‘Postcolonial’: can contemporary Australia really be classified as such? I feel there are several grounds for doubting this:
1. In Australia the number of descendants of the pre-colonial society is relatively tiny—unlike, say, in India.
2. Australia isn’t a republic. Has the coloniser actually withdrawn?
3. Race. The colonised are usually those with the darker complexions, but here’s fair-skinned me spreading confusion by identifying as an Indigenous Australian person. In the region of Australia from which I spring—that area of the continent just around the corner from where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean—that’s how it is. One identifies as an Indigenous person not just because of race—although that’s an important criterion, since you must be descended from a pre-colonial society—but also because of a shared sense of social injustice, history, heritage, and even of lost possibilities: a sense that persists today.
4. The power relationship characteristic of colonial societies still exists in Australia. The benefits of colonisation haven’t been equally shared with the prior societies. No matter what statistics you choose—life expectancy, employment, education, income, infant mortality—Australia’s Indigenous communities remain at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the population.
5. Does postcolonisation imply the emergence of hybrid societies that amalgamate characteristics of both pre-colonial and colonial cultures? If so, I don’t see that the cultures of Australia’s first societies have been allowed, let alone encouraged, to contribute to contemporary Australian society. The possibility of regional—in this case Indigenous—cultures contributing to and shaping a wider society, to an extent where they might even transform it, has in effect been closed down in Australia by our history, particularly by the damage—intentional or otherwise—done to Indigenous societies. It’s obvious that Australia is not the same as it was in earlier, ‘colonial’ times. Contemporary Australian society has undoubtedly been transformed by recent Asian as well as European immigration. But the influence and contribution of our prior societies, I would argue, remain very limited.
We’re undoubtedly more open to the idea of such a contribution now than we were in the past, more open to the benefits of such input, and to the possibility of nurturing Indigenous roots. The way Indigenous perspectives are allowed for now in history and literature seemed impossible when I was young. Today, Indigenous art dominates the Australian visual arts, and Aboriginally’ is an important component in communicating a distinctive Australian identity to the world. Think of the ceremonies that opened and closed the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Furthermore, international advertisements encouraging tourism to Australia also promote aspects of Aboriginal culture as an important part of an attractive Australian package.
It’s a relatively new thing, this interest in and encouragement of Indigenous presence. The preferred imagery representing Indigenous Australia—whether the grand stuff of public spectacle and art or in advertisements—is usually that of an ancient and continuing culture, of traditional practices, of a remote and exotic ‘other’. Such a story of cultural continuity is probably preferable to most Indigenous people too, and indeed is often utilised to express a sense of pan-Aboriginality and of an ‘Aboriginal nation.’ Many Indigenous societies do demonstrate a remarkable continuity from pre-colonial times to now, and there’s no doubt that the desire of many Indigenous people to remain part of one of the world’s oldest continuing cultures is very real. And increasingly, it’s a story many other Australians want to hear. Not so attractive, however, is the story of Indigenous Australia’s continuing legacy of oppression, racism and injustice. This story focuses on loss and dispossession, on disconnection from country, language, and family. Its themes are exclusion, shame and resentment. The imagery is far less appealing, as is the national identity it suggests.
Fortunately, a third story of Indigenous Australia is one of reconnection. Such a narrative would tell of the struggle to reconnect individuals and small groups of people to one another, and to a sense of history and heritage derived from a specific place. Indigenous language is an important part of this, and for someone in my position that means the revival and regeneration of an ancestral language. In my experience this involves not only seeking out cultural elders who carry that language but also acquainting them with archival records of it. Sharing the results of that research develops a community of descendants, and so it is the very language of ancestors and country that begins to heal and restore a people.
This language is not that of politics, polemic or ‘nation’. It can mend some of the damage done by colonisation and restore relationships within a community, and it’s also something that can be shared beyond that community, especially with others living in that place. It’s one way a relatively young nation state, arguably postcolonial, can be rooted in its continent and prior societies.
I find inspiration in the attitude of certain historical individuals among those known as Noongar, the people indigenous to south-western Australia. They include people such as Mokare who, around the time the colony was proclaimed, learned one of the songs of the new arrivals and utilised it in what seems to me a witty, even ‘postcolonial’ way. It was an act of cultural exchange, and I suggest that Mokare was motivated by one of the truths of his own cultural background: that you know people by their songs, by their sound. He and his people also exchanged goods with the newcomers, guided them, slept and ate with them, appreciated their guns and boats.
