The suspension on the four-wheel-drive squeaked every time Cadie steered us over a pothole. The UHF radio crackled with the voices of truckies calling in their location at the creek crossings. There was only one lane of sealed road, haggard and chafed, bordered on either side by two metres of red dirt. Road trains are heavy, volatile things, and a driver jerking the wheel to dodge an inattentive vehicle is likely to take you out with the back carriage. We veered into the dust to let them pass and they waved at us. Up north, everyone waves.
We were travelling in my dad’s 1990 Toyota Land Cruiser, so we looked as though we fit in even if we didn’t always feel it. Two twenty-something women travelling alone in remote country makes a bit of a spectacle anyway, and people looked twice when we pulled in at roadhouses. ‘You girls by yourselves?’ they’d ask, and we could never tell whether it was condescension, paternalism or slightly incredulous concern that shaped their tone. They’d raise their eyebrows and nod their heads when we replied in the affirmative, sometimes patting us on the back and saying ‘Good on you!’ as if we were performing some kind of champion feat.
We were travelling for different reasons, although they were mutually beneficial. I was writing a novel about an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. The novel is part of my PhD, although I’m still not sure what exactly I’ll be able to claim as my expertise by the end of it. When I’d met Cadie two years earlier, on the tail end of a misguided love affair that I had chased from Melbourne to Brisbane, I was still trying to narrow the focus of the topic. Cadie was a housemate of the guy I’d been chasing, and we quickly decided we were going to be friends. The love affair itself was a dead loss, but I like to say now that it was the most serendipitous mistake I ever made.
Cadie’s grandmother was born in Waanyi country but her family are from Garawa, at the top of the Gulf of Carpentaria between Borroloola and Burketown, not quite touching the ocean. Cadie and her siblings grew up in Ravenshoe on the Atherton Tablelands. They moved to Victoria in 1997 with her mother, but her father stayed out in the Gulf country, a true nomad, on permanent walkabout. He was a hard man to get hold of, but the Murri grapevine is strong and we figured we’d find him somewhere in the Gulf. Cadie hadn’t been back out to her country since she was a kid, so when I said I needed to go bush, she said she’d come along.
We named the Land Cruiser ‘Beverley’. I planned to be away from home for six months, Cadie for three. While she was chasing family, I was chasing stories. I had a pile of English literature in the back and various volumes on anthropology and literary theory. Cadie was studying law and doing three subjects on the road. We’d pull into campgrounds and set up our laptops on our swags, writing until the batteries ran out or the moths got too annoying. When that happened, we’d find the local pub, usually full of grey nomads, truckies and the occasional ringer, swigging on Bundy or XXXX. Cadie’s uncles were well known in the Gulf country, and her surname often functioned as a password to a free beer and a long conversation with the locals.
The best parts of those conversations were the jokes—yarns that have taken on a life of their own away from the first instance of their telling or the facts of their origin. They function somewhere between folktales and personal anecdotes. When Cadie and I caught up with her father in Mt Isa, he was full of them. In his hands they slid easily into ghost stories and spook tales. I remember him telling us stories about little hairy devil-men out on the floodplains that would get into your car if you didn’t lock the doors at night while you were sleeping rough. They felt like a fusion of traditional stories and urban myths. We couldn’t tell where one ended and the next one began, and they sounded, Cadie said, like the stories she and her siblings were told as kids to get them inside of an evening.
The yarn I know best I first heard from my uncle Phil, my father’s cousin, a giant of a man whose relationship with the Territory began when he was a lay missionary in the early seventies. It goes like this:
A troopie full of whitefella tourists is driving down the highway when a troopie full of blackfellas—kids, uncles, aunties, dogs, the works—flags them down and asks for a tow to the nearest service station. This being the Territory, the nearest servo is hours away but the whitefellas, being kind enough people, oblige the blackfellas, pull out the snatch strap and rope them up. They get to the servo a couple of hours later and start filling up. As they do so, the owner of the place comes out. He takes the whitefellas aside and says, ‘You know that family you just towed here? Well, that was real nice of you and all, but that car don’t have no motor in it. Never has. They bin getting towed to and from this roadhouse for years.’
Months later, after I’d come back from the Territory and settled into city life again, I found another telling of the exact same yarn in Stephen Muecke’s book No Road.1 I found it funny, so I read it aloud to my partner. He didn’t find it amusing. In fact, he frowned and said, ‘I don’t get it.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked. He too had travelled in the Top End. I figured he would have picked up on northern humour.
He paused. ‘Well, it’s just that I’m pretty sure I towed those people when I was in NT last.’
The first thing I did when I began my PhD was read literature written by Indigenous people—particularly fiction by Indigenous writers. Like the category ‘Australian fiction’, which comes under fire every year when the Miles Franklin Award rolls around, the category ‘Indigenous literature’ is a bit of a strange beast. It can evade definition. There is fiction and non-fiction written in English (and occasionally in local languages) by Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers that deals with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, as well as colonisation and reconciliation. Writing by Indigenous authors doesn’t have to engage with the concept of Indigenous identity or the fact of colonisation, but it often does. It’s an unfortunate fact of the marketplace, too, that no matter what the author’s contention for their work, if they identify as Indigenous then their fiction will be read as representing the perspective of Indigenous people as a group, because that is how it is sold.
