On ‘Coonardoo’, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

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TAKES PLACE in 1929 at Wytaliba, a remote cattle station in the north of Western Australia. It is a tragedy that spans three generations of white settlers, with the main players being Mrs Bessie (Mumae), her son Hughie and Hughie’s daughter, Phyllis. Shadowing their trajectory is Coonardoo, a young Aboriginal girl who is the same age as Hughie, and who grows up in parallel with him. Although Coonardoo and Hughie are bound to each other and the country of Wytaliba, both marry people within their cultural set, but not before conceiving a child together. It is this child that fuels Hughie’s separation from his wife. She packs herself and her daughters off to Perth but eventually the eldest daughter Phyllis, who feels an overwhelming attachment to the north-west, returns.

With Coonardoo, Prichard elicits an image of the north-west landscape that is vibrant and authentic. Her poetic metaphors are stunning. The plots and subplots are like trails of breadcrumbs leading the reader into a social, historical and psychological exploration of white Australia’s association with Indigenous Australia. Being a teacher–linguist who has worked on Indigenous language, cultural and interpreting programs with Nyangumarta people living in the Pilbara, I reveled in Prichard’s unequivocal use of Indigenous words. Mrs Bessie, as the matriarch of Wytaliba – her husband (Hughie’s father) having died years ago – allows the Aboriginal people working on the station to speak their language and practise their cultural ceremonies. In addition, the main female characters are strong, competent, resilient and intelligent. They smoke cigarettes, wear trousers, run stations, drive cars, ride horses and muster cattle. I’m a sucker for a book where women don’t need saving.

Despite this, Coonardoo wasn’t an easy book for me to read, for a number of reasons. For starters, Prichard peppers her fiction with descriptions of Aboriginal people that include ‘ape-like,’ ‘naive’, ‘wicked’ and ‘lazy’. She doesn’t hold back on ‘blacks’, ‘grubs’, ‘devils’ or ‘gins’ either. I cringe when I read them. Coonardoo is initially portrayed as a cross between a cheeky child and a faithful pet. As a grown-up she is wise, but in an instinctive way rather than a knowledgeable sense. Her devotion to Hughie is sickening, and Prichard’s insinuation that Aboriginal people are unable to adapt and are reliant on white Australia to survive is highly contentious.

Then there are these sorts of passages:

And Mrs Bessie hated the initiation ceremonies which were performed during midsummer pink-eyes, sensing a sadism in them, a whipping up of sexual excitement in the cruelties practiced by the old men on boys and girls. (p. 27)

My discomfort here stems from the implications of non-Indigenous writers who use narrative positioning to characterise Indigenous people and culture in whatever way they choose. This is shown in Mrs Bessie’s reaction to the initiation ceremonies. I learned much from the Nyangumarta people during my teaching stint in the desert; I attended ceremonies where the young men of the tribe where taken for initiation. The sexual, sadistic and cruel description voiced by Mrs Bessie explicitly misrepresents these important ceremonies.

Why should this worry me? Until very recently, this is the view that the majority of the reading public had access to. It’s the dominant voice of non-Indigenous people representing Indigenous people. Historically, it was rare to have Aboriginal people speaking for and about themselves. Their voices were overrun by well-intentioned, ill-informed and self-proclaimed experts. Because the opinions of these people are the loudest and most prevalent, the public has tended to take them as truth. When I finished reading Coonardoo, I flicked back to the imprint page. ‘First published in 1929,’ it said – more than eighty years ago. Coonardoo maybe be clichéd and misrepresentative by today’s standards, but if we look at the book in the broader context of when it was written, it is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Australia was a very different country in 1929. It was between wars and at the start of the Great Depression. When Prichard was a young journalist, she listened to reports of the Anti-Sweating League, and heard the evidence of girls who worked long hours on high-pressure machines for minimum wages. With their husbands out of work or ill, and having no money to buy food and clothes for a young family, these women were forced to submit to ‘the lust of unscrupulous employers’ to get ‘white-work’ to take home, earning just over a shilling for making a dozen nightgowns. In her 1956 article ‘Why I am a Communist’, Prichard asks, ‘How was it that some people should have to live in fear and poverty…while others…could live easily and pleasantly, squandering riches, and concerned only about their own pleasure and power?’ This question of social injustice is one of the many she addresses in Coonardoo.

