by Evelyn Araluen
Published March 2021
Since the invasion of Australia in 1788, First Nations Peoples have been forced into the literary images of the colonisers. We have been described as noble savages, vermin, half-castes, temptresses, and problems, just to name a few. Our entrapment in the literary canon of the invading settlers is what constructed and maintained the colonial mythscape of the modern nation of Australia.
Colonial literatures read as a vast catalogue of misrepresentations of First Nations Peoples and the Countries we belong to. Of all the things brought to these shores in an attempt to erase us – guns, germs, foreign crowd diseases, poisons, religions, missions ‘protection boards’ government policies of assimilation and integration – writing has been one of the most pernicious, enduring and detrimental tools of erasure. Our entrapment in settler literature, the basis of settler cultural transmission through formalised, compulsory education systems, has been nothing short of cultural incarceration. We were imprisoned in settler minds until well into the twentieth century. It is fitting then, that our resistance to this cognitive incarceration is a literary one.
Dropbear by Bunjalung poet Evelyn Araluen is part of this literary resistance. Araluen acknowledges that ‘…the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous people inherit is a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.’ She goes on to note in her acknowledgements at the end of the book:
Many lives have been erased, exploited or violated in the short but haunted history of Australian literature. It is important to emphasize that Dropbear was written from a place of remembrance and honour for those forgotten or misused.
The title of the work speaks to the myths and legal fictions of Australian history, literature and culture. The dropbear assigned the fictional scientific name Thylarctos plummetus is a hoax in contemporary Australian folklore, a predatory, carnivorous version of the koala. This imaginary animal features in tall tales designed to scare tourists and city dwellers. Dropbears are described as unusually large and vicious marsupials that inhabit treetops and attack unsuspecting people (or other prey) that walk beneath them by dropping onto their heads from above. Sound incredible? But this myth is no more incredible or unbelievable to First Nations Peoples than the rest of Australian capital-H history.
Araluen’s book is a radical affront to settler-colonial Australia’s cultural and literary history. Nothing is achieved in a colonial situation by being subtle or polite. Dropbear is blunt, biting and beautifully crafted. Although it is those things, it is more than the sum of those things. It’s a radical and timely affront to the history, the myths, the gossip and the stereotypes that still confront us all as the Country’s First Peoples.
I am refusing the term post-colonial in describing contemporary Australia, because post-colonialism in a settler colony like Australia is as much a part of the settler mythscape as terra nullius. The descendants of the settler-invader diaspora that arrived on these shores 233 years ago have not left; and the structures of colonialism brought here by their ancestors have not been dismantled. As Araluen notes in ‘Playing in the Pastoral’, ‘the settler moves to innocence’ produce,
…complex and at times contradictory
assaultaesthetic of kitsch, and the broader structure of afternoon cartoons and childhood bookshelvesAustraliana through which it operates.
The strike-through technique of redaction this poem deploys serves as a critique of settler sensibilities that shut down truth telling. Beyond this, the erased yet still visible words are tools of colonial mythmaking; they sit shallowly over deeper, still visible and ever-present truths of invasion and dispossession.
Araluen situates Dropbear within the paper incarceration of settler literature and history and positions the poems and prose pieces as not only speaking back to, but ‘staring back at’ the settler literary gaze. Araluen writes in ‘Ghost Gum Sequence’.
I look over Prospect Hill as I pass through the M4 roadworks. In a way I know all times are capable of being, Tench’s gaze is still there – but so is ours, staring back.
This is capital-H history glared back at through the poet’s eye and spoken back to through the poet’s words. ‘Staring back’ is central to the radical affront this book enacts.
Subtlety is an introduced luxury that First Nations poets cannot afford. Moreover subtlety, along with white fragility, forms of a set of settler behaviours that has been used to shut down truth-telling processes and to erase her/histories and stories of many Aboriginal nations. Theft, erasure, massacre and genocide. These are more than just words; these are practices in the ongoing structure of colonialism that have been and arguably still are being enacted on First Nations Peoples. Words like these are silenced in the truth telling process that is needed to heal this nation because they offend settler sensibilities.
