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20 reasons you should read Blak

Read Sunday, 21 Feb 2016
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The following blog post was part of a keynote address I delivered at the inaugural Blak and Bright Festival at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on Friday, April 19th. For the purpose of consistency in this published piece, Black is Blak.

I read a lot of top shelf Blak authors and I think you should too. Here’s why:

1. We Are The First Storytellers

Our Stories are our Survival, Lawrance Bamblett 

Since time immemorial we have been telling stories. Throughout the history of Aboriginal Australia, most aspects of Aboriginal society, culture, religion and history were passed on to family and community via an oral tradition that included approximately 200 distinct Aboriginal languages spoken by 600 Aboriginal nations. This involved storytelling to pass on information over generations and this practice endures today. Storytelling was the oral literature, the art form likened to dance, performance and visual arts (which also pass on information). It is this storytelling, or ‘oral’ technique, that contributes to a distinct Aboriginal style of writing. Stories are our survival, as Wiradjuri academic and Cowra community member Dr Lawrance Bamblett points out in his work that shares history through stories related to sport at Erambie. Lawrie also focuses on stories of Aboriginal advantage, and in that way our books attempt to also shift the conversation from one of victimhood to one of self-determination.

2. We Write Human Rights

We Are Going, Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal)  

As writers, we create spaces that allow non-Indigenous readers into our lives, our communities, our diverse worlds through the stories we share. We build so many bridges we should be called engineers (a quote from singer Toni Janke). And in lieu of any form of Human Rights Charter in Australia, we provide the words that promote social justice and expose human rights abuses and we’ve been doing it for decades. In 1964, when Kath Walker (later known as Oodgeroo Noonucall) published the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal author, her words in We Are Going were so impressive and powerful that some reviewers refused to believe they were even written by a Blackfella. Within this volume though is the ‘Aboriginal Charter of Rights’. It is as relevant today as it was back then.

You should read Blak because #WeWriteHumanRights

3. We write humour and pain

Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko 

We have the capacity to remain calm, dignified and laugh in the face of adversity in life and in our literature. We are capable of writing novels that consider First Nations peoples who live on and off country. We write about native title and connection to country, and about having to deal with people in positions of power categorizing us into a caste system.

Melissa Lucashenko’s fifth novel is set in the northern NSW town of Mullumbimby, and is one of the most emotionally powerful and can’t-put-down reads I’ve experienced. Through it’s main characters Jo Breen (a cemetery green keeper) and her lover, the gorgeous Two Boy Jackson, readers glimpse the complex meaning of connection to country for two different people living on and with ties to, the same Bundjalung country. Their relationship is offset against a story about native title, and the difficulties faced by many if not most claimants today, especially on the east coast that wore the brunt of colonisation. What I loved most about this novel was it’s raw honesty and it’s shocking but hilarious one liners.

4. We write sexy

Heat and Light by Ellen Van Neerven 

We write about being young, about being Aboriginal growing up and learning about life and about how to live. Sex and love is a big part of that. For some more than others. We write eloquently about sexual identity and intimacy. And we write about sexual evolution for literary purpose rather than being enticed to write for shock value or for the 50 shades of potential sales. Don’t get me wrong, we want sales, more books sold means more of our words read, but we value story and words more than numbers. And even if our characters are convinced they have a sex addiction, you can still read love into their experience. And yes, we can write the hopeless romantic too.

5. We win awards

Benang by Kim Scott 

As you will hear tonight and all this weekend, there are many, many, many social, cultural, historical, political, educational and even entertainment related reasons for reading Blak, but if you still can’t be swayed because you are bound up in the importance of literary recognition or kudos from the academic establishment, then perhaps you should just read blak because we also win awards.

Sometimes we win the country’s most prestigious award, the Miles Franklin, like Alexis Wright did with Carpentaria. Sometimes though, if you employ sheer literary brilliance and your name is Kim Scott you can easily win the Miles Franklin twice, as well as a winning a swag of other awards.

6. We write the environment

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

We write fiction with political intent and humorous overtones and undertones, set in futuristic worlds. We write characters that our own community will know, sometimes love and sometimes loathe. We are not afraid to write the reality of our own disappointing leaders either. We write poetically about the power of nature in a form that some might describe as magic realism, but the categorizing does not change our concern for the environment and the consequences of climate change.