What was the reality for Aboriginal people during the time Coonardoo was published? They were banned from entering central business districts in cities and some regional towns without holding special permits. They were killed en masse, in massacres like the one that occurred at Coniston cattle station in the Northern Territory, and courts ruled that these actions were justified. They required permission to get married. They weren’t allowed to speak their own language or practise their own culture. They were not paid appropriately for their work on pastoral properties or in government missions. They couldn’t buy houses or land. They were denied access to higher education and given menial jobs, which paid little or nothing at all and left girls and women prone to repeated sexual abuse. In the same year as Coonardoo was published, the Queensland Protector of Aborigines recommended to the federal government that Aboriginal people be assimilated into white society. Eight years later, with the assimilation policy firmly in place, children fathered by white men were taken away from their mothers and bought up in various, often brutal, institutions. These people are now known as the Stolen Generations.

The reality of Indigenous people was not reflected in works of Australian fiction eighty years ago. Emphasis was placed on settlers battling courageously against a backdrop of natural hazards, Aboriginal people being one of them. There was also fiction that mocked Indigenous Australians, and a spate of romantic narratives trivialising their history as a bygone era, nostalgic recollections. Sometimes, Aboriginal characters were used in a tokenistic sense, depicted as a homogenous group of ‘blacks’ or ‘natives’. The ‘black velvet’ sexual metaphor of Aboriginal women – designed to assert their exoticism to white men – was also part of this literature. On the whole, there was very little attempt to question accepted stereotypes. Rarely were Aboriginal people portrayed as distinct characters. Coonardoo changed all that. By having Aboriginal characters as identifiable entities with positive human traits, Prichard single-handedly flipped the coin from exoticness to exploitation.

Prichard first published the book in serial form in the Bulletin, under the name of Jim Ashburton. You can imagine the impact this must have had, given the state of literature at the time. It was the first book of this period to capture the deep-seated prejudice of white Australia through an exposé of interracial sexuality. People were shocked to the core; the Bulletin received hundreds of letters of protest. More progressive writers, like Vance Palmer, were worried that Prichard would ruin their chances of having more candid works published. Instead, the opposite happened – it paved the way for a type of fiction that tried to capture the interior life of Aboriginal characters and/or represented them as social beings. Prichard, for better or worse, was instrumental in driving a largely ignored or grossly misrepresented race to a place of social protest in Australian literature. Although far from perfect in today’s political climate, Coonardoo attempts to challenge the conventional modes of Australian writing. Interestingly, it not only generated debate about stereotypes when it was first published, but continues to do so at present.

In 2008, I wrote a PhD exegesis (a mini thesis) about the ethics of non-Indigenous people representing Australia’s Indigenous people in works of fiction. The writing explored the intersections between ethics, politics and storytelling. I suggested that fiction writers from Australia’s dominant culture had a responsibility that underpinned their representation of Aboriginal people. Being accountable was key, not only for what was written but also the effect generated by our words. I asked writers to have a crack at seeing beyond the prevailing discourse of ‘the other’. Listening to those who have been silenced, taken away, abused and divided was part of that challenge.

As well as being able to write a good story, Prichard’s journalistic background provided the impetus to conduct extensive research. She took herself off to Turee station in the Kimberley and lived there for a time, moving beyond the confines of the homestead and into the ‘uloo’ or ‘black’s camp’, as Prichard sometimes calls it. While Coonardoo is Prichard’s ‘version’ of the facts, we are reading something based on research, as opposed to the imagined fantasy of many other authors of the time. Judging from her writing, it is clear she watched, asked questions, and listened to Aboriginal people, just like she did with the girls from the Anti-Sweating League.

