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’t 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’t 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 – and 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 – not 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 – should 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 – seriously, 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


  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.


    1. 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.


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