The death of an author can be an awkward subject for critics. Death calls for empathy, goodwill (however retrospective), and mourning. The genres appropriate to it – elegy, eulogy, obituary – tend to be ones that burnish the subjective. Faults may be mentioned but only as part of a wholistic appraisal of a life whose worth is ultimately affirmed. This sits in tension with criticism’s objective register and the open-ended nature of interpretation and judgement. Affirmation can come across as sentimental, objective appraisal as heartless or ‘too soon’. Perhaps death is a moment when critics ought to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Yet death is also a moment when the story of a writer’s life and work is told and their place in broader narratives consolidated. Most critics are aware that they work within the endlessly relative landscape of literary history. Once a writer’s place in the landscape is secured, it is not easy to budge and this shapes future literary judgements. Think of the habitual recourse to famous authors’ names as proxies for value or as moulds into which the reputations of new writers get poured. When critics write about death there is a fundamental tension between the urge to pay tribute and the urge to evaluate.

In this edition of Critic Watch, I want to consider how such tensions played out in the response, or lack thereof, to the deaths last year of two prominent Australian writers: Les Murray and Mudrooroo (born Colin Johnson). Though few would associate one with the other, the ‘Bard of Bunyah’ and the writer once renowned for being the country’s first Aboriginal novelist lived remarkably parallel literary lives. They were born three months apart in 1938; they both lost parents early in life and endured difficult childhoods in rural towns; they led somewhat peripatetic existences in their early twenties before publishing their first books to modest acclaim in 1965; they rose in reputation through the 1970s and 80s (Murray much more quickly than Mudrooroo) and by the 1990s had become singular presences in Australian literature; they had life and career defining moments in 1996 that brought on the final phase of their literary careers. Last year, they died four months apart. In all, Murray spent 42 more days on this earth than Mudrooroo.

The nature and magnitude of their literary reputations are very different. There is no question that at their respective heights, Murray’s fame and critical esteem reached much further. Yet both forged their reputations on the basis of contributing something distinctive to Australian literature. Murray is often regarded as having distilled in his poetry the voice and language of that relatively small group which nevertheless continues to hold a central place in national mythologies: white pastoralists and the rural poor. As the ‘first Aboriginal novelist’ (I will come to the reason for the scare quotes), Mudrooroo was celebrated for making the novel a medium with which to tell Indigenous stories at a time when Aboriginal culture and history were increasingly recognised as being foundational to any plausible account of national culture. Their writing and their (perceived) identities were co-extensive. In Murray’s case, the groundswell of criticism from the left presented him with an opportunity to present his voice as marginalised and under siege by a ‘metropolitan elite’. Mudrooroo came to conceive of his writing as having an activist role in rehabilitating an Aboriginal identity estranged by the colonial experience.

As their work belongs to major plotlines of Australia’s literary history, a close look at the critical responses to their deaths can also give us a sense of how these plotlines are shaping and are being shaped by current debates over identity and literary value. (By contrast, two other prominent writers who died in 2019, Andrew McGahan and Clive James, have much more peripheral roles in the national literary narrative, no matter how celebrated they may have been as cultural figures or how much success their works have enjoyed.) Had we anticipated the responses to Mudrooroo’s and Murray’s deaths from the vantage of 1995, we might have expected that we would be contrasting two quite different stories about the direction of Australian literature. One would concern the ongoing centrality of white settler-colonial identity and the romance of the bush. The other would concern its displacement by a growing body of Aboriginal literature in print with a decolonising impetus.

Mudrooroo’s capacity to be a leading light in the second story effectively ended in 1996. Like the recent inquisition into Bruce Pascoe’s ancestry, Mudrooroo’s Aboriginal identity was publicly challenged in an investigative piece by Victoria Laurie in The Australian Magazine. This was largely written on the basis of incomplete genealogical research undertaken by his white-identifying older sister Betty Polglaze. His claim to being Noongar subsequently was rejected by the Noongar community and he was effectively cut off from Aboriginal identity. The matter was never definitively concluded, though. After conducting his own research, Mudrooroo stated that he could not decisively determine his ancestry. There was evidence that his father, who died six weeks before he was born, may have descended from an African American immigrant from North Carolina. Research by Cassandra Pybus indicated he was descended from a black Virginian family who had been free before the abolition of slavery.

