by Alison Whittaker
Wangal land, in the memory of colonial records at least, has never been hotter. Today while I write, its sky is some thick full-handed slap of cyan on an unwilling canvas. Every new humid day that it’s like this, I’m reminded that we’re heading towards some new series of precipices even as we cross the last. Sitting in this office chair, lazily sweating and glowering at a close and motionless tree, there’s the tug of momentum under my pelvis. We’re rapidly headed towards something. Hottest year to another hottest year and some accelerating heavy panic that the colonisation that thrust on me this language and skin, now sets its target wider in a pact to take the whole damn planet with it.
My cheap bookshelf looms over me. With each minute rise in heat and never-breaking atmospheric wetness it looms more severely, pressing its feet into the carpet. I’d say it’s at a twelve degree lean now. Reflected on my scummy laptop screen, actually, even right next to these words, these are the names on books that threaten to spill over onto my head: Bruce Pascoe, Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Melissa Lucashenko, Sam Wagan Watson, Anita Heiss, Jared Thomas, Ellen van Neerven, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Larissa Behrendt, Natalie Harkin, Jeanine Leane.
Each line I type grows from the left of the screen, where I can see the names that dominated my high school curriculum – Shakespeare, Poe, Lee, Wilde, Austen, Kafka, Eliot, school dictionary covered in stickers – to the right of my screen, to that there vanguard of Indigenous literature. The line approaches and kisses those blak names, the next wraps, the journey resets. Every new line like this, I’m reminded that blak writing is heading towards all kinds of other precipices, even as we cross those we thought would be our last.
We are expert storytellers and wordworkers. Both our stories and language are rich and multifaceted. They are each primed with theory, incisiveness and the potential to grow their speakers or readers. Over our immemorial stretch into history, we are sustained and governed by story and word, which entwine and encode our ways of knowing, being and doing. This is no inspirational noble savage embedded in the annals of colonial nostalgia. We have jurisdiction in story, legislation in word. We have precedent in poem.
In comes Australian literature on January 26 1788, in the lurid writings that glorified the planting of the Union Jack on Eora lands. It saw our cultures first as the invisible, encased and outgoing backbone of the colony, the bugaboos of the frontier, and then as peoples to be represented in building or even reconciling their own identity. A competing jurisdiction and a leveraging claim, like Larissa Behrendt notes in Finding Eliza:
‘Stories…told to advance the colonial agenda, find their way into institutions, including legal systems…They are used to legalise the theft of Aboriginal lands and dictate the terms on which Aboriginal people can recover their rights.’
These colonial stories and words, unlike our own storywork and wordwork, make a literary claim to represent us. Our own claim might be better thought of as ‘constitutive’, as making us, rather than just ‘representative’. Colonial stories about Indigenous peoples make their settler writers, too. When they strategically represent us for their own ends, they reveal their own search for security – against us or with us.
I think of Mutant Messenger, noble savage tropes attempting to transcend a time of geopolitical anxiety. I think of the Jindyworobak movement, settlers urging for the intertwining of Indigenous and colonial cultures in order to establish an independent national identity. I think of poetry nights where this storytelling has at least the courage to look you in the face, the modern ones moaning about their anguish at the settler colony, sweating to indulge the naked wroughtness of it all.
I think of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the fear that the violence wrought against us might turn to face Australia. As I do, the lazy sweat in my polyurethane chair pools at my thighs and itches.
When I was born, reconciliation was the precipice, the crossing hill beyond which everything beyond might seem flat and unchallenging. Long by this time, the violence wrought against us had turned to face the nation. Its epistemic violence especially was avenged in the form of storywork and wordwork. Indigenous peoples had dynamised against the tide of strategic misrepresentation and were building our own. I read picture books, written by my classmates and published, about our lands and our lives. I could see myself in books – not as a bugaboo, nor as a victim, nor as a curiosity, nor as a mystic savage whose spiritual labour buoys white women or Jindyworobaks.
Even if I don’t believe in the power of diverse representation as strongly as Twitter or Tumblr consensus does, that representation was a full face punch that changed what I could envision of myself and my community. The delightfully precarious blak bookshelf, falling in on me. Lives, full fleshed, in English and Lingo. These books on my shelf spoke back to what is written about us with their own linguistic, lyrical and narrative expertise and incisiveness. They re-represented us against settler misrepresentation, but they also did and also do something more. They looped back to our storywork and wordwork, as we are always committed to looping back to go forward, and made us anew.
Not only is Indigenous literature becoming more and more prevalent, emboldened and visible, it forges its own ways of creating knowledge, its own ways of being and doing writing. When Indigenous storywork and wordwork is edged off the arts table for over two hundred years, conventional narratives of inclusion and progress might suggest we compromise in order to get our own seat at that table. We’ve done better than that.
Indigenous wordworkers and storyworkers have built our own feast on our own terms, resisting the compromises and reconciliatory aesthetics promised by merely diversifying Australian literature. At this feast we can explore our words and stories outside of the white gaze, and share them amongst each other. Even as I urge this line of type to approach the laptop reflection of Indigenous authors on my bookshelf, I know the publishing game is shifting again into digital spaces. Hannah Donnelly, Lorna Munro, Nayuka Gorrie, and irrepressible others, turn our storywork and wordwork out of paper – taking language and politics into broadcast media, digital newspapers, multimedia art. Hannah Donnelly schemes and publishes future imaginings of sovereignty under a settler-driven climate apocalypse, and in the same breath runs the music force of SovTrax. Lorna Munro weaves titillating, powerfully taut poems of decolonial mandate, performs them before projected images of Tent Embassies, and works expertly across an enviable number of mediums. Nayuka Gorrie etches blak feminist mandates across new and old broadcast and digital media, pressing down online grasses for a meeting of the new guard of Indigenous activism.
These, and the bubbling shore rush of potent Indigenous literature in print, are not shallow pot-shots to make Australian literature more colourful, more ‘in touch with its roots’. This is hardly just reconciliation. This is sovereignty and this is its renaissance.
We write to survive and resist colonisation and its annual January 26 milestone, but so too do we write to model the hope that steadies our legs. Where is Indigenous writing’s next precipice? It’s hard to predict, but it helps to know where it came from to trace where it will go. The sovrenaissance both looks to our roots – to build a self-determining visions of ourselves – and sustains and protects our new growth.
That tree will carry the breeze that the one outside my window so sorely lacks. Until then, I’ll need a cold shower to write anything more.
Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling (UQP 2016