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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. Highly recommended

December 26, 2018 15 comments

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Edited by Anita Heiss. (2018)

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is the collection of 50 texts written by Aborigines who answer the question “How was it to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?” A simple question with a complex kaleidoscope of answers.

The fifty speakers talk about their childhood, their Aboriginal identity and what it means to them. The life stories cover the whole Australian territory and come from people of different ages, background and family history. Some have grown up in Aboriginal culture from infancy, some have discovered it later in life. But reading story after story, common points leap out of the book.

I thought there were a lot of métis in the fifty writers. Before we go forward with this theme, let me explain the French word métis and why I’ll use it in my billet. A métis (métisse for a woman) is someone with parents from different ethnic origins. I know that the English expression is mixed-race child but I don’t want to use it. Firstly, I think it includes in itself something derogatory whereas the French doesn’t, simply because it’s a different word. Mixed-race sounds faulty while métis describes a new individual without inferring that they are inferior to the offspring of a couple with the same ethnic origin. Secondly, I don’t want to use the word race as it has no scientific basis and as it carries the weight of history. Métis it will be.

So, I thought there were a lot of mixed couples, with one partner Aborigine and the other with European origins. I would have loved to learn more about how these parental couples came together as marrying someone with a different ethnic origin is not always well-accepted by societies.

That makes a lot of our writers métis and with this came relentless questions about the colour of their skin. I understood why Anita Heiss also wrote Am I Black Enough For You? The lottery of genetics makes these métis children all shades of skin colour, from lily white to dark brown. A lot of writers report that they had to justify their aboriginality because they were too fair-skinned. They didn’t fit in the cliché of the Aborigine as a blackfella. They didn’t carry their aboriginality on their face. Sometimes it’s a means to blend into white society, especially in school. Sometimes it’s a curse. Often, it blurs their sense of self. Melanie Mununggur-Williams talks about being grey, as a result of these relentless questions

In my life, and life in general, there always seems to be a contrast. Always a comparison. Always a grey area. It never was, and never will be, black or white. It’s a good thing I don’t mind the colour grey. Well, not anymore, at least.

This also means that there are mathematical questions about being half Aboriginal or a quarter…the way they defined black men in the South of the USA before the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine the impact of this repeated question on young people who are building their identity.

I also had the feeling that the writers who lived with their Aboriginal extended family grew up with strong roots and that the school system and encounters with white kids were like pouring RoundUp on these roots. They knew their place in the world before starting school and adjusting to the white school system undermined what their families had taught them. Suddenly, the seed of doubt was planted. Doubts about their identity and their worth. It seems that the Australian school system did a lot of damages in primary schools and high schools but found ways to detect bright students and push them to university through various state-run programs.

As a French, coming from a school system that aims at universality, I’m totally puzzled by the Aborigine studies programs, Aborigine outings and stuff. This is impossible to imagine in France, a country where recording the ethnic origin of a person is forbidden. These programs were diversely appreciated by our writers, some enjoyed them, others didn’t like that they were identified as Aborigines and had to stand out.

All of the contributors experienced racism. The only difference between the writers is the intensity of the racism they had to face. Ambelin Kwaymullina says:

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having the waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe. Or, at least, I forget until I walk into a safe place. Then I notice as air rushes into my lungs and goes to my head; I am dizzy and my horizons expand to infinity. I don’t remember many safe places when I was a kid; certainly school wasn’t one of them. But I find more safe places now.

This is one of the most powerful description of racism I’ve read in this collection of fifty stories.

Another common point between the stories is how families moved around. Either they were displaced by the government, or they moved a lot to find work, to have a better house or to leave a mission. A few writers have a member of the Stolen Generations in their family. Family trees were broken because of assimilation policies and people lose part or all of their identity. They lost their Ariadne thread to their culture.

Several speakers say they were considered as second-class citizen, that they were living in a country that tried to erase them, their history and their culture through displacements, massacres and assimilation policies.

But don’t be mistaken. This is not an angry book or a sad book. It is poignant because all the writers reveal private details about their childhood, their adolescence and their struggles. It’s heartbreaking to read individual stories but to find common patterns that make you understand that what each of them lived through was actually institutionalized and fed by a lot of ignorance.

There is anger but there is hope too. Reading side by side the stories of older people and of millennials shows that the country is moving forward and in a positive direction. There is still a lot to do and Celeste Liddle expresses it well:

However, until this country finally ‘grows up Aboriginal’ itself, and starts not only being honest about its history and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but also making amends – for example, by negotiating treaty settlements with First People – I don’t feel I will be able to completely grow up Aboriginal myself. I wonder if I will ever get to be able to in this lifetime. I hope so.

These individual journeys also show children living a lot of happy moments at home and with their extended family. They put forward the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal cultures and traditions through the resilience of individuals who keep learning and teaching. All of the contributors speak from the heart and it contributes immensely to the quality of this collection.

As a French woman, I am totally lost in the different Aboriginal people and I know that the cultures are different from one people to the other. It’s too complex to grasp by reading a book and I hope that didn’t misunderstand these brave writers out of ignorance. I hope they’ll forgive me if I did.