Yet the truth that needs to be told in this place is brutal and in order for such truths to be told, a radical affront to settler sensibilities that have been weaponised against us is required. Dropbear, along with the recent works of other First Nations poets such as Ellen van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, Natalie Harkin, Charmaine Papertalk-Green, Ambelin Kwaymullina and Elfie Shiosaki, is part of a growing body of First Nations writing that is a radical affront to the sensibilities within and the foundations of the settler mythscape of national history. Araluen writes in ‘Decolonial poetics (avant gubba)’:
when I own my tongue I will sing
for I will be
where I am for
Stanza by stanza, ‘Decolonial poetics’ exposes and speaks back to the way white Australia assuages its guilt through paternalistic slogans such as ‘close the gap’ or wanting to ‘help’ First Nations peoples. Such slogans are always expressed through a deficit discourse that positions us as if we are the engineers and instigators of the ‘problems’ that settlers identify – and they also position settlers as our saviours, thus absolving them of their ongoing role in the structures of colonialism.
Poems such as ‘Acknowledgement of Cuntery’ and ‘Bastards from the Bar’ enact a much-needed exposé of settler platitudes that do nothing to change ongoing dispossession and continued settler benefit on stolen lands. We hear the ‘tired songbird myth, the fucked-up Sydney grammar dendrology’ that ‘never once stepped from the city to the bush, never climbed from the drain or fought for more than a loose line’. For those among us who have sat through one-too-many tokenistic settler acknowledgments of Country, these phrases ring true.
I welcome you all
You all like me
To the unpronounceable the
Unmemorable time immemorial…
I would like all this acknowledged
And remind everyone
That we are meeting on Land Stolen
and remind everyone how sad it is
you all died
To remind everyone
that you’re all dead
How sad it is
The myth of Australia for First Nations peoples is further explored in poems such as ‘Index Australis’ –
Straya is brown and sharp
when you watch it through the car window
through the convex humming screen
– and ‘PYRO’:
//SCOTT MORRISON SITS SANGUINE IN A WREATH OF FRANGIPANI//
//AGAIN AGAIN WE ARE TOLD TO BE GRATEFUL FOR THIS GIFT AS IF THE MACHINE HAS FIREPROOFED ANYTHING BUT ITSELF//
The irony and hypocrisy of perpetrators seeking recognition for resolving the damage they have caused and continue to perpetuate is a preoccupation across the collection.
In a similar expression of radical affrontery, Driftpile Cree poet and scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt in their memoir A History of My Brief Body speaks of ‘fatal naming rituals.’ Belcourt writes,
Colonialism is in part a system of clarity in the visual sense: what we and our communities look like becomes the basis for a mythology of race that refuses us the freedom to define ourselves.
Belcourt goes on to argue that First Nations’ critiques of the ‘fatal rituals’ that continue to force us into images not of our own making or liking echo particular historical and geographical locations and demand particular kinds of political action. Each book and each story written by First Nations authors rallies against the traumas of description that make all First Nations peoples objects of study to be fed through the poorly oiled machines of western literary analysis.
There is much in Belcourt’s excoriating critique of the violence of colonial naming and analysis of First Nations peoples that resonates with Araluen’s work. In a potent poem called ‘Learning Bunjalung on Tharawal’ Araluen searches for language beyond English to give names back to Country:
I am relearning these hills and saltwaters
It is hard to unlearn a language:
to unspeak an empire,
to teach my voice to rise and fall like landscape,
a topographic intonation
The poem concludes in powerful testimony to the capacity of poetry in the hands of First Nations people and the repurposing and reshaping of the invaders’ language to both heal and erase some of the fatal naming rituals of English on Country:
We are relearning this place through poetry
In a moving prose piece called ‘To the Parents’, the poet describes being read to as a child from colonial mythology such as May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo. The piece begins,
I’m writing this book in the shadow between deaths. I live in a middle place. In country that I must care for but that doesn’t suit the colonial appropriation of our ancestral. Between totem and cryptomythology, between native and notfor.
