Remembering the Black Mist

 Originally published 19 September 2018 on Indigenous X

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Recently I viewed the Black Mist Burnt Country exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. Launched on 27 September 2016, to mark the 60th anniversary of nuclear bomb testing at Maralinga in South Australia, the exhibition has already covered a lot of ground touring the eastern states.

This exhibition is a vivid and reflective collation that is raising awareness of the impact of nuclear testing in Australia. The cost for British and Australian army personnel and civilians was high. More so for Aboriginal people, who often weren’t even considered before the bombs went off.

Given re-emergence of interest in uranium mining and the proposal to construct waste dumps on Aboriginal lands, despite strong community opposition, this exhibition is also a stark reminder of how little some people have learnt from the past.

When British interest in nuclear testing became known, uranium deposits had only recently been discovered in Australia. Wishing to strengthen British protection post-war, newly-elected Prime Minister Menzies saw both security and economic opportunities in offering the British land for testing nuclear weaponry.

There was a lot of secrecy around these joint operations. Not only were citizens unaware of what was happening, in some cases even the Australian government was left in the dark by the British. Even now, many Australians are unaware of the historical background of British-led nuclear testing in Australia.

From 1956 to 1963, atomic bombs were set off in central South Australia, including at Maralinga. Prior to that, testing was conducted at Emu Field (SA, 1953) and Monte Bello Islands (WA, 1952 and 1956). The fallout from the last operation at Monte Bello Islands, off the Western Australian coast, reached Rockhampton on the Queensland coast.

Rockets were also tested in 1964. Detonated at the Woomera Protected Area (SA), the long-range path of the Blue Streak rockets moved across central SA to the Pilbara region (WA) and out to sea (between Broome and Port Hedland).

Aboriginal people were not consulted prior to any of these operations. They were often forcibly removed from the area or left to suffer the consequences of the fallout. There are no records of how many Aboriginal people became ill due to nuclear testing, or research into the generational health impact. Too many voices remain unheard.

Maralinga, meaning thunder in Garik language, is probably the most known nuclear weapon testing site in Australia. It was also the site where the most damage to people and environment was experienced.

Due to leftover plutonium, the land around the Maralinga testing range has remained toxic for many decades. After the British signed off responsibility in 1968, the Australian government has maintained control of the site.

In more recent years, the British government made minimal compensations to the surviving service personnel. And as a result of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, some compensation was provided to Anangu people, and for clean-up operations.

The Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 provided freehold title to Anangu. Remaining parts of the land, which had been part of the Woomera Prohibited Area, were handed back by the Defence Department in 2014.

Despite not having been consulted by previous governments, Aboriginal people have always been pivotal to movements that advocate for socially and environmentally responsible management of uranium ‚Äď from mining, to transportation, usage, and disposal of waste. One example is the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance (ANFA), which celebrated twenty years of activism in 2017.

And Aboriginal voices were embedded in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). A recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, ICAN was instrumental in lobbying the United Nations to agree to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

One of the most known voices for the anti-nuclear movement was Yami Lester (1949 ‚Äď 2017). Yami Lester OAM, respected Anangu elder, educator and activist, was blinded by the nuclear fallout as a child.

It was Yami who first described the explosion at Maralinga as black mist, which the exhibition has taken as a title. Yami was a pioneer of the anti-nuclear movement, and his image rightfully takes centre place in the Black Mist Burnt Ground exhibition.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Karina Lester is one of many representatives of First Peoples voices within ICAN. This campaign includes 400 international organisations, so Karina has exchanged personal/familial stories of nuclear testing and warfare with First Peoples from around the globe. Her sister Rose is also a strong advocate.

The British and Australian government nuclear weaponry testing is part of the truth-telling that many are now engaging in. Raising awareness of settler-colonial history helps people to better understand the impact of colonialisation on First Peoples. Sharing stories, such as those from Maralinga, can also inform current decision-making ‚Äď to stop the past repeating.

