Friday, October 02, 2009

A fit of depression

Sometimes I get so depressed. Today was one such day.

I have been worried about the slow progress in my writing. I have so little time. My personal deadline to finish my current project by next April. This approaches and I cannot do it.

Then, having finished Emily Hahn's China only Yesterday: 1850-1050 A Century of Change, my train reading switched to Ruby Langford Ginibi's All My Mob. This reduced me to acute depression, if not for the reasons the writer might have expected.

For the benefit of international readers, I need to provide some backgrounds first. 

Ruby Langford Ginibi was born in 1934 on the Box Ridge Mission at Coraki in northern New South Wales. She is a proud elder of the Bundjalung people. She began writing in 1984. All My Mob is a collection of new stories and selected highlights from her earlier memoir, Real Deadly.

I have written about the Bundjalung quite often. They are the very large Aboriginal language group occupying territory from the north bank of what is now the Clarence River into Southern Queensland. Deadly is a word in Aboriginal English meaning cool, great, fun. There is in fact no exact translation into conventional English, given the variety of ways in which the word is used.

 All My Mob is a well written book. I also know the country she is writing about. My profound depression was triggered by two things.

The wife's owner of the motel the author normally stayed as was doing some paintings in what we might call the Aboriginal style. She was not saying that they were Aboriginal, just doing them. She stopped after being told that this was wrong. If I interpret the writing correctly, the wrongness lay in the fact that because the style was Aboriginal it belonged to the Aborigines and she should not use it.

This is not an isolated case. Another major New England coastal language group concerned with language revival refused to allow non-Aboriginal children to attend classes in that language held in public schools in that language area. Again, the language was unique to them, was theirs. Outsiders should not be allowed to use it, to learn it.

I do not want to get into cultural ownership issues here. My point is a little different.

If Aboriginal culture and past is a matter just for the Aborigines, then how do I treat it? If Aboriginal art is not part of my heritage whereas French is, and French art is part of the modern Australian heritage, then Aboriginal art becomes just another foreign art form perhaps more relevant because of the Aboriginal connection, but still foreign.

The second depression trigger lay in another story. The writer was in hospital on the North Coast. Two nurses queried her racism claims about the area, suggesting that this was true a number of years before. They received a lecture on dispossession.

Of course racism against Australia's Aborigines still exists, although the meaning is a little slippery now. But my reaction to the tale was a practical one. The two nurses lectured, both dealing with Aboriginal people in their day to day work, would have ended with a very unsympathetic feeling indeed.

Ruby Langford Ginibi complains, as I have done so frequently, that Aboriginal people do not have access to their own past. I have tried to explore some of the reasons for this in various blog posts. I have also tried, as best I can,to address the problem. As indeed has Ruby Langford Ginibi.

As a writer, historian and sometimes policy adviser, I simply cannot deal with all the sensitivities and complexities involved in any form of research and writing about Australian Aboriginal issues. The most that I can do is to try to research and write in a professional manner following my own interests.


I had prepared a long postscript to this post and then one of the cats trod on the keyboard and I lost the lot!

While I can replicate the material, I do not feel like doing so. I will treat it as the subject of another post.


Rummuser said...

You, an Australian and depressed? Here is something to get you off that feeling:

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Ramana. I will pick this up in another post!

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