I have come to identify ‘Indigenous literature’ as fiction or nonfiction that is written by an Indigenous author and engages in a significant way with the complications and consequences of being Indigenous in Australia: black writing black. Identity is an essentially political topic, and writing by Indigenous people is often infused with an acute awareness and sensitivity to the politics of story, even when the political questions are not paramount. Indigenous characters—like many Indigenous people—are often represented as feeling as though they straddle two cultures: traditional community culture on one side and Western, capitalist culture on the other. Often the fiction will trace a character’s discovery of the details of their family history, culture and country, allowing the reader to take the journey of discovery too, without presuming much prior knowledge. This structure is kind to the non-Indigenous reader, because part of the struggle for the whitefella attempting to engage with blackfella culture is how far away and alien it seems from the mainstream West.
Traditional stories inform but are not necessarily the subject of contemporary Indigenous literature. The tradition of Indigenous literature in English is functionally and politically driven. The earliest recorded piece of writing in English by an Indigenous person is by Bennelong in 1796. It was a missive, a request: ‘Madam I want stockings. thank you Madam; send me two Pair stockings. You very good Madam … Sir send me you please some Handkerchiefs for Pocket. you please Sir send me some shoes: two pair you please Sir.’2 Until David Unaipon’s stories began to be published in the 1920s, there had been no ‘Indigenous fiction’ as we think of it today, and even Unaipon’s work is distinct in that his stories were representations of traditional stories. Unaipon wrote in English for a white audience. He is widely considered to be the first Indigenous fiction writer in English, although to call his writing ‘fiction’ is effectively to classify the traditional stories it contains as ‘myths’. Semantics are not a minor quibble here: Anglo-Australians hear traditional Indigenous stories and process them according to their own preconceived narrative structures, including structures that classify truth, and ‘myth’ implies inherent falsity. Cross-cultural conflict comes from the privileging of one set of truths over another, but the attempt to recognise the effects of your own cultural conditioning—where it begins and ends, how it shapes your understanding of the world—requires deconstruction of those truths to allow space for the others. It doesn’t mean discarding them entirely, but it means putting them far enough aside to give those new concepts room to breathe.
Traditional stories stem from, refer to and feed into the overarching concept of the Dreaming. Anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner writes: ‘The Dreaming is many things in one. Among them, a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that may still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant.’3 The stories are not just about how the world was made; they are also part of the process of caring for country, of explaining kinship structures, of metaphysical understanding and parabolic teaching. Stories trace direct relationships to ancestors; they explain the structure and shape of the land, patterns of growth and change, and the reasons for community custom and Law. The narratives are looping rather than linear: threads overlap and twist around each other. Through dance and ceremony, Law is reiterated as ‘a living reality’.4 In a similar way, the stories are vivified by their telling. They are interwoven, interlocking threads, each one illuminated at different times and to different people: maps and creation stories, kinship associations and an understanding of how things came to be and why.
Western journalists talk about the public’s ‘right to know’ things, seeing information as something that should be accessible to all. But Indigenous stories are owned in a way that Western stories are not, and the version that non-Indigenous listeners are told is usually only a very superficial version. Diane Bell puts it simply: ‘Everything has a story, but not everyone knows every story. Nor does everyone have the right to hear every story, or having heard it, to repeat the words.’5 Stories are layered in the same way that layers of rock and water are found in the earth. Knowledge can be passed to you depending on your skin, on your ritual understanding, on your age, what part of the country you’re from and who your family is. This is what makes stories tricky. The easiest way to explain their nature, from a Western perspective, would be to tell a story and expand each layer, beginning with the publicly accessibly version. One might then discuss the parts of the country the story is connected to, the names of the people who own the story, then discuss all the stories that weave into and across it—who is allowed to know what, why and when they are told. Except that to do this would violate knowledge protocol: I do not have custody of that knowledge and you have not earnt it. To relay it would be disrespectful to the custodians of those stories and the cultures from which they spring, and depending on the knowledge, might even be considered dangerous.
The country my Uncle Phil knows best is that of the Daly River region. He spent years living out at Peppimenarti during the homelands movement, building houses and setting up infrastructure for the community. On my first trip to the Territory in 2008, he took me to a sacred place he knew out in the bush. It isn’t necessarily secret, but it’s the kind of place that can be found only by people who already know where to look, and even though I’m family, Uncle Phil had to make sure he had explicit permission to take me there. The twisting little track is hard to spot from the main road. It’s boggy and full of creek crossings; the road peters out eventually and you have to get out and walk. The walking route follows the edge of a gorge, paved with rocks and grass and wildflowers that flourish in the dappled sun through the paperbarks. The gorge itself is full of butterflies.