Top 4 books about Maralinga
If you’d like to learn more about nuclear testing at Maralinga, I recommend these four books.

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Maralinga, the Anangu Story by Yalata and Oak Valley communities, with Christobel Mattingley

An illustrated children’s’ book, capturing community stories.

Mima Smart: ‚ÄúOur story is a very important story that needs to be heard by children and adults across our country.‚ÄĚ

 

m3.pngAtomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story by Elizabeth Tynan

Liz Tynan is an academic and former science journalist who has been researching British atomic tests in Australia for many years.

‚ÄúIn 1950 Australian prime minister Robert Menzies blithely agreed to atomic tests that offered no benefit to Australia and relinquished control over them ‚Äď and left the public completely in the dark.‚ÄĚ

 

 

m4.pngMaralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story by Christobel Mattingley

This book features the recollections of Yvonne Edwards (1950 – 2012), artist and community leader, on the impact that the nuclear tests had on herself and family.

‘Grandfather and Grandmother telling lots of stories. They had to live at Yalata. Their home was bombed. That was their home where the bomb went off. They thought it was mamu tjuta, evil spirits, coming. Everyone was frightened, thinking about people back in the bush. Didn’t know what bomb was. Later told it was poison. Parents and grandparents really wanted to go home, used to talk all the time to get their land back.’ Yvonne Edwards.

 

m5.pngCleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert by Peter ohnson, Yuwali Nixon and Susan Davenport.

Through primary documents and personal recollections of Martu women, this book gives a behind the scenes look at rocket testing in the western desert in 1964. Patrols were instructed to track down a group of Martu women and children, who’d had no prior contact with settler-colonials, and remove them from their country.

 

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Maralinga: the chilling expose of our secret by Frank Walker

An investigative journalist, Frank Walker’s book focuses on the impact that this testing had on scientists and British and Australian armed forces personnel.

 

 

 

More resources on nuclear and rocket testing on Aboriginal lands is available via the Black Mist Burnt Country catalogue and educational resources

 

Such as it was…..

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Here is another snippet of what I’m currently editing. Its some years past the previous piece I shared. Its from a work-in-progress, which will hopefully become my second novel, called Where The Fruit Falls. Its a rough draft, but I hope you enjoy the read.

As the last plutonium-loaded cloud settled over the red sands in the south-west, many miles away three strangers emerged from a sister-desert; seeking rest from a road seldom travelled. Even though they had entered town cloaked in dawn’s light, news of their arrival had spread before the last rooster finished crowing. This flurry of curiosity was not because it was unusual on the gibber plains for people to suddenly emerge from out of nowhere; others have arrived in such a manner. Nor was it unusual to see strangers, even though the town was in the middle of nowhere; as the train, in passing, often spewed out adventurers, government officials, wayfarers, those of a missionary-bend, and other lost souls. And it was not the shock of seeing a young woman unaccompanied by a man; for strong, independent women were a familiar sight in the desert terrain. No, the inquisitive stares behind curtains and the gossip that raced at the speed of wild-fire was fuelled by the peculiar guise of the two girls that walked alongside the woman. For even in this era of fast-tracked social change, it was still unheard of for one of her kind, for the woman’s bloodline was unmistakable, to be travelling unaccompanied with a white girl.
And such a pretty little girl, a precious rose – many would add to their recounting of the tale. Obviously cared for, loved dearly, despite the marks of a long trek clinging to her clothes – others would remark to their neighbours later that day. Such flawless, milky skin – sighed many behind sun-withered hands. And what eyes, they pronounced, like precious opals – they all pronounced. Even though, in all reality, her eyes were more akin to a less precious but equally enchanting gemstone: malachite.
Once they could tear their attention from this child, they took in the other girl; reluctantly at first. They openly appraised this child, and not with kindness in their eyes or truth in their hearts. This other one, wearing the trials of the road so well, brazenly strode into town; or so they thought. With the steadied gaze of a sun-browned cameleer from days long gone, this girl kept her bright blue eyes focused on the road, ignoring the crescendo of disapproval. Clearly she hasn’t been taught her place in the world Рsome muttered. She needs to be knocked down a peg or two Рgrumbled others. Such arrogance, but what can we expect from the likes of them Рverbalised a few. Giving them the vote will ruin this country, mark my words Рothers predicted.

