Cultural Rigour: First Nations Critical Culture
In 1995 – just post Mabo, Noongar writer and scholar Aunty Rosemary Vandenberg delivered an excoriating address to the annual Association for the Studied of Australian Literature gathering (ASAL) gathering in Tandanya, Adelaide. The conference theme was ‘Rewriting the Mainstream’. Aunty Rosemary argued in an eloquent and passionate address that the mainstream/whitestream was in dire need of re-writing. Not before noting though, that there were no First Nations people of Tandanya invited to speak at the conference. She concluded her paper thus:
The final comment I’d like to make is that most representations of Aboriginal people come, not from Aborigines themselves, but from white people writing them. In fiction, biography, and anthropology, most are representations of white perceptions of Aboriginal people and culture. Many become distorted and are not real. Academics who work in the field of literature should consult Aboriginal sources and read Aboriginal texts; and listen to the people. Rewriting the Mainstream is essential.
In 2022 Aunty Rosemary passed away. Like many of our elders, her contributions were unsung in her lifetime. Yet the work she did in decolonising the white space of Australian literary studies leaves a lasting imprint in the landscape of First Nations writing culture. She paved a for First Nations writers and scholars in the academy to critically engage with and ‘rewrite the mainstream/whitestream’. The critical issues Aunty raised in the still largely white space of Australian critical and review culture back in 1995 have not been sufficiently addressed in 2023.
Twenty-seven years on things have shifted however, somewhat, in the cultural landscape of Australia. In July, I attended and spoke at the annual ASAL gathering in Nipaluna, Hobart, thirty-years on from the historic 1992 Mabo decision – and I wasn’t the only First Nations speaker attending. In the time that has turned since Aunty Rosemary’s paper we do have more First Nations literature on bookshelves. We do see more self-representation of First Nations peoples, experiences and hers/stories and histories in print. Yet settler Australia’s engagement with and theorisation of First Nations literatures has been largely a recolonising process that has limited the space for and stunted the growth of decolonising models and frameworks by First Nations literary scholars.
Critical engagements with our creative works in settler Australia have come some way since the chauvinistic and overtly racist reception given to Oodgeroo’s We Are Going (1964) described in the Australian Book Review the same year as ‘jungles, cliches, bad verse having nothing to do with poetry’. It is worth noting though comments in the review below of Fire Front: First Nations poetry and power edited by Gomeroi writer and law scholar Alison Whittaker; authored by a settler critic, the review appeared in the Canberra Times in 2020:
Inevitably, most of the poetry is ‘politica’, just as Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s was back in 1964 when, as Kath Walker, she first published We Are Going. Back then she described her poetry, unapologetically, as ‘sloganistic, civil-rightish, plain and simple’. […] Strangely, however, the overall levels of artistry displayed [in Fire Front] tend to be below the technical accomplishment seen so clearly in the work of Aboriginal actors such as Aaron Pedersen, Leah Purcell and Deborah Mailman, or Aboriginal film makers such as Rachel Perkins, Ivan Sen, and Warwick Thornton. For those who love poetry, it’s sad to wonder why this should be so.
And in the Canberra Times in 2022 – the same white critic comparing First Nations poets:
It is interesting to read Brenda Saunders’ Inland Sea in the poetic landscape that created a new generation of female Aboriginal poets such as Evelyn Araluen, Jazz Money, Ellen van Neerven, Natalie Harkin, Jeanine Leane, Alison Whittaker and others. Saunders is much closer to the work of Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993) where the tradition began. Araluen and her companions tend to be consciously postcolonial and intertextual; more angry too.
Beyond the contradiction and inconsistency of the comparison, there is something deeper that can be read through these passages. And that is, a rupture in settler familiarity – an unsettling of settled-ness that fractures colonial fantasy and familiarity with the Aboriginal subject. Most settler readers learn about Aboriginality through a textual landscape that is written mainly by non-Aboriginal people. Such representations are constructed through settler consciousness of Aboriginality and are informed by a trajectory of colonial history. Self-representation by First Nations authors challenges colonial images of deficit discourse and disrupts the settler lens familiarity.
