Wonder a Day 22: Aboriginal Women’s Writing – Fighting for Literacy and Literary Freedom

Aboriginal Women’s Writing – June Perkins

Extract — AWW’s first guest blog: “Aboriginal Women Writers – The fight for Literacy and Literary Freedom and a true name calling” by Dr June Perkins

My search to understand and identify Aboriginal women’s literature began naively and in earnest with a letter to Oodgeroo (Noonuccal).* I was probably twenty and had heard a lot about her work in Aboriginal people gaining citizenship rights and was keen to interview her for an article I was writing. Instead she said I should contact younger people like Lydia Miller(Kuku Yalanji) as she was more contemporary than Oodgeroo.

I was interested in Aboriginal women’s literature because as a girl (Bush Mekeo/Írish/French Australian background) I wanted to find out about the stories of the original people of the land I lived in and see if they had anything in common with my own experience.

I had forward-thinking teachers who had shared the sorry history of the treatment of Aboriginal people in Tasmania and so-called Aboriginal issues were not invisible to me. From a young age I was mistaken as Aboriginal and subsequently subjected to a lot of racist comments at school.

This made me both upset to be name-called and curious – and I was lucky to have people around me, including an Aboriginal girl from Mornington Island who was boarding and went to my school, and another classroom friend, to see that Aboriginal people were in many ways just like everyone else and I wondered why they were so put down.

They were not token friends, but very caring girls, and the girl from Mornington told the best ghost stories! Actually, come to think of it, my friends were all a mini united nations and we didn’t fit any moulds of what you might call “mainstream”.

Many of the early writers like Oodgeroo and, with respect, the recently passed away Ruby Langford Ginibi (Bundjalung), began with a sense of connection to place, people and history. They wore the mantle of spokesperson for the cause of Aboriginal rights to be respected, acknowledged and treated the same as any other human being because they had realised the pen is a mighty tool in the fight for justice. There are so many writers that should be mentioned, like Jackie Huggins (Bidjara), a fearless academic and wonderful writer who wrote an innovative biography with her mother, Aunty Rita, who is still an active intellectual teaching in the university system.

For Langford-Ginibi, incarceration, justice and identity formed the themes of her life writing whilst for Oodgeroo, a poetry exploring people, place and environment was a major concern. Oodgeroo was also noted for her friendship with Judith Wright.

This fight for justice was often a heavy burden to bear, and it could have led to the pigeonholing of Aboriginal women’s writing, to be eternally from the fringes and fixated upon the human rights agenda, but instead they became the footsteps to follow in and add to. Aboriginal English made its way into Aboriginal literature so that writers were not forced to simply fit the canon of other Australian literature, but this in itself was a battle.

Now many years later, and having been mentored at a playwrights conference by Lydia, a wonderful actress, I am happy to say that I always look out for up-and-coming Aboriginal women writers. For me they can write about any topic from Murri lives in the Bush, like Vivienne Cleven‘s, Bitin’Back, to an Aboriginal woman bureaucrat in Paris like Anita Heiss (Wiradjuri). The beauty of Aboriginal women’s writing is its current diversity and moving away from set definitions.

There are many Aboriginal women writers in Australia who created the opportunities for the writers of today – not only Anita Heiss, but also Kerry Reed-Gilbert (Wiradjuri), Alexis Wright (Waanyi Nation), and Jennifer Martiniello (Arrente/Chinese/Anglo-celtic). I was happy to interview several of them when I was a uni student and to learn not only about their writing but their philosophies on life. They are different and yet many maintain close friendships with each other – Anita and Kerry are in constant touch, and another friend of theirs working in radio put me onto interviewing them. They encourage each other and the new generation of up and coming Aboriginal writers, both men and women.

Today’s writers, whilst they will often tackle identity and the continuing need for the recognition of Aboriginal people in the constitution, have created a literary freedom for a future generation of writers. They have been able to strive for a unity in their diversity of genres and voices – and have asked to be recognised as a non-homogenous group.

They are happy to share their perspective as specific to a language group, urban or rural environment – and have pulled apart what it means to be black, Aboriginal, Indigenous and an Aboriginal woman. Aileen Moreton Robinson (Geonpul) and Leah Purcell (Goa Gungurri Wakka Wakka) both have works that tackle that diversity and need not to be subsumed into other’s agendas. Purcell’s Black Chick’s Talking is a remarkable set of interviews with a diverse group of creative Aboriginal women – which has an accompanying film, paintings and explores Aboriginal women’s creativity.

For the Rest of this post please go to  the Australian Women’s Writers site

(c) June Perkins

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