Later as a young adult in a tertiary institution Araluen acknowledges that she mistook the radical actions of her parents in their reading colonial stories to their children. Of her mother who ‘read to us with care and patience, even all those years she was working two jobs to put those books in our hands’, and her father who shared colonial books that he was read as a child and went on to read to his children, ‘with salt grains and disputations’. She writes,
I missed all this nuance and allowed myself to think we were losing to the settlers when I discovered theory. I learnt new words to write down and explain everything that I felt departed from my notions of the Authentically Aboriginal.
From an adult retrospective, Araluen acknowledges that it was easy to be antagonistic and to see her parents as ‘victims of colonial condition, not agential selves who had sacrificed everything to give us something’:
My parents never pretended these books could truly know country or culture or me – but they had both come from circumstances in which literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just wanted me to be able to read.
Araluen simultaneously gives thanks to the strength and resilience of her parents while at the same time acknowledging the unfinished business of First Nations families still caught in the historical and literary binds of settlerism:
No reconciliation. No rupture. Just home.
Dropbear is a work that cannot simply be categorized, as so many First Nations works are, as ‘protest poetry’. This is a tired and reductionist descriptor of First Nations poetry that denies such works both literary merit and the capacity for nuance. It’s a move which fails to acknowledge the deep entanglement of First Nations writers in settler literary traditions and our unique ability to be able to turn the ‘master’s tools’ back at the master. We can make the introduced language our own at the same time as mounting a substantial and sophisticated critique of the invaders that forced their language on us in the first place.
Entanglement is an important and under-discussed state of being that First Nations peoples and settler diasporas exist in today. One of the many original and brave facets of this work is that it does not shy away from acknowledging and exploring this entanglement. Alongside the radical affront Dropbear mounts against settler myths and sensibilities, many poems acknowledge the messy complexities of our entanglement with both settlers per se and their literary traditions.
Araluen writes of the layered entanglement of colonial Australia,
Somewhere in all this tabula rasa and terra nullius my black and convict ancestors met, each from somewhere else between one and two centuries – some taken, some lost, some left. We try to care through entanglement.
The historically implied and imposed binary between Blak and white, First Nations peoples and settlers is too neat, too arbitrary and feeds into the mythscape of nation where historians and anthropologists continue to perpetuate the dangerous divide between ‘traditional, remote and real Blakfellas’ and those of us who share ancestry with settler diasporas and live in regional or urban areas of Australia. Araluen’s words slice through this:
My baby-book features a charmingly chubby knock-off May-Gibbesque babe playing cheerily with a young brushtail beneath my names and descriptors – Evelyn (for my great-grandmothers), Araluen (for waterlilies), Anne (for habit) and Corr (for the Irish refugee, for the mission worker, for the absences of history by which a name will refuse to abandon whatever it can claim).
The bracketed phrases are crucial here. They operate like literary shields containing information about the poet’s identity that will not be obvious to those who make careers out theorising Aboriginality. Yet what is withheld from immediate purview is integral to Araluen’s agency in defining their own identity and place in this nation, this nation that tends to back away from the not-so-neat her/histories of First Nations entanglement with settler-invaders and immigrant diasporas that have arrived on these shores since the late eighteenth century.
Aesthetically too, the brackets evoke the visual image of hands that cradle intimate details of the poet’s identity that they can either choose to share or withhold. Since the invasion, settler academics have theorised about definitions of Aboriginality and taken away our agency to define ourselves; such theorisation has bolstered the literary mythscape of nation. As Belcourt explains,
Colonialism is in part a system of clarity in the visual sense; what we and our communities look like becomes the basis for a mythology of race that refuses us the freedom to define ourselves.