As was pointed out in responses at the time, the situation was caught up in the vexed politics of racial othering and ‘passing’ under the White Australia policy. It was not unknown for mixed-race Indigenous people to ‘pass’ for African American or other non-white identities to evade discriminations that were specifically targeted at them. Mudrooroo did not take a DNA test (or if he did, he did not publicise the results) and soon left Australia for an extended period in Nepal and India. He returned in 2011 after being diagnosed with cancer. Academics continued to discuss the fall-out from the revelations but Mudrooroo more or less disappeared from public literary life in the late 1990s. He continued to write, but his new books were ignored and his previous books gradually disappeared from syllabuses.

What we face in comparing the receptions to the two writers’ deaths is not like for like but a plenitude and a void. Murray’s death was covered by all major Australian media outlets, print and broadcast, with pieces syndicated across the nation’s regional newspapers. On top of the expected obituaries in major papers, fifteen substantial tribute pieces appeared in all corners of the nation’s media, print and online, with a further 43 in capsule form. This does not include the many well-known writers and cultural figures who were quoted, some at length, in news pieces covering his death. There were a few longform critical reflections on his body of work, though fewer than one might expect. Poems, interviews, and essays by Murray were reprinted with The Australian even publishing an editorial. He was given a state funeral in NSW. According to reports, it was the first for a literary author since Mary Gilmore in 1962. There was also an extensive international reception, with obituaries or substantial essays appearing in BBC online, The Economist, Financial Times, The Guardian, The New Criterion,The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Sunday Times, and Times Literary Supplement.The year’s end brought on another round of reflection, with several critics and writers revisiting Murray’s work as they looked back on their reading for the year. There was also a reception in the blogosphere and on social media, much of it emerging from conservative think tanks and Catholic groups.

Mudrooroo’s death received one notice in the mainstream print media: a 308-word piece by Stephen Romei in The Australian. Brief notices also appeared on the Books & Publishing (233 words) and ANZ Lit Lovers (300 words) blogs. That was it. 841 words. (An obituary of sorts did appear in the academic journal Race and Ethnic Studies in July. It described Mudrooroo as ‘a giant of ethnic literature in Australia’.) The sources I collected on Murray’s death totalled over 80,000 words. This does not include reprints of syndicated pieces with minor variations, blog posts (of which I did not conduct an exhaustive search), and mentions of Murray’s death in pieces covering other topics. If these were included, a rough estimate would be that the coverage of Murray’s death was 125 times greater than that of Mudrooroo – the difference between a bonfire and a matchstick. In contrasting the two, I’m not wanting to suggest that Murray’s death has been over-celebrated and Mudrooroo’s unjustly ignored. I want to understand why one author’s death should have occasioned critics of various stripes to have their say, and the other’s either was of no interest or proved too difficult to acknowledge.

Reading across the responses to Murray’s death, what is immediately striking is its intimate register. Jane Sullivan in the Sydney Morning Herald and Aimos Aikman in The Australian both lead their pieces with accounts of the drive up to Murray’s house at Bunyah. Murray worked hard to fix the association between his work and his family’s rural property, and, on cue, Aikman begins: ‘The winding road to Les Murray’s house wraps like his verse around the country that bore him.’ Also writing in The Australian, Nikki Gemmell recounts how Murray would crash on her sofa in Kings Cross before describing her own visits to Bunyah. Thomas Keneally begins his tribute, written largely in the second person, in the Sydney Morning Herald, by lamenting that he could no longer ‘nick up to Nabiac off the Pacific Highway and beyond it into the snug dairy-and-timber lands against the coastal mountains, and see that old contrarian bastard and word-polisher.’