That last comment drifted down the street, carried by the wind, towards the town’s edge, where it floated over the unseen boundary and fluttered around a gathering of makeshift homes. Those still trying to catch a few moments more of sleep tried to shoo the words away with the flick of a hand, not at all concerned about being bitten in exposed places. Others took a broom to the nonsensical declaration, sweeping the air until that unwanted opinion was encouraged to move on. As smiles of redemption began to brighten sun-toughened faces, they soon realised that there was now an unpleasant smell in the air. One by one, the fringe dwellers gathered outside, trying to locate the source of such a rank odour. An old man caught the eye of another, and then another, and another, Until soon they were walking away from the town, carrying only the essentials. They hadn’t needed a second whiff, for they had smelt this unpleasant odour many times before. Younger kin, refusing to follow, instead walked closer to the main part of town, allowing curiosity to be their guide.
Standing unseen, in the shadows cast by the rising sun, they saw the town-dwellers staring at a trio of travellers. The new spectators were also taken aback by what they saw, even if their comments were vastly different than those already dying in the dust or floating off on the air. For rather than seeing what was different, they had immediately noticed the similarities. Eventually, everyone began to see. It’s something in the bone structure, some thought Рsuch high cheeks. No, it was the way they both moved, the way they hold themselves, certain aura. They could see that those girls had shared secrets, for they speak in a clandestine language only known by twins. Those young ones were the mirror images of polar opposites.
Never before had the townsfolk seen such non-identical twins; one white and the other brown. Only the fringe dwellers could see the truth of the matter, even though it was so very obvious: both girls were in fact black.

While all this was unfolding, the woman kept moving, oblivious and quite accustomed to the astonished stares and whispers of strangers. As she walked down the main street, such as it was, the woman took no notice of fingers clasping at almost-closed curtains, nor did she acknowledge the slack-jawed affliction that her progenies left in their wake. Steadfastly she walked up to the veranda of the general store, such as it was, dropped her bags and shook the red dirt from her skirt. Leaving the uncanny twins sitting on a pile of road-worn bags, she walked into the store, with her head held high enough for trouble to find her.
A short time later, the three of them turned a rusty key in a dusty lock, entered a pre-loved shack and set to turning it into a home; such as it was.

Where did you get that idea from?

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Front cover of When Rosa Came Home. Image by Ukraine artist Natalia Maroz (www.maroz.com.au)

I’ve been a bit neglectful of my blog this year. I could tell you that I’ve been on interstate-trips for the day-job, dealing with grief & loss and family issues, travelling overseas, busy marketing my first novel, and just busy with life in general. All of this would be true, but none are valid excuses for not writing regular posts. It’s not for want of ideas. Inspiration for blog posts are everywhere. I write at least two posts everyday – in my mind. Actually writing the words is the problem. Not sure why I’ve been avoiding my blog, but its time to stop. Pick a topic, sit down and just do it. After all, that’s what writers do.

Inside the Writer’s Mind
Over the years, I’ve been curious about the writer:reader relationship. Specifically, the interest that some readers have in what inspires the writing process. This is most obvious at Writers/Readers events, such as the recent Adelaide Writers Week I attended. Audiences happily sit at the feet of some writers, hanging on their every word. And when it comes to question time,¬†inevitability¬†the discussion turns to: where did¬†you get the idea for your book? What inspires you to write? Is it about you/people you know/real events?

Being a writer myself, and now being able to call myself a published author, this always makes me smile. There is no magical formula to writing. We aren’t actually opening up a vein and spilling out life-force all over the pages. The hideous antagonist isn’t created as sneaky revenge on those who have crossed out paths. Nor is the amazing protagonist a desired version of ourselves. A lightening bolt of inspiration did not hit us. And we aren’t aided through writer’s block by an otherworldly muse. Really, it’s not that interesting. Or is it?

