I just read this column in the SMH (http://www.smh.com.au/
opinion/society-and-culture/ answers-dont-roll-easily-off- the-tongue-20110923-1kos3.html ) and I thought that it might be interesting to discuss. As part of my undergrad bachelor of science degree I have a major in "Aboriginal studies" (probably now called "Indigenous Australian studies") and I remember doing a subject where we spent our time talking about appropriation and authenticity in Aboriginal art. We were mostly talking about visual arts, but it's the same kind of situation with writing and, to my mind, a similar conversation can be had about pop culture and mass media representation. Read the article and ask yourself these questions:
- Is it ever OK for someone to speak 'for' Indigenous Australians?
- In your art making would you ever use traditional Aboriginal motifs?
- In your writing would you ever try to get inside the head of an Indigenous Australian? What about a (let's say) recent migrant? Is it different if the migrant is from a place you have some connection to?
- What about speaking for people/getting in the head of people with a different gender identity or sexuality? Why is it more OK (in my mind) for me to write as a man than, for instance, my lovely brother Michael to write as a woman?
I think this whole vexed question is wildly interesting because I look at my own reactions and can only see wild inconsistencies. I would never presume to speak for Indigenous Australians in pretty much any context (except to remind people that 'they' are not any more a homogeneous unit than 'us') and I freak out a bit when I hear of other people doing it. And yet I support Michael going to Q&A/Insight/whatever as part of their 'Aboriginal' audience - he is, however loosely, a very peripheral part of an Aboriginal community. So no, it's generally not OK for anyone to speak unbidden for others, but I guess it is sometimes OK.
I can't imagine a situation where I would include traditional Aboriginal motifs in any art-making that I do, however, worry that blanket statements are generally a bad idea when we talk about art. No one can argue that child porn is a good thing, but to prohibit any images of naked children would decimate my photo albums, eliminate huge quantities of religious art (naked baby Jesus anyone?) as well as harass artists like Bill Henson and there is no reason to suppose it would stop child pornography. How do we find the right balance? How can we support the rights of people to speak for themselves without prohibition?
Historical fiction is plentiful - why is it uncontroversial for, for instance, Kate Grenville to write from the perspective of a fictional white male from history but not OK for her to speak for fictional historical Indigenous Australians? I really like her answer in the article: "we had stolen enough from them already, we shouldn't also steal their stories" and I agree wholeheartedly. But how do we move on from that point to creating a shared Australian history and identity? I read recently (on the SMH I think - I can't find a reference though) that stories by Patricia Wrightson like The Nargun and the Stars that I loved as a child are now thought by some to be cultural appropriation. I don't want to claim Dreamtime stories as my own, but I want to acknowledge that they are part of this country, that the history of Aboriginal Australia is part of my history.
How do *you* put your thoughts around these issues into practice in *your* writing or art-making? Do you avoid the problem by avoiding reference to Indigenous Australians? I confess that that's what I tend to do, because the alternative is so damn difficult. Unfortunately that isn't the way to create an Australia as a place for Indigenous people, those with colonial heritage and also more recent migrants. Let's start a conversation about the way forward...