Araluen reclaims this agency by turning the colonisers’ gaze back at them, naming the entanglement that many settler texts ignore:
Here’s the entanglement: none of this is innocent and while I seek to write rupture I usually just rearrange. I can name the colonial complexes and impulses which structure these texts but it doesn’t change the fact that I was raised on these books too. They tell me they never chose them to hurt us and I never thought they did. History is a narrative and they did everything they could to write a new one for us with whatever tools they could find.
Dropbear manifests an intertextuality that has grown out of over two centuries of our entanglement with and in literary imagination of settlers. Poems such as ‘Dropbear Poetics’, ‘Mrs Kookaburra Addresses the Natives’, ‘Fern Up Your Own Gully’, ‘Appendix Australis’ and ‘The Last Bush Ballad’ stare back in defiance to staple settler Australian classics such as Dot and the Kangaroo (Ethel Pedley 1899), The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (May Gibbs, 1918) and Blinky Bill (Dorothy Wall). These much-loved children’s classics reflect the times in which they were written, and to their readers, the children of the White Australia Policy, position First Nations Countries to be read and consumed as the generic bush or outback. Such usage immediately robs the Countries beneath, Bunjalung Country of the poet’s ancestors and family, the Dharug, Wangal, Gadigal, Tharawal, Woi Wurrung, Wurrundjeri, Turrbal, Yugembeh, Yuin, Darkinjung, Yorta Yorta, Wiradjuri, Gamilaraay, Gomeroi and Worimi Countries that Araluen acknowledges as having written on of their distinctive features, her/histories and stories. Settler literature reduces these sacred, living places to the limited visual field of the invader’s gaze.
Araluen writes in ‘Appendix Australis’:
…children’s literature operates as a bypass to questions
of personified Aboriginal presence, further clearing land
for the inscription of national and environmental
connections through cryptototemetic relationships.
These literatures play into the introduced, ongoing and racialised mode of the gothic, where the ‘Australian bush’ is cast as the enemy that ‘swallows’ little white children and poses a threat to the sensibilities of settler women through its harshness and unreadable vastness. Araluen calls this for what it is – the illiteracy of settlers to read Country and their eagerness to belong on stolen land through attempting to inscribe their own myths over the deep storied Countries they have invaded.
Nowhere is this illiteracy more pointed than in Fern Up Your Own Gully. Fern Gully was the fictional setting created by Ethel Pedley for her ‘little girl lost story’ of Dot and the Kangaroo.
it’s all a metaphor for the beautiful thin white woman
whose body slides linenly through bush
the notion that when my straggly brown strips from
it will be smooth glow of ghost gum beckoning
can’t be lyric if you’re flora, right?
can’t be sovereign if you’re fauna right?
The original text (which was also read to me as a child in the 1960s in the same spirit as Araluen’s parents did – to teach me to read) begins with the epitaph:
To the children of Australia in the hope of enlisting their sympathies for the many beautiful, amiable, and frolicsome creatures of their fair land, whose extinction, through ruthless destruction, is being surely accomplished.
The irony here is high. As is the hypocrisy. Pedley’s words are representative of a long and still continuing tradition of settlers expressing concern for the natural environment, without acknowledging or taking responsibility for their continuing role in the destruction of the land. The failure to mention the First Peoples of this place, much less concern for our welfare amid frontier violence is striking, but unfortunately not surprising to First Nations readers.
Pedley’s epitaph resonates with the problematic approaches to environmentalism and eco-feminist concerns in the present moment. This is exemplified in more recent works such as Germaine Greer’s White Beech: The Rainforest Years where a white feminist gushingly presents themselves as a saviour for purchasing and ‘claiming to restore’ a small piece of country to its ‘original pristine state’. Pristine here means an unpeopled piece of private property.
