Is That Your Story To Tell: non-indigenous writers and First Nations stories

20140711_133655Its time writers stopped cultural appropriation of First Nations peoples stories – their heritage, cultures and places. Its time to progress the conversation beyond a writers’ rights to tread where they wish, and instead talk about decolonising Australian literature.

As a starting point, writers should consider cultural safety. Many other sectors have introduced this intercultural model to their workplaces and practices. It could be of benefit to the Australian literature sector. 

Cultural safety
Cultural safety originated in New Zealand in the 1980’s as a solution to the inequity, cultural bias and systemic racism that Maori people encountered when accessing health care. It has since spread to other sectors, such as education, and exported to other nations, such as Australia. Its a good fit for countries that have a similar history of colonisation, and the subsequent ongoing socioeconomic disparities.

In simple terms, cultural safety is a form of interpersonal relationship-building that takes in to account the complex sociopolitical influences and cultural elements of individuals: history, culture, heritage, power & privilege, worldviews and values.

Identity, colonisation and literature
My identity is uniquely mine. I am complex but I know who I am.  And where I sit on the constantly shifting Power & Privilege Spectrum. At this point in time, part of my identity is that I am a middle-aged motorbike-riding Aboriginal writer and bookshop owner.

When I write, it’s important that I have a clear understanding of me, and an honest awareness of my limitations. And there are limitations to the creative process. Writers do not have free-range to write whatever they want, without regard to others. So I am aware of the need to follow cultural protocol; to write in a responsible and respectful manner; to know what I can and can‚Äôt write. In simple terms: to do no harm.

Harm has always existed in Australian literature. Regardless of whether its fiction or non-fiction, literature is yet another means to colonise and oppress First Peoples. To silence voices of Indigenous peoples by myth-making and constructing a non-inclusive national story. To reinterpret the violence of nation-building; from invasion to appropriation.  

Honestly, I’ve slowly drifted away from Australian fiction. Dreading the moment when the non-indigenous writer would introduce an Aboriginal character or appropriated story, I knew it was time to look elsewhere for reading material. I now mostly read books by non-white writers. We read to see parts of ourselves represented. There’s been some improvements, but Australian literature is not inclusive.

Reading¬†books containing paternalistic, out-dated and offensive terminology is uncomfortable. Even traumatic. All that misinformation, romanticised versions of history, and cultural bias that oozes from some pages isn‚Äôt an enjoyable reading experience. That’s not cultural safety. These writers, and their publishers, show no regard for Aboriginal readers. No respect for the culture, heritage, and lived experiences of First Nations peoples. This type of writing is cringe worthy at the least; appropriation (i.e. theft) of cultural knowledge at the worst.

Embedding others while resisting otherness
The intention of this blog post is not to scare writers off from including Aboriginal characters, history and places in their works. We should build capabilities to embed intersectionality in our works, and explore a broader range of values and ideas.

However, we should also be wary of resorting to otherness in our depictions of diversity. Not everyone can, or should, write outside of their lane. A writer needs to be competent. And the inclusion of intersectionality needs to be more than a token gesture.

Research is the first step, but make sure your sources are reputable. Reflecting on your own background is essential. Get advice Рand remunerate Aboriginal people for their time and expertise. Listen to that advice: if its suggested you make changes, or remove elements, then take those recommendations seriously. Always write from a position of respect Рnot entitlement. Do you want a badly written or unconsciously offensive piece hounding you for the rest of your writing career? 

Whose story is this?
The above advice is good for minor characters and story elements. However, i
f you are considering a main character who is of Aboriginal descent, or intend to depict a historical event involving Aboriginal people, or include an aspect of others’culture (i.e. lore, law, spirituality, ceremony, protocol, language, songlines), then extra care should be taken. In most cases I would suggest writers reflect on the¬†harm their work may cause others, and to reconsider¬†what they intend to write.

If your only source of information is the internet, if you have not engaged an Aboriginal cultural adviser, and if you are not of Aboriginal descent Рshould you be even writing that story or inventing those characters? In most cases: No. Find another story, other characters, or at least another approach. And if you are non-indigenous and intend to write from the point of view of an Aboriginal person Рseriously, think before you go there.

Not only do you run the risk of being culturally unsafe and inappropriate, but you will probably misrepresent Aboriginal peoples, history and culture. We have enough Australian history books, novels, research papers and movies that do that! 

Its time to move away from paternalistic, entitled, irresponsible and lazy storytelling. No more appropriating other people’s stories, stealing their cultural knowledge. Globally, indigenous peoples have lost enough. Find your own stories.