7. We write messages for the masses

Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington 

Many Australians will say they didn’t know about the Stolen Generations. This comment may have been acceptable in the past, may have, but it certainly is not now. And no, this is not an introduction to a discussion about Alan Jones. Rather, this is about dignified, late Aunty Doris Pilkington Garimara and Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence. It was first released in 1996, then turned into a feature film that screen internationally from 2001, bringing to those ‘unknowing Australians’ the raw, challenging and brutal truth of the policies of removal. Policies that were designed to disconnect Aboriginal children from their families, their communities, their cultures and their identities. Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence has reached audiences world wide having been translated into Chinese, Turkish, German, Dutch, French, Japanese, Italian, Swedish and Slovenian.

8. We maintain the rage

Home by Larissa Behrenht 

We tell painful stories, over and over again, accepting we need to do so in order for other Australians to learn about their own history. Everything post 1788 is Australian history. We didn’t write the actual policies of child removal. That is essentially white writing. We writeabout the policies of removal, the racist government legislation and the ongoing consequences for those still finding their way home. We write for those who went to their graves before they reached home.

With her Commonwealth Writers Prize winning novel Home, Larissa Behrendt maintained her own personal rage at the Howard Government’s denial that there were generations of stolen children.

9. We write the search for self

Becoming Kirali Lewis by Jane Harrison 

Aboriginal people go to school. We go to uni. We have dreams and goals. We have emotional journeys, self-esteem issues and various friendship groups. As young people we want to belong, we want boyfriends and girlfriends; we ride the rollercoaster of life, not unlike other teenagers and young adults. A third of the Indigenous population lives in urban centres. Sometimes we struggle to fit in, to be part of the mainstream, to be part of the mob. We are told we straddle two worlds when we are one person but perhaps with many identities. Sometimes we don’t know what our identities are. And so it is written in books like Jane Harrison’s Becoming Kirali Lewis, a novel that should be taught on the curriculum because the journey to adulthood and understanding who you are is not a Black or white thing. It’s about being human.

10. We write with respect

Calypso SummerJared Thomas 

Whether kids books, adult fiction, non-fiction or theatre, for the most part, we write with a sense of respect demonstrated through appropriate methodologies. Terri Janke’s writing protocols with the Australia Council have made it easier for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers to ‘get it right’ ensuring the book you get off the shelf at ‘Readings’ – slight plug – is the best book it can be. I have always believed that a book is worth nothing if the process it has taken to create it has disempowered those it has written about. Jared Thomas’s latest offering Calypso Summer not only involved a process of community consultation in his research to complete writing it, he included some of the process in the storyline.

11. We write global

Paris Dreaming, by Anita Heiss 

Indigenous Australians travel and work internationally. This year award-winning artist Tony Albert was at the International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York, and Damien Miller is Australian Ambassador to Denmark, the first Indigenous Australian to head to a diplomatic mission. Brenda L Croft and Hetti Perkins co-curated the Australian works at the Musee du Quay Branlee, which showcases amazing art by award winning artists like Judy Watson. But you’d never know that we have successful people working abroad if you just read Australian newspapers or mainstream Australian literature. In those spaces we mostly remain a collection of negative statistics with language that focuses on disadvantage. That’s why some of us have shifted the conversation in our literature to one of international experiences, city life, professional careers, healthy lifestyles and even poetry with sex. Or sex with poetry. Or politics with sex with poetry. And of course, shopping.

12. Because we want you to get it

Don’t take your love to town by Ruby Langford-Ginibi

One of the most widely read autobiographies in Australia is that of the late Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Don’t Take Your Love to Town which appeared on the NSW Higher

School Certificate Curriculum for many years. Aunty Ruby once said that she decided to pick up a pen in 1984 to write her autobiography because she realised there was nothing taught in the school curriculum about Kooris: “I thought if I wrote about my experiences as an Aboriginal person, it might give the other side, the ‘white side’, some idea of how hard it is to survive between the Blak and white culture of Australia, and they might become less racist and paternalistic towards our people.”

We currently have 989 single autobiographical works indexed into the BlakWords dataset of AustLit. There are many, many Blak writers telling their own stories for the same reasons that Aunty Ruby did.