Catching Butterflies
Ideas for novels, blog posts, short stories and other forms of writing are everywhere. Day and night, inspiration can be found in many places. They flutter around us in everyday situations. Some are just a blur, as they rush past on the wind. Others float gracefully, trying to catch the writer’s attention. Whilst others sit on a shoulder, patiently waiting. Seeing them is not the hard part. Neither is catching them. Keeping them alive, until the story is written, is the hardest part. For when we work on one piece, especially something as long-term as a novel, we can easily get distracted by all the pretty things fluttering around us.

A Gardener is Needed
Rather than spending our time butterfly hunting, perhaps a more beneficial approach would be gardening. Whilst catching butterflies is possible without any devotion to developing skills, for all that is needed is a keen eye and a swift hand, gardening requires at least some basic knowledge, hard work and lots of patience. So lets switch metaphors: an idea for a story is like a seed. Seeds are common, they are easy to find. Their hidden beauty is not obvious, but each seed contains something far greater than itself. And they generally have a long shelf-life – there is no need to rush.

The difference between someone who notices potential seeds for stories and a writer is that the latter devotes the time and resources to plant and nurture those seeds. Seeing seeds isn’t special, it isn’t an ability that very few possess. Being disciplined and driven to sit at a computer for hours, weeks and years so that you can water, feed and shine on that bloody seed is where the dividing line between writer and non-writer lies. And being committed to learning the tricks of the trade, the rules of grammar, structure of stories and other must-have skills and knowledge is what separates the pot plant owners from fully fledged gardeners.¬†

The Seeds
I would hazard a guess and say that the average writer has countless seeds lying around. Some are carefully guarded, awaiting the right time to plant. Some are tucked away in a drawer, and may or may not be planted. While others are already in soil, being nurtured until they bloom. I do all three. I have ideas for stories everywhere, in different stages of growth or dormancy. Where I get these ideas from differs from story to story. As does the process of growing them, but that is best left for another post. Instead, I’ll explain where I got the inspiration for some of the stories I have written or currently working on.

The Chocolate Box
Recently I published my first novel,¬†When Rosa Came Home.¬†I work full-time, so producing this book took many late nights over many months. Over the last two years, I have been working on a number of manuscripts and short stories. I have three manuscripts in different stages of editing, and concepts for four more – all waiting their turn to be nurtured.¬†Rosa¬†was the one I chose to go first. Not because it was the ‘best of the bunch’, but because it was one that I most enjoyed writing. Amongst the agony of countless edits, I enjoyed creating that story and spending time with the characters; whilst breaking a few of the ‘modern’ writing rules and blending genres. At every stage in its development, ideas for plot, characters, dialogue and hooks came from many sources. Mostly when I wasn’t working on the manuscript, like when I was driving or trying to sleep.

The actual seed for the book came from one image. I have a vivid imagination, and sometimes it feels so strong that it’s as if I can actually see an image. This one was simple: I ‘saw’ a withered hand reach into a drawers of a tall boy dresser and pull out a flat wooden box. I had the sense that this person was going to open the box, and share the contents with someone. Many months later, I recalled that image and started to ask questions: What is in that box? Who holds that box, and why? Weeks later, the seed sprouted, and I sat down to write. First I recorded the image, and from there another image, and then another. I don’t plot, and I don’t write in a linear path. Instead I take an idea, write it out, and add another and another. Sometimes this includes jumping from one bit of the emerging story, to another; changing, deleting, rearranging, adding as I go.

About three years after I had that vision of an elderly hand reaching for a wooden box, a novel was born. The actual scene of the man and the chocolate box is minuscule in the whole novel, and its omission would not alter the overall story. It’s not a crucial scene at all. Its whole purpose was to inspire me. It was a seed from which a story bloomed; after many months of hard work and dedication to finish.

