In a 2016 Meanjin essay one of this country’s most celebrated writers, Alexis Wright, asked us a fundamental question in relation to storytelling and the role of the writer. ‘What happens when you tell somebody else’s story?’ she asked, in a thoughtful piece of writing that did not demand that white Australia not engage with the story of Aboriginal people (as some have concluded). In addressing the question, Wright asked of each of us, Aboriginal and ‘settler’ both, that we give deeper consideration to the act of telling stories and take greater responsibility for the decisions we make as writers. We may make a choice to respond to individual creative impulses, or choose to restrain ourselves from acting on those impulses in favour of making decisions of greater cultural value. Wright was clear about the consequences of the stories of Aboriginal people being told by others: ‘We do not get much of a chance to say what is right or wrong about the stories told on our behalf … it just happens, and we try to deal with the fallout.’
Too often, Aboriginal people deal with the humiliation of witnessing our stories being appropriated by outsiders, while living with the experience of having our own voices or those of our Elders, in particular, being ignored, silenced or discredited. In his 2009 book Guilt about the Past, the legal scholar and novelist Bernard Schlink writes, in relation to the oppression of people by the dominant society, ‘there are people who were not heard and not seen who want their truth acknowledged’. Schlink concludes that people who have suffered discrimination and trauma need to have their dignity returned, with restorative justice including the right to control the dissemination of their own story. In colonial societies such as Australia, the work of justice must include not only the right of Aboriginal people to control and speak our own stories, but also the beginnings of a genuinely postcolonial dialogue with non-Aboriginal people, the forging of new and productive narratives.
The Turtle Island (Canada) First Nations scholar Dwayne Donald believes that ‘decolonisation can only occur when we face each other across these historic divides … when we deconstruct the past we share, and begin to imagine a different relationship, ethical and respectful’ (Donald, ‘On what terms can we speak?’, <https://vimeo.com/15264558>). There is rich potential in the stories created by non-Aboriginal writers intersecting with an Aboriginal telling of not only the same period of history, but on occasion the same event, providing the necessary framework Donald suggests we require in order for histories of colonialism to be shared and examined.
It is also vital that white Australia takes greater responsibility for its own history, including stories of attempted dispossession and colonial violence. If nothing else, this responsibility might begin the process of easing the burden of memory held by older Aboriginal people across the country, who by necessity are the custodians of the stories of colonial violence that the nation has strategically forgotten and refused to take responsibility for. I am reminded of the manner in which this issue is dealt with in two films directed by Ivan Sen, Dust and Beneath Clouds. In each film we are introduced to an Aboriginal Elder, women in both instances, who carry the memories of violence suffered by their people. The emotional and spiritual strain—having to memorialise a story that perpetrators deny—is acutely evident on the faces and the bodies of both women.
Their experience is shared by many older people in the pan-Aboriginal nation. We require white Australia to take full ownership of its past, to present a story beyond celebration, beyond the battlefields of Europe, and beyond Paul Keating’s eulogising of the Kokoda Track. Perhaps something more than a batting average that ended in its own tragedy, on 99? Or a story of substance beyond the beatification of the stuffed corpse of a New Zealand–born horse. No doubt such a change, a story of honesty and maturity, would raise the issues of reciprocity and the full recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty. Such is the price of honesty, one that will eventually benefit all Australians.
The need to give authority and autonomy to the stories of Aboriginal people, told and maintained by our communities, occurs at a time when debates, too often of a shallow nature, pervade the creative industries in Australia, with terms such as ‘identity politics’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ being the catch-alls for the complaint of those who have dominated the arts for too long. What we need at present, to counter the shrillness, is less talk, less commentary by the genuinely privileged, and more patience and ability to listen. I suggest we consider the words of the writer Kim Scott, who has gently prodded the nation to ‘listen to the voices of marginalised people who may not be given enough space to tell their own stories’. From Scott’s perspective:
… stories are offerings; they are about opening up interior worlds in the interests of expanding the shared world and the shared sense of community. So, if there’s many voices saying we need more of us speaking our stories, from wherever they’re saying that, then that needs to be listened to. (quoted by Stephanie Convery, Guardian Australia, 25 July 2018)
But are enough people listening? It would seem doubtful. In a recent essay, the Guardian UK columnist Gary Younge reflected on the global conservative movement and its strategy to take control of the term ‘identity politics’. By ‘railing against liberals, feminists, migrants and Muslims,’ he wrote, ‘the right has cornered the market in victimhood’ (Guardian Weekly, 12 October 2018). While conservatives, in Younge’s view, often conflate identity as an exercise in pandering to special interests, dubious affirmative action initiatives or simply uninvited competition for oxygen, he reminds us that identity often denotes the obvious contrast between privilege and discrimination. He comments that ‘in Britain there are, on an average day, roughly 1,400 assaults on women [and] 25 hate crimes committed against gay and transgender people’. Meanwhile, in the United States ‘for every $100 of wealth a white person has … an African-American has just $5’.