The Australian literary academy has been slow to acknowledge the cultural ideologies inherent in the language of mainstream settler literary critique and critical culture. Culturally implicit ideologies in the western literary canon fly under the cultural radar of settler critics under the guises of objectivity and convention. Yet this body of work is as culturally grounded as the people who write it. White-on-white, settler-on-settler literary criticism escapes charges of bias, identity politics and/or lack of objectivity and academic rigour, that First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse writers and critics continually must defend ourselves against.
Many First Nations literary scholars and writers – such as Evelyn Araluen, Larissa Behrendt, Natalie Harkin, for example agree that First Nations literature in Australia is flourishing – or as Alison Whittaker, noted in 2020 in the foreword to Fire Front: First Nations poetry and power today:
‘First Nations writing is on fire!’
And so, we find ourselves in this moment when First Nations creative and critical writing is flourishing but our settler readership is in stagnation and doesn’t quite know how to engage with it. We also find ourselves in a time when there are a growing number of Blak literary scholars and critics, yet the dearth of Blak-on-Blak literary criticism published is striking. In a 2019 piece for Guardian Australia called ‘White Critics don’t know how to deal with a golden age in Indigenous Stories’, Alison Whittaker wrote:
We’re in the midst of a renaissance in First Nations literature. I should be elated.
Whittaker goes on to note all the good reasons why they and First Nations writing community should be elated. For example, Alexis Wright had just won the 2018 Stella Prize and Too Much Lip was on the 2019 Stella shortlist. Tara-June Winch had recently released The Yield – just to name a few.
Whittaker says for all of us – why we can’t feel as elated as we should:
Blak literature is in a golden age. Our white audiences, who are majorities in both literary industry and buying power, are deep in an unseen crisis of how to deal with it. It’s taboo for us to acknowledge this crisis; instead Blak writers are expected to meekly show gratitude for the small white gestures that get us onto the page or stage where we belong.
As Whittaker notes, the devaluation is at its most visible when white reviews evade dealing with the texts before them, instead critically engaging with settler readers. Many responses to Indigenous literature obligingly call it ‘important’, as if that was a useful assessment rather than an empty flattery.
The flipside to empty flattery is comparative negativity in settler critique. Comparative negativity is where a settler critic endorses themselves as able to identify a ‘golden age in Aboriginal culture’ before placing the narrative they are engaging with outside this realm. It is evidenced in the earlier example where a settler critic situates the poetry of one Blak poet as more literary than others because their work ‘harks back’ to Oodgeroo’s verse.
Comparative negativity arises when non-First Nations critics situate themselves as authorities on contemporary Blakness and it is fed by on ongoing settler obsession with being familiar with the representation of Aboriginality and story presented. When such familiar moorings are disrupted, the critique lapses in negativity.
Wulli Wulli author and scholar Lisa Fuller wrote in 2020 about settler engagements with their debut novel of First Nations realism, Ghost Bird:
I had to think about it (Ghost Bird) from a bigger picture. Most people reading it would be non-Indigenous, and it would be magic realism for them. So, real for us, speculative fiction for most. Like I said, weird space to sit in.
Fuller goes on to discuss how the use of certain terms and the application of certain labels to their work was both limiting and reductive. In ‘Why Culturally Aware Reviews Matter’, published in Kill Your Darlings in 2020, Fuller speaks to the reductive capacity of settler critics to classify First Nations writers in the reviewing their work, as well as the works of culturally and linguistically diverse writers. Structural racism, Fuller writes, and the ways our mob have been viewed by many Australians bleeds through into everyday language. She speaks strongly to her dislike of certain words from the generic term ‘Indigenous’ asking ‘how in hell this word has become the ‘polite’ way to refer to First Nations Australian peoples?’ to more dangerous and re-colonialising words like speculative fiction, and/or magic realism, gothic or myth. Fuller calls such labels insidious. In a similar vein, Koori author of speculative fiction and First Nations Futurism, Mykaela Saunders notes:
For most of its history the Australian spec fic industry has been hostile to our stories and indeed our presence, while mining our cultures and pillaging our spirituality to trade in tired themes and tropes.