The Unspoken Fruit
The manuscript I am working on now is already over 75,000 words, and will hopefully be finished mid-year. I have learnt that I can’t forecast completion time, because life gets hectic sometimes and unexpected things do occur. Also, I often hop from manuscript to manuscript, working on whichever is ‘calling me’ the loudest. The one I am writing at the moment is called¬†Where the Fruit Falls.¬†It is a quite a bit more serious than my first novel, and has not always been as fun to write. Mainly because it explores darker times in Australian post-colonial history. Its style of writing, or genre, is magic realism. I chose this type of writing as it’s a non-confronting way to write about socio-political issues in fiction. Magic realism also lends itself to indigenous ways of storytelling, and has the ability to incorporate the conflict between timeless cultures in changing worlds.

The inspiration for this story comes from a song: Strange Fruit¬†by Billie Holiday. One of the many unforeseen benefits of technology that has enabled people and news to travel around the globe at a greater speed than ever before, is the increased connectivity and solidarity of peoples that have experienced oppression and other atrocities – both in the past and in the present time. The words of Strange Fruit are powerful, and even though they speak of a horrible era for African-Americans, I immediately felt a connection. Like many colonised nations, Australia’s first nations peoples have experienced the violence associated with occupation of invaders. In earlier decades, there were many instances of massacres, public hangings and other forms of ‘allowable’ murder. Later there were other forms of government driven harm, oppression and deprivation of human rights, such as forced removal from homelands, segregation, incarceration on missions, unpaid labouring and removal of children.

All of this came into my thoughts as I listen to that song. Powerful words, strong images of grief and loss, and the dark side of humanity. At first I painted my thoughts, producing a contemporary piece using dot painting techniques. My paintings are for me, I don’t display or sell them. They are just another way for me to voice thoughts and tell stories, just like my weaving and writing. Eventually I had other images, which I wrote down, until a story emerged. This story will eventually be published. Using magic realism techniques, with non-identical Aboriginal twins as the protagonists, Where the Fruit Falls confronts the social injustices, racism and ethnicity-based inequality found in Australia during the 50’s- 70’s, and the ongoing clash of cultures and world-views.

The Underwater Grave
Another manuscript I have on the go was inspired by ‘place’. There is a small rural town near me that has a large reservoir. Up until the late 60’s, where that water now lays was a town called Lovely Valley. The old stone buildings were dismantled, and every thing and person relocated for the sake of the dam. There are a lot of urban myths about Lovely Valley, including reports of hearing the old church bells ring during times of water scarcity. These tales are not true, proven false by archaeological research and dives.¬†Still, it is intriguing. So I started writing¬†Lovely Valley, a modern gothic tale. Compete with mysterious deaths, dark secrets and a ghostly woman of the lake.

Gardening while the Sun Still Shines
I have many other examples of where I have found inspiration and ideas for writing, most of which are based on thoughts, places, images and dreams. However, none of this matters in the least if I don’t find the time and discipline to sit down and flesh the ideas out, to nurture them until they are a fully fledged story. That is the hardest part.

When daydreaming, I imagine myself on a stage far from home, with a sea of faces in front of me. Unlike the seeds that I tend until they are novels, I know that this image may not come to fruition, despite how much energy and time I devote to my writing. Making it in this industry is not mappable – talent and hard work is often not enough to get you to the desired destination. Still, there is no harm in dreaming. I wonder if my imagined audience will get around to asking me about where I get my ideas? And if so, could I possibly make it sound interesting?

It just came to me РI know why readers ask writers where they get the ideas or inspiration from. Not because they yearn to know some heavily guarded secret, or to discover what makes writers different from them. It is more banal than that. They ask those questions because the answers are so much more interesting than the other questions, the ones that new writers might ask: how do you write? You see the act of writing, locked away in front of a computer, and the endless solidarity moments of editing, are simply boring. Discussing that part of producing a book would drain the magic out of any story. Maintaining the illusions of the writer and the creative journey is the better alternative.

I won’t disillusion anyone, then. Now, if¬†you will excuse me, I have a garden to tend to.

