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Let the Stories In: on power, privilege and being an Indigenous writer

Read Friday, 12 Jun 2015

Many agree in principle that we need more Indigenous voices in Australian literature, so what’s preventing it happening in practice? Author Ambelin Kwaymullina examines how existing power structures and privilege can work against Indigenous writers.

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In her incredible cultural memoir, Eastern Arrernte elder Kathleen Kemarre Wallace wrote ‘I hope you listen deeply and let these stories in. These stories are for all time, for the old days, to help remember the old people, but also for the future and for young people now…sharing means our survival.’[1]

Kathleen Kemarre Wallance’s <em>Listen deeply, let these stories in</em> (IAD Press)

I recently discussed the importance of diverse voices in literature. This is the other half of that story. It’s the tale of some of the issues that hinder Indigenous voices from being let in to the world of books. And like so many other diverse writers of this planet, I believe that the creation of equality of opportunity for all voices to speak is integral to the creation of a just future. 


We need our stories

Aboriginal people need our stories, for they are our lifeblood. It was stories that carried us through the long violence of colonisation, and it is stories that will help us overcome the cycles of despair and disadvantage that are colonialism’s legacy. In an important presentation at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2010, called ‘Who Owns Story?’, Indigenous lawyer Terri Janke put it this way: ‘Stories are about belonging. They are the title deeds to a culture…The right to tell stories and to link into that history, to that land, and that connection is an Indigenous cultural right. It is one that is fiercely guarded in postcolonial societies…All we have left is our stories.’

What is to happen to us now, if we cannot find ourselves in stories? What is to happen to all the marginalised peoples of the earth? In the words of Honduran-Puerto Rican author Vanessa Martir: ‘When you don’t learn the history of your people and don’t read their literature, when all you read and learn is white and Western and male, and so very different from anything you’ve ever known and loved, you inevitably begin to believe that you are less…’

As I write this article, I am surrounded by stories told by Indigenous voices. Some are of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia; others are from Indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world. They are speaking to me out of the pages of many books, and these are the voices to which I return when the world leaves me fractured. The murmur of their words rises and falls like the tide, surrounding me in experiences that speak to my own. Yes, that happened to my family too. Yes, we had laws like that in Australia as well. Yes, I know what it is to feel that.


Stories, intellectual property and dealing with the vulnerable

The ability of Aboriginal Australians to protect our tales is limited. Indigenous peoples lack many resources, but one thing we are not short on is statistics demonstrating our extreme disadvantage. Some of these numbers are gathered together in the UN State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples report; in Australia we also have the work done by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Closing the Gap policy. Our vulnerability is no historical accident – it flows from being Indigenous, because to be Indigenous is to exist within homelands now controlled by others whose very claim to the land was based in a denial of our humanity. In Australia this was expressed in terra nullius – the idea that Aboriginal people were too ‘uncivilised’ to be regarded as meaningfully occupying the land (which is to say, our cultures were too unlike those of Western Europe).

Our prior occupation now gives us certain unique entitlements – including limited entitlements to land – as a matter of basic fairness between those who came before and those who came after. But the physical and structural violence involved in the taking of the lands has left us reeling, and the laws that now govern our homelands are not our own. This causes particular problems in relation to the representation and reproduction of stories, because the laws that protect intellectual property are founded in Western concepts of how art and literature is produced.

Aboriginal narratives are formed by a culture that is process-orientated, communal and steeped in an oral tradition. The laws and legal structures that regulate how these stories are protected are based in a culture that is individualistic, results-orientated and steeped in a written tradition. The deficiencies in legal protection are part of the reason there is now a proliferation of protocols in Australia, designed to achieve the best practice standard of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ and return of benefits to Indigenous people in relation to the use of Indigenous knowledges and stories. In this regard, Aboriginal Studies Press, the publishing arm of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal of Torres Strait Islander Studies’ (AIATSIS), has recently released its Guidelines for Ethical Publishing.

Aboriginal narratives are formed by a culture that is process-orientated, communal and steeped in an oral tradition. The laws and legal structures that regulate how these stories are protected are based in a culture that is individualistic, results-orientated and steeped in a written tradition.


Privilege and the literary canon

Back in the 1980s, scholar Peggy McIntosh wrote an influential article that identified the daily advantages she enjoyed as a result of white privilege. Among the advantages she listed was this: ‘I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.’