To witness the bravery with which Prichard portrayed non-Indigenous Australians in an unsavoury light, readers need to go no further than the character of Sam Geary. Geary is a lecherous drunk from the neighbouring cattle station who has been trying to get Coonardoo into his bed ever since she reached puberty. He is a much-hated man, particularly by Coonardoo, Hughie and Mrs Bessie. Prichard really went out on a limb with Geary. It is little wonder that she first published under the name of a man.

There is one word that was central to my argument in my exegesis: ‘entanglement’. It comes from Nicholas Thomas, an anthropologist with a passionate interest in art. In Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific (Harvard University Press, 1991), Thomas uses the concept of ‘mutual entanglement’ to show how modern anthropological paradigms fail to capture the complex relations that occur when different cultures come into contact with each other. Entanglement acknowledges diversity both within and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures. It resists the notion of Indigenous people always inhabiting completely separate domains to non-Indigenous people without collapsing the two groups into each other. It’s a concept that helps us to break away from stereotypes and binaries – the black and white, ebony and ivory, them and us sort of thing. We all like a stereotype; it makes for an easy life. To say someone is ‘that kind of person’ means we can remain blind to our own (and others) prejudices. Stereotypes mean we can take sides and cheer on our own team. We don’t need to question the logic or indeed the ‘reality’ of these perceived constructions. Prichard takes a step towards acknowledging how enormously complex, multi-layered and different black and white Australia is, and how entwined the relationships between us are. Coonardoo addresses that complexity.

Let’s re-visit Sam Geary. He buys his Aboriginal mistresses, Sheba, silk dresses and a wristwatch. He recognises Sheba as a competent woman and entrusts her with driving his car and the keys to the storeroom. Geary’s treatment of Sheba infuriates Mrs Bessie yet, at the same time, she sees her treatment of Wytaliba’s Aboriginal staff as fair and equitable, all the while grooming Coonardoo to take care of her son when she no longer can. There are no binaries here; the situation is impossibly entangled.

As readers, it is important to situate texts within historical contexts. It helps us to deal with the ideas and beliefs that shape our thoughts about other cultures. We are lucky today to have access to a multitude of stories written and voiced by Aboriginal people, such as Raparapa: Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers (Magabala, 2011); A Town is Born: The Fitzroy Crossing Story (Magabala, 2013); and I Am An Artist. I Come From The Bush, an ABC Open project of thirteen short biographic films. These are stories about station life told by Aboriginal stockmen, women and domestics who lived and grew up on north-west cattle stations. Coonardoo, taken in conjunction with these kinds of stories, can provide a context that reveals a complex and entangled history.

To me, Coonardoo is more than a book that captures the deep-seated prejudice of white Australia through an exposé of interracial sexuality. It’s a milestone marking a shift in thinking, and a pleasant reminder of how literature can challenge and change perceptions and stereotypes.

Referenced Works

ABC 2011, I am an artist. I come from the bush, TV show, series 1, ABC Open.

ABC 2014, I am an artist. I come from the bush, TV show, series 2, ABC Open.

Hawke, S 2013. A Town is Born: The Fitzroy Crossing Story, Magbala Books, Broome.

Marshall, P (ed.) 2011, Raparapara: Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers, Magabala Books, Broome.

Prichard, KS 1956, Why I am a Communist, Current Book Distributors (Communist Party of Australia), Sydney.

Thomas, N 1991, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Further reading

These books will help put Coonardoo in context:

Casey, G 1958, Snowball, Halstead Press, Sydney.

Gunn, A 1908, We of the Never Never, Hutchinson, London.

Durack, M 1955, Keep Him My Country, Rigby, Adelaide.

Healy, JJ 1978, Literature and the Australian Aboriginie in Australia: 1770-1975, UQP, Brisbane.

Herbert, X 1938, Capricornia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Herbert, X 1975, Poor Fellow My Country, Collins, Sydney.

Mudrooroo 1997, The Indigenous Literature of Australia = Milli Milli Wangka, Hyland House, Melbourne.

Palmer, V 1960, The Man Hamilton, Rigby, Adelaide.

White, P 1957, Voss, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London.

Vickers, FB 1955, The Mirage, Australasian Book Society, Melbourne.

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