Heiss, Anita (ed.), Minter, Peter (general ed.): The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. Allen and Unwin, 2008, RRP $39.95, ISBN 9781741754984.
The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature is a 260-page introduction to Aboriginal writers who have, since the 18th century, been taking up the English language to make their presence felt in the face of an imposed history of colonisation.
The writing included is broader than the genres often included under 'literature', though the anthology as a whole suggests a national counter-narrative.
The early parts record Aboriginals experiencing European society from early in the history of contact. The first entry is a brief letter to Mr Philips from Bennelong, written in 1796. It is written with dignity, tolerance and formality as it describes a parlous life of reliance on handouts and rebuffs from his own people, including being abandoned by his wife.
Reading through these early letters, chronicles and petitions I was close to tears. Mary Anne Arthur in 1846 wrote from Flinders Island to the Colonial Secretary: 'I hope the Govr will not let Dr Jeanneret put us into Jail as he likes for nothing at all as he used he says he will do it & frightens us much with his big talk about our writing to the Queen he calls us liars ... I remain, Sir, Your humble Aborigine Child.'
Soon afterwards her husband, Walter, wrote again to the Secretary: '... I did nothing to make Doctor Jeanneret put me into Jail but because I was one of the people who signed the Letter for to be sent to the Governor and because my wife put her name down in it both Doctor Jeanneret and Mrs Jeanneret Called her a Villain ... All I now request of his Excellency is that he will have full Justice done to me the same as he would have done to a white man ...' The name, D. Jeanneret, worthy of a place in a Monty Python sketch, reverberates.
In 1927 Norman Harris wrote to demand from the WA premier 'one law for us all'. The 'Abo', he wrote, has 'not a fare go': 'He is not alowed in a Pub not to have a gun, not to camp on revers because squatters stock are there, he is not to have dogs near stock. He is not to grow grapes because he may make wine and get drunk. They bar him in football and cricket must not be in town to long after dark ... In the North has you know they were never given wages just work for kick in the sturn and a little tucker ...'
This is writing worthy of Jonathan Swift, though if Swift had written it we would know he was inventing and exaggerating for the sake of spicing his satire. If you open this book to browse, I urge you to read the rest of Norman Harris' letter, which ends with a final instruction: 'Burn this when you are finished with it ...'
By 1938 there was a shift from the poignant to announcements of Aboriginals as Australians. 'You are the New Australians,' William Ferguson and John Patten wrote on Australia Day in 1938, 'but we are the Old Australians. We have in our arteries the blood of the Original Australians.'
Pearl Gibbs continued to record publicly the virtual apartheid operating in Australia in the 1940s when she spoke on a radio broadcast: 'Aborigines are roped off in some of the picture halls, churches and other places. Various papers make crude jokes about us. We are slighted in all sorts of mean and petty ways.'
These hard truths were now tempered by the hand of a fellow citizen stretched across the race divide: 'My friends,' Pearl goes on, 'I'm asking for friendship. We Aborigines need help and encouragement, the same as you white people.'
In 1964 Oodgeroo Noonuccal expressed her concern for her people as fringe dwellers, for the discussion of Aboriginality had moved on from the fate of a conquered people to the place that Aboriginality might find within mainstream Australia.
The wider story here is that of a people resisting the genocidal impulse of an invader. In 1967 Vincent Lingiari, leader of the Gurindji people, wrote, 'In August last year, we walked away from the Wave Hill Cattle Station. It was said that we did this because wages were very poor (only six dollars per week), living conditions fit only for dogs, and rations consisting mainly of salt beef and bread.
'True enough. But we walked away for other reasons as well. To protect our women and our tribe, to try to stand on our own feet. We will never go back there.'
Equality as citizen, soldier, woman and worker had to be won inch by inch from white society.
The later selections detail the flowering of memoir, fiction, plays and poetry as Aboriginal writers engage with contemporary culture. There are brilliant examples from Larissa Behrendt, Lisa Bellear, Tony Birch, Alexis Wright and Kim Scott to name only a few. One has a sense that there is a growing Aboriginal audience for this writing.
The editing achievement of Anita Heiss and Peter Minter is a signal to the wider culture that Australians have more than one story to tell.
The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (Allen and Unwin)
Kevin Brophy is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is Mr Wittgenstein's Lion. His poems have appeared in Best Australian Poems and other publications. From 1980 to 1994 he edited the small press literary journal Going Down Swinging.