Works such ‘The Last Endeavour’, ‘THE LAST BUSH BALLAD’ and ‘The Trope Speaks’ take aim at canonized settler writers like Banjo Paterson, DH Lawrence, Kenneth Slessor and Les Murray who erased us in the landscapes of their works and in the classrooms and loungerooms of settler readers across the nation.
The trope folds conflictual narrative of national subjectivities and external politics into aesthetic production.
The trope styles itself as the working-class battler as it navigates, economic, geographic and cultural displacements.
The trope stages forbidding tales of estrangement and annihilation against a backdrop of land fundamentally opposed to humanity and civilization.
Araluen’s literary resistance is not only confined to the historical. A prose piece called ‘Secret River’ riffs off the 2005 colonial novel of the same name. While critically acclaimed by some sectors of settler society, this work, like the earlier settler works Araluen critiques, silenced First Nations stories of place – in this case the Hawkesbury River; and constructed a convenient narrative of settler apologetics for the descendants who committed the massacre and their descendants who are the beneficiaries of such atrocities.
No secrets given by a sovereign river, no mercy to shore for sure.
Water carries immemorial, a river without peace will not let you pray.
This is a stark reminder that it is not only dead white authors who have sought to steal our agency through misrepresentation and appropriation of our stories. This white tradition is still alive and well; and, worryingly, not called out as loudly or as often as it should be. There is no room in the affront this book mounts for settler apologetics or for well-worn arguments that some literary versions of the Australia’s past are more considered or sensitive to the thefts of land, dispossession, massacres of families and communities than others.
There are many ghosts and hauntings between the covers of Dropbear – ‘There’s ghosts in this reserve’ – and ‘The trope feels a ghostly spectre haunting the land, but smothers it with fence and field and church.’ Ghosts and spectral presences are not new in First Nations writing that pushes and questions the limits of western rationality. In Araluen’s work spirits and ghosts speak from beyond, above and below the layers of colonial time to remind us of past in present and present in past intertwined and unresolved.
The other history
is a dream we tell
to give the night ghosts
In addition to the pointed, considered and articulate critiques of settler history and literature within this work, it is also a celebration and a tribute to Country, to Elders, to friends and mentors and most importantly to the poet’s family and loved ones. In ‘See You Tonight’, Araluen takes us into their family home in a celebration of togetherness, resilience and continuance.
We’re losing light, but never rhythm,
spilling between house and yard.
Mum’s got her feet up, and I’m making that
curry you all like. Dad’s in the shed, but he’ll
hear if we call.
If all we get from history
is each other, isn’t that plenty? I hope this living is
long enough for me to bathe your children, to
brush their hair. I’m saving them that book of
bush songs, those gumnut onesies. Cicadas wail
to the moon watching us above silhouettes.
First Nations writing can offer a language tough enough and free enough to tell this nation that sits both shallowly and belligerently across the many Aboriginal Countries of this continent how it is and what it is. Dropbear is a living testimony to the power of words in the minds and hands of First Nations poets, activists and scholars as the works within this book speak beyond the surface to a deeper time and to bigger issues of unfinished business. As Araluen writes,
We are relearning this place through poetry.
We are all caught up in the singularity of coloniality, but each book, each poem, each story is against the trauma of description, those ways of reading and listening that make vampires out of people, possessed by an insatiable hunger for racialized simplicity that makes us into objects of study to be fed through the poorly oiled machines of analysis.
Dropbear is a work of agency and radicalism. One which moves seamlessly between activism, literary criticism, remembrance deconstruction and confrontation. It unsettles settler Australia consciousness with power and precision, leaving no colonial tropes or settler platitudes unchallenged or unscathed. It offers much to a settler reader who is prepared to be made uncomfortable and have their sense of familiarity with nation and their place within it challenged. And to Blak, First Nations readers it offers us words of solidarity, strength, hope resilience and continuance.