In Guardian Australia,John Kinsella relates inviting Murray to his uncle and aunt’s farm in WA’s wheat belt and arranging for Murray to visit Kenyon College in the USA. In one of a series of thirteen capsule reflections collected by The Australian, Peter Carey relates inviting Murray to New York where they could converse ‘away from the Quadrant wars and Manning Clark’s alleged Lenin medal and all those other controversies’. In the same series, Noel Pearson reveals he had ‘made plans with my indigenous colleague, professor of law Megan Davis, that we would visit the poet together’. Even Pi O, in a mostly hostile piece in the Sydney Review of Books, structures his thoughts around three encounters with Murray.

Little wonder that Jonathan Dunk, in a piece for Overland that subjects Murray’s work to intensive critique, makes explicit his intention to write against these currents: ‘I never met Murray, so I’m even less interested than I would otherwise be in writing the kind of roseate well-fuck-it-he’s-dead-here’s-a-nice-poem kind of eulogy that’s doing the rounds.’ Dunk was one of few younger critics to write about Murray’s death. Nevertheless, the informal and reflective register of his piece creates its own air of intimacy. Murray is cast as ‘the problematic old bastard grandad some of us had, if he’d been an internationally renowned poet’. When David McCooey, in his piece for The Conversation, begins ‘the death of the Australian poet Les Murray at the age of 80 is a profound loss for his family and friends’, it is notable for distinguishing between those who were in his intimate circles and the rest of us.

I’m not suggesting that taking a personal angle is unusual or inappropriate. Death, surely, is a fitting occasion for personal reminiscence and reflection. What is striking are the patterns in the ways Murray created a sense of intimacy with a large and diverse group of people. (There’s not the space to go into it, but the response to Bruce Dawe’s recent death has been affectionate but much more arms-length in register. Compare, for instance, Kinsella’s pieces on Murray and Dawe.) Murray may have insisted ‘I am my poems. That’s where you’ll find me’, but he also made sure that people knew his address. Stories about him are usually of one-to-one encounters away from crowds and the literary scene. If there is an encounter at a public event, it leads to an exchange of letters or a phone call (landline, of course). Then comes the pilgrimage to Bunyah. As we see with Pearson’s comment above, even where the pilgrimage was not undertaken, the prospect of it constitutes a sort of cultural event.

A particularly effective form for establishing a personal connection was the postcard. A few months before he died, Quadrant called for tributes to Murray to mark the occasion of his retirement as literary editor. All 30 were published when he died. Of these, Joe Dolce, Suzanne Edgar, Russel Erwin, Derek Fenton, Patrick Morgan, Penelope Nelson, Nana Ollerenshaw, Jan Owen, Robyn Rowland, Karl Schmude, Vivian Smith, Libby Sommer, and Jane Sutton describe the thrill of receiving a Murray postcard with a Bunyah postmark. Postcards are also mentioned by Kinsella in The Guardian, Belinda Lopez in The Australian,Stephen McInerney in the Sydney Morning Herald (as reported by Linda Morris), Jonathan E. Hirschfeld in the PN Review, Daniel Tammet in the AFR, Tracey Edstein in Eureka, and Stefano de Pieri in Arena. More than just the family farm, Bunyah was a cottage industry for the production of authorial authenticity and intimacy.

That our perception of Murray might be of a sustained performance is only really countenanced by Guy Rundle (a critic not adverse to a good performance). Rundle points to the ironies of a man who ‘railed against elite and condescended multiculture, while spending half his life in planes and hotels, bouncing around the global festival circuit’ and the ‘largely imaginary version of the place [Bunyah], and the country, at variance with the mass cultural, globalised rural ’burb that it, and everywhere, has become’. In an interesting and ambivalent piece for Arena, ‘Les Murray: Not an Encomium’, Stefano de Pieri openly wrestles with the intimacy he enjoyed with Murray and his discomfort with Murray’s cultural project. De Pieri is a founder of the Mildura literary festival and he and his co-organisers built up the festival around Murray’s annual attendance. De Pieri recounts trying to argue with Murray on matters like multiculturalism. Like others, though, he finishes with an encomium: ‘I wish Les and I had another magnum of Coonawarra cabernet at hand and could carry on these conversations. What’s left now are his immortal poems.’

