Essay

Disrupting the colonial narrative

Reading, reckoning and reimagining

The many Indigenous nations of the globe have always been storytellers, and our stories tell of an animate reality in which everything lives and everything connects. The arrival of colonisers in Indigenous homelands engulfed us in cycles of cataclysmic violence that sought to annihilate our ways of being, knowing and doing. But Indigenous peoples and cultures survived the colonial apocalypse. We are storytellers still.
Ambelin Kwaymullina

 

ONE OF THE central tenets of the colonial project is the way control is used to maintain a narrative of dominance, white superiority and so-called truth. This control over narrative manifests in various ways, each of them as violent as the other, but it is purposeful in its effect and reach. The misrepresentation of Aboriginal people within colonial narratives enabled the justification of the myth that Australia was terra nullius – unoccupied land – and the subsequent violent dispossession of the continent’s First Nations. Within this colonial mythscape (a term coined by author Jeanine Leane) resides the fallacy of the ‘Aboriginal problem’ and the characterisation of Aboriginal people as ‘savages’ and ‘uncivilised’. As one example, this colonial mythology propagated (and continues to propagate) the notion of the Aboriginal parent as unfit – the consequence of which is the widespread and inter­generational removal of Aboriginal children from Aboriginal families, an act of genocide ­co-ordinated under the guise of protection and benevolence. The uncanny settler presumption is that settlers know the Aborigine more than the Aborigine knows themselves.

The problem with presumptions is that you don’t see the reckoning when it comes.

Around the world, First Nations writers and thinkers are exercising individual and collective sovereignty, utilising stories and storytelling to imagine and remember new futures beyond the settler’s imagining of us and this place – ones that disrupt the colonial mythscape. The task of taking up writing by First Nations peoples, of dislodging one narrative for another, is an inherent act of sovereignty because – as Professor Tracey Bunda (Ngugi/Wakka woman and head of the University of Southern Queensland’s College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research) explains – ‘our sovereignty is embodied and is tied to particular tracts of Country, thus our bodies signify ownership and we perform sovereign acts in our everyday living’.

Through storytelling we actively resist the characters we are assigned within settler mythology, thereby unsettling ideas that have been deemed to be settled and reminding settlers about the truth of the past. In engaging in storytelling as a task in resistance, existence and reckoning, First Nations peoples take up a battle in the storytelling war. As Waanyi novelist Alexis Wright posits, this battle over narrative is as much about who tells the story as it is about who owns the land. It is also about who defines the future.

 

THE FUTURE IS as yet undetermined: it will be shaped by our actions and ideas – here, now. And whatever reality we ultimately manifest will have been formed in our dreams and imaginings first. That First Nations peoples have tested and are testing the limits of our existence is not only an exercise in truth-telling but also in futurism. Anishinaabe author and academic Grace L Dillon defines Indigenous futurisms as

narratives of biskaabiiyang, an Anishinaabemowin word connoting the process of ‘returning to ourselves’, which involves how personally one is affected by colonisation, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-native apocalyptic world.

The futures we imagine as First Nations peoples and the stories of the past that we reconstruct recognise our place in time both as descendants and future ancestors. This knowledge places such stories as remembrances of the past as equally as they are dreamings for those that come after us. That these stories are decolonial goes without saying: in repositioning ourselves as authors of our own stories, we force settlers to reckon with their own accounts of us. Through writing and storytelling we illuminate aspects of history that have remained invisible and are able to envision ourselves as our sovereign, whole selves.

Whether there is a place for settlers themselves in First Nations futures remains to be seen.

 

FIRST NATIONS WRITINGS and stories speak to the truth of the colonial past and, in doing so, offer a reckoning of history. Writers taking up space in this way are redirecting the conversation from the so-called ‘Aboriginal problem’ to a discourse about the problem with colonialism. This reflects calls made by legal scholar Irene Watson in ‘Settled and Unsettled Spaces: Are We Free to Roam?’ to ‘go beyond a mere theoretical rejection of terra nullius and beyond positions of victim perpetrators and enemies to a place in Aboriginal black truth where we can share our common humanity’. Examples of this ongoing work are seen in the autobiographical writings of First Nations authors including Sally Morgan, Elsie Roughsey, Ruby Langford Ginibi, Doris Pilkington and Archie Roach, to name a few. Many of these narratives resist the trope of the unfit Aboriginal parent and speak truth to the violence done against Aboriginal children in the name of protectionism. I think too of the way these narratives have shaped my own family and the narratives we keep about ourselves, my father having been taken from his mother to be adopted by a white family.

