Sovereign People, Sovereign Stories: Five Books by First Nations Writers

This piece was originally published on Indigenous X 29 August 2019

Over seventy Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, poets and playwrights recently gathered in Canberra. From 23 to 26 August 2018, this third national gathering presented by First Nations Writers Network (FNAWN) provided spaces for writers to talk craft and aspirations

The workshop theme Sovereign People: Sovereign Stories was apt, given many First Nations writers use story to highlight issues of relevance to their communities ‚Äď from recent times, right back to the invasion ‚Äď and to imagine a fairer future.

FNAWN also co-presented an inspiring evening with Canberra Writers Festival at the National Library of Australia on 25 Augusts. Introduced by Chella Goldwin from Us Mob Writing, poets Ellen van Neervan, Charmaine Papertalk Green, Jeanine Leane and Yvette Holt read poems in response to the NAIDOC 2018 theme Because of Her We Can.

This was followed by a panel discussion hosted by Cathie Craigie with Alexis Wright (via Skype), Kim Scott and Melissa Lucashenko, on the theme Sovereign People: Sovereign Stories.

Observing new writers talking passionately at the FNAWN workshop with some of Australia’s most awarded writers, it’s evident that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers have established themselves as an unstoppable force within Australian literature.

To present a complete list of publications by the writers that attended the FNAWN workshop would be a daunting task. Instead, I have compiled a short list of recent books by a few of the presenters.

Taboo  by Kim Scott
Pan Macmillan (2017)

Kim Scott is a Noongar man from Western Australia and an established writer of much esteem. Kim is Chair of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Story Project and Professor of Writing in the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University.

He has been shortlisted for three Miles Franklin Awards, and the recipient of two. Taboo, Kim’s fourth book, was the recipient of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year and Indigenous Writers Prize.

Taboo explores facing up to the past, no matter how difficult that might be. Set in rural south-west WA, it tells the story of a group of Wirlomin Noongar people who revisit a massacre site after many generations. They have been invited by the elderly owner of the farm on which the colonial violence occurred, who wishes to fulfil his wife’s dying wish for reconciliation.

Parts of the story are brutal, overlapping past violence with a current generation that is dealing with racism, abuse, addiction and incarceration. This is balanced with language revival, reconnecting with land, decolonisation, and a sense of hope.

In¬†reviewing Taboo, Melissa Lucashenko¬†stated ‚ÄúThis is a complex, thoughtful and exceptionally generous offering by a master storyteller at the top of his game.‚ÄĚ

Tracker by Alexis Wright
Giramondo Publishing (2017)

Alexis Wright, a Waanyi woman, is an award-winning writer from Queensland. A past recipient of the Miles Franklin, Victoria and Queensland Premiers’ Literary Awards, Alexis Wright’s latest book, Tracker, was awarded the 2018 Stella Prize and 2018 Magarey Medal.

She is currently the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne.

Tracker is a biography of Tracker Tilmouth, an Aboriginal activist and visionary who passed away in 2015.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
University of Queensland Press (2018)

Melissa Lucashenko, a Goorie writer, has set her latest novel on Bundjalung country in New South Wales. Melissa was awarded the 2016 CAL Fellowship to work on Too Much Lip.

Melissa is the past recipient of the Deloitte Queensland Literary Award for Fiction and the Victorian Premiers Prize for Indigenous Writing. She is also a Walkley Award winner for non-fiction.

Released in August 2018, Too Much Lip has already received strong reviews. Melissa’s sense of humour and intellect shines though in this modern story, as does hidden histories. Melissa has said that she felt as if her great-grandmother was her muse throughout the writing of this novel.

The protagonist Kerry Salter returns home on a stolen motorbike to pay her respects to her grandfather, who is dying. Amongst the drama of family dysfunction and Kerry’s attraction to an outsider, there is the fight for the Salter’s ancestral lands.

False Claims of Colonial Thieves  by Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella Magabala Books (2018)

Charmaine Papertalk Green is a Wajarra, Badimaya and Yamaji woman from Western Australia. A visual and installation artist, Charmaine has been writing poetry since the 1970s.

False Claims of Colonial Thieves is a collaboration between Charmaine and John Kinsella, a well-known Western Australian poet.

This book of poetry explores identity, colonisation, politics, hope and country by weaving together the voices of a Yamaji and non-Indigenous writer.

Sorry Day by Dub Leffler and Coral Vass
National Library of Australia (2018)

Dub Leffler, a descendant of the Bigambul people of south-west Queensland, is a writer and illustrator of children’s literature. His award-winning books are sold internationally. He has written two books and illustrated 23.

Sorry Day was developed with Melbourne-based children‚Äôs writer¬†Coral Vass. Through entwining two stories, the book highlights the importance of the Apology to the Stolen Generations ‚Äď Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed under past government policies. Sorry Day is suitable for readers aged 5+ and is suitable for starting discussions about Australian history.

 

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