Perhaps it wasn’t wise of him, perhaps it was naive not to be more warriorlike, more violently resistant. He died very young and so never learned the need for such an approach, one gained by the bitter experience of injustice. But confident enough as he was to accept and use new cultural forms, and thus already implicated and entangled in the story of colonisation, Mokare was moving toward what I would consider something like an admirable postcolonial position: a grafting of the newcomers’ culture and being onto Indigenous roots.
A lot of my life experience is the consequence of disconnection from the heritage of pre-colonial Indigenous society. My second novel, Benang, explores this. It was written in reaction to the historical archives I encountered when researching family history. I was uncomfortable in the state archives. The repetition of such phrases as ‘the first white man born’ in local histories seemed to reflect plans for ‘biological absorption’ and attempts to ‘breed out’ all visible signs of Aboriginality. A senior bureaucrat in these records wrote of the need to utilise such strategies in order to ‘uplift and elevate’ a ‘despised people’.
Uncomfortable as it was, the research gave me a perverse energy. Benang begins with its narrator quite literally ‘uplifted and elevated’, hovering above a campfire, tentatively identifying himself as the ‘first successfully white man born in the family line’. He’s an edgy and awkward narrator, whose way of being in his ancestral place is a reminder of his disconnection. There’s a strong political imperative for those of us of Indigenous descent to trumpet our Indigenous identity, but I didn’t think of the book as an assertion so much as an offering. The narrator’s utterances are the sounds of the place in which they are made: bird calls, footfalls, the sound of waves on the beach, of the wind and rustling vegetation. To my mind they are metaphors for Indigenous language: characteristically onomatopoeic and, unlike the amalgamation of languages that constitutes English, directly related to a specific place in manifold ways.
I’d like to think that writing fiction is sometimes a way to explore, to rethink and possibly to retrieve or create something from between and behind the lines on the page. As such it can help the revitalisation and regeneration of an Indigenous heritage, in so far as it involves ‘shaking up’ and making space within the most readily available language—that of the coloniser—for other ways of thinking.
Saying this, I’m reminded of a Noongar song I first heard only ten or so years ago. I had thought that such songs no longer existed, and perhaps surprisingly hadn’t thought that there would be those that spoke of aspects of colonial experience. In the song a Noongar man is sent to catch a horse by his white ‘boss’. The man approaches the horse, and in a beautiful, tentative rhythm sings what translates as: ‘Come here horse, I’m a white man.’ The song makes adjustments to incorporate material new to its traditions: the first word is ‘Whoa’, and a version of the word ‘nelly’ is used to represent the horse. When I heard that song I felt better about beginning Benang as I did, since the narrator makes a similar claim for himself, and also as a strategy to get a little closer than he might otherwise be allowed.
In the song the man catches the horse. He gets onto its back, and the song describes the horse galloping, its hooves rhythmically striking the ground, the dust rising, until the man’s kangaroo skin cloak begins to flap, the song tells us, like the wings of an eagle. Am I forcing too much to read this song as representing a conflict or tug of cultures for the Noongar man? I find the song’s refusal to resolve this conflict attractive, although the fact that the horse, that powerful aspect of early colonial experience, is carried within the tradition of Noongar song suggests that one has subsumed the other.
The last pages of Benang suggest the importance of the revitalisation of an endangered Indigenous language, its stories and their physical settings to restoring a positive sense of community to a historically oppressed and dispossessed people. Far more important than passing off a few Indigenous cultural tokens to an international audience, this process forms a necessary part of grafting a colonial society to its Indigenous past and thus even transforming it. I’d like to think that such Indigenous cultural material can be shared with an increasingly wider society, and also be an integral part of Australian identity. But in most cases material such as knowledge of language and significant sites first need to be returned to and consolidated in a community of descendants so that they may regain the power to control and preserve the sharing of it.
In my most recent book, Kayang and Me, written in collaboration with Noongar cultural elder Hazel Brown, there’s a passage of dialogue about a specific site in which this need is vividly dramatised. It concludes:
Then I covered it all up with sand, and I said, ‘Don’t you two show anybody this place. You’re not supposed to, you know.’
We always cover it up with sand, because if you leave it everybody will see it, and everybody will want to go and see it, see. They’ll make a sort of museum thing of it.
I’m fully aware I’m speaking from a very regional perspective here. It seems to me that any ‘global discourse’ has strong homogenising tendencies, and therefore we need to strengthen regional voices so they remain true to their own imperatives at the same time as being empowered to enter into exchange and dialogue. That means being willing to change, but also to cause change, and that seems our best hope for a transformation that increases, rather than reduces, the possibilities available to us—particularly for expressing who we are and what we might be.