Equally, these are stories of survival: they say ‘we are still here’. Similarly, fictional work – such as the depiction of mission life in Marie Munkara’s novel Every Secret Thing – points to the hypocrisy of white benevolence (particularly pertaining to the Church) in the practices of removing Aboriginal children to place them in institutions.

In a 2020 essay for Griffith Review, Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman Teela Reid coined the idea of a year of reckoning rather than reconciliation. She posed this question: ‘as 2020 strikes, marking 250 years since the invasion of Indigenous lands, is Australia ready to Gari Yala [Speak Truth] and reckon with its past?’ Reid’s reckoning is a political one. In it, she is generous in naming truths with which Australia is yet to come to terms – including histories of the racial segregation of Aboriginal people in recent living memory. Reid also articulates the action required in the accounting of that truth, proposing a Voice to Parliament. But while Reid (and others) have advocated for a constitutionally enshrined Voice, it appears, at the time of writing, that the Morrison government is only willing to engage with a Voice enacted by legislation.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reid and I co-founded the Instagram account @blackfulla_bookclub. For me, as for many others, the pandemic became my own reckoning of sorts. It caused me to reconnect with the power of stories and storytelling and the important role stories have played throughout my life, defining my sense of self and instilling in me an understanding about my place within and beyond the colonial mythscape. In many ways 2020 allowed me to enter a remembering of who I am and where I come from as a Gumbaynggirr and Barkandji woman. It was my own biskaabiiyang.

While @blackfulla_bookclub started as a means of celebrating First Nations stories, it also became a place from which we could frame these stories and literature as sites of resistance, sovereignty and power, a place for truth-telling and truth-seeking. Over time it has become a means of challenging the ways in which stories about us as First Nations peoples are told, received and shared by the broader public. This is something we view as especially important given the broad reach and audience the account now has, with more than 39,000 followers – just under 10 per cent of whom hail from countries outside Australia, including the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Through this project, we have borne witness to the ways in which the publishing industry and the broader public continue to uphold the tenets of the colonial project and the insistence of settlers that they speak on and about us.

By recognising the unique position that First Nations peoples themselves have on our own stories, we have been committed to sharing the space with other First Nations writers, reviewers and critical thinkers. The idea of #ownvoices storytelling had already stemmed from a Twitter thread in 2015, when Dutch author Corinne Duyvis made a call-out for books about diverse characters written by diverse authors from those same communities. More recently, the concept of #ownvoices has expanded to encompass ‘own voices’ reviews and critiques. Within the Instagram community alone, there have been lengthy conversations and calls for transparency (especially from our First Nations relatives on Turtle Island) about which reviewers can access review copies before the publication of books and stories by First Nations authors. There have been many instances in which First Nations reviewers’ requests for review copies of books by First Nations writers are ignored by publishers – while later reviews of the same book by white reviewers prove less than insightful or nuanced, or betray, through their harshness, that the reviewer could not relate to the storytelling.

The importance of ‘culturally aware reviews’ was aptly illustrated recently by Wuilli writer Lisa Fuller, who reflected on the phenomenon of reviewers describing her book Ghost Bird as the stuff of myth and legend. The problem with this kind of language when it is used to talk about First Nations literature and storytelling is that it simultaneously relegates us and our storytelling to the past while making the assumption that our stories are not themselves true. In many ways, First Nations stories exist beyond the borders of genre (as defined by the colonial canon) and often blur the lines between fiction and reality and between future, past and present. Even our ‘fictions’ are often exercises in truth-telling. Referring to our writing as ‘mythological’, ‘folklore’ or ‘legendary’ denies First Nations writers the same respect and deference afforded to other writers who traverse the same or similar genres. These reviews are harmful because they insist our place exists only in the past, denying us a present and a future beyond any that settlers deem fit for us.

 

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC wasn’t the only spark for reckoning in 2020. In May that year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota prompted worldwide attention and sparked public outcry over Black deaths in the US. Allies posted black squares to their social media platforms in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the purpose of which is to fight for freedom, liberation and justice with its mission to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. At the same time, a movement developed in Australia calling for truth-telling and action in response to the 500 Aboriginal deaths in custody that have occurred since the 1991 Royal Commission. These deaths highlight the lack of government action in the wake of the commission’s recommendations.

In response to these calls – in Australia and globally – we witnessed through @blackfulla_bookclub the ways in which book clubs and reading (more generally) became sites for potential truth-telling and action. Many book club reading lists expanded to include anti-racist reading as well as books that centre non-white voices. In Australia, as in the rest of the world, bookshops and publishers struggled to keep up with the increased demand for books on the subject of race and anti-racism. Our inbox was inundated with questions and requests for book recommendations from followers around the world. Within the Australian context, we saw an increase in sales of books by Indigenous authors as readers and book clubbers sought to engage with the call for truth-telling here. Australia’s leading Indigenous publishing house, Magabala Books, saw a 300 per cent increase in book sales in 2020. According to Magabala’s 2020 financial report, their annual surplus almost doubled compared with the previous year.