  

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

Uniforms and Dance Hall Days

Pagoda Ballroom at Como (Perth, Australia): pre-restoration.

Even though I have been travelling a fair bit for work lately, I haven’t added to my travelogue for a while (see category:¬†Rooms with a View). Sometimes it’s not easy to find the inspiration, or a suitable topic, despite visiting so many amazing places around Australia. However I was in Perth the other week, and not only found a topic to write about but was inspired to go on a bit of a treasure hunt; to end up reflecting on family history.

To get the most of the rest of this post, I suggest that you watch this particular version of Leonard Cohen’s¬†Dance me to the End of Love:- ¬†Leonard Cohen – Dance me to the End of Love¬†¬†(Downloaded from Youtube 7 July 2013 – (C) 1984 Sony Music Entertainment Inc.)

Done? Ok, lets continue……..

The Pagoda (Perth)
While in Perth (capital of Western Australia), I stayed at a motel overlooking the river at Como. Arriving in the evening, I didn’t take much notice of my surrounds. However, I soon found something that caught my interest. While I was in the dining room waiting for my order, I skimmed through the menu and found a short write-up on the history of where I was staying.

The dining room, and conference spaces, were situated in the Pagoda: an iconic building with a very interesting past. This Pagoda was built in the 1920’s as tea rooms, catering to the well-heeled visitors to Como Beach. Alas there was not enough of them, so it soon shut. From there the building has served many purposes: soldiers’ living quarters during World War II; a ballroom; roller skate rink; live music venue for iconic bands such as the Easybeats; and a wedding venue. Then there was the time that it sat dormant and unloved, before this old Edwardian Oriental-styled building was finally restored. It’s now a restaurant, attached to a motel complex.

Dance Hall Days
Aware that my mother had grown up in Perth, I then spent the rest of dinner wondering if she had ever danced within these walls. It was nice to think that I may be standing on ground that my mother had stood many decades previously; in this now historic venue that must hold so many fond memories. Then it was as if I could hear the sounds of the band, clinking of glasses and tapping of shoes. And the laughter of long-gone girls floated in from the corridor, as they fixed their hair in the nearby powder room before they rushed back into the dance hall; to be twirled across the floor by eager partners.

The next day, I found out that my mother had indeed gone dancing at the Pagoda. When she had worked at the nearby South Perth Hospital, many years ago, she and the other nurses spent hours on that dance-floor. Her lifelong friend had met her husband at the Pagoda. And my auntie had found her husband on the very same dance floor; when she worked at the nearby hospital, and he was a soldier. My parents didn’t meet at the Pagoda, but at a dance across the Swan River; at the army barracks, where my father was stationed. My grandmother also met my grandfather at a dance, in Adelaide; a few years before he enlisted.

The days following my return home, I got to thinking more about those times long past, when dances were the rage. And dancing partners were forever, until death did indeed part them.  It made me think about the older women in my family, the men they have loved, and their times spent in dance. And a thought went to the uniforms they have worn: so many nurses and soldiers. Some of these men have seen active duty, whilst others spent years on standby. Of those who were called, not all came home.

I recall growing up in a time of innocence. Even if there were wars, they were so far away; and there were yet no blinking screens to bring news of them into my home. So it was not until I was almost an adult that it dawned on me that humans could inflict such horror on one another. War and conflicts: such an unbearable pain for all those women, as they said farewell husbands, fathers and sons; hoping in their hearts for safe returns.

Despite being in the shadow of war, the music of those past dance hall days had a type of innocence. Not like the music of my emerging adulthood. By the time I wore a candy-striped uniform, it was the early 80s; a confusing era of music, with many songs featuring futuristic themes. While others looked backwards, in nostalgia, at those days of innocence and loss (for example, Dance Hall Days by Wang Chung  (C) 1984 Geffen Records:-  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-xpJRwIA-Q ).

