Aboriginal literary sovereignty
Reading and Speaking With
Writing Gender #3 considers gender-informed and politically engaged scholarly writing and pedagogical approaches, including mentoring practices and activist scholarship. It will think about how such work can transform disciplinary knowledge and research, and address the gendered politics of knowledge production both within and beyond university settings. This event will further consider alternative and potentially disruptive research and pedagogical methods that advance justice and equality in diverse ways. It will ask what gender-informed research and pedagogy look like right now, and what it means to engage in activist scholarship within this context to challenge gender inequality and other forms of systemic oppression.
Roanna Gonsalves will lead a conversation on these themes with Evelyn Araluen, Jeanine Leane, Quah Ee Ling, and Astrid Lorange on Friday 8 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.
As a researcher and educator, I find myself constantly negotiating two aspirations. The first is the desire to share the knowledges that have been so generously shared with me so their benefits might transform the teaching, learning, and community spaces I inhabit. These knowings, which exist and are maintained outside of academic institutions, might offer radical ways of reimagining our participation in the spaces that such institutions ostensibly are positioned to inform and support. The second is the desire to avoid novelty and reinvention, to reaffirm what already has been spoken and made available to all. By recentring the work which has come before me, I resist the project of further ‘awareness raising’, honouring what has made my being in this world possible so as to usher it on to new possibilities.
Underpinning both these projects is the productive potential of refusal and divestment: what Unangax̂ writer Eve Tuck describes as suspending the damage of research on Indigenous communities by withholding all that the institution does not deserve and instead affirming our own knowing and doing. To always insist on the right to opacity, to withdraw from the continuous demand for participation in systems fundamentally opposed to Blak sovereignty and continuity. If, as bell hooks writes, the institution desires that we only speak stories of ‘deprivation, a wound, an unfulfilled longing’, then I would rather save my words for the spaces which exist before and beyond the institution.
As an Aboriginal woman raised through and into responsibilities to the land, I only really began to feel the pernicious erasure in Australian literature of Aboriginal presence and possession of our sovereign ancestral Countries weigh heavily on my sense of place and identity when I went to university. In the first year of my PhD I sought grounding and guidance in learning my great-grandfather’s language of Bundjalung at Eora College, Sydney, and began writing poetry as a means to navigate the antinomy of two radically opposed modes of textuality: the positivist, post-Enlightenment Western traditions of a national literature imposed on foreign soil, and the ancient and immemorial language which connects me to the land my ancestors were made from and for. As I embraced the refusing and hauntological work of the Aboriginal women who had come before me, a strange, fictopoetic body of work, which eventually became a book of poems, emerged from the slippage between the paratextual narration of my interpretive and analytical experiences, and my direct critical engagement with the Australian literary canon. DROPBEAR was something I could only ever have written while struggling through the forced interaction with texts and methods so unyielding to our history that is necessitated by a PhD: a process which demanded a continuous speaking-back if I were to survive it. I didn’t set out to write poetry when I started university, but I now see that work as a realisation of the generative transformation made possible by the embrace and entanglements between reader and text, and as a refusal of the colonial logics that seek to separate creative practice from critical labour. As Kombumerri and Wakka Wakka Elder Aunty Mary Graham writes:
Aboriginal logic maintains that there is no division between the observing mind and anything else: there is no ‘external world’ to inhabit. There are distinctions between the physical and the spiritual, but these aspects of existence continually interpenetrate each other. All perspectives are thus valid and reasonable: there is no one way or meaning of life. There is never a barrier between the mind and the Creative; the whole repertoire of what is possible continually presents or is expressed as an infinite range of Dreamings. What is possible is the transformative dynamic of growth (Graham, 1999, p. 76).
In the context of my literary research, this cultural knowledge has immense implications for interpretation, emphasising the role of the Aboriginal text as a relational structure rather than a Cartesian object fundamentally separated from the reader. It also follows that interpretive encounters should be guided by a reciprocal ethic: that the text is an active cultural participant, rather than a passive specimen whose meaning can be delved into by the master-critic. To read Aboriginal stories is to engage with the Country from which they emerge.
