts of care and attention by a child from whom she was so cruelly separated while he was incarcerated. There is a certain joy here that sits alongside the devastating circumstances of their relationship.
A subversion of linear time is also apparent in Don’t Take Your Love to Town. Langford Ginibi tells her story mostly chronologically, but at times deviates from linearity to provide details that must be immediately recognised. Speaking of her father, Langford Ginibi writes:
Near the end of his time at this job, he had a coronary, and he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four. He was a man who worked too hard, had a lot of stress, and who lifted the anvil for white men to win bets.
But at this time we thought he would live forever.
Elsewhere, Langford Ginibi recounts Nob’s experience of police violence in 1973, and protests held in response by those detained in Bathurst Gaol—a scene that is gut-wrenchingly contemporary, reminding me of a Black Lives Matter protest that occurred at Long Bay in 2020.14 Much like the quotes from Shiosaki’s ancestor William Harris, reading Langford Ginibi’s account in 2023 disrupts the settler-colonial fantasy of progress for Blackfellas in colonial systems predicated upon our erasure. Without the destruction of the colony and the rightful return of Country to Blackfellas, reverberations will surely continue.
What is the role of the Black writer in contemporary times? We’re no longer in the same place as Langford Ginibi, where there was a hope that if only settlers could hear our stories, then perhaps meaningful change would follow. Terra nullius was eventually proven to be a work of fiction, yet our sovereignty is still challenged in big and small ways. There have been royal commissions upon royal commissions, and yet deaths in custody and police brutality are ongoing issues. Our stories are now out there winning awards. Settlers at the very least ‘acknowledge’ our presence, sometimes even acknowledge the problems created by their presence, even if they don’t know what to do with it.
The central issue appears to be one of power. If you have ever been in a position of relative powerlessness, trying to explain to a doctor or a cop or a parking inspector or a judge why you deserve to be seen as human, you understand that the act of explaining yourself as an appeal to power is rarely successful and often draining, if not outright humiliating. For Black writers, then, exposing so much of ourselves in this dynamic—where most publishers and readers are settlers—makes it near impossible for such exposition to be anything but an act of contortion, as we appeal to a greater power to understand us within the neat lines of their world. You see how I am doing this now.
What Shiosaki and Langford Ginibi offer us, as Black writers, are alternative ways to write about our lives and selves outside the grasp of settler understanding, and therefore decentre the power of the settler public. It’s an ‘if you know, you know’ poetics. These authors show us it’s possible to write without trying to fit predetermined narratives of Blackness, or relegating ourselves to the role of ‘negotiator and interpreter’15—the same roles some of our ancestors were forced to play. It’s possible to write in a way that explores the gaps, the differences and complexities of our existences in the settler colony, and how our journeys overlap. It’s possible to write without striving for legibility in a system that wants to write us out of it, and instead centre our sovereignty and our collective power. In this it might serve us to return to the words of Driftpile Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt:
the world is not so simple
not always realistic.
who lived their whole life
examined and reexamined.
What is now needed is more
Ellen O’Brien is a Guringai (Garigal/ Walkeloa) writer and editor living on Bidjigal land. Ellen’s poetry and prose have been published in Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin, Overland, Cordite and Rabbit.
1 Mick Dodson, ‘The Wentworth Lecture—The End in the Beginning: Re(de)fining Aboriginality’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 3, 1994, quoted in Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu- Yala [To Talk Straight]: Publishing Indigenous Literature, 2003, p. 21.
2 I want to note here that there are many definitional issues that cannot be addressed in this essay. Chiefly, an issue arises with defining the terms ‘Black life-writing’. What is a ‘Black life’? What is a ‘Black voice’? How do we define these terms—and should we? For further discussion of these definitional issues, I point readers to Anita Heiss’s Dhuuluu-Yala [To Talk Straight]: Publishing Indigenous Literature, particularly Part 1, and Osca Monaghan’s chapter ‘Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141’, in Nicole Watson and Heather Douglas (eds), Indigenous Legal Judgments: Bringing Indigenous Voices into Judicial Decision Making [Routledge, 2021].
3 Oliver Reeson, ‘A Communal Genre’, Sydney Review of Books, 14 November 2022, <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/how-to-be-between-fox-phelan/>.
4 For other recent examples, see Lur Alghurabi, ‘Against Memoir’, Sydney Review of Books, 7 November 2022 <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/gunaydin-root-branch/>; Jeanine Leane, ‘On the Power to Be Still’, Sydney Review of Books, 3 August 2020 <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/van-neervan-throat/>; Amani Haydar, ‘Writing from and Through Trauma’, Sydney Review of Books, 29 August 2022 <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/writing-from-and-through-trauma/>; Imogen Dewey, ‘Readers are hungry for stories about trauma. But what happens to the authors?’, Guardian Australia, 19 November 2022 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/nov/19/readers-are-hungry-for-stories-about-trauma-but-what-happens-to-the-authors?/>; Karen Wyld, ‘White Lenses, Blak Stories’, Meanjin, 12 October 2021 <https://meanjin.com.au/blog/white-lenses-blak-stories/>; and Cheryl O’Byrne, ‘Aboriginal Women’s Life-History Writing, Settler Reading and not Just Black and White’, Australian Literary Studies, 37 (3) (2022). <https://www.australianliterarystudies.com.au/articles/aboriginal-womens-life-history-writing-settler-reading-and-not-just-black-and-white>.
5 Jeanine Leane, ‘Cultural Rigour: First Nations Critical Culture’, Sydney Review of Books, 7 February 2023. <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/cultural-rigour-leane/>.
6 Anne Brewster, Reading Aboriginal Women’s Life Stories (2016).
7 Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition, 2004, pp. 94–5, quoted in O’Byrne, ‘Aboriginal Women’s Life-History Writing’.
8 Richard Bell, ‘Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art—It’s a White Thing!’, November 2002. <http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/art/bellessay.html>.
9 Helen Fordham, ‘The power of the personal: situating Aboriginal memoir in the Indigenous public sphere and as a mode of public intellectual intervention’, Media International Australia, 168 (1) (2018), pp. 167–8.
10 Maddee Clark, ‘Are We Queer? Reflections on “Peopling the Empty Mirror” Twenty Years On’, in Dino Hodge (ed.), Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives, 2015, p. 238.
11 Édouard Glissant, ‘For Opacity’, in Poetics of Relation, 1997, pp. 191–2.
12 Ien Ang, ‘Comment on Felski’s “The Doxa of Difference”: The Uses of Incommensurability’, Signs, 23 (1) (1997), pp. 57, 60.
13 Ruby Langford Ginibi, ‘My Mob, My Self’ in Kerry Reed-Gilbert (ed.), The Strength of Us as Women: Black Women Speak [Ginninderra Press, 2000], p. 17, quoted in Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala [To Talk Straight], p. 36.
14 Michael McGowan, ‘Long Bay prisoners spell out BLM after guards use tear gas to break up fight’, Guardian Australia, 8 June 2020. <https://theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/08/long-bay-prisoners-spell-out-blm-after-guards-used-tear-gas-to-break-up-fight/>.
15 Helen Fordham, ‘The power of the personal: situating Aboriginal memoir in the Indigenous public sphere and as a mode of public intellectual intervention’, Media International Australia, 168 (1) (2018), pp. 167, 173.
16 Billy-Ray Belcourt, ‘Flesh’, in NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, [House of Anansi Press, 2019], p. 57.