A Tango-for-One
In many ways, I broke away from the path that had been set by women before me. There were no dance hall days for me. Then and now, women often dance solo or in packs. There was no soldier waiting at the edge of the dance-floor, trying to muster up the nerve to ask me for a dance. There will be no dance partner to waltz me to the end of love. And that’s ok; for I like to dance to my own tune. Even as a child, only I heard the music that played all around me, and through me. Sometimes joyous sounds, sometimes sad; and all the music in between. There have been a few duets, and some mis-stepped dances with not-so gentlemen. Mostly its been a tango-for-one; a most suitable dance for a lone-writer.

Breaking the pairing of uniforms may not be so bad. For at least I will never feel the anguish of waving farewell to one of my own, as they travel to foreign soils to face the horrors of humankind. The battle for me will be to capture some of the memories of the women in my family, before more depart the dance-floor So that I can hand these treasured tales and life-lessons down to the generations that will live on after I have finished my final dance.

By the way, years ago I chose Dance me to the End of Love as my Swan-Song. Morbid? Perhaps. But I have chosen the music that has played throughout my life, so why not at my departure.

Read¬†more about the Pagoda’s history
City of South Perth website: http://southperthlocalhistory.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/pagoda-ballroom</

The Esplanade River Suites website http://www.esplanaderiversuites.com.au

Or listen to http://blogs.abc.net.au/wa/2013/05/whats-all-that-about-the-pagoda-ballroom.html (Breakfast with Eoin Cameron on Radio 720 ABC Perth; reported Alex Hyman speaks with heritage expert Richard Offen)

Photo downloaded 7 July 2013, from Local History @ the Library, City of South Perth http://southperthlocalhistory.wordpress.com/

When magic is the reality

735011_10151317440863518_1886868707_nLike attempting to compare a fish to a bird, Magical Realism is not akin to Fantasy.

To begin with: lets remove that ‘magical’ tag that has recently crept in, and return to the original title of ‘magic’ realism, for what we discuss here is not magical at all; there is no fantasy within this genre.¬†I must confess, I am a fan of magic realism; although slightly pedantic¬†in what I feel deserves to carry that well-earned title. Yes, its genre we are talking about here – well, sort of. I hope you didn’t think this was a post about magic? I suppose the heading and picture were somewhat¬†deceiving, but they got your attention; so I hope you do read on.

Luckily, I am not an academic or a genre-expert, so you will not find a long-winded, heavily researched piece here. And I have a short-attention span when it comes to discussions on genre, so we may just skim over that. Anyway, I tend to see genre as a (somewhat necessary) box that writers are often forced into for the sake of¬†marketing¬†our work. And perhaps sometimes genre is used as a form of¬†elitism¬†among¬†writers, publishers, academics and reviewers; especially when the term ‘literary fiction’ is thrown in to the pit for them all to scramble over. Instead, what you will find here is¬†written¬†from a reader’s point of view; someone who aspires to be a writer of magic realism.

Like all stories, this post needs a beginning, so let’s make that ‘this morning’. So, this morning….actually, it was the afternoon: late night with friends + weekend = sleep in. Anyway, today I woke with the awareness that it was once again time to compose a new post for my blog, but with a deep sense of: what do I have to say that anyone would want to hear today, or perhaps ever? Before I could be dragged into that fiery¬†pit of despair, known more commonly as Writers Block, I was saved. Thankfully, a chance sighting of a post on the ever-a-pool-of-knowledge for us writers – the Indies Unlimited blog (check it out at: http://tinyurl.com/cogmryp) – gave me the inspiration I was seeking.

It lay in just one sentence, a harmless one really, which was repeated as a question on the Indies Unlimited facebook page: Do you think that magical realism [is] nothing but fantasy with an accent?

This question (or shall I say challenge) was put forward by Lynne Cantwell; fellow blogger, published author and frequent contributor to Indies Unlimited (information on her books can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/ccr2g4m). It’s important to note here that my post is not a¬†critique¬†of Lynn’s post, and the only point in common is the interesting idea that magic realism is a posh form of fantasy.

