Memoir

Following the song

Listening, learning and knowing

Western knowledge is increasingly problematic because of its dominance over other people’s world knowledge and learning systems, its innate belief in its superior- ity over all forms of ‘knowing’, and its claims to universality when it is only a ‘particular’ way of knowing.

Gladys and Jill Milroy, Different ways of knowing: Trees are our families too (2008)

 

A CREATIVE PHD and the accompanying exegesis should be [XYZ]. Fulfil these requirements in this order and you will pass.

[How is recreating a system creative?] Here are some examples of exegeses that passed. Quote [white man’s] work, use their theories as a basis, and you’ll pass.

[Is using the words of the dominant culture ever going to challenge or speak to my own minority position as a Blak woman?]

Follow this structure. Break it down and write in the academic style that you’ve been trained in.

[I’d rather break out of my own indoctrination into a culture and system that is not my own. But thanks.]

 

EVERY TIME I TRY to write my exegesis, I run headfirst into my own colonised brain/practices. Every. Single. Time. I try to plan it out and break it down into manageable chunks.

I’ve always wanted to be a plotter, but pantsing (aka writing by the seat of my pants) is the only way I’ve ever finished anything. As an undergrad, my tutor taught me to break every essay into chunks – introduction, three main points, conclusion. I’ve tried to do this with my PhD. I even bought a whiteboard so I could brainstorm the details and hash out the structure. No matter how often I rework this, the words are flat, without meaning. They have no song, no life or connection. The whiteboard sits in a corner now, its words facing a window that I never open.

I began my PhD back in 2017. I think. Sometimes it feels like I’ve always been doing it. Maybe because I’ve spent my life learning from my Elders and older community members. When I started, my doctorate was a dog’s break- fast, built on others’ expectations. It was going to be a straight community history for my mob – easy, right?

My training taught me to seek sources, ones I could name, that had ‘academic rigour’. The problem was I wanted to pick fights with most of it. Not because it was wrong or not valuable, but because it didn’t fit what I wanted to do. I fell into a rabbit warren of searches and re-searches, bouncing through databases, books, reference lists and bibliographies, trying to find…something. Readings left me bent over my desk, forehead pressed to the melamine – how to incorporate these things into my work when all I wanted to do was argue against them? But there were moments in the bland white-and-cream Higher Degree by Research (HDR) room when I caught glimpses of something. Weak tendrils flowed through my fingers, impossible to grasp.

That first year, at my introductory seminar, there were a lot of us presenting; everyone else seemed so much more on top of their topics than I was. At the end of the day, a professor challenged us (I’m paraphrasing) by asking: ‘What is a creative exegesis? Do you in fact need one?’ This blew my mind. Could we flout academia so blatantly and still be considered PhD students?

Creatives have always had to fight to justify their existence. Even more so in this time of COVID-19 and budget cuts. Especially in the academy. The arts sectors are always the first to have their funding cut. What could I do if I refused to play ball? I will defend the value of the arts until I’m on my death bed, and I’ve known the priceless nature of stories – their ability to impart wisdom, to open hearts and minds, to challenge and educate – my entire life. The idea that academia can reject these truths is real; it drives my anxiety.

In my weakest moments, when my inner critic is taunting me for my failures and hubris, convincing me I’m wrong about everything, I reach for journal articles, textbooks and long library visits. My colonised mind tells me to regurgitate these tried-and-true methods. Use direct quotes and form myself and my arguments around them. Stay safe in my corner. Pass and never truly push myself or add much.

The challenge from that professor sparked something inside me. I went to my supervisor and vented. He looked at me for a moment and then asked, ‘Would you like to do an informed rejection of white epistemology?’

‘Can we do that?’ was my awed response. He opened a door I hadn’t known existed.

 

THE IDEA OF the academy accepting my cultural expression was not something I could fathom. Most Western societies hold up the ideal that knowledge should be accessible and free to anyone who needs or wants it. For my mob, knowledge has to be earned. Only certain people have rights to tell – or hear – specific stories. A mainstream reader will not understand this or how it has influenced our way of speaking, which is almost always reflected in our writing. Many non-Indigenous readers will have pre-existing ideas of First Australians and our cultures, based largely on stereotypes – often informed by media rather than firsthand experience.

I am bicultural, meaning I can navigate two cultures, as most minorities are forced to do. This doesn’t work in both directions; most non-Indigenous people won’t – or can’t – understand our cultures. They’ll miss the context and the subtext. They won’t see the circular methods with which most First Nations Australians tell stories. From inside their cultural frame, they will see needless repetition.

Most of our knowledge isn’t on paper, and nor should it be. There’s no one authority, or those with recognised ‘credentials’ as Western society would understand them. Our knowledge is verbal, communal and reciprocal. It encompasses our worldview. It is repetitive, cyclical; it wanders all the connections of the giant web that is the world.

