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‘Getting it Right’: Anita Heiss on Indigenous Characters

Read Tuesday, 4 Nov 2014

Should non-Indigenous Australian authors write Indigenous characters? If so, how can they get it right – and avoid stereotyping? Deanne Sheldon-Collins gets the lowdown from Anita Heiss on how to research and write stories ‘with believable, meaningful and (hopefully) empowering Indigenous characters’.

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During a talk he gave in June 2014, Tony Birch addressed the question of whether non-Indigenous Australian authors should write Indigenous characters. The answer was yes, as long as the authors are informed. But are most writers sufficiently informed? Cultural awareness is an ongoing issue in Australia.

Representation and awareness remain controversial topics, but Anita Heiss – one of Australia’s most significant contemporary voices in Indigenous rights – is well-qualified to comment. Asked why writers might be reluctant to portray Indigenous characters, she says that ‘there’s a nervousness about “getting it right” – and so there should be, as Australia’s First Peoples have long been misrepresented or not represented at all in Australian literature.’

Discussing an Indigenous character who appears in her historical novel, a non-Indigenous author has said that she ‘desperately didn’t want to include a pidgin-English voice that would somehow be belittling’. This aversion to creating an unrealistic voice echoes Heiss’s dislike of stereotyping:

[I]f you are just going to slot in an Indigenous character to ‘tick the box’, then you really are better off leaving them out altogether. Tokenism is not something we need in Australian literature, and our readers are often more educated than we give them credit for. A smattering of ‘Indigeneity’ throughout the text with a lone character and a few language words will not cut it for most educated readers.

This is not to say, however, that Heiss thinks non-Indigenous authors should avoid writing Indigenous characters. On the contrary, she believes that ‘the “Great Australian Novel” (and yes, there are many definitions of this) will only be written when it is inclusive of Aboriginal characters, themes, and our contributions to Australian society at every level.’ She simply wants writers to portray those characters and themes in an informed way, by developing ‘appropriate methodologies in order to research and write stories with believable, meaningful and (hopefully) empowering Indigenous characters’.

Primary research is therefore key to representing Indigenous culture. Heiss references Jackie Huggins’s observation that the ‘best books written about Aboriginals by non-Aboriginals are by those who have some relationship and friendships with Aboriginal people’, because such relationships build the ‘respect and knowledge’ necessary to faithful representation.

This raises the question of whether non-Indigenous authors are exposed enough to Indigenous perspectives. For example, the author who wished to avoid a belittling voice in her historical novel encountered a setback during her research. Worried that colonial sources would lead her to misrepresent the Indigenous culture she portrayed, she tried to gain input from regional authorities. Initially forthcoming, these authorities became politely evasive when her publisher could not agree to provide them with final editing rights. She accepts that different authors will meet with different situations, but her own experience led her to ‘change the angle of the book’. ‘I can’t make it an empty country, because it wasn’t,’ she says; however, she has pulled back the novel’s focus on Indigenous characters, for fear that she might include inaccurate information.

This anxiety recalls Heiss’s belief that writers feel ‘a nervousness about “getting it right”’. She suggests that many authors ‘have no real-life experience or engagement with Indigenous Australia and so their job is so much harder than others who are immersed in community activities.’ Writing both reflects and influences the world on which it comments; the real-life relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples affect literary representations of Aboriginal culture.

Though primary resources might occasionally prove hard for non-Indigenous people to access, there remain many ways to explore Indigenous culture. As most writers will attest, reading is an important part of the craft. Non-fiction, of course, can offer a wealth of information – but fiction may also provide diverse insights. Heiss recommends the work of Alex Miller, particularly his novels Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell. The Indigenous authors ‘everyone should be devouring’ include Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Bruce Pascoe, and Larissa Behrendt. To this list Heiss adds the Yarning Strong series, urban children’s fiction that is ‘fantastic for contemporary characters and stories’. Although Indigenous culture still tends to be underrepresented (or misrepresented) in much Australian writing, strong voices are being published. Reading widely is its own kind of research; writers of any culture can learn from the examples of established authors.

Heiss’s own writing spans several genres – among them historical fiction, romantic comedies, memoir, and poetry – but one constant is that it always features Indigenous characters or themes. Since she is an Indigenous author whose PhD focuses on Aboriginal literature, this is hardly surprising. Yet her writing is not always explicitly political – take, for instance, her romantic comedies. These novels consider Indigenous themes, but they are also urban stories about travel, dating, and career choices. Heiss explores Indigenous identity because that is what interests her personally, not because she believes that is what all Australian writing must be about:

I write stories that are real for me and the world I live in. And in my world, the Indigenous people I know are politically active, they are strong in identity, they understand commitment to community, many of them are women with careers, some with children, some not, and all of them desiring some form of companionship. But of course, not all Aboriginal women are like that, so writers need to decide what their character’s role is in their novel.

Ultimately, writers must find the balance between including Indigenous characters and avoiding tokenism. This might sound like a daunting task, overshadowed as it is by the fear of insensitivity, but Heiss’s ideas suggest useful strategies. Read widely. Research thoroughly. Open up communication. Respect diversity, but also remember that, regardless of culture, you are always simply writing about people:

[I]f the creator considers writing about Aboriginal characters as they would any other character – whether of a specific cultural heritage, or a particular occupation or a character with an illness, for example –then research, feedback and aiming for ultimate authenticity in the portrayal should always be the goal. As writers, we should aim for this in all our characters.

Keep these words in mind, and you may be able to get it right.

Writers Victoria is running an Indigenous Character Intensive this November, consisting of one day of cultural awareness training at the Koorie Heritage Trust and one day of writing Indigenous characters with Anita Heiss.

Deanne Sheldon-Collins is a Melbourne bookseller, reviewer, and freelancer.

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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 the Centre stands. We acknowledge and pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their Elders, past and present, as the custodians of the world’s oldest continuous living culture.