Younge suggests that it is perhaps time to ‘retire the phrase “identity politics” for good’ if it primarily serves the interests of white people feeling sorry for themselves. Reflecting on his call for a shift in terminology that might also advance the necessary debate, I picked up a copy of the Weekend Australian (27–28 October 2018) and read an article by another retiree, John Howard, under the headline ‘Broad church is the best bet in this age of identity politics’. In danger of extending the gambling metaphor, it seemed clear that Gary Younge was on the money.
Identity politics, as a political and cultural hot-button, has also been doing the rounds of the Australian literary scene in recent times, including stopovers at several writers festivals, which became the focus of attention and blood-letting by those more likely to sit within Younge’s $100 band of wealth than near the impoverished $5 note. The old ‘who can write for whom’ handwringing exercise dominated the conversation. Clearly, there is a place for a sophisticated and mature discussion on the subject in Australia (as my commentary above would indicate). Unfortunately, it is lacking.
In late July 2018, also writing in Guardian Australia (29 July 2019), the Booker Prize–winning novelist Richard Flanagan discussed recent writers festivals in Australia, under the caveat, ‘I didn’t want to write this, but the courage to listen to different ideas is vanishing.’ The essay was critical of the apparent decision by festival organisers to avoid subjects that might ignite controversy. Flanagan referred specifically to ‘the bizarre case of Germaine Greer and Bob Carr’, who were either banned or uninvited from the 2018 Brisbane Writers Festival. It is difficult to ascertain if either writer was invited, banned or uninvited. Either way, any decision (or non-decision) would possibly have come as some relief to Germaine Greer herself, who labelled the Brisbane festival as ‘possibly the dreariest festival in the world, with zero hospitality and no fun at all’ (quoted by Stephanie Convoy).
Flanagan utilised an otherwise simultaneously bland and melodramatic non-event, typical of many cultural ‘debates’ in Australia, to expand on thoughts about what writers festivals should be doing for audiences, and for the type of writers described by Flanagan as ‘often outcasts, heretics and the marginalised’. I’m not sure where Flanagan would find such a band of cultural shapeshifters in the literary world of Australia, let alone a writer who might challenge us, as Flanagan puts it—by way of Franz Kafka—with ‘the axe that smashes the frozen sea within’.
In addition to the apparent snubbing of a pair of Australian authors rarely out of the media spotlight, even from the distance of the seat of empire itself, Flanagan reminded us that the Brisbane Writers Festival ‘has form here’, in having previously treated marquee authors in a shabby manner. He wrote that Brisbane Writers Festival staff ‘abandoned’ the American writer Lionel Shriver, who, in a keynote at the 2016 festival held court on the matter of ‘the damage identity politics could do to writing’ (Lionel Shriver, Guardian Australia, 13 September 2016). The Carr/Greer/Shiver controversies supported Flanagan’s claim that ‘writers’ festivals now run the risk of running with dogma, with orthodoxy, with the mob—with fear, in other words—and with money’. He concluded, ‘It’s the new Victorian age wearing a hipster beard’, all under the banner of a ‘Festival Approved by Twitter Bots’ (which sounds like a weird enough festival to attend).
The Lionel Shriver case is worth discussing further, both for what Flanagan failed to mention in his defence of her behaviour, and the growing phenomenon of what I could perhaps term ‘privilege hysteria’, but heeding Gary Younge’s advice about the right’s ability to rebadge commentary, I will not do so, lest Peter Dutton or worse still, Bob Katter, were to parrot me in future. To paraphrase Flanagan, Shriver also has form here. She utilises the writer’s rights to creative freedom to elicit the controversy she feeds off. She also insists on wearing a face like the proverbial smacked arse, lest we doubt the cantankerous pose she adopts in publicity photographs. In the introduction to her Brisbane address, Shriver forewarned the audience and the organisers, ‘I hate to disappoint you folks [but] inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about “community and belonging” is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose.’
Her juggling skills may have been lacking in Brisbane, but Shriver sure knew how to clown around. Flanagan failed to discuss the sombrero perched on Shriver’s head in Brisbane, a reference to a controversy that occurred at a US college earlier in 2018, where guests at a tequila-themed birthday party were presented with miniature sombreros, which they proceeded to wear, precariously, I would assume. Had Shriver left the sombrero anecdote there, we may have been eternally grateful that she flew to Brisbane to enlighten festival attendees about this Animal House controversy. But no, the sombrero was much more than a hat. Or an aid for a photo opportunity. The sombrero was a serious metaphor. If Shriver is to be believed, her attire provided us with a moral. ‘What does this have to do with writing fiction?’ she asked rhetorically, before responding, ‘You’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.’