Across the Atlantic on Turtle Island, Driftpile Cree scholar and poet Billy-Ray Belcourt in their collection of lyric nonfiction A History of My Brief Body describes settler engagements with First Nations creativity a continuation of ‘fatal naming rituals’.
Beyond its tendency to lapse into binaries, a further complication of settler critique is its motive – its obsession with making meaning visible for outside readers. To do so, it relocates Blak texts in direct conversation with an accessible political context – colonialism, for external consumption by a mainly settler readership. In the Anglosphere, where analytic philosophy is the dominant driver of literary criticism Derrida’s ghost is keenly felt. Derrida (2001) said: – Every text remains in mourning until it is translated. But does it? Aren’t texts already complete and imbued with meaning of the context in which they were created? For whose benefit is translation? To what extent does colonialism rely on translation as a means of control? Translations are for foreign tongues.
Regarding White-on-Blak literary criticism it is poignant to ask: Who is it really for? What is the purpose of white critique of Blak literature? If its purpose is to make Blak writing more accessible to a mainly settler readership, then it is a recolonising process that continues to define us. Whether positive or negative, it is a reframing and/or a reinterpretation of Blak literature through a white settler lens. Aboriginal readers are invisible or forgotten in this project.
Toni Morrison’s words echo here: Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined. Definitions purport to own the entire truth and express it in simple, limited words – as limited in the cultural context as the definers themselves are. On the other side of definitions are the defined, spoken for and silenced by someone else’s labels. Morrison’s words, like her oeuvre, are a call to agency. She reminds us that definitions will last as long as the defined humans stand up against their being defined – and create their own identities.
I read the reviews and accept it as ‘just the way things are’. But maybe, one day, this won’t be the case. Those shining reviews, the ones that show a depth of understanding of cultural difference and an awareness of their language use, are the exception today. I live in hope that they will become the rule.
Demonstrating a depth of understanding of and respect for cultural difference, alongside an awareness of the socio-cultural and historic context of and the language used within the community that has currency are the lynchpins of the cultural rigour. This is what First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse writers can bring to the space – and what is currently lacking in most settler review and critique.
Fuller goes on:
I’ve been hesitant to raise these issues outside of my safe circle. I know what will happen if I do. What has always happened my whole life when I dare call out racist or belittling language use. People get tense and defensive, they think I’m having a go at them personally.
Tension and defensiveness around discussions of race and skin-privilege evidence the pervasive and lingering legacy of the Howardism in twenty-first-century Australia. Evasion, euphemism and the paralysing politics of settler civility and sensibilities are weaponised to shut down conversations about race, culture, and power with charges of ‘rudeness’, ‘divisive behaviour’ or ‘playing identity politics.’ Charges of identity politics and cultural bias continue to stifle the voices of First Nations peoples and have an impact on the development of First Nations decolonial analysis and culturally safe, appropriate rigorous framework for the future.
Deconstructing and disarming charges of identity politics is critical in any discussion of culturally appropriate critique and the development of cultural rigour in and for literary discussions of and for First Nations works.
The biggest movement of identity politics ever is whiteness. Identity politics can be defined as a group of peoples uniting under a common identity to form and maintain a solidarity of voice; to ensure that the interests of that group are represented. Isn’t that what whiteness does – form a bloc of identity based on unstated colour that assumes universality and the unwritten right to write everyone else? Isn’t whiteness – Anglo-Australianness a culture? In all other ways, we as First Nations peoples, and many other non-white minorities living here, see and hear all around us that whiteness – Australian settlerism is a culture. Isn’t there a flag here with a southern cross and a union jack that many white Australians are attached to? Even proud of? Isn’t there a national day of celebration of white arrival called ‘Australia Day’? And don’t all calls to change the date of that day from 26 January, celebrating an invasion to a date that might be less offensive and more inclusive of First Nations peoples and more recent non-British settler diaspora, meet with staunch resistance? Doesn’t that day hold a special place in the heart of Australian white psyche because it marks their beginnings? Accusations of identity politics only appear when the hegemony of white identity politics is threatened. In this case when the hegemony of white critique is interrupted and taken to task by more culturally and linguistically diverse writers and scholars.