The cumulative effect of all this is to remove Murray, and his work, from the broader landscape of contemporary literature. He becomes a rural idol, turning out deftly original yet demotic turns of phrase as though from experience and genius alone. This has implications for the ways in which critics position themselves in relation to Murray’s cultural project (a term I use to encompass his poetry and activities as a public figure). A curious feature of the response to his death is that there was no sustained reflection on the apparently significant impact that Murray had in shaping Australian literary institutions over a 55-year career. It is the sort of thing we expect when politicians and other public figures die. For those firmly on the left, like Kinsella, the tendency is explicitly to distance themselves from Murray’s politics while celebrating his poetry: ‘a brilliant poet with a genius for language, with some terrible politics.’ For liberals, the politics either go unremarked or are part of the complexity that makes Murray so alluring. Peter Goldsworthy structures his piece in The Saturday Paper around the conceit of consuming Murray’s poetry as a malt whiskey. Gemmell and Sullivan likewise steer clear of politics, something Sullivan reports herself doing in Murray’s presence: ‘Now and then there was a grumpy rant about something that got under his skin: politics, the Australia Council, leftie literati. I didn’t try to argue with him.’ Keneally says he would have been ‘sniffy’ about Murray mixing with the Quadrant set were he younger, ‘but your poetry explains why you were in that mode’. For Peter Craven, ‘he was a much bigger figure than any Left-Right distinctions’. Geoff Page comments, oddly, that Murray’s public statements and editorial tastes ‘have shown no particular [political] bias (other than a refusal, in principle, to publish poems favouring things he’s opposed to, such as abortion)’.

For the conservatives and reactionaries, the threads of Murray’s cultural project are presented as mutually reinforcing. Barry Spurr devotes most of his tribute piece to disciplined close readings in a canon-oriented New Critical mode. In a coda, though, he allows himself to editorialise: ‘All that Les Murray represents […] is the antithesis of the meanspirited, thought-and-speech-shackling society that Australia has become in our time.’ Then follows a screed against ‘holier-than-thou, virtue-signalling, self appointed public scolds in the media and Thought Police patrolling the corrupted academy’. Similar sentiments are expressed by the Ramsay Centre’s Stephen McInerney (‘In an era of “Safe Schools” programs, this is a lesson that should be part of the curriculum, and there is no better way to teach it than through the work of our greatest poet.’)

One consequence of the community-feeling of the reception is that there were no arms-lengths accounts that set out for those unfamiliar with Murray the relevant literary contexts that might explain his importance. By this I mean the usual stock-in-trade of longform critics like the elaboration of important influences, the comparison with contemporaries, and a sense of the trajectory of a writer’s work over a career. The key literary critical question of how he went about creating such a distinctive verbal idiom did not really figure. This may also reflect the kinds of periodicals that published pieces on Murray. The great majority of responses were published in newspapers and magazines with a broad remit. Among journals with a more substantial literary content, only Overland, Quadrant, and the Sydney Review of Books published on Murray’s death. (Those that did not carry substantive pieces on Murray include Australian Book Review (though they did publish a short notice), cordite, Griffith Review, Island Magazine, Kill Your Darlings, Mascara, Meanjin, Southerly, and Westerly.) Pierre Bourdieu calls this more specialised area of publishing the ‘field of restricted publishing’. Readers of publications in this field tend to be involved in some way themselves in the production of literature and criticism. Unlike the ‘field of large-scale production’, the restricted field ‘tends to develop its own criteria for the evaluation of its products’.