After walking for about ten minutes you come to a cliff-face and a wide lagoon fed by a waterfall. Ripples spread out but quickly disperse, and the surface of the pool is deceptively calm. The waterhole feeds a creek that runs towards the swamplands a hundred kilometres away. The creek is narrow and overgrown and follows the line of the gorge, and it’s easy to think, as you walk along, that it would be nice to just take a few steps sideways and stick your feet in. But appearances are deceptive. Reeds mark the edge of an underwater shelf that falls away sharply below the surface—so deep you can’t see the bottom. Sometimes if you catch it in the right light, you get a glimpse of great boulders far below, casting shadows over even greater depths.
Traditional stories remind me of this place. They don’t fit the Western expectations of a neat narrative and often feel bent out of shape to a non-Indigenous ear. Listening to the public versions of the stories that Cadie and I encountered throughout the Gulf and into the Territory, I found myself listening for those unseen places—listening for what I wasn’t told.
In my more cynical moments, I think that an appetite for ‘Indigenous fiction’ in white Australia is just another way of pummelling the narratives and perspectives of Indigenous people into Western shapes—another form of colonialism, another form of writing out. So much of Western knowledge is predicated on the study of texts. Because traditional Indigenous stories aren’t naturally disseminated on paper, in tomes bound with string, because there are no immediately accessible physical representations of these stories to the Western eye, they carry less weight. And despite its often conversational tone and political awareness, over the last twenty years or so, well-known fiction by Indigenous writers sits more or less within the parameters of Western literary structure and form. However, occasionally a text will come out, such as Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, that appears to pay absolutely no heed to Western narrative convention. Wright’s first novel, Plains of Promise, has a relatively linear structure. Carpentaria, on the other hand, sprawls: the narrative sequence loops backwards and forwards through time without warning, characters appear and disappear in strange, apparently unexplained circumstances. I argue that part of what makes Carpentaria important—and so strange to non-Indigenous readers—is that it represents the lived experience of traditional stories as cultural adhesive. But many (white) readers find the novel incomprehensible and inaccessible. Occasionally someone—such as Cadie’s mother—has to stop reading it because she recognises too many characters.
For the non-Indigenous writer wanting to write fiction that engages with Indigenous Australia, traditional stories become something of a stumbling block. A story is never written from scratch. It’s not just that characters and places often resemble or are based on real people, or even that authors like to write what they know because it’s easier: we are conditioned to narrative patterns from birth. We use stories to filter and express our understanding of the world. They are the means by which we orient ourselves in the universe. Stories tie up the loose ends that reality leaves dangling; they allow us to process the fact of our finiteness, even though the rest of the world continues to exist as we pass. To use traditional stories in your fiction, you need permission from the owners of those stories. You can’t make up the country or the people that they relate to—to do so would be to misunderstand the nature of their existence and their function in the world. Similarly, to invent the stories themselves is to risk superficiality and reducing entire cultures to offensive parody.
These days, stories by whitefellas about blackfellas are mostly written from the perspective of whitefellas coming to terms with their own ignorance in the process of attempting to engage. This is partly a response to the identity politics of the 1990s, and partly, I think, because it’s easier to write about one’s own Anglo-centric epiphanies than it is to attempt to learn enough to try ‘writing black’. It’s nevertheless a contentious thing to do. White Australia has a long history of misunderstanding and misrepresenting Indigenous people through literature, and in response to this, many Indigenous writers feel, justifiably, that they ought to be allowed to represent themselves first. This has repercussions, however, for how non-Indigenous writers approach the topic in general. I taught a couple of semesters of Creative Writing at Monash University and found my non-Indigenous students reluctant about, if not openly fearful, of writing fiction that engaged with Indigenous Australia in any meaningful way. I maintain that regardless of how successful it is, attempting to ‘write black’ is an important exercise for the non-Indigenous writer. Those few students of mine who took up the challenge found their sense of self shifting: in attempting to learn enough to ‘write black’, they found themselves suddenly needing to re-evaluate their own identity and renegotiate their position in the world.
I find myself reading the world differently these days, too. Out in the country it’s even more pronounced. Experiencing the landscape becomes a bit like reading a metaphor. The brolga is Cadie. The sulphur-crested cockatoo is her sister. These things become meaningful in a physical sense. I can’t hear voices on the wind, but I’ve heard about them so often that I can’t listen to it any more without feeling on edge. I saw a dingo at the entrance to Karlu Karlu in the middle of the day and a bright yellow python under the rock carvings at Boodjamulla: were these good omens or bad? Cadie tells me to listen to the country and to trust my instincts, because that’s what she’s been told. If a place feels bad, turn around and leave. If a path feels right, keep walking. So I read all the books I can find and listen to all the stories people tell me, and because there is so much I still don’t know, I imagine.
- Stephen Muecke, No Road (Bitumen All the Way), Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1997, pp. 44–5.
- Bennelong, in Anita Heiss, Peter Minter and Nicholas Jose (eds), Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008, p. 9.
- W.E.H. Stanner, White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938–1973, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1979, p. 24.
- Diane Bell, Daughters of the Dreaming, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 2002, p. 12.
- Diane Bell (ed.), Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan: Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking, Spinifex, Melbourne, 2008, p. 1.