Monday, June 02, 2014

Conversations about Australian Identity by Anita Heiss

This is an edited version of Anita’s speech at the recent Australian Booksellers Association conference dinner in Melbourne. The original speech, on the topic Anita was given – It all starts with a conversation – can be read on Anita’s blog, here.

I’m from the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW. My mob’s from Cowra, Brungle mission, Griffith, Tumut and Canberra. I was born in Gadigal country, most of you will know that as the city of Sydney, and I’ve grown up on the land of the Dharawal people near La Perouse.

My home suburb is strategically placed between Long Bay Jail, Malabar Sewerage Works and Orica Industrial estate. It’s the perfect setting for creative inspiration and I’ve written many of my books there. I’m pleased to be here in the home of the Kulin nation and pay my respects to those whose stories have been embedded in this landscape for tens of thousands of years.

It’s every author’s dream to be able to address the ABA dinner because we know that without you booksellers, the books we have devoted our hearts, minds, sleeping and waking hours to, go nowhere.

I have been connected to booksellers around Australia for almost two decades as a writer but also as a reader, and I have learned much about the industry from those who have generously and quite simply just talked to me. So I am grateful for the opportunity to be here to talk about how conversations have played a role in the development, not only of my books, but also my life as a writer and my role as an Indigenous Literacy Day and Books in Homes Ambassador.

It is true that many of my books have been born out of conversations I’ve overheard, and conversations I’ve been part of, other titles are based on conversations that have been had by others about me, while some conversations appear in the heads of my characters.

4000th Generation Australian

The first book I want to talk about began with a conversation between an American tourist and an Aussie local on a Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles in 2003.

I wasn’t trying to listen to this conversation but when I heard an American say, “I’ve just been in Australia and I met a 4th generation Australian, that’s pretty good isn’t it?” I quickly became VERY interested in the conversation.

The Australian responded, “Wow! fourth generation Australian, you don’t get any more Australian than that.”

My Wiradjuri colleague, Professor Michael McDaniel and I looked at each other and said, “What about 4000th generation Australian?” We realised we were not even on the radar of what it meant to be Australian in the 21st century.

And it was this conversation that motivated me to go out to La Perouse Public School and start working with the students there, because I wanted to put the local Koori kids not only on the national identity radar as young Aussies with strong Aboriginal identities, but also to write them onto the Australian literary radar.

In 2007, we released our first novel through ABC Books, Yirra and her Deadly Dog, Demon. In 2011, we released our second title, Demon Guards the School Yard as part of the Yarning Strong series through Laguna Bay Publishing and Oxford University Press.

"I'm not racist but..."

In 2007, I also released a short volume titled I’m Not Racist, but… it was based on a number of conversations I’d had over 15 years that forced me to write words on pages to deal with my rages.

In response to comments I would hear, often from complete strangers, I penned lines like, "I’m not racist... I like white people... my best friend’s white" And, "I worked with a white person once". All I did was substitute white for black to highlight to audiences the idiocy of some statements. I was trying to make the point that racism was so entrenched in our vernacular that well-meaning Aussies don’t even know when they’re being racist.

As Professor Mick Dodson said, while launching the work at Paperchain in Canberra, it’s not the statement ‘I’m not racist, but…' that bothers us, it’s the rest of the conversation that’s problematic.

Which leads me to another kind of conversation – the one that’s had about you but doesn’t include you.

"Am I black enough for you?"

Many of you will know of my memoir on identity published by Random House in 2011. The work was originally inspired by Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem. It was the first line of Alice’s book, ‘This story does not begin on a boat,’ and the later line, ‘There are no Wild Swans or Falling Leaves’ that struck me immediately. I knew I had to write a story about Aboriginal Australia that didn’t begin in the desert, and did not have didgeridoos playing in the background, and there would be no dot paintings to be seen.

In the 1990s, I’d also read Boori Monty Pryor’s memoir Maybe Tomorrow which included a scene at a school where a child asked: “When did you start being an Aborigine, and how old were you when you started that?”

Another conversation was along the lines of a student asking Boori when he had changed into jeans after a cultural performance… “So, you’ve finished being an Aborigine for the day, what do you do tonight?” It was the way Boori responded to such innocent questions from otherwise unknowing youngsters that inspired me to take the somewhat generous approach when writing my book, Am I Black Enough for You? But I was writing very slowly, very, very slowly.

I was forced to go into overdrive following the conversation columnist Andrew Bolt had about me with his readership nationally and on-line internationally. This conversation, on April 15, 2009, was about how it was “hip to be black” and how I was the “new white face of black Australia” using my identity for political and financial gain. It was a conversation that ended up including hundreds of people who didn’t know me or the others targeted in his column. This conversation was essentially one of vilification, and the comments section of the newspaper reminded me of Nazi Germany and the concept of white supremacy. It was a conversation that I still don’t believe is useful in a modern, intelligent society.

And so my memoir was my way of being part of the conversation, explaining the diversity of Aboriginal identity in contemporary Australia and that language is powerful – for good and bad. And those who write and sell words should be conscious that we, as Aboriginal people, have language to define ourselves, and that we have the right to self-representation in the Australian media and Australian literature.

Book Conversations

As a writer, you learn quickly that it’s all well and good to write a book and get a publisher, but the real work starts with the conversations you have with the marketing, publicity and sales team and then of course booksellers. And conversations about books are far more inspiring than many others I am forced to have in my average day.

Emerging writers need to know how the industry works. I knew nothing when I published my first book with Magabala Books in 1996. I had to force conversations back then. To me, it’s now a different world as authors work alongside booksellers and publishers to keep our shared industry alive and vibrant.

Without all of these peoples working for you, your story can remain unread. And to be honest, I write to be read. I want people to think about the themes and issues in my stories that I believe are important and should be part of the Australian literary landscape. And I want the conversations I have in my community to be had in other communities, conversations that enable us to share our stories with the world.

About the Author 

Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women's fiction, poetry, social commentary and travel articles.

Anita has won four Deadly Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Literature, for her novels including Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming and for the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. Anita is an Indigenous Literacy Day Ambassador and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. 

 Anita suggests that advanced readers aged 10 to 13 would like these books by Indigenous writers:

The Chainsaw File by Bruce Pascoe
Demon Guards the School Yard by The Students of La Perouse Public School with Anita Heiss
Jali Boy by Ricky Macour
My Girragundji by Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor

Show reel:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Anita for sharing these thoughts, views and experiences with us.

    I think identification - belonging - is a fascinating, complex subject, on both a personal level and on a social level.

    Each person's feeling of where they belong, feel at home, is individual and determined by so many factors. As an immigrant, I find it very easy to reconcile my Australian identity with my Indian heritage. I find they sit together easily, as I expect is also the case with "light-skinned" Aboriginal people.

    How a person identifies herself is entirely that person's emotional response to her experience and community. There's a great line in Tim Minchin's song, "White Wine in the Sun", about an expat Australian coming home for Christmas, which makes the point that "home" is family. He sings, "these are the people who'll make you feel safe in the world".

    How - and why - is it that Indigenous Australians can be made to feel that they don't have a place in modern Australian society? It's wrong.