It was a real moment of Black joy to see the abundance of First Nations writing being published.

The arrival of First Nations-authored books and anthologies such as Fire Front (an anthology of First Nations poetry edited by Alison Whittaker), Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (the twentieth-anniversary edition of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s seminal work on feminism and Indigenous women) and Living on Stolen Land (Ambelin Kwaymullina’s exploration of the colonial-settler present) seemed at times almost supernaturally apt, inasmuch as their releases coincided with so many of the conversations happening around Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 and climate change. However, the broader relevance of First Nations storytelling and truth lies more fundamentally in the fact that we have been speaking it into existence for so long.

 

BUT ON THE other side of this enthusiastic book-buying, it’s impossible not to wonder how many copies of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman or Living on Stolen Land sit unread and gathering dust on shelves.

This question is not meant to be facetious.

Undoubtedly, the impetus to read diverse stories and engage with anti-racist reading reflects a broader social desire for reform and to engage with an intellectual or cultural reckoning – as well as a conscious choice of side in the battle over narrative. Increasingly, consumers want to make conscious decisions about their spending, choosing to support local businesses over big corporations. The embrace of First Nations writing, often championed by smaller publishing houses, may be part of that. Being thoughtful about where, and on what, we spend our money as consumers of books is an important task in the project of redistributing wealth.

But purchasing books is a mere step towards understanding: it is not the reckoning itself. We will speak our truth into existence, unfailingly. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that the reading and accessibility of books is a privilege in and of itself. Sure, reading books by diverse authors is an important means of providing economic support to those authors. For First Nations authors, this also means providing economic sustenance for their communities and families. However, there is a fundamental assumption to call out in this practice. Within it sits the notion that allyship is something that can be readily bought, the idea that readers can buy themselves out of white privilege and the presumption that the reckoning will be found in the pages of a book. There is also an assumption that the First Nations future is a commercial one rather than one of self-determination and sovereignty.

How, then, can or should readers act in communion, or even in conversation, with the books that they read?

Simply reading a book does not speak to what happens after the pages have been consumed and the covers closed, when the reader continues with their everyday life. For First Nations peoples, the reality of the stories we choose to share through writing are reflections of our lived experience: we aren’t afforded the luxury of putting down the book and forgetting the colonial violence we endure. We live it: it permeates our existence and our bodies.

Expanding reading lists to include diverse authors should be a given. Changing the narrative necessitates engaging with our stories, as told by (and not as about) us. For settlers this must be an exercise in seeking and listening, in knowing when your voice is not needed – and in stepping up when it is. Disruption of the colonial mythscape demands that settlers be accountable to their own participation within that narrative and the violence that it reaps.

Reading on its own is insufficient in effectively decentring whiteness or achieving broader and more practical change – or engaging in the reckoning proposed by Teela Reid in 2020. This is especially so given that book clubs themselves are apt to be spaces that reinforce privilege. There’s an undeniable level of comfort that comes from dissecting and discussing books in the safety of your own home, surrounded by friends, and with or without the stereotypical middle-class luxuries of a few mimosas and a charcuterie board. Settlers choosing books pertaining to race or racism ought to be careful about subjecting Black stories to the white gaze – or totally missing the point of the story. Without First Nations peoples in the room, our ideas, stories and even our bodies are at risk of being trapped by a limited settler imagining of us. Book club conversations, despite the best intentions of book club members, may continue to imprison us within colonial tropes of savagery or the ‘Aboriginal problem’. The challenge for settlers lies in interrogating the ways in which they themselves are vessels of racist thought, white supremacy and privilege and also in how they can show up in the moments that matter beyond just reading books about and by us.

The anniversary re-release of Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s 2000 classic Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is a critical touchstone for unravelling the colonial project’s dominant narrative. In this essential work, Moreton-Robinson forensically dissects the role of whiteness and privilege within feminism in Australia, illustrating the way that privilege is tied to colonialism and therefore the dispossession and oppression of Aboriginal peoples. The futures that are imagined by this distinguished professor in Talkin’ Up are ones in which we return to an existence in relationship to the land. In her introduction, she enunciates both her vision and the imperative that is now upon us:

we must now turn to privileging mother earth as the epistemological and ontological centre of our theorising and activism, for her and for our survival as humans.