Well, the hat of the Other that Shriver had most recently tried on, if not her shoes, belonged to an African-American female character in Shriver’s most recent novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047. During the keynote, Shriver railed against a bad review of the novel by Ken Kaifus in the Washington Post. She claimed the reviewer had dismissed the book as ‘racist’, leaving Shriver to observe what was to her patently obvious: ‘in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful’. This is not advice that she takes herself. In keeping with her image of the self-proclaimed troublemaker, the African-American character in Shriver’s The Mandibles marries into a white family, suffers early-onset dementia and is eventually led through the streets at the end of a leash.
A leash. It is an object with a history, closely associated with the submission of black bodies, both in North America and global colonialism. In the United States, the leash is used to restrain black people, to govern them on the auction block, to hang them. After reading Shriver’s flippant defence of her creative decisions, I turned to James Baldwin and re-read his story Going to Meet the Man, about a boy who grows up to be a racist and violent policeman and witnesses the lynching of a black man. In the story, white families attend the lynching with picnic baskets, where they are entertained. The African-American man about to be murdered is being tortured. He ‘wanted death to come quickly’. But it came slowly, with calculation. The lynch mob utilise a leash to extend his torture, ‘to make death wait … on a leash which they lengthened little by little’.
This is the history, in life and in fiction, that Shriver engaged with. It is a story she knows well. She was not trying on the hat of African-American culture. Or a hat belonging to the history of slavery. Her metaphor was the leash, although she did not try it on herself. Nor was she dragged through the streets wearing one. Shriver has not been silenced or ‘abandoned’ over her creative choices. Due to her juvenile display at the Brisbane Writers Festival, she was rightly criticised and opposed. Her complaint, and that of her supporters, other established writers, is a clear example of white privilege, not as a call-out on social media, but in practice, in reality, performed in all its unconscious arrogance. Stretching the costume analogy further, and alluding to her German-American ancestry ‘on both sides’ no less, Shriver added in her Brisbane keynote address that she was ‘happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some lederhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song’.
We writers might want to cheer Shriver on at this point. To utilise the American vernacular, and thankfully not the Australian slang, she’s rooting for us. Not only is she defending our sacred right to artistic freedom, she’s fighting for creative pluralism with her ditty, I’ll get down in the hood and you can oom-pah-pah with papa. Unfortunately, there is more than one line missing from her beer-house singalong. Shriver would be aware that while many Germans arrived in the United States as free settlers, perhaps by way of Ellis Island, the majority of the forebears of contemporary African Americans arrived as slaves. She would also know, utilising the Gary Younge socioeconomic register, that today, German-Americans would be closer to a $100 note than a $5 note.
It could be argued that Shriver, or any fiction writer, is not responsible for social and economic inequality, or needs to respond to such conditions with what we might call affirmative representations of so-called minorities. This is true. But nor does it allow writers who uphold regressive stereotypes of the same people to remain immune from the criticism they receive. Given the privilege we are granted to write, one denied to many millions of people around the world, we should welcome responsibility. Lionel Shriver donning a sombrero supposedly to discuss a subject worthy of intelligence and decency was nothing more than a cheap sideshow trick—and she knew it. Her classless act reminded me of Donald Trump’s behaviour at a 2016 campaign rally, when he mocked the physical disabilities of a journalist by performing a macabre dance.
Shriver’s display of disdain for the issue of cultural appropriation, identity politics and her audience was evident again in 2018 when, returning to the subject, she stated with equal carelessness:
From now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap education boxes … if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. (quoted by David Barnett, Guardian UK, 13 June 2018, online)
Had she complained about a dubious literary leg-up provided to retired cricketers I may have had some sympathy for Shriver’s statement. But, as she was not referring to a spin bowler, I’ll position myself alongside Hanif Kureishi, who, responding to her outburst, wrote:
the truth is, the fear of other voices is not because of anxiety that artists from outside the mainstream will be untalented, filling up galleries and bookshops with sludge; it’s that they will be outstanding and brilliant. (Hanif Kureishi, Guardian UK, 15 June 2018)
It is not my job to cheerlead for writers festivals, but the ones I attend are obviously not the same festivals Richard Flanagan and others wish we could return to. Nor are the festivals I attend all that ‘dangerous’, not that they need to be. What has changed in the last decade, a remarkable shift that critics of festivals ignore, is that Aboriginal writers now appear in greater numbers, and we get to speak for ourselves, rather than being spoken about by some colonial hack or ignored completely. A festival audience in 2018 would have had the opportunity to listen to, question and speak with writers of the calibre of Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Melissa Lukashenko and Bruce Pascoe. These multi-award-winning authors, each with an international reputation, engage and challenge audiences with an Aboriginal world view on issues as broad as colonial history, climate change, feminism, ecological sustainability and old-fashioned storytelling of the highest quality.