13. Because we call it as we see it

Me, Antman and Fleebag by Gayle Kennedy 

Don’t necessarily come to us looking for fake airs and graces. Come to our writing for the truth of our realities. Plural. Yes, because there are many. There is no one Aboriginal experience. There is no one Aboriginal voice or perspective. Come to our writing because it will dispel the myth of pan-Aboriginality. We sometomes use Aboriginal English. And if the creative work requires it, we will bag out our family at times on the page as well. But we will do it in good humour and you will love it.

14. Because a white man’ll never do it

Because a white man’ll never do it, Kevin Gilbert

By calling it as we see it, as we know it, as we experience it as Indigenous Australians, we use language like genocide and slavery. Invasion and warfare. Racism and discrimination. Human rights and social justice. Sovereignty and Treaty. We write words that will make some whitefellas uncomfortable. And it’s not that we like making whitefellas squirm (okay sometimes we do), rather, we write because we need our side of the story heard, our way.

15. Because we write reconciliation

Fog a Dox by Bruce Pascoe 

Of course we want and need to have whitefellas on side, simply to get stuff done. So we are also conscious of the need to keep the peace; we are bridge builders remember, so we also write deadly reconciliation stories as well. We write them simple enough for kids to understand them, in the hope that adults might too. We write them well enough they win the PM’s award. We write them in the form of animals – domestic ones and wild ones – getting on. Just like Blak and white can, and not just in a novel.

16. Because we challenge hearts and minds

Ruby Moonlight by Ali Cobby Eckerman

We have proven through work like Ali Cobby Eckermann’s verse novel Ruby Moonlightthat’s it’s possible to challenge both hearts and minds through eloquent storytelling of harsh history. Ruby Moonlight centres on the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880. It’s a challenging and thought-provoking read, but one that highlights the best and worse of the human condition. One that allows the heart to breathe and accept the need for human companionship, with race as no barrier. But of course there are many barriers, from not only the colonisers but also from within Ruby’s own world.

17. Because we write in the face of adversity

Love Poems and Death Threats, Samuel Wagan Watson 

Blak poetry is often in response to appalling statistics attached to us in almost every sector. Blak poetry is a comment on the environment and place, stories of landscapes and people and memories that inspire usBlak poetry is often called ‘political’. And poetry by those like Samuel Wagan Watson has everything from the Stolen Generations to the Wheat Board Scandal.

We write about love too, because even political activists and guerilla poets feel love, want love, give love. As blak poets we don’t just get publishing knock backs or bad reviews, we also get death threats, but each and every time, we write in the face of adversity and we use it to our advantage.

18. Because we reframe language

Dirty Words by Natalie Harkin

We have poets like Natalie Harkin who use current affairs and everyday life as fodder for satire and rage on the page. We reshape the language that has stained the soul of the nation; created divides between Blak and white, perpetuated ignorance around history, and prejudice about Indigenous people. Poetry like Dirty Words cement our individual stories that reverberate through the community, the country over.

19. Because we define who we are

Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss

We write about identity because we are tired of other people telling us who we are, who we should be. We write using our own terms for defining who we are. We write because we should have the self-determination to identify however we want to, without being accused of it being for political or financial gain and without being recast into a caste system we have spent two centuries trying to fight off.

20. Because we write kids books that matter

Shake-A-Leg by Boori Monty Pryor 

We create deadly children’s picture books that are in fact, great reading for adults too. We weave ancient traditions, culture and stories into modern day yarns, like Shake-A-Leg by Boori Monty Pryor and illustrated by the late Jane Omerod. The work took out the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction and through the story of three young fellas hunting for pizza the reader gets an insight into contemporary Aboriginal life. It’s a place where Blakfellas speak Italian, where Murris are chefs, nurses and sound engineers, where crocodile pizza is washed down with milkshakes and where the busy street acts as the bora ring today. It’s also where people can live in cities and still respect and value thousands of years of culture. In short, it’s a story that breaks down stereotypes of what it means to be Aboriginal.

So, you should all read Blak because we write #KidsBooksThatMatter

Finally, if you are not reading Blak my question to you is #WhyTheHellNot

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.