More recently, black author Zetta Elliott applied that list to the world of literature and added to it, including the following observation: ‘You can be pretty sure that a (white) editor will not call your (white) characters’ language “too formal,” nor will you be expected to make hardship and racial conflict the central focus of your book.’ Zetta Elliott further writes, ‘You can be pretty sure that your book – if it’s lucky enough to get reviewed by the major outlets – will be assessed by someone of your race who operates with an appreciation of your culture’s particular literary tradition(s).’

To which I would add that agents, editors, and booksellers will also have an appreciation of the tradition from which the work comes. This doesn’t mean that non-Indigenous peoples cannot understand or appreciate Indigenous work. In fact, I’d suggest the very thing books are for is to challenge and bewilder and inspire us by opening windows into worlds other than our own. But it does mean that people outside the culture from which a book comes may well find it harder to understand, and may even feel uncomfortable or confronted by the extent to which a text does not conform to their pre-existing ideas of what it is to be Indigenous. This extends into characterising a story told by someone of a particular culture as being an inaccurate representation for failing to conform with Western stereotypes. Bundjalung writer and artist Bronwyn Bancroft has written of this in the context of visual art, and here is her answer to those who would pigeonhole her art, culture and identity:

‘When I come across people using this form of degrading manoeuvre my advice to them is to keep judgements to yourselves and superiority in your cold heart, and remember that all negativity can be returned for the atrocities and effects of colonisation, triple-fold if you ignore them. I will not be moved about like a political, social and artistic chess piece. I am a human being. I value my family and will not be diminished by any outsider’s ignorant opinion of who I should be.’[2]

– Bronwyn Bancroft

I am always astonished when non-Indigenous people make a judgment as to the ‘authenticity’ of an Indigenous work. First, how would they know? Second, from where do they think they acquired the right to be more expert in a culture than someone of that culture? Third, if the book does not include all the manifestations of culture the non-Indigenous person believes it should, one of the reasons for that might be that what they think they know about the culture is inaccurate or lacking in depth and subtlety. Another is that there are things the creator has chosen not to write of – because they are part of a painful history. Or because those issues were the subject of a cultural negotiation, and Elders have indicated that they don’t want them included. Perhaps because silence is being used as a means of protection of cultural knowledge. Or for any number of other reasons, which are matters for the creator and their community and their people – and not for anyone else.

The assumption of expertise in someone else’s culture in part springs from the ‘one story’ problem, which was the subject of an extended discussion by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at a 2009 Ted Talk:

‘Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.”… I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho, and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.’

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Essentialist notions of human identity are always false. Our species is more complex than that. But writers of the dominant culture are generally not in danger of editors, agents or reviewers judging their book against the only other book by a writer of that background that they’ve ever read; against some documentary that aired a few years back; or against a brief and scrambled history learned on a school trip to the museum. For Indigenous peoples, the one-story danger is made worse because the narratives told about us vastly outnumber those told by us. Not only that, but many of those narratives were written during, or are informed by, the colonial era. And as all colonised peoples know, colonial narratives were shaped by the driving necessity of casting native peoples as inferior – because to allow for the possibility of our humanity would have meant re-examining the moral (and legal) claim to the land that European superiority was supposed to give. The situation is also complicated by the number of Indigenous stories taken and published without permission, particularly in scholarly realms. This was one of the things that prompted the setting up of Indigenous publishing house Magabala Books in Broome. In the words of Aboriginal writer Merrilee Lands, the first author to be published by Magabala:

‘…people were a bit worried that for a long time linguists and anthropologists were coming into the community and collecting stories and taking them away and that no-one ever knew what was happening to them. The Aboriginal people had no control over the material they had given, sometimes the material was published, yet they weren’t going to get royalties.’[3] 

– Merrilee Lands


Titles published by [Magabala Books](

Privilege and place

For a white woman like McIntosh, the notion of privilege with regards to place means she ‘will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.’ Expanding on this theme, Zetta Elliott has reflected: ‘You can attend numerous children’s literature conferences with programming that reflects your interests and/or your culture, you can network with industry professionals who share your race, and otherwise feel comfortable as a member of the majority.’