Drawing on the work of Alison Whittaker and Lisa Fuller and on my own work in First Nations writing cultures, the limitations of settler, mainly white critiques are; the evasion of the text leading to binarized, simplistic assessments – for example ‘empty praise’ or comparative negativity; the language of the critic as outlined by Fuller on the use of inappropriate, dated language, and/or words, phrases or terms that have no currency within the community whose work is being critiqued. And perhaps the most problematic limitation of all is the persistent positioning of and conflation with critique and ‘objective expertise’. In the main settlers are coming to our works with a toolkit, or a suitcase of cultural values, practices, and words packed for a different cultural sphere that needs to be unpacked before you come to First Nations works.
Australian Vietnamese writer Shirley Le in an Overland essay, 2020, articulates the crisis and what is at stake for First Nations writers and writers of culturally and linguistically diverse writings cultures. In response to the Sydney Morning Herald investing one hundred percent of its grant money from the Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas in 2020 into developing the work of white Australian culture critics Le writes:
Scrutiny of white critics’ capacity to review people of colour’s art is escalating in the Australian arts, as is ignorant and insensitive critique of the artistic production of people of colour.
Le gives further evidence of this in settler reviews of Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander writer Nakkiah Lui, received, for their 2013 debut stage-play This Heaven and their more recent work How to Rule the World. Editor of Quadrant, Roger Franklin (2018), speculated on Lui’s parents’ income, questioned the authenticity of her work, and throughout his review pined for more ‘encouraging’ representations of ‘Aboriginal life’ and in doing so erased blackness and non-white experiences.
Both Le and Whittaker note the willingness of settler reviewers to conflate the Aboriginal characters and characters of colour being portrayed within the texts with the author and to erase experiences of Blakness and otherness to white expectations.
When Eualeyai/Kamillaroi academic and writer Professor Larissa Behrendt offered a culturally rigorous review of Lui’s work in 2019, she began declaring her perspective as a First Nations writer and reflecting on what she might bring to the text from this perspective. Settler critic Jason Whittaker (no relation to Alison) proceeded to dismiss the close cultural context Behrendt offered by labelling the review as ‘biased’. Charges of identity politics surfaced when both reviewer and reviewee were First Nations. Yet centuries of white-on-white, analysis, critique and review have gone by without any hint of suggestions of cultural bias or charges of identity politics.
Shirley Le’s essay ‘Pardon Your Expression’ cites many examples of excellence in cultural criticism by culturally diverse and First Nations writers nationally and internationally. For example, Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung’s criticism of the canonisation of Ben Quilty in the Australian consciousness; Roxane Gay’s review of the latest production of West Side Story links her critique of the play to the American Dirt saga and corroborates such thoughts to present the ‘distortion of black and brown lives in the white imagination’.
First Nations writers and writers from culturally diverse backgrounds such as Alison Whittaker, Evelyn Araluen, Lisa Fuller, Shirley Le, Michael Mohammad Ahmad, and many more diverse writers I have mentioned understand critical writing to be personal, subjective, and embodied — a direct contrast to the aloof, disembodied voice that has long dominated the review space and conned readers into believing it is objectivity. Literary communities of First Nations writers and writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds treat every review as an opportunity for our readers to understand art and the world around us from a different intersection of life.
Yet, literary analysis and critique are structured about First Nations peoples and Peoples of Colour, without us. That is, the review, and the critique produced reflects a colonial ethic whereby non-First Nations- settler peoples’ conceptions of ‘quality’ and ‘rigour’ are considered ‘best practice’ in the production of knowledge underpinning literary analysis and review for First Nations and Peoples of Colour’s writing. This disempowering ethic diminishes, demeans, and devalues First Nations peoples’ cultural knowledge, which goes against shifting power imbalances to promote cultural safety, alongside academic rigour. Shifting power is partly about providing the space for First Nations and writers from culturally and linguistically diverse communities to bring a different set of tools to the space of critical culture, such as appraisal tools developed through First Nations peoples’ world views.