The lone black duck in the room
Australian literature sector is really really white. Blindingly so. Its still extremely hard for Indigenous writers, poets, journalist, editors and academics to get a foot in the door. This is not from lack of talent, passion or capacity. Its because literature is one of the last vestiges of colonialism in Australia. And there’s an abundance of cultural bias, racism, cultural incompetence, and paternalism lurking in the book making/distributing realm.

Recently I sat on a panel with other members of this realm. There were two strong voices on the panel passionately speaking about the need to protect Australian stories (ie white middle-class stories). As the only non-white panel member, I reminded them a couple of times that there is no such thing as a collective Australian story, and that many peoples’ stories remain unheard. I was then schooled and ‘corrected’,¬†by panel members and audience. Told that there is enough diversity in Australian literature. And told, quite aggressively, that there were plenty of Aboriginal books, and adequate opportunities given to Indigenous writers in Australia. Oh really?¬†

At the beginning of this session, I had introduced myself as an Aboriginal writer – who sits on the Board of the First Nations Australian Writers Network, and actively promotes diverse books in my independently-owned bookshop. As the only non-white person in the room, I felt very isolated and under attack by a dominant worldview. And this wasn’t the first time I’d had this experience – its so suffocating! Driving home, I had to stop in a darkened carpark for an hour to shake that feeling off. Deep breath. Keep moving forward.¬†

Make some space for Aboriginal voices
Stories of colonisation, grief & loss, racism, inequity, and historical wrongs need to be told. As do stories of survival, resilience, family, culture, heritage, community, and future-building. However they need to be told the right way, with the right voices. White writers should be wary of taking on others’ voices, and be more aware of potential harm they can cause others. All writers need to take the time to reflect on where they sit on the power and privilege spectrum.

Aboriginal people need to be given more space, and resources, to tell their own stories. Protecting, maintaining and owning culture and story is a globally recognised right of indigenous peoples. Publishers need to acknowledge and support this right by facilitating more opportunities for Aboriginal writers to become published. And stop publishing works by white writers that are offensive or that appropriate others’ stories.

Find your own voice
As a non-indigenous person, writing your interpretation of others’s voices, you potentially silence peoples already striving to be heard. You also miss opportunities to find your own voice; to tap into your own wealth of knowledge, experiences, heritage and culture. Its important to know who you are, and write what you know. There are plenty of story-seeds closer to home.¬†

If you are driven to write about other peoples because of a desire to ‘do good’, then maybe you could find a more appropriate way than using a voice that is not yours, or telling a story that is not yours to tell. Walk the talk by being mindful of what you are writing, and why.¬†Be a champion of cultural safety in literature.

Decolonise literature
It will take a multi-pronged approach to decolonise Australian literature. Writers, readers, editors, reviewers, publishers, event organisers, peak bodies, booksellers, librarians and teachers all have a part to play. From my professional experiences in government, health and community services, and education (including delivering cultural safety training), I know it won’t be easy. However, other sectors have made a commitment to be more inclusive and culturally competent. They have pledged to reduce systemic racism, inequity and cultural bias.¬†Why can’t the literature sector do the same? If more people speak up, become advocates for equity in literature, then change will happen.

Together we can do this. Let’s decolonise literature in Australia!


This article was originally posted on 4 September 2013. Re-worked on 10 September 2016

14 thoughts on “Is That Your Story To Tell: non-indigenous writers and First Nations stories

  1. Fascinating point! It is important to encourage empathy while recognizing that such a thing is not complete. It’s wonderful to try to look at a situation from a different viewpoint or listen to voices which you do not identify with, but trying to speak for that voice can really be presumptuous, especially if it comes from subconscious stereotype. I think you are wise to advise those who want to raise awareness and empathize to find another medium rather than fiction.
    I have written poems (in English) which were inspired by Latin American women who came to the United States, based on videos (in Spanish). It was a wonderful and humbling experience to make something which was a fusion of their experience with mine and I enjoyed very much the experience of reading the finished pieces for those ladies. Because of its brevity and transparency, poetry gave us a vehicle where we could crawl into each other’s experience without relinquishing ourselves. It’s quite different from a novel, where the author really has a god-like control and responsibility over the reality of the story. I really appreciate the damage that can be done when we create a fictional world that strengthens the bonds of the real world on others. Thank you for bringing this up; you make me see more clearly.


  2. I’m Australian too, although of Hungarian extraction, and I see this question in terms of ‘Wog Boys’. Not sure if you’re familiar with that movie but it was written, and starred people who actually were from that culture. They were making fun of themselves, and we all understood that, hence it was okay to laugh along with them. But it would not have been okay coming from a straight anglo.

