I’ve been aware of Anita Heiss’ new book for a while, after its promotion at Avid Reader and the fact that our agents work at Curtis Brown, but it was only recently that I found time to get to the library to borrow it. I’m always glad to learn more about Aboriginal culture, and this book gave me a number of things to think about.
A memoir, the work details Heiss’ life to date, outlining her connection to her country (Wiradjuri ie central NSW), the history of her Austrian father and Aboriginal mother and their meeting, her career as an academic and writer, and her relationship with and nurturing of Aboriginal kids and young adults. It also debunks a number of myths about and expectations of contemporary Aboriginal women. Pulling the work together is an account of Andrew Bolt’s defamatory claim that Heiss identified as Aboriginal to advance her career, and her successful refutation of this, along with eight others, through a class action.
One of the elements that stood out for me was the language used to define Aboriginal people. For example:
‘When western societies evolve they call it “modernization”.
When [Aboriginal people] evolve we’re told we have “cultural loss”.
Western societies have “development” but when we develop we’re told we’re experiencing “cultural disgintegration”.
Western societies are allowed to “progress” but when we do, we’re told we’re “trapped between two worlds” ...
Western societies, as mentioned above, are allowed to have one identity with diverse heritages but we are told we are “half-caste”, “part” and so on’ (124-125).
Reading this, I could understand why the case mounted against Bolt was for the right for self-determination for Aboriginal people – that is, ‘the right and ability to identify as Aboriginal’ (168). People, I think, tend not to realise how important the words are until they are affected by them – witness the Prime Minister’s impassioned speech against Abbott’s tiresome misogyny this week. And unfortunately, people who are in positions of power don’t see – or choose not to see – the ramifications of their words (and this is why I wage a war - at the risk of being seen as too sensitive by my friends - against the use of the word ‘gay’ in the context, ‘oh, that’s so gay’ because it belittles the gay community).
While words can be used to drag down or degrade people, they can also be used to bolster them. I can see why Heiss chose to move away from academia into writing fiction that could be accessed by a wide range of people. As she writes of her ‘choc-lit’ novels:
‘I have heard whispers that I am ‘dumbing down’ my writing and betraying readers of my serious work, but those who criticise the genre miss the point of the efforts I’ve made as a Black writer in Australia to broker new publishing ground … I’d hazard a guess that there are more Aboriginal women reading my novels than reading any Indigenous-authored academic books, unless the women are working in academia themselves’ (215).
As someone who moves in and out of academia, I can relate to this. When I’m teaching students or at conferences, I love learning new ideas and making connections in texts – but I also resent the opaque language of philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari which can only be understood by a select few. I believe in writing works that are enjoyable and accessible, and if people get some ideas out of them along the way, then that’s great too.
By the time I finished the memoir, it was clear how integral her Aboriginal culture is to Heiss’ identity, and how ludicrous Bolt’s accusations were. In his article, Bolt had written that Heiss’ ‘self identification as Aboriginal strikes me as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than by any racial reality’ (79). To call someone ‘self-obsessed’ for being themselves was absurd. It would be like, I thought, describing my writing about deafness as self-advancement, when it’s an unavoidable part of my everyday existence, and even that isn’t such a strong simile because I don’t identify with Deaf culture.
I was also full of admiration for Heiss – for her energy and workaholism, her unabated endeavours to help Aboriginal people, and her concerted efforts to remain positive.
For things have been a bit rough lately. After getting over the shock of the unexpected and abrupt termination of my relationship with P, an implacable sadness has descended. I also belatedly discovered that I hadn’t been successful in my application for an Australia Council grant for the fifth time running and promptly dissolved into tears at work in front of my poor boss. I don’t often cry, usually it’s only when I’m absolutely overwrought, so I think I have generally been run ragged in the last few weeks. And, although it’s an unfair comparison, I can’t help but think of emigrant Georgiana Molloy on the shores of Augusta in 1829, having lost her first baby in a completely alien land, and later writing to her friend Helen Storey back in Scotland, ‘I thought I might have had one little bright object left me to solace all the hardships and privations I endured and have still to go through.’
However as I was walking to catch the bus to work earlier this week, and thinking about writing this review, I contemplated Anita’s repetition of the things for which she was grateful. Sometimes, especially for someone with a saturnine disposition who is too hard on themselves, it’s easy to slip into self-absorbed despair, and a little perspective never goes astray. So I thought it would be helpful to also compile a list of things for which I am grateful:
1.The jacarandas and golden raintrees are in full bloom, as is the jasmine along my neighbour’s fence. It’s also becoming very friendly with my washing line, and entwining itself therein.
2.I have fabulous friends who buy me eReaders and bottles of Moet and Chandon, who invite me to exhibition openings, who drink wine with me at French cafés and regale me with entertaining stories, and who help me sweat myself into my summer figure at yoga.
3.Julia Gillard took Tony to the cleaners this week. While the Canberra journalists didn’t even recognise the importance of what she was doing for women, social media went totally haywire. It was wonderful and amazing.
4.I have a short story coming out in the Review of Australian Fiction tomorrow, and I’ve been paired with Elizabeth Stead, niece of Christina Stead. The lovely people at the RAF have also organised a deal to sell the story through Avid Reader with Entitlement ie buy the novel, and get the story free!
5.I have parents who support me as a writer by helping put a roof over my head, so that even if I didn’t get the grant, I can probably just survive on two days of work a week, for the next 6 months, after which time I’ll hopefully be able to get a postdoc, otherwise I’ll start tutoring again. This means I can get the first draft of my third novel done in the next 6 months. I won’t be able to eat much, or go out, or buy any frocks or shoes, but hell, we only have one life, and I can survive 6 months of deprivation just so I can write.
6.Being single again also means more time for writing, dancing, swimming, and generally recovering from this rollercoaster of a year.
Anita will be speaking at the 5th Anniversay of BlackWords at Avid Reader on Friday 19th October. BlackWords is a website, searchable database and forum for communication. It has grown from a subset of the AustLit database recording the published work of some 700 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, to become a rich collection of records covering the lives, writing and storytelling activities of more than 4,800 people.
On Saturday 20 October there will also be a public symposium on BlackWords held at the University of Queensland Art Museum. Unfortunately I can’t go as I have a cousin’s wedding, but both sound like fantastic events.