In a conversation about American Dirt, Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad reflected on the space given to reviews and critiques by First Nations and writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds:
Whenever we try and have these conversations, the white community usually reverts to a state of white denial with claims like, “It’s all about talent,” which I find more racist than just admitting that you prefer the company of white people. Because to say that it’s all about talent is to mean that you think genuinely, that naturally, white people are more talented than people of colour.
At stake here is evasive dismissal of our texts on one hand; and the boxing back into a colonial framework with limiting labels like the ones Lisa Fuller and Mykaela Saunders identified like speculative fiction, fantasy, magic realism and/or gothic. It also negates the integrity of First Nations works and those of writers from culturally and linguistically diverse communities as cultural territories that should be entered into with a respect for the culture being represented.
Cultural rigour is a strong and growing field of practice that epitomises First Nations peoples’ diverse cultural knowledge through community participation in all aspects of research and writing; and one which brings standpoint and positionality to the fore in any critique, review and/or analysis. The most valuable cultural tool we give settler readers is the voice of the author.
All bodies of literature rely on culturally appropriate and culturally rigorous, bodies of critical writing to sustain them. The English canon of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and so on relies on its literary critics and scholars to sustain its literary value and legacy. The settler canon in Australia relies on its intra-cultural settler critics to assign value to certain works over that of others as national literatures. First Nations’ literary culture demands the same level of cultural rigour that is led from within the community/communities that produce the literature.
The purpose of culturally rigorous literary criticism in First Nations’ literature is to assert systems of cultural value beyond those determined by the colonial mainstream and set by the market. A further aim is to challenge celebrity colonialism in publishing and marketing that seeks to sell a particular stereotype or brand of a minority group at a particular time and place at the expense of ignoring the diversity of stories and the life-experiences of the rest of the community. First Nations’ critique writes against a spectre of absence into a space that we have until recently been structurally excluded from and begins to fill it with culturally informed tools for how our works need to be read against the grain of national evasion narratives of history and settlement. First Nations critical culture asserts models to speak to the complex intersections of First Nations’ identity and entanglement that a settler standpoint appears largely blind towards.
First Nations and writers of colour bring the practice of cultural rigour to the fore in literary critique and review. Cultural rigour is a practice notably undefined (and unrecognised) in mainstream peer-reviewed journal articles, but one that is evident in the development of critical appraisal tools developed by First Nations peoples in and for literary spaces. But there needs to be space. Critical appraisal tools developed by First Nations peoples give direct attention to the social, cultural, political, and human rights basis of literary research.
Developing cultural rigour involves developing models of critique and review that are accompanied by trust, cultural currency, and credentials. In literary critique cultural rigour is the resonance of cultural values in writing. It demarcates space in the literary landscape so that human cultural values and cultural capital become visible instead of being dissolved within the sameness of whiteness. Cultural rigour is detailed attention to protocols for engaging with peoples of different cultural backgrounds to your own so that culturally safe relationships can be developed. It is a space where cultural voices and values resonate through every aspect of writing, editing and critique. Cultural rigour comes through accumulative practice that builds a body of works – an archive of ‘doing’ that offers models for the future.
Cultural rigour in First Nations’ literary critique is nuanced, layered in its approach to a nonlinear storytelling style, savvy with the language of the community and the socio-cultural and historical context of the community/communities from which the author comes. It demonstrates a familiarity with the development and direction of the writing culture/storytelling culture from which the story grew and was produced. And cultural rigour avoids binary, polarised reviews that either patronise First Nations’ writing with hollow praise – as identified by Whittaker which lazily describes a work as ‘good’ or ‘important’ without engaging with the text/s; or that which dismisses First Nations’ works with comparative negativity because the contents – the style, language, form, themes, and characters do not conform to settler expectations of ‘writing Aboriginality’. Two excellent examples of contemporary cultural rigour in in First Nations critique can be seen in the long form critique essays by Alison Whittaker (2017) and Mykaela Saunders (2021).
