Have you ever had the past come back and hit you in the face?
After an interesting week that challenged my identity and my motivations as a writer, I arrived at last weekend with a distaste for all things romance. Usually romance is my go to for stress relief, but it simply wasn’t doing it for me. I looked at an Agatha Christie Anthology that I’ve always enjoyed as a reread but it couldn’t hold my attention. Too much romance there as well.
Then Dr Anita Heiss popped up in my social media feed as a presenter at various writing events. It reminded me that I had always intended to read something of hers. I picked up Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Dr Heiss and I was hooked. The book is a compilation of own voices shorts that tell of the contributors experience growing up in Australia as an Aboriginal. It’s an emotional read comprising vignettes, memoir, reminiscences of the past, both distant and disturbingly recent, and a touch of anticipation for the future. Some stories are heartbreaking. Some are angry. All inspirational. All very, very familiar.
It struck a special chord with me because though I did not grow up Aboriginal, I grew up along side the children of Indigenous families in a town that became notorious for horrendous problems with race relations. I was a “local” in a town that was clearly divided. There were the more well off business people, landowners and transient professionals who came to town including teachers, people who worked for the government, doctors and dentists. Then there were the “local” long term residents who didn’t belong with the elite. And the Indigenous families. I fitted nowhere in particular and existed on the fringes of all of them.
The town was Cunnamulla. Featured in an ABC television Four Corners Documentary in 1969 that opened the lid on the scandal of the conditions many Indigenous groups in rural Australia endured. The town was probably no better or worse than many other towns, but if you watch the video by clicking on the title link, you will see why it suddenly caught media attention.
Out of Sight out of Mind was made when I was eight and I remember the furore around it. I rewatched it this week and was interested to see how much I had remembered. The video on the ABC site at less than half an hour is a little shorter than the original so some bits are missing. Possibly some interviews with local business people. But enough is there to get the picture.
Long after my parents left the town and even longer after I moved away, first to boarding school and later to work and marriage, another documentary was made that exposed the underbelly of the town. Called simply Cunnamulla and released in 2000, it focused on the seamy side of life in the town, almost ignoring the “respectable” people.
My experience of the town was a little of both. But given that I was only a visitor to the town after 1975, and visited briefly for the last time in the early eighties, the Four Corners program probably reflects my experience. I had more to do with the Indigenous community than many of my white class mates because my mother had a close friend in that community and spent several years involved with the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council. Those women accepted my mother with generosity and kindness. Due to my mother’s sporadic mental health issues, she had only a handful of long term friends in the town.
When I read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, I recognised many of the experiences spoken about by the contributors. The ones who wrote about being able to “pass for white” or having people measuring how much blood was white or “Abo”, immediately reminded me of a friend in my class who lived two doors up. She was very fair, taking more after her father, but her brother closest in age was very dark like their mother. My mother’s friend came from New South Wales and married an African American, so their experience was a little different.
In a weird, cosmic coincidence that made me wonder what the universe was saying, I was in the neighbouring town yesterday and ran into the daughter of my mother’s close friend outside the cinema. She attended primary school with me in Cunnamulla and we saw quite a lot of each other when our mothers “visited”. Apart from casual contact on Social Media, I haven’t see her in person for more than thirty years. It was a lovely surprise and we sat together during the movie and did a quick catch up.
Sometimes revisiting the past can be a painful experience. It can certainly be emotional. I have always avoided thinking too much about my years in Cunnamulla, but when forced to look at them, I see so many of my experiences there were formative. Those years would certainly have influenced my decision to include Indigenous history, language and culture in my Bachelor of Religious Studies done externally through Edith Cowan University.
How does this relate to my writing?
Bearing in mind how influential the people of Cunnamulla were in my childhood, do I write about First Nations/Indigenous people in my books?
How can I not include a large part of the population that played an important role in the formation of who I am, my ethics, my ideals, my hopes for the future? People who, as a group, make up a significant part of the society in which I live.
Do I write their story? Well, yes and no. Like most things, it’s complicated.
For example, I have an unpublished story I wrote where the hero comes from a “mixed” marriage that would have occurred around forty years ago. There is an oblique mention in my story that this was something that may have been a source of conflict and emotional upheaval. Do I delve into that story? It could add depth and interest to the book. But it would be a different story. It wasn’t necessary to the resolution of the story of the hero and heroine. I left it there but didn’t elaborate and I’m comfortable with that position.
On the other hand, I wrote a short story about a young teacher with an Indigenous heritage who moves to the country and meets a local and there is a spark. A very short story I put on Wattpad. I really liked both heroine and hero and wondered about writing a full length story about their romance. The problem came when I delved into the heroine’s backstory. I discovered that she came from a family that were part of the stolen generations. And I realised that in coming to this small town she would be reconnecting with her roots. Not my story to tell, so I put it aside. It was hard, because I love the characters but…I understand her story is not mine to tell.
I believe strongly in writing stories that reflect the multicultural world we live in. It’s important to write inclusive stories. Not to tell other people’s stories, but to paint a world that is what we want it to be. Inclusive, kind, with a strong bias towards hope. Or you can write dystopian fiction that ends badly. Or whatever floats your particular boat. I like happy endings.
It’s necessary to be sensitive and aware and do our best to portray our protagonists as honestly and as generously as we can. When we write about imaginary people, they will become real to the reader through what we as writers put into them. It’s easy to fail, because we aren’t perfect and don’t know everything. Can’t know everything. Sometimes there are subtleties that are merely shadows not quite grasped. We can only do our best.