Why You Should Read These Books From First Australians

Why you should care

Because the history you may have received may have another story.

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About 40 years ago, white Australians such as myself began to grasp the fact that there is a previously hidden, alternative history (one of massacres, frontier wars and dispossession) to our blinkered, received history of “settlement” of the island nation. In the decades since, these first peoples from around 250 nations became known as indigenous or Aboriginal Australians. Recently they have been finding their voices, conveying the other side of the story to counter wider misconceptions — not only about a recent shared history, but also their 60,000-year-long history, and their current lives.

“There has been a renaissance in Black writing in recent years,” says Dr. Anita Heiss, the first Aboriginal person appointed to the board of the Australian Society of Authors, “and the BlackWords research community of AustLit now has over 5,000 published Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”

These fiction and nonfiction books are just a sample.

TERRA NULLIUS BY CLAIRE G. COLEMAN (2017)

The central lie of the British occupation of Australia was that this continent was terra nullius — a land without people, a convenient legal fiction for invasion and displacement. Coleman’s much-lauded debut novel presents a daringly speculative fictional world. “Natives” such as Jacky, torn from his parents and brought up as a slave by nuns, are either fleeing the cruelty of “Settlers” or, in Esperanza’s case, hiding from them, while one renegade Settler has thrown in his lot with the Natives. Then, in an authorial tour de force, history is transcended and the stories are catapulted into the future, with a stunning, perspective-shifting effect.

DARK EMU: BLACK SEEDS: AGRICULTURE OR ACCIDENT? BY BRUCE PASCOE (2014)

Pascoe, a distinguished fiction writer, has written an impeccably researched yet revolutionary history, challenging another convenient fiction: that Australia’s inhabitants were entirely nomad hunter-gatherers — another seeming justification for the British land grab. Using records from early explorers and settlers, plus historic engravings and photographs, Pascoe simply but eloquently argues instead that indigenous Australians were farmers on the grandest of scales, sowing and harvesting grains, baking breads, managing pastures for grazing animals, building houses, dams and permanent fish traps; moreover, “what they learned during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today.”

It’s a tale of early “first contact,” when colonial intentions had not yet crystalized and alternative outcomes flickered as possibilities.

THAT DEADMAN DANCE BY KIM SCOTT (2010)

Like Coleman, Kim Scott is a descendant of Noongar, an Aboriginal nation of coastal Western Australia. In this novel, written in the more literary style of historical fiction, Scott relates a tale of early “first contact,” when colonial intentions had not yet crystallized and alternative outcomes flickered as possibilities, in part due to the adaptability of the Noongar. In an author’s note, Scott writes, “Believing themselves manifestations of a spirit of a place impossible to conquer, they appreciated reciprocity and the nuances of cross-cultural exchange.” Hope is a long-term partner in the novel’s dance, embodied in the central character of Bobby Wabalanginy, creator of that “deadman dance,” right until the novel’s end.

CARPENTARIA BY ALEXIS WRIGHT (2006)

In her sprawling, rambunctious novel, Alexis Wright skillfully deploys surreal, magical-realism elements in a saga set in a fictitious town on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Pricklebush mob are mystified by the priorities of the white folk of Uptown, yet they have rivalries and feuds of their own, and they fear a big mining company’s plans to mine on sacred ground. The hero, Norm Phantom, sets out on seemingly reckless endeavors, slipping between time frames and perceptions of reality. Characters, including supernatural ones, pile into the story, sometimes to great comic effect, and they disappear just as quickly. Narrative threads may vanish, yet Wright is deliberate in her choices. Trauma so great means reality may sometimes be unspoken because it is unspeakable.

AM I BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU? BY ANITA HEISS (2012)

This memoir, a polemical and personal account of present-day indigenous identity, was sparked by the legal action Heiss joined against a newspaper columnist who’d accused her and others of being too fair-skinned to be “real Aborigines.” (A court found the columnist had breached Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act.) As editor, Heiss has recently published a collection, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. “Never has it been easier –- while intellectually and emotionally more challenging — for readers to read authentic and diverse voices of First Nations people,” she notes.

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