These are powerful words given that present-day conversations around climate disasters have illuminated the urgent need to reimagine the dominant worldview and ‘turn to the privileging mother’ if we are to have a future at all. Thus the reimagining of a sustainable present forces a reckoning with truth and a remembering and revitalisation of ancient knowledges.

 

THAT TALKIN’ UP is as relevant as it was more than twenty years ago is as telling as it is unsurprising. In fact, many of Moreton-Robinson’s anecdotes feel familiar in their colonial violence. The ongoing resonance of Talkin’ Up was aptly articulated by Timmah Ball in Griffith Review 56: Millennials Strike Back (2017): ‘I understood then, more than ever, how Moreton-Robinson felt – and how seventeen years on, our voices were still being ignored.’

In the wake of Talkin’ Up’s re-release, we witnessed – through @blackfulla_bookclub – First Nations women from all walks of life, both domestically and internationally, welcome Moreton-Robinson’s ability to articulate and theorise our worldviews and, in doing so, provide a reference point for our experiences, including (or especially) in relation to ‘the middle-class white woman’.

But conversely, I also witnessed many middle-class white women at pains to say how much they loved the book. Gomeroi writer Alison Whittaker reflected on this phenomenon in her 2020 essay ‘So White. So What’:

Twenty years after the book was [first] published, the vague and dripping over-praise of the work I get from non-Indigenous lovers is a turn-off, and the speed at which they devour it is not at all believable. Patronising. A flip through.

I can’t help but concur.

While Talkin’ Up was added to book club reading lists nationwide, the real irony is the way in which middle-class white women – in their insistence on their own white benevolence and in their self-proclamation as allies – embody the very subject position of dominance theorised by the distinguished professor. But given the privileges inherent to reading, the extent to which middle-class white women take up space – in book clubs, at literary festivals, at book launches and online – is perhaps inevitable.

In July 2020, @blackfulla_bookclub hosted an online conversation with Moreton-Robinson. It was one of our most popular and well-attended webinars to date. What became clear from this event is that there has been a noticeable reluctance from within the white feminist movement in Australia to reckon with and account for its own oppression of other women, especially Aboriginal women. In her original conclusion to Talkin’ Up, Moreton-Robinson posed a challenge to white feminists in Australia to

theorise the relinquishment of power so that feminist practice can contribute to changing the racial order. Until this challenge is addressed, the subject position of a middle-class white woman will remain centred as a site of dominance. Indigenous women will continue to resist this dominance by talkin’ up, because the invisibility of unspeakable things requires them to be spoken

The inertia of white feminists (and white women more broadly) to take up the challenge Moreton-Robinson posed twenty years ago, and to engage with her intellectual work, continues to be indicative of how much skin is in the game for this cohort – and how invested white feminists are in continuation of the colonial patriarchal system, the place from which they derive their power.

In writing this essay, I was hard-pressed to find reviews or critiques in response to Talkin’ Up’s republication in 2020. One of the very few reviews online was written by Jacquelyn Baker for the Australian Policy and History Network, and it accurately and concisely examines the context in which Talkin’ Up was released as well as providing a concise summary of the book’s content. In concluding, Baker states:

It is clear that now, more than ever, we must listen to and prioritise the knowledge production of, and by, Aboriginal women. Reading Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is a good place to start.

Inarguably, the reckoning – posited by Moreton-Robinson towards a centring of Mother Earth – requires the centring of First Nations knowledges, as stated by Baker, certainly inasmuch as our knowledges embody relationality with the land. But the notion of centring our voices presupposes that this is a privilege to be granted to us by settlers rather than space we are entitled to occupy as First Peoples.

More than centring our knowledges, Moreton-Robinson proposes a reckoning of the epistemological centre, which she identifies as currently grounded in culture and not nature. It is therefore hard not to read Baker’s conclusion as a mere platitude to a much bigger idea and a call to action: something that calls for radical change.

I was equally hard-pressed to find academic responses to Moreton-Robinson’s text. However, if I am being generous, this is likely to be because of the timing of academic publishing cycles. To date, much of the academic literature engaging with Moreton-Robinson’s text since 2020 has come from other First Nations women. Perhaps this engagement is suggestive of the relationality that Talkin’ Up has to other conversations happening surrounding First Nations peoples. Regardless, there is undoubtedly a task for white women to engage more broadly with Moreton-Robinson’s work, to account for and to reflect on the ways in which they hold power, and to reckon with what it means to give up that power (in practical ways).

It remains to be seen whether settlers are able to engage with Moreton-Robinson’s fresh challenge of creating a sustainable future, to be a part of the reckoning as it is imagined and remembered by us.