The linear mainstream, with its absolutes, is something I’ve absorbed all my life and become used to. The academy’s insistence that work be focused in a specific way (as if it exists in a vacuum) and at such a minute level that it loses any sense of where it sits: I’ve taken that on too. These opposing forces sit within me at all times, so ingrained I don’t see them anymore.

I’m used to adapting to the mainstream and then returning to my home because bringing my culture into the mainstream has never been a safe option. Even now, few people in the mainstream world see our ways as factual. Whether they’re aware of it or not, the unconscious bias exists. The history of this country – as with most colonising cultures – has been characterised by the colonisers belittling and minimising those they have stolen from and committed atrocities against. Our beliefs are ‘myths’ and ‘legends’, our oral history is ‘subjective’ and ‘untrustworthy’.

 

THAT DAY WITH my supervisor, a slow dawning began inside me. I had turned all my frustrations inward, blamed myself for ‘not understanding’, not being ‘smart enough’. I was gaslighting myself. Repeating the unconscious racism in mainstream Australia that had seeped unseen into my body – that my culture is inferior and not accepted in this space.

My struggle with the readings wasn’t intellectual: it was cultural and spiritual. In all that reading, I was searching for truths that sang to me.

My family believe our culture, our Country, sings to us. I’ve heard it my whole life – the soft melody at the very edge of my hearing, just that little bit too far away to make out the words. It leaves me feeling connected but also cut off and sad. Some part of me knows I should recognise those words. Some part of me will always grieve for it. Know that it was taken from me.

When I say I wanted sources that sang, I mean it. No, not literally: it’s a vibration through my body, a tingle in my gut that says ‘here, this is what you’re looking for’. A resonance with the tune I carry, am part of – like recognising like. I catch parts of the melody within readings and conversations, like listening through a locked iron door. Muffled but there. I cling to the song, let it be my guide. But it’s not an easy journey, not when I have to battle so hard against my colonised self.

Mainstream Australian society focuses on the mind and intellect, as though we are just brains experiencing the world. The body is a vehicle to be fuelled and tuned; the spirit doesn’t exist at all. That disconnection of being is completely counter to the connection of all things my upbringing teaches me. The connection between physical, mental and emotional health is now accepted as fact, but only so far as they can be linked to chemicals or observable reactions.

A healthy diet and exercise are good for me, but I also know that when I stay away from home too long, I get sick. My body lets me know, Country is calling me, and I ignore it at my peril. Telling people this makes me twitchy. It usually invites scorn or condescension. And I’m not sure English can explain what I’m saying here properly, yet I know no other language.

Then again, some things don’t need words or explanations. So where does that leave me?

I’m going to tell you the conclusion I’ve come to after four years.

I am constantly forced to adhere to expectations that do not fit my experience. As a First Nations female studying creative writing in the academy, I must form my expression and practices to the very Eurocentric male astringency of that institution. My refusal to contain myself and my work within those confines mean I run the risk of not passing. In order to make my argument at all, I must first take an opposing stance – ‘an informed rejection of white epistemology’. If I don’t state that and argue it up front, my undertaking won’t be understood by those who sit within the system. I must confine myself to this professional façade.

And yet, here I am, still writing an exegesis because that’s what my training and the tertiary parameters say I must do. Its current title is ‘Sure to Fail’, but still, it’s an exegesis.

I don’t believe I am the person to do a truly Blak creative PhD, because my practices have been too colonised. My hope is that this work will be a stepping stone to help others do better, push further. That my work can be a resource they quote in theirs, if only to point out the flaws. Maybe in a few years they’ll be allowed to embrace Aboriginal English or oral story- telling; maybe they’ll do it at a time when the arts are valued for what they are, not for what they can justify to the academy, the government and those who scream about easily mapped economic contributions. As if that’s all that should hold value.

 

AT A VERY basic level, my culture tells me that life is yarning, all things are circular, holistic, connected, and to think big picture. The core of my mob’s storytelling is around the connectedness of all things, from daily life to spiritual life and everything in between, within the world around us that we can see and what we can’t. Like the strands of an infinite spider’s web, each is beautiful and distinct, but it holds no form without connection to the strands around it. And above all, that connection is story.

My academic training tells me research and life are linear, compartmentalised, focused and small picture, that I must take small bites and analyse them closely in isolation. For a long time, I accepted this way of thinking and proved to be good at operating within that sphere. The older I’ve become, the less this notion works for me.

