Australia Day: A New Narrative

As the troubled narrative of Australia Day continues, let's use this opportunity to provide an introduction to five Indigenous writers whose outstanding works are too often marginalised

Feature by Claire Francis | 26 Jan 2017

Politics on a global scale seems to be nearing a point of self-combustion. While it may be difficult to tear our worried minds away from Trump’s ominous inauguration on 20 January, or closer to home, to make sense of the chaos surrounding Brexit, spare a thought for our friends Down Under.

Marking the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet from Great Britain in 1788, 26 January has historically been celebrated as the date Australia was discovered. However, over the years the legitimacy of Australia Day has been rightly questioned, not least by the Indigenous community of Australia, whose ancestors are known to have inhabited the continent some 40,000 years ago.

The effect of colonisation has been profoundly damaging for the Indigenous population of Australia, with a legacy of racism, oppression and inequality; the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is estimated at a decade lower that the non-Indigenous population. Unsurprisingly, large sections of the Australian public now recognise the problematic nature of their national holiday. Australia Day is now widely dubbed by opponents as ‘Invasion Day’ (or in true antipodean fashion,‘National Dickhead Day’). Just check out this year’s cringe-inducing Meat and Livestock Australia annual television advert encouraging people to eat meat on Australia Day, for a glimpse of how cultural insensitivity continues to prevail in Australia.

What does all this have to do with Indigenous literature? As with many aspects of Indigenous culture, writing by Indigenous authors continues to be marginalised within Australia. Yet as the prominent Indigenous author and academic Tony Birch notes, particularly since the turn of the century, “Aboriginal writers have produced intelligent and engaging portraits of the nation, through fiction that defies it.” One way to draw some positivity from the Australia Day debate is to shine a light on the excellent yet underappreciated writing being produced in Australia by Indigenous writers.

Here, as a starter, we present five must-read works by Indigenous writers, which deserve to be read widely, both in Australia and overseas. They challenge political narratives and paint vivid, complex, at times harrowing, and yet also inspiring, portraits of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Though we may not be able to erase the mistakes of the past, the following novels offer empathy and insight into the issues faced today, and an opportunity to learn more about a culture that for so long has failed to be properly acknowledged on a national, and global, level. 

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

Epic in both page count and narrative scope, The Swan Book is the follow up to Wright’s equally expansive novel Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin award (Australia’s most prestigious literature prize) in 2007.  

Set in a dystopian near-future in which climate change has destroyed the Australian landscape, the narrative is centered on an orphaned mute girl, the aptly named Oblivia, who finds herself married off to Warren Finch, Australia’s first Aboriginal president.

Wright abandons stylistic tradition, shifting between rambling pages of mystical realism, acerbic humour, traditional language (the author is of the Waanyi people from the Gulf of Carpentaria) and sharply honed political invective. The Swan Book is by no means an easy read, but it is an essential one.

Swallow The Air by Tara June Winch

"I remember the day I found out my mother was head sick. She wore worry on her wrists as she tied the remaining piece of elastic to the base of the old ice-cream container." So begins Tara June Winch’s debut novella, a work whose beautifully poetic prose juxtaposes the book’s dark thematic journey through dispossession, deracination of culture, suicide, rape and abuse.

Through the eyes of Winch’s 15 year old narrator May Gibson, Swallow The Air tracks May’s peripatetic existence and her mission to find her real father. May’s family members – her rogue brother Billy, her eccentric Aunty, her haunted mother – are rendered in loving detail, and Winch’s dreamy turn of phrase heightens each of the senses as the story unfolds through chapters that function as a string of soft vignettes. With its unhurried pace, Swallow The Air encourages us to linger on the emotional effects created by dislocation and the subsequent desire to regain a sense of belonging.

Shadow Boxing by Tony Birch

As punchy and belligerent as its title suggests, Birch’s interlinked short stories are set in a bleak, working-class, suburban Melbourne in the Sixties. Tracing the life of Michael Byrne from childhood to fatherhood, Birch works unflinchingly through issues of masculinity and violence – domestic violence, physical abuse, and emotional tumult.

The corporeal bloodshed that features heavily throughout Shadowboxing drives the narrative forward, and Birch’s unvarnished depiction of the city forces us to consider the dislocation felt by Indigenous communities living in hostile urban environments.

True Country by Kim Scott

Scott, also a recipient of the Miles Franklin award both in 2000 and 2011, is a descendant of the Noongar people of Western Australia. In True Country, he tells the story of Billy, a school teacher who arrives in Australia’s far north in search of his own history, his sense of belonging, and his future. He finds himself in a region of natural beauty, but also an environment of conflict, corruption and dislocation.

This neatly written, semi-autobiographical debut explores the problem of self-identity and belonging faced by mixed-race Aboriginal people, while also critiquing the Australian government's infamous assimilation policy (where Aboriginal people were ‘absorbed’ into white society through the process of removing children from their families).

No More Boomerang by Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Not a novelist but a poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (also known as Kath Walker) was an Indigenous writer, political activist, and the first Aboriginal writer in history to release a book of verse, the celebrated We Are Going (1964).

The opening stanza of her poem No More Boomerang, published in 1985, confronts the reader with the harsh reality of No more boomerang/no more spear/now all civilised-/colour bar and beer. Noonuccal employs her trademark ‘propagandist’ technique to delineate precisely how traditional Indigenous culture has been eviscerated by modern society, and by employing a captivating, sing-song rhythm, she reflects the Aboriginal tradition of oral storytelling.