I’d like to thank them for sharing their personal stories with us. It must have been hard to share sometimes but it’s worth it. It helps readers like me to better grasp what it is to be non-white in a white society. Some stories are heartbreaking. All the writers had to develop a thick skin and I find remarkable that very few of them are fuelled by anger. It’s a tribute to their Aboriginal roots, so firmly planted that they stayed alive in adversity. Several of them also mention how they have a double cultural background, that these two backgrounds might be hard to reconcile at times but they are, in the end, a valuable personal wealth. Being métis is a chance.

Anita Heiss did a great job editing this book and I can’t help thinking that I’d love to read Growing Up Native American in the USA, edited by Sherman Alexie, Growing Up Black in America, edited by Toni Morrison or Growing Up beur in France, edited by Azouz Begag.

Last but not least, I got to buy Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. It’s a book I actively looked for after reading Lisa’s review.

PS: a beur is a French of North-African descent.

Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss – Being choc-lit is not enough

June 3, 2018 28 comments

Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss (2007) French title: Je n’ai pas (encore) rencontré l’homme ideal. Translated by Viriginie Lochou.

I first heard of Aboriginal writer Anita Heiss on Lisa’s blog when she reviewed Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms, a book I decided to read. Unfortunately, it’s not available on my kindle store but Not Meeting Mr Right was. I knew it was chick lit and remembered Lisa’s introduction of Anita Heiss as a chick lit writer. Here’s what she wrote:

Heiss writes what she calls choc-lit with a purpose: writing to engage non-Indigenous Australians with light-hearted novels about people ‘just like herself’, modern independent women who have or want to have great careers, women who network within great friendships, women who fall in and out of love, and women who face challenges and have their share of loss, failure or success.

I enjoyed following Bridget Jones’s ups and downs, so I thought I should try choc-lit from down under.

This is how I started with Alice Aigner and her group of friends Dannie, Peta and Liza. Alice is 28 of Koori and European descent. She’s a history teacher at a Catholic school in Sydney. She lives in Coogee and she’s single. She was happily single until she had a change of heart at a friend’s engagement party. She decides she’ll be married when she turns thirty and embarks on a dating journey that more like the trail of hell than an unwinding promenade along the beach.

I should have known what to expect, really, but I was still hopeful that it would be more choc than chick and boy, how disappointed I was. The only redeeming part of this book for this reader is the learning of Australian colloquial words like postie, arvo or sickie . I discovered what French knickers are – I wasn’t aware that we had specific ones, mind you – or that people might throw some roo in the wok. I’d never heard of kitchen teas and didn’t know that Western Sydney has the highest population of urban Aboriginal people in the country.

Some thoughts about interactions between whites and Aborigines were thrown here and there because Alice being a Koori is sometimes an issue. It was mildly interesting.

For the rest. Yuck. At least Bridget Jones Diary had the workplace part that was hilarious. Here we only have the dating drama and drinking. I kept reading because I hoped developments on the place of Aborigines in Sydney and I started to see the language angle and how educational it could be. But Alice, wow, no wonder she’s single. What a piece of work she is, always finding her dates lacking and never questioning herself. Here she is after another unhappy love affair, throwing an internal tantrum:

I concluded that all men were basically emotional cripples or completely illogical or both. Even though they didn’t think like we did, they could at least be considerate enough to think like each other, so that there was some consistency to their irrational behaviour.

Right. She makes a big deal out of every outing and spends hours waxing, relaxing, doing her nails, her hair, her makeup. You’d think she was competing in the Olympic Dating Games. She wants everything and its opposite. No sex on the first date but enough tension to feel it could be a possibility. Romantic outings are requested but also being ready for family diners. She dissects everything:

He had invited me to dinner on a Friday night, too – it was a very positive sign. A lunch invitation is good, but a dinner invitation is much better. Dinner means a serious invite. A date on a Friday is a really serious date, much more serious than dinner on a Tuesday or Wednesday. He didn’t say Thursday, because it’s payday – not like Simple Simon. Yes, it was certainly looking good.

Does she think that men want to be studied like bugs?

I’ve been married for a long time now but I kept wondering if there are actual Alices in this world or if they are just a stereotype for chick lit. I have no idea of what the dating scene is like nowadays, so I’ll make assumptions.

If single women are like Alice, I truly understand why men run for the hills and want to stay far, far away from them. These ladies are scary. If these ladies exist, I’ll recommend them to try being low maintenance without being a doormat and that should do the trick for coupledom.

If these characters don’t exist in real life and are only chick lit books creatures, then my question is more about the impact of these characters on teenagers and young adults. Do they read them as an indulgence with the appropriate suspension of belief or do they imagine that the real world is like that? I don’t have the answer to this question.

I can’t say I enjoyed Not Meeting Mr Right as a book but I still got something out of it, if only the Australian spoken language vibe. I still want to read Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms though. Hopefully I’ll manage to buy it during the summer. I’m not good at reading non-fiction otherwise I’d try one of Heiss’s essays.

PS: I was really surprised to find out that Not Meeting Mr Right has been translated into French. It seems unfair that this one is available to the French public but not That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott. *sigh*

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