I could pick any number of elements to explore within my culture and it would constitute the key requirement for any PhD: an ‘original contribution to knowledge’. Not only would I learn nothing – other than yet another way to inform non-Indigenous people about my culture – but the resulting research would mean nothing to me or my mob. So I’m making the decision to do something meaningful to me at the risk of it becoming meaningless to others. I have read and understood the purpose of a creative exegesis and all its required elements, and I choose to reject them as elements of an epistemology that has little to do with my culture. I’m not saying these elements aren’t necessary and important for some research, but they do not – and cannot – work for my project.

 

YEAR TWO OF my PhD was confusing, but I had a place to ground myself. That year, I did my confirmation seminar.

This was the first big hurdle in my PhD. It was a watershed moment. I knew going in that I didn’t want to do the standard confirmation. Instead, I wrestled with how I could incorporate story. Without even realising it, I was following multiple cultural imperatives.

I enlisted my partner, my mother and friends to help set everything up. I prepared the slideshow while my helpers grouped the chairs into a circle and closed the blinds. My partner placed a screen at the centre of the room; it was playing a video of fire, with branches placed above it to emulate the real thing. My seminar had two parts. At the beginning, I stood at the front of the room and gave my PowerPoint-driven spiel about all the challenges I’d been dealing with. Then I opened a slide with a quote from an in-conversation event I’d done with award-winning Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko in 2018:

Story in Western culture is predominantly entertainment or propaganda…story as philosophy is much less present. Most Western audiences won’t listen to story in the same way that we do.

With the lights off, I sat on the floor near the ‘fire’. I turned up the volume so the crackling of the flames was clear. I brought out a star lamp; it was supposed to emulate the stars above us on the ceiling, but for some reason it only wanted to display on the carpeted floor. I went to turn it off, but some of the people present told me to leave it: comedy is a great unifier. I asked those who were able to join me on the floor.

I explained how story by the river at night, with mob, was our way of learning/teaching. I spoke about the sounds of the ghost gums along the riverbank with the breeze moving through them. I tried to tell them how special that place is. The gasping breath of a ceratodus coming to the surface… but I got the sound wrong, as I always do.

So I asked my mum how it goes.

She spoke then, about ceratodus, their meaning to us, her experiences. She shared story and yarned with me. I released a breath I’d been holding all morning. I’d known that if I’d asked her beforehand or tried to ‘facilitate’ her involvement in any way, she would have been too nervous. I also knew that if she was in any way uncomfortable, it would never have developed as it should. The receptive audience, and our attempts to create an environment that the two of us know so intimately, brought success.

I cannot thank her enough, as she continues to show me the way. With the loss of so many of our Elders, she is the person I look to, the senior woman who guides me always.

I was loath to stop her once she started sharing, partly because she was on a roll – but mostly because it was completely inappropriate for me to do so. But, forced by whitefulla time and the next PhD student who was anxiously waiting, I thanked her and everyone else for participating. Hoping that in some way they could appreciate the cultural needs I was trying to follow and the cultural divide I am trapped in.

When the lights came back on, my helpers set the room to rights while people offered feedback and asked questions.

I walked out of there realising that by following the song, our culture, I’d brought our oral storytelling into an academic space – one that, in the past, probably wouldn’t have accepted it. And no one had batted an eyelid.

It is with immense pride that I say my mother was the star of my confirmation. My research proposal passed not long after.

Sometime later, I was explaining to a fellow HDR student that I was most nervous when my mum was present at my seminars. They asked if she was a professor, and I frowned, saying no. We both left the conversation confused. Afterwards I realised it was a cultural clash – my fellow student thought that only a senior academic could have such sway over my research. To me, a senior community member is the final word.

End of discussion.

Later, Mum told me she found the confirmation way more interesting than my introductory seminar. She made some comment about all those big words and shit that meant nothing to her. I think she meant this as a self-criticism in part, but mostly she was declaring her lack of interest.

This, combined with my aunties’ response to the end of my master’s, made it clear: the academic content was of no interest to them. They didn’t see it as being ‘for them’, and they weren’t invited to be a part of it in the past. In many ways, they are actively excluded from it still.

This is us being studied. Still, we’re shown every day that some spaces are not for us. Not unless we’re willing to change. The colonial impacts and power imbalances are still clear. The academy has never met us halfway.

 

IN THE YEARS since my confirmation, I’ve continued making this grand declaration that my PhD is an ‘informed rejection of white epistemology’. I keep expecting someone to say, ‘whose epistemology are you using then?’ But that question has never been asked. And isn’t that telling? The academy and those within it only see one epistemology. Rejecting it is enough of a shock; no one thought to question what I’d do instead.

In truth, I used to dread the question because I didn’t have an answer other than ‘my own’. The thought of finding a label was both appealing and repellent. My academic training saw it as an opportunity to come up with a new concept. But my cultural perspective tells me it’s not new at all. Labelling something soothes the ego, fulfills the requirements of the academy and follows an established Eurocentric patriarchal pattern. Because it implies ownership. And that’s not okay.