And so we find that the pieces by Spurr, Pi O, and Dunk are more proactively engaged with questions of evaluation. They were also published some weeks after the initial wave of responses. Spurr’s essay seeks to give Murray’s work canonical depth, with Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Virgil, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Emily Dickinson (but no Australian writers) name-checked along the way. Pi O’s essay targets the idea of Murray as a standalone genius. A point not without foundation. Spurr, de Pieri, Kinsella, Craven, Gemmell, Carey, Keneally, Sarah Holland-Batt, Clive James, Graeme Leech, Trent Dalton, J. M. Coetzee, and the author of The Australian editorial use the epithet. Positioning himself against other commentators, and Kinsella in particular, Pi O argues that bestowing the mantle of genius deflects from the need to engage in a properly critical way with the work. For Pi O: ‘The creative act itself, is an ongoing struggle with the relevant material, and in some cases shows a kind of improvement or development that (under the right conditions) gets appreciated.’

In his essay, Dunk positions himself as ‘a Marxist with deep commitments to the possibility of a decolonial future for this country’ against ‘the plethora of eulogies published by mainstream sources’. The reading of Murray that follows contends with the problem of engaging with ‘a legacy of strong writing which, like much Australian literature, is tainted by indefensible principles and politics’. Dunk’s rhetoric belongs to a very different domain to that of the first critical responders, nearly all of whom were baby boomers. To highlight Murray’s strengths, Dunk looks at poems about hunting, which he compares to Ted Hughes, the dignity of suffering in ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, and Murray’s descriptions of nature. The ledger of indefensible principles is much longer, though, culminating in a consideration of ‘The Buladelah Taree Song Cycle’, a work that makes use of a translation of the Wonguri-Mandjigai’s Moon-Bone cycle. Dunk argues the work ‘illustrates an Australian culture of successful genocide’. He also acknowledges its strengths, calling it ‘an example of poetry’s unique power to tell beautiful lies’.

The Buladelah cycle is something of a litmus test of critics’ attitudes. J. M. Coetzee, who wrote a long essay celebrating Murray for the New York Review of Books a few years ago, calls it an ‘expansive, joyous holiday-season poem’ whose use of the Moon-Bone cycle is ‘a stroke of genius on Murray’s part that is also an act of homage’. Peter Garrett, Peter Goldsworthy, and Peter Craven all nominate the cycle as a highlight of his corpus. Kinsella calls it ‘astonishing’ but suggests it is appropriative. Though he was writing in The Monthly a little before Murray’s death, it’s interesting to note that Nam Le judges the cycle ‘the seminal poem of modern Australia’ and makes no comment one way or the other about appropriation. (It’s also interesting to note that Noel Pearson calls Murray ‘the poet of my country and my people. The Australia that began more than 60,000 years ago, not just the one invented in 1788’, though he does not mention specific poems.)

So, against the expectations of reactionaries and conservatives, and even some liberals, the response to Murray’s death was generally warm and celebratory, and largely conducted on the grounds that Murray spent his career laying out. Overall, it gave us an image of Murray as a charismatically cranky and singular cultural presence who harnessed the Australian vernacular in strikingly original ways. Far from being a figure marginalised by metropolitan scorn, he has been remembered as a beloved curmudgeon and hero of quiet Australians. Pi O and Dunk offered strong challenges to the precepts underlying this reception. They also, paradoxically, reinforced Murray’s centrality by demonstrating that he remains an idol worth smashing and, therefore, one possessing real power. No one made the claim that his poetry isn’t worth the attention or that its position in the national canon is not justified. If you believe conservative commentators, ‘identity politics’ is something done by people of colour and hypocritical white liberals. The response to Murray’s death indicates that he was successful in prosecuting his version of white identity politics. As Nam Le puts it, ‘he’s top dog now, and he’s fine with it.’

Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo died long after the corpus of writing that bears his names, if the near total silence that greeted his death is anything to go by. Other than the three short notices mentioned at the top of this essay, in Australia, only right-wing columnists have raised his name in the public arena in the year since. Andrew Bolt gleefully noted in the Herald Sun that ‘Colin Johnson died earlier this year, and almost no media outlet said a word, which is remarkable because Johnson was once famous’. For Bolt, ‘Johnson’s story was compelling for a cultural bureaucracy hungry for stories of Australia’s alleged racism’. When, later in the year, Bolt led the campaign to discredit Bruce Pascoe’s Aboriginal identity, he was quick to invoke Johnson’s name again, as was Helen Dale (once Darville of the ‘Demidenko affair’). For her, though, he was a fellow fallen hoaxer. One tweeter asked of Pascoe ‘another Mudrooroo?’, showing that the latter has become a metonym for literary fakes invoked to impugn those perceived to be cashing in on identity politics.

In the absence of substantial obituaries, it’s worth sketching some further details of Mudrooroo’s life and the controversy over his identity. It is an exceptional and unusual tale. It also reflects the social realities of life under the White Australia policy and the transformations that followed it. Colin Johnson was born in East Cuballing in Western Australia’s wheat district. His father died six weeks before he was born. The family was declared destitute and Johnson’s six elder siblings were sent into the care of welfare institutions. Colin and his next eldest sister Shirley were raised by their mother in nearby Beverly. When he was nine, he and his sister were caught breaking and entering, and were themselves sent into institutional care. For the next seven years, Johnson lived in in a Christian Brothers’ orphanage in Perth. After leaving, he found it difficult to secure housing as a ‘coloured boy’, as welfare officials labelled him, and joined the bodgy subculture. He was soon in Fremantle jail for robbery and assault.

When he emerged, he was taken in by the writer Mary Durack, who became his patron. Looking back in 2015, he described the encounter as ‘fortunate’, calling her ‘a rich Australian writer who helped those she thought gifted enough to be helped’. Durack gave him material support and contacts. She later heavily edited his first novel, Wild Cat Falling, and helped him to find a publisher. In the meantime, he moved to Melbourne and fell in with beatniks and bohemians. This included Adrian Rawlins who put him onto Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the other Beats. Wild Cat Falling brought these influences together with Samuel Beckett and elements of French existentialism. Following its publication in 1965, he spent much of the next fifteen years living, in his words, a nomadic beatnik life. This included stints in India, Nepal, London, California, and Tibet. He claims he spent six years from 1968-74 wandering India as a Buddhist monk. He published his second novel Long Live Sandawara in 1979 after returning to Australia permanently. It was only as he entered his fifth decade that he started to develop a profile as a national figurehead for Indigenous literature. The period from 1983’s historical novel Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World to the ‘exposé’ about his identity in 1996 was prolific. He published five novels, four collections of poems, and three academic studies, including the influential Writing from the Fringe, as well as scripts, novellas, prefaces, and essays. He also completed a Bachelor of Arts and took up a five-year contract as the coordinator of the Aboriginal Studies programme at Murdoch University starting in 1992. In 1988, following Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s lead, he changed his name from Colin Johnson to Mudrooroo Narogin.

Viewed in the context of his life as a whole, his period as a preeminent Aboriginal writer and intellectual was relatively brief. His second long stint on the subcontinent from 2001-2011, lasted nearly as long. During that time he worked on a multi-volume autobiography, continued to write novels, and was married for a fourth time. His disidentification from Aboriginality in 1996 was only the most sudden and public instance in which his identity and mode of life morphed. From ‘coloured’ country boy, to institutionalised orphan, to bodgy, to roaming beatnik, to Buddhist monk, to Aboriginal writer and polemicist, Mudrooroo ‘never was able to assemble a wholly integrated selfhood’, as Paul Sharrad put it in a (rare) recent review. In a 1997 piece defending Mudrooroo, Gary Foley commented that when he encountered Mudrooroo in 1973 his ‘his primary identity to me was that of a Buddhist’. He continued: ‘This did not affect my understanding of him as an Aboriginal person, and I understood then that “Aboriginality” was a more fluent and diverse concept than many of my fellow Koori political activists would have conceded.’ Foley did not base his defence on Mudrooroo’s racial bona fides. He pointed out that acquiring an Aboriginal identity ‘was not exactly something that people were queuing up to do’ in 1965 and that the terms for what constituted Aboriginality changed quite momentously in the period following the 1967 referendum with the rise of black consciousness and associated radical activism. Other Aboriginal intellectuals, most forcefully Ruby Langford, also pointed to the complexities of the questions of identity and identification involved and decried white journalists and commentators for setting themselves up as arbiters.

