Aboriginality in writing: Mapping identity through words
By: Timmah Ball
Bobby and Ginny
Minang country, 346km from Ballardong
A small plaque outside the IGA includes a photo of a couple with an inscription, which reads: “The only known image of ‘Denmark’ Aboriginals 1898. Their camp was across the river in Millar’s times but it is believed that European diseases killed most of these people.”
I look around as Mum puts groceries in the car; day spas, vegan cafes, galleries and organic food co-ops line the street indicating the town’s status as a tourist destination while maintaining its pull for white hippie creatives wanting to escape the city.
A poster advertises spiritual healing workshops informed by ancient knowledge systems, run by a hippie with dreads, as if to confirm the settler amnesia that runs through this place. Like nothing ever happened here but we really should incorporate some spirituality into our capitalist existences.
But Mum loves the photo of the couple, Bobby and Ginny, and somehow manages to dissociate herself from the horrific implication that most of us died out. She loves thinking about how we lived on country pre-colonisation, and the photo provides a connection to our Noongar ancestors living among the Red Tingle eucalyptus trees. Ginny is staring into the distance, wrapped in blankets and kangaroo fur, with the kind of ‘fuck you’ indifference that kept us here. Refusing to meet the photographer’s eye.
Jennifer Elise Foerster
Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, 16,908km from Ballardong
We meet online, a non-space that blak and First Nations people occupy globally for connection, protest and some form of sovereignty, however fragile it might be.
I saw the Facebook post calling out for Indigenous writers to participate in an online exchange though the Iowa Writers Program, tutored by Ali Cobby Eckermann and Jennifer Elise Foerster, and applied immediately.
Out of nowhere, writing for an international publication had become a possibility. I jumped into a global Indigenous community before I knew myself as a writer, exposing vulnerabilities and layered identities without hesitation. I wanted to be at the centre of something before I’d read the map outlining the best way to arrive.
But I had Ali and Jennifer patiently providing suggestions on my impulsive early writing that exhumed romantic pain and white passing unease.
In her poetry collection Leaving Tulsa, Foerster writes:
There were maps.
There was skin.
At the time I didn’t always understand my makers or skin, and wasn’t always sure where to go even though the map showed me. Ballardong was a small, declining town with an English name and I craved the frenzied pace and feel of cities. So I wrote about sex and hipsters in Portland, Oregon, loosely connecting it to the rise of Indigenous design in Melbourne/Narrm.
Sex, pain and Aboriginality collapsed into each other as I unselfconsciously exposed my feelings for a man and our flimsy connection via his ex-wife’s Crow ethnicity, believing that it meant something.
All the while Jennifer and Ali gently offered changes to my work, asking that I think about character and descriptive language, encouraging me to keep moving in this early state of uncertainty. Before I was able to see that some connections weren’t a good thing.
Bunurong country, 3405km from Ballardong
“Australians find it upsetting, a kind of betrayal, when light-skinned people identify with their indigeneity. I can think of dozens of prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander politicians, activists, artists, writers, musicians, nurses, teachers and train drivers who have all suffered the charge of not being a real Aborigine. Why should they be denied what the Irish, Greek and Jewish diaspora celebrate at the drop of a baklava, Guinness or gefilte fish? Especially if you are in your own country and in touch every day with the land that breathes its soul into your nostrils each time you wake.”
I’m struck by this passage from his recent essay/short story collection Salt while trawling Hill of Content bookstore in Melbourne city during my lunch break. It’s tempting to take the book back to the office and casually leave it in the mini library that a colleague started. Hoping that everyone picks it up and reads his essay ‘An Enemy of the People’. But I also recognise that even if they do, they probably won’t get it, or at least won’t be able to see themselves implicated through his words.
It’s challenging that in 2019 we’re still asked to legitimise our identities, navigating myriad questions and anxieties that never seem to end. Lost in cities that drive change rapidly, integrating Indigenous knowledge systems into the mainstream. Forcing us to compete in an illusionary landscape where only a few ever really succeed.
But it was my white father who initially asked me if I’d heard about Bruce. I think he felt some sort connection with him, being a fisherman in South Gippsland too. Never really knowing how to talk about history and identity, we hover on the edges using books to outline feelings in the hope that one day we’ll have a real conversation about blak Australia.
Narungga country, 2584 km from Ballardong
Her collection comes packaged via registered mail. Opening it is like breaking the legislative boundaries that Archival-Poetics documents. In three parts, beautifully bound in brown cardboard, Natalie shows us the Colonial Archive, Haunting and Blood Memory, asking that we understand that violence is never restricted to the streets, but permeates the legal frameworks that were designed to save us.
I read the collection from start to finish without taking breath. Slowly realising the double irony that I’m trapped within the archive that both Natalie and I want to erase or reclaim.
Natalie states, “Write decolonial poetry. Forever mourn and weave your way out.” I’ve tried to write decolonial poetry but worry that I’m too far in the archive to weave myself out again, anxious of being caught between the boundaries of activism and the urban planning industry. Strangely beginning to understand that legislative change may require literary silence on occasion.
And while I admire those who straddle both – writers like Alison Whittaker and Larissa Behrendt boldly mastering Western law while preserving our lore in decolonial use of the imposed language – I still haven’t found a point where I feel safe to do so.