But it’s something the academy has always done to us. Taken our knowledge, thrown it around like it was their idea and claimed ownership.

Originally when I wrote the sentence above, ‘my own’ was ‘mine’. But I erased that because it’s not ‘mine’ and never was.

My cultural perspective tells me nothing I say is new. None of it comes from me; it comes from those who came before me, and by keeping my ears open and my mouth shut I’ve absorbed their stories. None of that makes it ‘mine’. Because that’s not how we work. I can claim ownership of my experience, but nothing else. So maybe, if I’m forced to label what I’m attempting at all, I can borrow from the Own Voices trend happening in writing and publishing right now and simply call it ‘own epistemology’.

Language matters. The density and opaqueness of academic language bothers me because of its inherent elitism. I believe in linguistic determinism for the simple fact that I’ve seen it play out in my life. The more my family ‘correct’ our English, shifting from Aboriginal English into Standard Australian, the more there is a correlating change in how we express things such as time and explanations. Language determines how we operate, our behaviours, our thought patterns. All of these things link directly to our epistemology. Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s work on Indigenous women’s standpoint theory resonates deeply with me, especially her focus on interconnectedness and the individual experience. If I continue to use those languages and behaviours, I fear I may be choosing to stay colonised. To be clear, I am not judging others for their own forms of expression either. This is the conclusion I’ve come to for myself.

And isn’t that just a huge rub? Because as a tutor, I’m required to teach my students the academy’s way of operating. Years ago, after a one-on-one session with an Aboriginal student, I ran smack-bang into the thought that I’d just become the coloniser. I felt like I’d had my guts ripped open. I debated with myself whether this was a good or bad thing: I was teaching them how to operate successfully within the academy and doing so from our shared perspective. Was that better or worse? I still don’t have an answer.

This is why I have deep reservations with ideas around ‘Indigenising’ or ‘decolonising’ the curriculum. How can that ever happen if it’s still set in a white male space? When is it truly yours or different if you always have to work within someone else’s framework?

And we do have to do that. Just look at how difficult it is, both as creatives and as Blak people, to get our work published in any academic space. That work rarely follows the ‘norm’ set by white male epistemology, ontology and axiology – all those big words and shit, as Mum would say.

The need for definitive answers and the inherent issue of ‘right to knowledge’ bothers me. My culture says no one has a ‘right to knowledge’, and frankly, I have no answers, only more questions and problems. My ego would be soothed if I could marry these two opposing concepts and give answers out like heart lollies with ‘insightful’ quotes etched into them. Instead, I have a sticky note attached to my computer screen that simply says: ‘I don’t need to have a definitive answer.’

Because it’s not possible. Learning in my culture is constant. And if you don’t understand something now, that’s not an issue with the content; it’s an issue with you. Maybe, at some point in the future when you’re ready to hear and learn, it will make sense. But today, not understanding is okay. The implication is that you will get there – as long as you listen.

I don’t feel like what I offer up in general is new. Partly because many smarter individuals have already made these points. But mainstream culture hasn’t been listening – and it still isn’t. Every time I open my mouth or publish an op-ed, I feel that problem weigh on me. I hear from Blak writers and academics congratulating me on my piece, but I also read their frustration, because I’m far from the first to say these things. I also hear from non- Indigenous peoples thanking me for my ‘unique insight’. The conclusion I’ve come to is we need to keep saying it till it sinks in, no matter how tiring it is. Because what’s the alternative?

Just as with this work, my exegesis feels like I am regurgitating stories, beliefs, viewpoints I’ve heard many times before from my family, community, colleagues and friends. None of this is ‘new knowledge’ for us, nor is it mine. But it’s new for the academy and those outside these spheres, which means it gets defined as such. Our work still is labelled, shaped and categorised by others according to their system, based on a worldview and standpoint that is often diametrically opposed to our own. Acceptable only by those standards. And I’ve played a part in continuing that system.

That may well be my biggest problem of all.

What I know for sure? Until I can quote my Elders and senior community members as valuable sources, without first having to engage with them in a ‘white researcher’ way and under those requirements. Until they are recognised as the highly valuable, walking cultural treasures/institutions that they are. Until students are given the freedom to learn and express in ways appropriate to their cultural expression. Until diverse forms of expression are embraced and recognised as equally valid. Until the arts are acknowledged and celebrated as much as any other discipline. Until I can freely claim my space in the academy and the world and not be harassed for it. Until the dominant epistemology is finally seen for what it is: one particular way and not the only way. Until all of this happens, I will never be able to operate within a culturally safe space.

Now do me a favour: go back to the beginning and read that quote from the Milroys again.

 

This memoir was commissioned by Grace Lucas-Pennington as part of ‘Unsettling the Status Quo’, thanks to support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

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