(Please note this post references Aboriginal people who are deceased.)
This prompt was requested by Laura, and indeed I’ve been writing this one in my head over the last few weeks and feeling more and more uncomfortable about it.
You may recall that the Aussies Rule Challenge came together as the result of a brain explosion on my part because I wanted to be challenged to read more Aussie authors, and if no one else was going to do it I would. So I didn’t think much about a prompt around a classic by an Aboriginal author apart from the fact that if there are classics by non Aboriginal authors, there should also be classics by Aboriginal authors. But the more I think about it the less I think it is that straight forward.
Let’s start with the definition of a classic. A “classic” is generally defined as ‘a work of recognised and outstanding value’, or ‘something that is determined over a period of time to be of the highest quality’. The question is, who is doing the judging? I’m pretty sure that the 2% of the Aboriginal population hasn’t had any say on what we may refer to as a classic by an Aboriginal author. Google “classic by an Aboriginal author” and the first hit you will get is for a number of books published recently. The second will be to classics by a bunch of white Australians, with a paragraph about Aboriginal authors.
I read Dhuuluu-Yala by Anita Heiss earlier this year which discusses the difficult relationship between Aboriginal writers and the publishing industry. Published in 2003, this book is well worth a read if you are interested in this type of thing (even if you aren’t it’s good to be aware) and has helped me think more critically about this topic. I can only imagine it is also still relevant. In Dhuuluu-Yala, Heiss talked a little about why Sally Morgan’s My Place is so popular compared to other books by Aborginal authors from around the same time, and Heiss suggests that this is because My Place is not actually about living the Aboriginal experience, but more about discovering the Aboriginal identity.
So I think we need to be aware of the types of stories that white publishers, marketers and audiences have been willing to read and give “value” to over the last 200 years and be aware that these are not the stories the Aboriginal people people have wanted to tell, but more what they have been allowed to tell by the white publishing industry. The publishing industry and the marketers are not going to make a lot of money on stories that are angry and confronting to the non-Aboriginal audience that they are used to dealing with.
(Please note that I’m not saying that My Place isn’t worthy of being referred to as a classic or isn’t a tale worth telling. It’s a great book. Please also note that I’m not saying that the authors and works I will list are not worthy of being called ‘classics’, only that they have had to jump through a bunch of white hoops to get published in the first place.)
Heiss also talks about white editors changing the voice of Aboriginal writers to make the writing more acceptable for the largely white audience, damaging the authenticity of the voice that readers get to hear when they consume the finished product.
I believe that more value is placed on Aboriginal writers and voices now by the publishing industry than any other time since invasion, (let’s face it, it wouldn’t be hard to do better than previously, although don’t mistake this to be the same as nothing else needs fixing) and I suspect things that will be looked back on as “Classics by Aboriginal authors” are books being written now by wonderful authors like Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Larissa Behrendt and others.
That being said, here are some “classics” as far as I, a white person, am able to suggest them, that were first published prior to this century. This is based entirely upon my own limited reading. I would strongly recommend you check out Anita Heiss’s Black Book Challenge for more suggestions.
David Unaipon is on our $50 note is was the first person to write down Aboriginal stories for white consumption.
Oodgeroo – My People
Herb Wharton – Unbranded
Rita and Jackie Huggins – Auntie Rita
Ruby Langford Ginibi – Don’t Take Your Love to Town
Doris Pilkington – Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence
K.C. Laughton – Not Quite Men, No Longer Boys
Kevin Gilbert and Jack Davis should also be on this list, but I haven’t read enough of their work to pick out one title over another. Reading everything is probably a safe bet.
I really hope this post is a conversation starter. If you have different views, I would love to hear them. If you have other books or authors who you believe should be in this post, I would love to hear that too.