Well, simply put, the answer to Lynn’s question is: No

And now the non-simple response:

Fantasy and magic realism come from totally different places, written by authors who see the world from a unique angle, because of the way that they belong in this world, their realities; their identity, their cultural knowledge and the historical experiences that continue to impact on their kin and homelands.

If we look at the works, lives and origins of the masters in magic realism, we see some common threads. I speak of authors such as: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Alejo Carpentier, Franz Kafta and Toni Morrison. They have all experienced, or are descendants of those who have experienced, massive social upheaval such as: colonisation, slavery, genocide, diaspora, loss of land, conflicts and wars, and other forms of inhumanity that humans continue to inflict on each other. These things, and the telling of them, are truths, they are real; they are not akin to fantasy.

An author uses magic realism to tell of these big picture (macro) moments within their lives, or the lives of their ancestors. However, their stories focus on the little picture (micro) happenings; broken down to simpler terms, relationships among families and communities, and those from outside that sphere of belonging and identity. Their stories are based on reality, on history and truths that many would prefer were buried; never to be spoken off again.

There are no glittering vampires here, no trips to the underworld, no dancing with the pixies, or transportation to other realms. There is just reality, a different view of history, that the author is asking you to accept as realism.

Magic realism uses devices still found within indigenous storytelling; an oral tradition which continues despite all attempts of cultural genocide. It¬†subtly¬†tells historical facts by blending the difficult-to-swallow parts with the ‘magic’ ¬†or arcane elements found within traditional storytelling; for the purpose of planting greater understanding in a reader’s awareness of humanity, to gently shift the worldviews of those who have not had the experiences that the author endures/has endured.

Indigenous peoples use stories in a multi-leveled manner; like an onion, there are many layers to carefully uncover. On a simple level, a story is a form of entertainment, told around the communal fire to both children and adults. This story often has the dual purpose of being educative: a cautionary tale as to what may happen if a child strays too close to the fire, or a person steps beyond the cultural norms; breaching law or lore. As a person grows in their understanding of the world, and are judged ready for more knowledge, the same story would be re-told, but with some additions. This adding of layers to a story continues until it reaches an arcane level; usually only accessible by Elders Рthat which is secret-sacred.

To be fair, I have read some books labelled as magic realism, written by authors who are not indigenous and/or do not have a lived or ancestral experience of the historical events I have mentioned. However, I would hazard a guess that they have a deep connection to the land on which they live, and a respectful understanding of the hidden side of history.

Now for the (more?) controversial statement: I believe that it is the lived or hereditary factor of social and/or political upheaval, and a continuing connection to culture and identity, that forms an author of magic realism.

We might give you a peek into our worlds, share with you parts of our culture, or you may feel a deep connection to country, or even a sense of shame for what has happened/continues to happen to our peoples, but you can never fully step into our realities. Instead, we give you magic realism, so that you may have a glimpse of our worlds for a fleeting moment, and perhaps accept a new realism, one which will hopefully help you to grow in your understandings. Just like the stories of old.

Back to that notion that magic realism is fantasy with an accent. It may not be fantasy but it does have an accent. Not a hoity-toity accent, like that of ‘esteemed’ literary¬†fiction. It has the accent of the many (or their descendents) who have seen the horrors that humans can and do inflict on other humans; and have survived to continue their way of life, their culture, their deep connection to country and treasured sense of identity.

As I said in my opening, I aspire to write magic realism. I may never reach that goal, but still I can try. For an example of my work, please see the (for now) opening to a novel I am writing (http://tinyurl.com/c9qs4wg). On the surface, yes this extract could be confused for fantasy. However the intent of this piece is to set the scene for the bigger story, which explores themes such as: identity, colonisation, stolen generations, belonging, culture, diaspora and Country. This piece asks the reader to put aside their worldviews and values for just a moment, and accept that Aboriginal people have always been on Country and always will be; despite the social-political upheaval that they have had to/continue to endure.


Image downloaded on 4/5/13 from:  http://tinyurl.com/c726fnu