Whittaker’s 2017 critique of Noongar author Claire Coleman’s multifarious debut novel of speculative fiction, Terra Nullius (2017) is both deft and rigorous. Terra Nullius is described as a cleverly multiplicitous text in which Coleman contemplates such minefields as ‘race betrayal’ (through Native trackers and Settler rebel bandits alike), technological eugenics, and the varied pathways to redemption or damnation after genocidal atrocity. Whittaker notes the growing number of recent First Nations works such as Alexis Wright’s Swan Book (2013) and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light that use speculative or futurist fiction to consider that the apocalyptic moment(s) is racialized. In this context, Whittaker asks an important question: just how good is analogy for the purpose of racial allegory? In considering this question she does not shy away from outlining cultural concerns around the reception and possible readings of Terra Nullius. Whittaker questions the effectiveness of empathy as a catalyst for changing behaviour and flags the risk of readings that may fall into what Unangax theorist Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang describe as ‘settler moves to innocence’ – an assuaging or alleviation of settler guilt without doing anything meaningful to address the colonial past or undo harm done to First Nations communities.
Similarly, Mykaela Saunders’ long form critique of Munanjali and South Sea Islander Professor Chelsea Watego’snonfiction collection Another Day in the Colony (2022) is an in-depth personal and literary engagement with the text and the broader ongoing context of present-day colonial Australia. Saunders centres Watego’s accessible, unflinching voice that unifies the collection and is simultaneously cheeky and vulnerable as it weaves together a series of chapters condensing personal experience with academic lingo. First Nations’ humour is often under-read and/or misunderstood by settler readers, but in this culturally rigorous engagement Saunders highlights the Blak humour that buoys this and other First Nations narratives that navigate the ongoing and unresolved injustices of colonialism and dispossession. But like Whittaker, Saunders does not shy away from bringing rigour to her critique in what she described as ‘the two riskiest chapters – one which satisfied me no end, and one which brought up more questions than it answered.’ Saunders meticulously teases out these questions and concerns for her readers.
This is not an argument that only First Nations writers/critics/scholars should write about First Nations creative works. It’s a call to yield space and address an absence that has been socially produced and reproduced and to make space for culturally rigorous forms of literary critique, review, and analysis to continue to grow. Also, a call as expressed by Whittaker, Le, Ahmad et al for a change of language in relation to critical practice. What’s the language of the community? Unpack your cultural suitcase and be guided by the words and tools of cultural appraisal of Blak and culturally and linguistically diverse essayists, reviewers, and scholars – of whom there are quite a few to draw on. We need more diverse critics, and more space is needed for their works, but just to name a few Alison Whittaker, Evelyn Araluen, Larissa Behrendt, Natalie Harkin, along with many other First Nations writers who write reviews and critiques of our works that are in themselves a set of tools that you can take to broader analysis of other works. For example, Gomeroi poet Luke Paterson’s 2021 essay on Jazz Money’s poetry, Culture in the Making: a walk and a talk; Melissa Lucashenko’s 2017 essay for The Guardian on Kim Scott; my longform essays on Evelyn Araluen and Ellen van Neerven’s poetry published in the Sydney Review of Books, and Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt’s rigorous cultural analysis of Patrick White’s re-writing of the Eliza Fraser story that silenced the Butchella people for decades.
The discrepancy between the ‘diversity and inclusion’ rhetoric in Australia and the lack of space given to culturally rigorous diverse critique is striking, as is the gap between the wealth of First Nations and culturally diverse critics and scholars compared to the dearth of literary critique published by non-white scholars and critics. Yet settler literary critique is no more objective than it is universal. All knowledge is relational and embodied. Exposing and dispensing with this cultural gatekeeping is the first step in yielding space for culturally diverse critical culture to grow. Culturally diverse critique benefits readers and scholars from all backgrounds by offering alternative ways to read, interpret and analyse stories from different cultural perspectives, speaking positions, socio-cultural contexts, and intersections of identity.
Essays and reviews written by First Nations peoples are the models and the tools and the terms settler readers/scholars need to consider in approaching First Nations works. This is a body of living, culturally rigorous critical writing culture that defines its own evaluative framework and terminology. These works are also community investments to grow and sustain First Nations writing cultures. Use these terms and tools, acknowledge them as First Nations tools of appraisal and exercise them in your engagements with further First Nations works. All bodies of creative works need a culturally grounded and rigorous body of critical writing to sustain a healthy writing culture. This is ours.