I’ve felt this so many times in the reading of Blak women’s writing. Not in the abstracted, metaphorised sense of conventional literary discourse, which reads every Aboriginal text as a metonym of ‘the land’ with no genuine sense of what that might mean for the author outside of a strictly representative function, and often with less sense of the places they speak from. This isn’t solely the fault of individual critics: it took me twelve years of university education to finally find words for my conviction that it can only ever be a disservice to contain Aboriginal literatures within the closures, logics, ideologies, and languages of Western thought and culture, even when texts directly engage with the latter’s terms. What could conventional criticism possibly say to a work so monumental as The Swan Book, with its labyrinthine syntactic mapping of collapsing ecologies and shifting totemic orders, which are surely bound up in Alexis Wright’s beloved Waanyi Country – but in what language, in what mode? What could the critic have to offer in response to the cosmic itch that is scratched when I read and reread the lines, ‘Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll’s house. Little stars shining over the moonscape garden twinkle endlessly in a crisp sky’? When I read Purple Threads, I don’t want to interpret or interrogate – I want to pass my hands through the heath and grass lilies that climb and spill the hills of Gundagai. When I first read Mullumbimby, my sisters and I sat on our living room floor, practicing the movement of our mouths as we spoke words that had been silent in our family for three generations. My copy of Blakwork is bruised and dusted by the Gomeroi dirt that collected on my car floor when I last drove up north. There are intimacies – of place, of voice, of language, of memory, of companionship – that inhabit these stories and our inhabitation of them as readers. Even in their invocation of colonial histories, systems, and modes, these books give active and embodied testimony to the continuing interrelationship of these Aboriginal women storytellers ‘to people, country, spirits, herstory and the future’, constituting what Goenpul theorist Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes as ‘a positive site of value and affirmation as well as a site of resistance’. Dissolving all this intricacy to a strictly representational formula, which translates all formal and textual features through an amalgamation of identity and place and history, is a profoundly ineffective gesture. This kind of lazy reading is structured by longstanding investments in colonial notions of place and belonging predicated on Aboriginal erasure that can’t touch the sides of our relationships to Country.
Australian literature and criticism have long traditions of co-opting Aboriginal discourses of self-determination, land rights, and care for Country through symbolic gestures towards purely symbolic sovereignties. These gestures, and their persistence in contemporary Australian fiction today, enact in literary terms Patrick Wolfe’s theorisation of the logic of elimination, in which the genocidal erasure of Indigenous peoples facilitates the acquisition of land for the establishment of the settler colony, while settlers simultaneously cultivate a symbolic return of the native to demarcate the colony from the imperial centre. This return is imagined through strategies of settler nativism and fantasies of adoption into Indigenous cultural spaces, practices, and languages, and through artistic performances of settler heroism and reconciliation with the grateful survivors. The acknowledgement of Aboriginal relationships to land is not itself constitutive of genuine engagement with our stories, and can often disguise more insidious attempts to integrate settler subjectivities into Aboriginal projects of writing Country and sovereignty. As I’ve argued elsewhere, recent trends in Australian literature evidencing this integration have refashioned old tropes of haunting and melancholia to imagine a new polity of reconciliation and national healing incommensurate with the continuing lived realities of Aboriginal dispossession. As Wiradjuri scholar Jeanine Leane has argued, novels such as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005) have sought to reconstruct Country as sites of settler-coming-to-know in pursuit of a new foundation narrative, where the performance of guilt and regret over our dispossession gives way to a new mode of settler Indigenisation. As with their earliest occurrences in Australian literature, mourning and melancholia are rituals of settler possession, and Aboriginal people are never imagined as the audience for such texts.