Mudrooroo’s rapid fall from grace belies the fact that the process of identification that led up to it had been gradual. The acceleration of this process through the 1980s and early 90s reflected social changes and shifts in the configuration of the Australian literary field as much as changes in Mudrooroo’s self-presentation. The Mudrooroo of Writing from the Fringe (1990) positioned himself (and was positioned by others) very differently to the Colin Johnson who wrote Wild Cat Falling. Where the former was written from a confidently assumed Aboriginality, the plot of Wild Cat Falling largely hinges on the protagonist’s unstable identity and the various avenues of identification he pursues to resolve it. The unnamed protagonist more often refers to himself, or is referred to by others, as ‘coloured’, ‘half-caste’, or ‘halfbreed’, than as Aboriginal. The novel belongs just as much to the post-war international trend of narrating racial alienation in an existentialist mode alongside works like Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Richard Wright’s The Outsider, and George Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin as it does the beginnings of the novel of Indigenous experience in Australia.

In a recent analysis of the initial critical reception of Wild Cat Falling, Michelle Kelly and Tim Rowse show that critics at the time were highly aware of such international points of comparison, James Baldwin in particular. According to Kelly and Rowse, there was little sense that the novel was notable above all for the author’s Aboriginal identity, nor that it was beginning a tradition of Indigenous novel writing. It was Mary Durack’s now infamous preface that foregrounded Johnson’s Aboriginality and which presented the novel’s significance as being ‘the first attempt by someone of Aboriginal blood to express himself in this form’. It was not without basis that Mudrooroo would later claim that he had ‘been textualised by Mary Durack and given a race’. Yet, it is also undoubtedly true that Mudrooroo came to embrace this positioning. In Writing from the Fringe, he critiques Wild Cat’s protagonist for being ‘extremely individualised’ and indicates that its achievement lies in pointing towards the potential for recovering Aboriginal selfhood. In his preface to the 1992 edition, Stephen Muecke consolidated this interpretation, calling it ‘the first novel by an Aboriginal Australian’ and claiming that ‘the cultural momentum of the book points towards revival, a searching for roots, and the maintenance of links between contemporary Aboriginal Australia and traditional Aboriginal Australia’.

It was the intensification of Mudrooroo’s identification as Aboriginal before other aspects of his shifting selfhood that set the scene for the cataclysm of his disidentification. Adam Shoemaker later commented that ‘had Mudrooroo died in 1994 or 1995 his reputation as a literary pioneer would live on today untarnished’. We might add that, had he died in 1978, he may have been considered as a different kind of pioneer. Trying to untangle the debates and incomplete set of facts concerning Mudrooroo’s ancestry at a distance of 25 years is not easy, and I will not attempt to do so. The unreliable archival record suggests that his father was descended from an African American man and his mother from a combination of British and Irish settlers. Other than Mudrooroo’s stated recollections, there is no clear evidence in the public arena of Aboriginal ancestors on either side. Mudrooroo’s claims should be taken seriously, though, as should the doubts about his sister’s motives in debunking them. He remained adamant that his mother was part-Aboriginal but this claim was rejected by the Noongar community to which he had assumed his mother had belonged. What became clear is that the doubts about him meant his work was no longer considered a part of the narrative of Indigenous literary history, at least not without a conspicuous asterisk. His work was included in 2009’s monumental Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (under the name ‘Mudrooroo’) but not 2008’s Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.

