In a piece I wrote earlier in the week, Australian History and the art of Herbert Badham, I referred to the conflicting perceptions of Bernard Smith and Robert Hughes on Australian art.
Smith focused on the evolution of Australian art as a visual expression of Australia, its identity and culture. Hughes looked at Australian art in a more global context. To Smith, Australian art just was. To Hughes, Australian art was essentially derivative and second class. Anybody who reads this blog will know that I belong to the Smith school.
I make this point because Neil Whitfield focused on indigenous poetry in his latest post in his Friday Australian poetry series.
Like Australian art, indigenous writing can be viewed at two levels - as an expression of evolving indigenous thought and culture or, like Robert Hughes, from a broader literary perspective. Again like Australian art, I am interested in the first.
I know far less than I should about Australian indigenous writing. Here I am using the term indigenous rather than Aboriginal to include Torres Strait Islanders.
My views are also complicated by my reactions to the way in which non-Aboriginal writers write about the Aborigines because they strike against my own perceptions, including my view that non-Aboriginal writings actually create a barrier to the understanding of the diversity of the Aboriginal experience.
Take, as an example, Judith Wright's poem Bora Ring. In my January 2007 post on the poem, I pointed to Judith's poignant description of a vanished race and the reality of a continuing Aboriginal tradition in the area that she was writing about. My work since then has extended this point in showing the continuity and complexity of Aboriginal experience in New England.
The poem by Kath Walker, a friend of Judith Wright, is the same type of poem, if written this time by an Aboriginal woman.
The problem for a non-Aboriginal person like myself is to break through the stereotypes including my own perceptions to the writing itself. This is very difficult.
Take, a further example, Adam Shoemaker's Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. This is a valuable introduction, one that I had not seen before Neil referred me to it. Yet it has major ideological overlays.
Shoemaker makes it clear that he is looking at "black" writing. He uses this term to cover not just Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writing, but extends it in some ways to cover all "blacks". He tries to fit Aboriginal writing into a fourth world perspective, the term used to describe original indigenous inhabitants around the world. And he points and counter-points between European and indigenous perspectives.
All this is valuable at one level, but still stands as a barrier between the reader and indigenous writing as indigenous writing.
I am interested in the way that certain Australian writers such as Roland Robinson, a poet who I like and should write about, have attempted to integrate the indigenous experience into their perspective of Australia. But, like Judith Wright, they write from a non-indigenous frame.
Their work is part of broader Australian cultural history, and has little to do with indigenous writing as such, except to the degree that it influences indigenous writing.
Quite a lot of indigenous writing, poetry in particular, is overtly political, formed out of the struggle for indigenous rights and advancement. Kevin Gilbert’s writing is an example.
Kill the legend
With your acute cyncicisms
Your paternal superfluities
With your unwise wisdom
Kill the legend
With your atheism
Your fraternal hypocrisies
With your primal urge of miscegenation
Kill the legend
With your sophistry
Your baseless rhetoric
Your lusting material concepts
Your groundless condescension
Vitiate the seed
Crush the root-plant
And more you must needs do
To form a husk of a man
To the level and in your own image
This is angry poetry. Some Australian critics have criticised Gilbert's poetry on technical grounds. Yet while I do not agree with him - I actually turned off a TV program about him in protest - there is a raw power to his words. He is writing as he is.
Another issue is the English itself in some writing. There is not scope here to discuss what is now called Aboriginal English, an evolving English dialect that mixes together several very different streams and is in fact a modern media construct. However, we can get a feel for it by looking at another Gilbert poem:
Sittin’ in the desert
Singin’ desert song
Cryin’ countin’ chickens
Chickens made of lan’
Now in all this, and here I am returning to one of my constant themes, in looking at indigenous writing I want to understand what the writers say, not the external commentators. I also want to understand the variety in the writing, the way that it reflects different experiences across a complex group.