At the start of my academic life, I was a (too young) blakfulla from the scrub of Western Sydney, eager to attempt a comprehensive decolonial methodology for reading contemporary Aboriginal women’s literature informed by radical, anti-establishment practices. I boasted that I’d write an entire dissertation without mention of any settlers or their texts, that I’d resist any replication of colonial methodologies and logics. Despite my thoroughly understandable misgivings, I came gradually to the reluctant concession that settler literature and its tropes remain, for the time being, an unavoidable context and condition of Aboriginal literature. Globally, First Nations writers today have multiple traditions of inheritance, including many generations of literary publications in and out of English, in addition to our ancient and immemorial storytelling practices. Indigenous literatures written in the alphabetic script of their colonial invaders are recent extensions of continuing practices of storytelling, which include weaving, painting, dancing, singing, carving, and other forms of ceremony communicating our dreams, stories, and knowledges with all those with whom we share the land. Despite this continuity, our adoption of the written word is not unburdened by either the ethical and epistemological problems of the imperial networks from which it originates, or the curatorial and containment drives of the settler colony that variously position Indigenous expressions as commodities of conquest, damage, or reconciliation. The new commercial and critical appetite for Blak stories has given rise to new challenges for authors wishing to maintain cultural authority over their storytelling methods and traditions, as well as to an increasing urgency for culturally sensitive interpretive, pedagogical, and publishing practices. The specific challenges that Aboriginal writers face across commercial, academic, and cultural contexts cannot be subsumed by wider narratives of settler reform which tacitly contribute to the further erasure of our storytelling traditions.
The pursuit of Aboriginal literary sovereignty, however it might manifest, is necessarily burdened with the task of clearing some of the debris of settler coloniality from our literary, cultural, and political contexts. In my own thinking and writing, I find myself reluctant to leave an interrogative mode in claiming any definitive ‘knowing’, outside of my own resentments and suspicions. To emphasise cultural priorities, and to elide the paradigmatic assumption of Indigenous deficit and damage, I’ve begun asking how we might be able to make literary studies in the settler colony responsible to Aboriginal literatures, storytellers, and their lands. To shift the burden of labour for once. Of course, the question of how we might be able to hold literary study accountable to its objects of inquiry must be ready for the possibility that we cannot. Perhaps critique and analysis informed by the traditions and priorities of the settler colony can never register the full living and survivance of the oldest continuing culture on earth upon whose disappearance the success of the colony is predicated? Perhaps these traditions and priorities are unable to depart from the assumption of a right-to-know fundamentally incongruent with Aboriginal ontologies, which necessitate opacity and cultural sovereignty? Perhaps the answer is to withhold and to preserve our knowings for ourselves first and foremost?
These questions are large, and their adequate resolution will likely require rich, thorough, and diverse engagement from Aboriginal writers, scholars, and knowledge keepers, as well as labour from invited and culturally involved non-Aboriginal scholars. I hope that these questions will be made productive by consistent and involved interrogation – entered into in good faith and a spirit of intellectual honesty – of the social, political, institutional, and disciplinary conditions in which Aboriginal literatures are produced and distributed; the presumption of ready answers only parodies their complexity. I continue to be suspicious, resentful, and caught between desires and refusals. I continue to be more interested in the asking than the answering. I continue to believe in the value of our stories and ways of telling. I continue to read Blak women, and to write in the hope that we will always have something to say to each other.
Graham, M. (1999). ‘Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews’. Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, 3(2), 105-118.
hooks, b. (1990). Yearning. South End Press.
Leane, J. (2011). Purple Threads. University of Queensland Press.
Leane, J. (2014). ‘Tracking our country in settler literature’. Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 14(3).
Lucashenko, M. (2013). Mullumbimby. University of Queensland Press.
Moreton-Robinson, A. (2000). Talkin Up To The White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism. University of Queensland Press.
Tuck, E. (2009). ‘Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities’. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409-427.
Whittaker, A. (2018). Blakwork. Magabala Books.
Wolfe, P. (2006). ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387–409.
Wright, A. (2016) The Swan Book. Giramondo.