In the decade following his disidentification, various academics and critics tried to re-evaluate and reorient Mudrooroo’s corpus of writing. Now his work might be read as being part of a broader racialised black experience in Australia, perhaps even as part of an African diaspora (Pybus). It might be read as the work of ‘someone who is caught in the midst of various problems of identification’ (Terry Goldie) who explores ‘the enduring anxiety of his borderland subjectivity’ (Maureen Clark). Above all, it might be read in the terms of hybridity, an interpretative frame popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. However persuasive these efforts may have been, it seems Mudrooroo is fated to be a case for specialised studies of authorship and identity rather than the author of a body of work that is read and enjoyed on its own terms. It also seems he is fated to be read only in the academy. As far as public recognition and a more general readership go, Mudrooroo’s disidentification seems to have been a death blow. This was confirmed when his actual death was ignored. He is not someone about whom either encomia or polemics can be written.

Unlike Mudrooroo, Les Murray did make known the results of a DNA test taken to ascertain whether he had Aboriginal ancestors. According to Nikki Gemmell, he was ‘shocked and disappointed to discover he had no Aboriginal blood in him whatsoever’. One wonders whether his disappointment was partly because a positive result would have allowed him to counter the critics accusing him of wrongful appropriation. But it also points to the skeletons in the closet. The silences and ambiguities about family and race were just as real in Taree as they were in Beverley under the White Australia policy. As Murray put it in a 1977 piece in Meanjin that reflected on Aboriginal themes and influences in his work, ‘we may also have been heirs, tangentially, to guilts about miscegenation, a topic on which many older country people of all colours are deeply and ambiguously touchy’.

As the reception/non-reception to Murray’s and Mudrooroo’s deaths indicate, these ambiguities and silences are not a two-way street. Had Murray’s DNA test suggested that he had Aboriginal ancestry he would hardly have been accused of hoaxing a white rural identity to exploit the lucrative opportunities afforded him as a beacon of conservative rural white Australia. It indicates that the legacy of identification and disidentification for those marked as non-white from that period remains painful and difficult to acknowledge. However severely Murray has at times been critiqued, he has benefited from a solidity of his sense of self, one that is not just a matter of individual character. It is something acknowledged and reinforced in the public sphere. If anything, the critiques show that his work is worthy of being a site of public contests over truth, value, and history. Mudrooroo’s permeable and uncertain selfhood and the difficult story of the ebbs of his identification and disidentification have rendered his work a ghost. No doubt, the silence that met his death has much to do with the ongoing pain of the many who have endured similar circumstances and a reticence to go there among those who have not. The lingering perception that he may have knowingly falsified an Aboriginal identity to accumulate cultural capital makes him a difficult figure to celebrate. And celebration, it seems, is what death calls for.

Viewed together, there’s a troubling sense that we are being bequeathed a literary history and an accompanying set of literary values that have no place for the difficult politics of disidentification. Murray’s is a living body of work to be read, interpreted, appreciated, and contested, but Mudrooroo’s corpus is a specimen, ‘of historical importance’. It is not alive but undead. As if to anticipate this fate, there is a scene in Wild Cat Falling in which the protagonist is quizzed by a group of liberal white university students. He is introduced as ‘the boy I told you about’ and ordered coffee.

Trying to make me feel at ease, I guess, but I am tongue-tied and miserable as hell. What did she tell them about me? That I am coloured and an ex-con? Does that make me interesting? A sort of curiosity?

 “Frank and Bill are doing Social Anthropology,” June says, like reading my mind. “I thought you might be able to give them some fresh slants.”

Works Cited

Aimos Aikman, ‘We Revelled in Refuge of a Fertile Life of Words’, The Australian, 4 May 2019.

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