To be Indigenous is to be a traveller of strange worlds and a negotiator of alien spaces that reflect little or nothing of ourselves. It is anxiety-inducing. The 2012-13 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey reports that Indigenous Australians are three times more likely than non-Indigenous Australians to experience high or very high levels of psychological distress. Part of this springs from what American poet Adrienne Rich once described as the psychic disequilibrium that occurs ‘when those who have power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you.’ 

Like other Indigenous authors, I walk into a lot of rooms where I am the only Indigenous person present. I don’t sufficiently resemble people’s expectations of what an Aboriginal person ‘looks like’ to be immediately identified, but I’m non-white enough that the first question anyone asks me is where I’m from. So I tell them – and I wait.

I’ve experienced the same range of reactions all people of difference have. Fear. Suspicion. Puzzlement. The other person physically taking a step back. The anger of those who want to aggressively interrogate my identity, my history, my culture, or to demand an explanation of something some other Indigenous person did – or said – or something that happened in this story they saw on the news. This is when I start to feel panicked as I search for the words that will make them see me. And not as some exception to my race, but as part of a people who are as human as they are and as entitled to basic courtesy and respect. And the reactions I’ve described are mild compared to what could and does happen.

It might be, of course, that the room I walk into doesn’t contain anyone who’d ever do anything like what I’ve talked about. It might be that it’s a place full of good-hearted people with a genuine interest in finding out about those who are unlike themselves. But I don’t know that when I first walk into the room.

Privilege and who tells the stories

The structures of power and privilege cannot be ignored when it comes to who speaks about whom. As Zetta Elliott points out, if you’re a writer in a privileged position ‘…you can write about anyone who lives anywhere and be accepted by many as an extraordinarily creative person and/or an expert on topics outside of your lived experience.’ 

She further notes that an increase in diversity within books written by white writers does nothing to increase equality of opportunity for writers from diverse backgrounds: ‘If you are a white author who wants to write about people of colour, I would ask you to pair your concern for diversity with a comparable commitment to equity. Do members of the group you’re writing about have an equal opportunity to tell their own stories? What can you do – in addition to carefully researching your story – to make sure cultural insiders have the same chance to be heard as cultural outsiders like you?’  

We need more stories by Indigenous writers, and that means in turn that we need the structures and opportunities that support the stories being told. In this regard, I have recently written a post that contains some suggestions as to things publishers can do if they wish to increase the number of Indigenous voices in their lists. And as a Young Adult and children’s author, I know how very much it matters to kids and teenagers not just that a book is written about someone like them, but that it is written by someone like them. Because it is then that they can see the possibility of being storytellers themselves.

As a Young Adult and children’s author, I know how very much it matters to kids and teenagers not just that a book is written about someone like them, but that it is written by someone like them.


Stories and the future

We have such incredible diversity here in Australia, and both the Indigenous peoples of this land, and those who came after, are great innovators. So, I think there is much we could contribute to a discussion about diversity and the books of the future. I’d like to see us try, all Australians together. For this journey is one none of us can undertake alone.

I am an author and my job is to imagine. So, I imagine walking into a different kind of room than the one I described before. There is more than one Indigenous person present. There are also many other cultures – in fact, all of the immense diversity that makes up Australia, including of course those from the dominant culture. There are other kinds of diversity too. No one is excluded here, which means efforts have been made to be inclusive. Otherwise the structures of privilege would have ensured that nothing changed.

In this room difference is celebrated. We stumble our way towards knowledge of each other, making mistakes along the way. That’s all right. What matters is not whether we make an error but that when someone corrects us, we listen. We apologise, and not in a way that implies the other person is being overly sensitive (or, worse still, that they shouldn’t ‘take it personally’). We simply say sorry, trusting them to be the experts in their own backgrounds and experiences. In discussing our worlds we find points of similarity and points of divergence, and delight in them both.

And in the space of an hour or so of conversation, the boundaries of what human beings can be expand into infinity, and I am dizzy with the possibility of it.


[1] Kathleen Kemarre Wallance, Listen deeply, let these stories in, IAD Press, p 141

[2] Bronwyn Bancroft, ‘The Invisible Sleeper’ in Westerly 54(2) 2009, p 68

[3] Merrilee Lands, in Aboriginal Voices: Contemporary Aboriginal Artists, Writers and Performers, Simon & Schuster, p 49

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