The reckoning of the past two years has forced us to confront ourselves and our history, to engage in both narratives and the enactment of biskaabiiyang, returning to ourselves. Teela Reid’s reckoning calls for a future of structural reform predicated on the Wiradjuri concept of Gari Yala, truth talk. Whatever imagining we choose to pursue, it is clear that without action, the truth is liable to become a mere vessel of misbegotten intentions. As Professor Megan Davis, writing in The Monthly late last year, cautioned, ‘take note of who are spruiking truth without constitutional voice. Notice who is not advocating for political power and structural reform.’

Her caution is one worth heeding, and a caution that should be applied more broadly than the move towards a constitutionally enshrined Voice. In many ways, such warnings echo Moreton-Robinson’s challenge to theorise the relinquishment of power: this is where the really uncomfortable work is. Truth does not inherently lead to justice nor to a reckoning of power and relations. There is ample room for settlers to contemplate the spaces they occupy and to enact the abdication of their power.

For the publishing industry, the appetite for First Nations stories carries with it a responsibility to engage with considerations about where First Nations peoples sit in the battle over narrative. The industry faces a challenge in ensuring that the stories it publishes are handled with appropriate cultural care. There are additional ethics to consider too, especially around who has authority to speak for and on what. Mainstream publishing houses may be ill-equipped to deal with such cultural complexities, especially without in-house First Nations editors.

I look forward to a future in which First Nations books are edited, published and sold by First Nations peoples, in which we exist beyond the colonial mythscape, in which we are able to tell our stories as sovereign peoples without being beholden to colonial sensibilities. To some extent this is happening already in the work being done by publishers such as Magabala Books.

For me, biskaabiiyang means confronting the ways colonial thinking permeates my understanding of myself. We risk internalising the battle over narrative within our bodies. My maternal grandmother was denied the right to speak Gumbaynggir language. My paternal grandmother was denied the privilege to be a mother to her children. These are very real colonial traumas that we inherit and are capable of passing on. As I grow older, I contemplate my own role in mothering the children in my life and community and, therefore, my role as a future ancestor. I am conscious of the need to unlearn that colonial mythology to avoid perpetuating traumas and to honour our ancestors and descendants by living sustainably and in relationship with the land and our non-human kin. In my remembrances, our languages, stories and dreams are ours and ours alone.

In the battle over narrative, lines have been drawn and sides must be chosen.

Whether the future is hopeful or not – and whether by ‘future’ we’re talking political, sustainable or intellectual – it is clear that the future is, and always was, a sovereign one; one that is grounded in truth. The future won’t be found solely in the pages of a book, but the imagining of it might have started there.

 

References 

Baker, Jacquelyn 2021, ‘Celebrating the knowledge production of Aboriginal women: Jacquelyn Baker reviews the 20th anniversary edition of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s “Talkin’ up to the white woman”’, Australian Policy and History, https://aph.org.au/2020/12/celebrating-the-knowledge-production-of-aboriginal-women-jacquelyn-baker-reviews-the-20th-anniversary-edition-of-aileen-moreton-robinsons-talkin-up-to-the-white-woman/  

Bunda, Tracey 2007, ‘The sovereign Aboriginal woman’, in Sovereign subjects: Indigenous sovereignty matters, ed. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Allen & Unwin. 

Davis, Megan 2021, ‘The truth about truth-telling’, The Monthly, 1 December, https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2021/december/1638277200/megan-davis/truth-about-truth-telling#mtr  

Fuller, Lisa 2020, ‘Why culturally aware reviews matter’, Kill Your Darlings, 5 October, https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/why-culturally-aware-reviews-matter/ 

Leane, Jeanine 2020, ‘Living on stolen land: Deconstructing the settler mythscape’, Sydney Review of Books, 6 November, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/kwaymullina-living-on-stolen-land/   

Kembrey, Melanie 2020, ‘Australian booksellers and publishers struggle to meet demand for books about racism and anti-racism as Black Lives Matter protests continue’, 13 June, https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/publishers-rush-to-fill-demand-as-books-on-race-and-racism-sell-out-amid-protests-20200611-p551kf.html 

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen 2000, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, UQP. 

Watson, Irene 2007, ‘Settled and unsettled spaces’, in Sovereign subjects: Indigenous sovereignty matters, ed. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Allen & Unwin. 

Whittaker, Alison 2020, ‘So white. So what.’, Meanjin, https://meanjin.com.au/essays/so-white-so-what/  

Wright, Alexis 2020, ‘A self-governing literature’, Meanjin, https://meanjin.com.au/essays/a-self-governing-literature/  

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