Michelle Cahill

There’s a growing awareness within our literary communities and among public intellectuals that the obstacles faced by those marginalised in terms of cultural and literary representation need to be reappraised by a more rigorous analysis of white privilege, and white racial domination. Racial privilege is the notion that a passive benefit is accrued to one race by the manner in which its identity is constructed as superior to Others. Analysis of racial domination goes further by revisiting the historical, economic and legal processes which secure white privilege. For Oz Lit the aim of such analysis is to begin to correct a history of exclusions and ideological oppressions: the canonising of Terra Nullius, the anthologising policies of White Australia. I don’t think we can afford to delegate these concerns to cultural theory categories. White privilege and domination distort our national literature by filtering out Indigenous black voices and coloured voices as inferior, by suppressing languages, by perpetuating monocultural themes.

Racial privilege is an uncomfortable theme but I’ve wondered for some time how conversations about it could be enabled. Many critics of postcolonialism – Fanon, Said and Freire for example – have indicated how crucial it is for oppression to be understood from the perspective of the oppressed. Yet Australia’s literary engagement with difference has been invariably positioned from white Euro-Imperialist perspectives. The material issues that oppressed communities face is simply not deemed as suitable subject matter for high aesthetic accomplishment. Although the Australian Centre and various other Arts Funding Bodies foster awards for the recognition of Indigenous writers, Indigenous writing remains quarantined, (though arguably less so than does migrant writing). So it’s extremely pleasing and vital that two literary journals, Southerly (A Handful of Sand, issue 71/2) and Etchings (Treaty) have dedicated recent issues exclusively to Indigenous Writing.

Edited by Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lionel Fogarty, A Handful of Sand compiles essays, stories and poems by some of the strongest contemporary Indigenous writers over a range of communities. These voices extract from the stark realities of discrimination: poems by Lorna Munroe, Ernie Blackmore’s urban story, “Waiting” and the political commentary on the harrowing Andrew Bolt case are fine examples. Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant essay “Rearranging the Dead Cat” addresses the ways in which Anglo-Australian white identity is constructed in the guise of narratives which appropriate Indigenous characters, often as binary and inferior opposities: the black ghost of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, who betrays historical facts, the black absence in David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, the lack of any meaningful Indigenous presence in Voss, which betrays that vast post-war emptiness of the European psyche still writing itself as the sole subject of its encounter with ‘Terra Nullius’. Colonial literatures operate in such ways to bracket historical and cultural contexts and to construct Manichean allegories of representation. Racial difference and in particular White European identity becomes transformed by such allegories into moral and even metaphysical superiority, conferring upon it exclusive status.

There’s been much controversy about the recent Gray and Lehmann edited, Australian Poetry Since 1788. Even the title is unashamedly imperialist and the anthology’s constricted lens; its ideological agenda brings to mind what Abdul Jan Mohammed describes as “the hegemonic phase of colonialism or neo-colonialism.” Ostensibly apolitical it supports a distortion of the history of invasion with a pseudo-cultural rationale:

The character of Australian poetry is the result of unique influences. There is above all the landscape: so immense, so relatively empty, so various, so strange to Europeans, with only the apparently light touch upon it of the Aboriginal people.


Sadly, I think the book is a regressive interpretation in comparison to the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature edited by Nicholas Jose or even the Puncher and Wattmann Anthology edited by John Leonard (both in 2009). The omission of seminal Indigenous poets like Lionel Fogarty, Bobbi Sykes, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Samuel Wagan Watson, W Les Russell, Colin Johnson, Kevin Gilbert as well as the absence of significant Others (Adam Aitken, Antigone Kefala, Sudesh Mishra, Merlinda Bobis, Vicki Viidikas, Dipti Saravanamuttu, Kim Cheng Boey, Ali Alizadeh to name some) amounts to a highly skewered representation .

Kevin Gilbert’s absence is disturbing. Gilbert edited the anthology Inside Black Australia (Penguin, 1988), a powerful and very important body of poetry which records a way of memorialising our traumatic past, the silence of genocide. Only when the frightening violence of colonialism is allowed to be spoken can we truly begin to reconcile the past. Literary silence and erasures are an expression of violence, likewise the harsh speech or polemic which resists domination contains a ferocity.

But cultural representations such as the Lehmann and Gray monolith are not isolated, and are nurtured by a climate of fear and complacency amongst reviewers, intellectuals and academics who are not positioned to voice dissent. Many are aware that we need to be more interrogating and self-critical if we are to become a vibrant and culturally confident nation. I use the word ‘nation’ with caution since national identities can so readily thwart difference and since differences, archipelagos and diasporas are a source of richness to our literatures. (I now prefer to describe ‘literatures’ in the plural.)

It’s not possible to cover much ground in this brief précis. I’d like to mention however the Etchings issue, Treaty. It has a less political feel than the Southerly issue, but is wonderfully celebratory. There are haunting poems, like “Bird Song” by Ali Cobby Eckermann, stunning artwork by Safina Fergie and photography by Patsy Smith in which the urban, the civic and natural world are layered into complex dimensions. The homeless narrator in Tony Birch’s “Last Light in Winter” evokes the confronting and desperate reality of street life. But there are many other moving and informative contributions in Treaty. I particularly enjoyed the interviews with black architect Jefa Greenaway and playwright/actor Richard Green.

These journals make mandatory reading for all Australian writers and students of Oz Lit. They are a vital expression of contemporary Aboriginal consciousness, urban and community-based. Under an aesthetic banner literature can elide the truth of racism and domination. Here is the dark side of the dream. These Indigenous perspectives are compelling, complex, raw and refreshing. They invite active reading and new appreciations and we are poorer without them.


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