Natalie exposes government documents in her collection, extracting details from a 1922 report from the Adelaide Aboriginal Department, which reads: “The whole question of how to transform these people, who are gradually becoming whiter, into a useful race who will be able to maintain themselves, is a very difficult and serious problem.”
I read and re-read the alarming assimilation policy, which lingers into 2019. I worry that I may look like a whiter one that is able to maintain myself. Adequately transformed under government reforms.
But when they let me in, like a chameleon I disrupt from within.
Ellen van Neerven
Mununjali Yugambeh, 4337km from Ballardong
In a ‘Real Moment’ something shifts, a short story within a larger collection touches me. The book, Heat and Light, will go on to inspire many of us to write in our own small and increasingly big ways.
A housemate who was working at Readings gave me my first copy and told me that everyone was talking about it. I understood why: it moved people in new ways.
For me it was just one story that would remain in my imagination, “it was what I wanted for so long and couldn’t believe it”, as the character proclaims.
Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation, 15,116km from Ballardong
It was like he knew me and recognised the ironies both heinous and hilarious before I did. A queer First Nations poet navigating OkCupid and land rights activism with an indistinguishable intensity.
He writes ‘OkCupid asks what’s worse – a starving child or a starving dog, and I’m like is this a fucking joke?’ And he knows that it is and it isn’t for millennial First Nations kids coming to terms with the enormity of colonisation while trying to find some sort of hope on a dating app. If we’re not dealing with racist crap from curious suitors who send messages asking where we’re from, because we look kind of ethnic or something.
In fevered dreams I move to New York City in an imaginary Brooklyn dream home with the poet Tommy Pico. So fucking native down by Brooklyn Bridge. We write about race, we write about our past. But most days we just write about all the weird shit white cis men say when they fuck. Because we can’t write about our culture or a story about our connection to the land because that conversation is already happening at the NGV Triennial between two RMIT academics and some old white man.
But it’s not all bleak, Tommy has more books released and a screenplay on the way, in a pan-Indigenous fantasy where millennial First Nations kids speak back to the law through literary glory. And it’s tempting to stay but I slip back into the archival landscape, a chameleon still searching for change.
Charmaine Papertalk Green
Wajarri, Badimaya and Nhanagardi cultural groups from the Yamaji Nation, 954km from Ballardong
I’d been told her collection, co-written with John Kinsella, is too harsh, which reflects the peculiarities of writing in the blak renaissance. It’s true there are more blak books and blak words than there were when I was growing up, or maybe social media is helping us disperse our messages faster than before.
Walking past a bookstore with a variety of blak books in the window, not because it’s NAIDOC Week but because blak writers are prolifically delivering awarding-winning work, feels good. Deep in the belly of the archives, progress is slow, but on lunch breaks I see my heroes displayed in Bourke Street windows. And those of us emerging on the edges benefit from commissions and publishing opportunities, which weren’t there for older generations. But it’s odd to feel wanted and censored at the same time.
Charmaine’s book False Claims of Colonial Thieves is an urgent call to arms, asking the reader to think seriously about the environmental impact of mining in a time of climate crisis. I read it admiring her descriptions of country that I’m so familiar with, while closing my eyes, not wanting to see the future her writing predicts.
I had nothing but praise for the collection, but given the circumstances in which this country we call Australia grew, I had some trepidation about it being co-authored with a white man, curious about the power dynamics. While it’s arguably impossible to transform a nation on the brink of ruin if blak and white don’t work effectively as equals, it’s also rare to find an Aboriginal person who hasn’t been scarred or just disappointed by a collaboration with a white Australian.
This was what I wanted to say, but felt disciplined for the suggestion that it might be worth analysis.
Charmaine writes about Northam, a shitty town on Ballardong country where older blackfellas take respite from the 40-degree heat in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket because their run-down public housing flats lack air conditioning.
But there’s nothing to question here.
Goernpil woman of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah, 4302km from Ballardong
Reading her new book Aboriginal Country, which in some ways isn’t really her book because she was only in the process of thinking about a new collection (busy with activism, teaching and community work) when time passed too soon, I start to think about the way we juggle our identities.
Lisa hated the archival systems of government bureaucracies. In ‘Message Failed’ she writes “PARLIAMENTARIAN: We do not come in peace”, and in ‘Thirty Seconds’ she shows that “Time’s Up” for a government trying to understand our spiritual needs.
But Lisa also found a way into the system, the first blak woman to be elected as a Councillor for the City of Collingwood. I imagine her walking along a thin line, narrowly balancing the needs of her community with bureaucratic responsibilities. Perhaps falling along the way and finding herself back where she started.
An activist, poet, photographer and elected representative, she created an unlikely map of multiple identities. I trace the lines of hers and others, mapping their words in an attempt to find where I belong. Knowing that all lines point west, 3418km to my ancestral home.
Timmah Ball is a non-fiction writer whose work is influenced by working across urban planning, zine making and other creative forms. She grew up in Birrarung-ga /Melbourne but her heritage is Ballardong Noongar from Western Australia on her mother’s side. She has written for a range of publications including The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, The Griffith Review, Going Down Swinging and other anthologies.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #13, the FIRST NATIONS issue. SUBSCRIBE TO ARCHER MAGAZINE
Image: Moorina Bonini
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