    Who owns the story really really matters. Great post.


    • Exactly. Great movie by the way.
      Humour is also a great vehicle for exposing things and raising awareness (if done respectfully and by the right people). Its used by some minority groups to deal with ongoing stress caused by racism and Otherness. From my POV, we (Australian Aboriginal people) have a deadly sense of humour.


    • Hi Damian. In answer to your question, bigger than what some people might imagine. And not just in Australia; this is a global issue. If we speak out, and examine our own action (or inaction), then these types of problems can be addressed.
      Thanks for the comment!


      • Hi Karen and Yvonne,

        I was genuinely asking. I live in Canada, on the West Coast, where the First Nations walk a tightrope between existing amongst the modern sensibilities of North American life, preserving their heritage and planning for the future. As an Englishman, my only heritage here is blame. Their struggle, the destruction and misery wrought upon their way of life is the result of MY people and their empire-building.

        I see North Americans leap with glee on tales of ancient Scottish or Irish relatives, grasping any excuse to wear a Shamrock on March 17th, but few extol their English heritage. More Canadians than Americans, perhaps.

        I’ve never felt drawn to telling a story outside my own cultural viewpoint. What I write has to come from who I am, what I understand of things. I look at the position of the First Nations and I CAN’T understand them. I have no experience of the previous generation being confined to Residential schools to have their “primitive” ways corrected, or of growing up with elders who have no experience of parents, because their parents weren’t there. I don’t understand why you would want to restore a culture that depends on veneration of the natural world around you, but also plan to build malls and casinos to bring in millions of dollars… The list goes on.

        On my best days, I might reach to write a piece from a female point of view, since I am the only male in a house with four women. I’ve lived with my wife’s career struggles through several male-dominated industries and I understand a great deal about what she feels, what she wants and what she has gone through. Her experience is also, to a limited extent, mine.

        It’s been frustrating, in the past. I saw competitions for women, for minorities, for immigrants… All these niche groups that I could not be part of because i was of the privileged majority – a white male. But I’m actually ok with that now. There should be greater opportunities for those whose voices have been suppressed in the past, whether through racism, sexism, or the more subtle financial oppression that rewards hard work with the opportunity for more hard work. John Scalzi has eloquently pointed out that being a straight white male does not make life EASY, but it’s the equivalent of playing a computer game on the lowest difficulty setting: Many obstacles and problems are simply not there for people like me.

        That doesn’t mean I can’t find stories to tell about who I am.


        • Damian, you have raised some important issues, obviously built on personal reflections. Its late at night here, so I will wait until tomorrow to reply with the respect that your comment deserves.
          However, I will say that cultural safety involves both parties committed to open and respectful communication. No one, regardless of their (slightly more fortunate) position in society or because of their gender, ethnicity etc, should be the brunt of disrespect – and that includes yourself.


        • As a white European Canadian (Dutch heritage) living in Ontario, I, too struggle to find a way to relate to the issues our native peoples face. Yet, it is people like us, who do our best to understand and to support that search for understanding,that, I hope, will make a difference, even if only by showing that we wish to hear and by speaking out as we are doing. It’s such a complex problem, made more so in Canada because of the wide diversity among our indigenous peoples. I think, as long as we remain open to hearing and questioning we can hope for improvement.


    • Damian, it’s huge – mostly because well-meaning people don’t ‘get it’. Karen – apologies if I’ve spoken out of turn. Perhaps this was yours to say but I hope that support from ‘outside’ will add credence.


  3. Thank you for saying this so eloquently. In my grad studies my focus was on gender and minority issues. What you describe was called “appropriation of voice”. I have had occasion to say, (more poorly than you) what you have just told us. As a white western European woman I cannot possibly understand what it means to be of another race, or give voice to the way culture affects the way they see the world. To attempt to do so is sheer arrogance and presumptive in the worst way. They say ‘write what you know’. We cannot possibly ‘know’ what it means to be a member of a minority we do not belong to and must not presume to speak with their voice. I am posting this on my site. Thank you.


    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Yvonne. It seems that I have already found one of the champions that I mentioned at the end of the post.
      For me, the hardest aspect of appropriation is that its generally done by nice, well-meaning people. The answer is of course raising awareness of the real impact of what harm we may cause to others; and this includes fiction writers.
      Share away, and more champions will emerge.


      • I agree. Most people just don’t ‘get it’. They truly believe they DO understand what it means to, for instance, be a black woman in America, or an indigenous person living on a reserve in Canada, or even a abused woman if they were raised in a healthy home. They’ve read the history, sympathize, and think that qualifies them. In reality they have no idea. Keep telling us.


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