Nor are their views homogenous, which comes as a serious and engaging challenge to festival audiences; a point also lost on critics of festivals. Responding to a comment by the director of the Brisbane Writers Festival, Ann Mclean, that the programming of ‘Indigenous academic’ Marcia Langton, ‘whose views on Indigenous history and the need for a treaty with First Nations would “really stir people up”’, Gay Alcorn of the Guardian asked the question, ‘but would she schedule a speaker who was sceptical about the need for a treaty?’ (Gay Alcorn, Guardian Australia, 25 August 2013). Perhaps to the surprise of Alcorn and other critics, each of the major state festivals in 2018 programmed Aboriginal writers who are not only sceptical of the treaty process underwritten by the Commonwealth Government–sanctioned Referendum Council, but openly oppose the position on treaty espoused by Langton herself. They have written extensively about their own views on the treaty process, and on occasion in the newspaper Alcorn writes for.
Although the mantra ‘identity politics’ and its seeming ability to destroy public culture as we know it has produced a great deal of noise in recent years, it alone is not the culprit driving us towards the creative Armageddon we face. Nor is it Germaine Greer’s nonappearance at a festival she hates, or Caroline Overington’s terse observation that ‘not one full-time employee from the Australian’ newspaper was invited to the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival (Caroline Overington, Australian, 20 August 2018). Believe it or not, the downfall of dangerous ideas in Australia is due to the appearance at last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival of ‘dead cats, dogs and budgies’. Of all the criticism levelled at Marieke Hardy’s programming of that festival, the most common complaint could be summarised in the view put by Louise Adler, then CEO of Melbourne University Publishing, who lamented, ‘this is a festival about performance and theatre and mourning one’s dead pet and people in search of a hug’ (quoted by Gay Alcorn).
As a badly lapsed Catholic, I’m here to confess. I ‘performed’ at five events at last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, and I was hugged—only once—by the Aboriginal writer Claire Coleman, whom I interviewed. I also appeared at the much maligned Animal Church on Flinders Street, where I may or may not have appropriated the story of my first pet dog, Sally, a tenacious mongrel that followed me home from Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, on a Saturday morning in 1963. In a response to critics of the Melbourne festival generally and the Animal Church specifically, Jason Steger wrote the following:
At the much maligned Animal Church, I heard riveting conversations about ethics of killing animals and our relationship with horses. Novelists, activists, comedians, farmers. Not all of them had written a book, but all had serious things to say about an aspect of contemporary life and there was a diversity to the panellists that we haven’t always seen before. I also listened to Nobel prize winner J.M. Coetzee reading a new story that gave the audience plenty to think about—as you would expect. (Jason Steger, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 2018)
I have been a guest at festivals in Australia and internationally for more than a decade now. The Animal Church event I read at was the most engaging I’ve been involved in. Looking out at the audience, I saw faces that I suspect do not regularly attend festivals. I listened to a remarkable reading by the renowned Aboriginal writer Ali Cobby Eckermann. Her offering was a poem about the vitality of camp dogs in the lives of Aboriginal people living out-of-sight-and-mind of white Australia, unless, of course, their bodies are being trawled through the media to justify an assault on their basic human rights. Ali did not produce a ‘dangerous’ idea, but a deeply reflective one that held the audience spellbound. I read from a story based on the death of Sally. She was killed by local police shortly after my 18-year-old uncle had been shot dead in a Fitzroy laneway. I shared my narrow single bed with Sally and Michael the night before he was murdered. The grief I experienced remains palpable more than 50 years later.
I’m no iconoclast and had no wish to rile the paying audience. Or wear a funny hat. Nor did I wish to stand in the makeshift church, surrounded by photographs of loving pets and the owners who missed them, to deliver shallow entertainment for the masses. What I hoped for as a writer, as an Aboriginal writer, was that the audience would think about, and possibly come to understand, that violence enacted against those we love, both human and non-human, is held in memory. Mine was a story about love, a story that violence repeatedly attempts to crush in this country. These stories need to be told—by those of us who live them. The work of getting under the skin of white Australia is the job of Aboriginal writers; some of them, already mentioned, are well established in this country. Others are young and smart and sometimes angry. They will be the truth-tellers of the future.
Note: This was originally presented at the State Library of Victoria in November 2018 as the inaugural Writers Victoria the State of the (Writing) Nation oration.
Tony Birch is a professorial research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University, where he works on the relationship between climate justice and Indigenous knowledges. He also writes short stories and novels.