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date: 03 March 2021

Indigenous Literature in Postwar Australiafree

  • Michael R. GriffithsMichael R. GriffithsUniversity of Wollongong


Indigenous people in Australia have used inscriptive practices for at least 65,000 years and have employed alphabetic writing extensively since contact with Europeans, but the latter half of the 20th century saw an even wider explosion of indigenous writing in Australia. Aboriginal writers have worked across all modes: poetry (beginning with Oodgeroo Noonuccal in the 1960s), theater (flourishing in the 1970s with the National Black Theatre and spreading as far afield as Western Australia with the formation of Jack Davis’s Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre Company), the novel, and the proliferation of life writing in the 1980s. In each case, indigenous writing in postwar Australia balances the aesthetic with the political, drawing in transnational influences while also foregrounding local concerns.

The continent of Australia has been inhabited by indigenous people for at least 65,000 years prior to the beginning of British colonial settlement in 1788.1 The indigenous people of Australia are a heterogeneous plurality of peoples, comprising over 200 language groups, undertaking diverse cultural practices, and including both Aboriginal people from the mainland and Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal literary writing proliferated during the second half of the 20th century, but it was part of a longer history of undertaking and employing writing.

It is often remarked that Aboriginal culture is principally an oral culture and, indeed, the oral dimension to Aboriginal culture lends it part of its richness and vibrancy. Yet Australia’s indigenous cultures have employed writing in novel ways since as early as 1796, shortly after contact with Europeans, when Eora man Bennelong wrote a letter to friends in England. Yet, unless one insists on thinking literature exclusively is its expression in phonographic and alphabetic script, Aboriginal writing can be conceived to have existed even earlier than contact. This is because Australian indigenous communities have always used semiotic inscription practices employed in media such as rock art and through markings in sand, on bark, or on the body to accompany and maintain storytelling practices. Aboriginal people actively employed writing in multiple ways between 1788 and the end of World War II. Aboriginal culture(s) prior to 1788 were not only oral (though they certainly possessed a rich oral tradition), but they also employed an abstract (if non-alphabetic) “signifying system of lines, dots, circles, and so on,” which inscribe such complex social semiotic referents as “clans, families, movements of people, classical myths and recent events, animals, seasons, plant life, and the layout of the country.”2 In this crucial sense, Aboriginal culture possessed both oral and written (inscriptive, signifying) traditions prior to first contact with Europeans.

Nonetheless, with the arrival in Australia of the European phonographic alphabet in 1788, Aboriginal people began engaging with and employing this new technology almost immediately—at least as early as the 1796 letter of Eora man Bennelong. In that year, Bennelong wrote a letter to Lord Sydney’s steward, whom he had visited in England. As Penelope Van Toorn argues, this initial example of writing signals the way that, since contact with European phonographic modes of writing, Aboriginal people have interpreted and used this novel system in modes commensurate with their own systems of inscription, meaning, and exchange. As Van Toorn argues:

Bennelong may have noticed, for example, that Phillip’s written requests for supplies invariably got results. . . . Given his familiarity with gift exchange cycles traditional to his own culture, Bennelong may have viewed his letter to Mr and Mrs Phillips and Lord Sydney as a gift that would both discharge his debt to them for their hospitality, and trigger a reciprocal act of giving in return for his “letter-gift.”3

Aboriginal people did not lose oral tradition with the arrival of European writing, rather, as Van Toorn argues, such “‘losses’ are actually adaptations or transformations of traditional Indigenous practices.”4 Alphabetic characters were used in relation to such preliterate (or, as she rightly prefers, pre-alphabetic) media and contexts. For instance, several Wiradjuri clubs produced in the 1860s survive. These clubs use alphabetic signs alongside figurative images and geometric patterns; these items of material culture adapt alphabetic characters into an Aboriginal signifying system and may have served to increase the value of the items as exchangeable units. Van Toorn also notes the use of alphabetic characters by Charlie Flannigan in the 1890s, in his drawings of Wave Hill Station; she argues convincingly that Flannigan recodes the characters as possessing aesthetic value over and above their phonemic purpose. As such, there is a sustained record of precolonial inscriptive systems and post-contact adoptions of alphabetic writing in Aboriginal literate and literary practice.

As regards these latter adoptions of alphabetic writing, Aboriginal people used this technology throughout the 19th century in voluminous epistolary and journalistic writings. From 1837, when his people were forcibly repatriated to Flinders Island, Thomas Brune produced a weekly periodical aimed at giving an Aboriginal perspective on events in the colony. Such journalistic writing came to form an important aspect of the way writing was used by Aboriginal people in the first 150 years of Australian settlement. For instance, in New South Wales, William Ferguson and Jack Patten published a series of pamphlets in 1938 called Australian Abo Call as the publication of the Aborigines Progressive Association and, in Western Australia, the Coolbaroo political organization, which had emerged in 1947 from social clubs defiant of urban segregation, began, in 1953, to publish a bi-monthly newspaper called Westralian Aborigine; this publication survived until 1957. Similarly, though they were sponsored and to some degree controlled by the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board, Koori (south-eastern Aboriginal) people took an active role in the newspapers Dawn and New Dawn, which ran between 1952 and 1975.

As well as founding and writing newspapers, Aboriginal political activists used writing for petitions and political statements. In 1882, William Barak, a Wurundjeri leader on the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, organized the writing of a series of letters to newspapers, petitioning the government and protesting against the conditions under which his people were made to live on the reserve. In 1867 Bessie Cameron (née Flower) traveled to Ramahyuck Mission, Victoria, from Western Australia, where she had been born a Noongar woman. Cameron became instrumental in using public letters, largely in newspapers, to critique the government policy of internment and the racist attitudes of government officials undergirding it. In 1933, Yorta Yorta leader William Cooper wrote a petition to King George V noting that Aboriginal “lands have been expropriated” by the colonial government under the Crown and that “legal status” was nonetheless denied to Aboriginal people in Australia.5 In that letter, Cooper also asserted the need for Aboriginal people to have federal political representation. Prior to founding the short-running newspaper Australian Abo Call, Patten and Ferguson published an extensive pamphlet aimed to coincide with the sesquicentenary of European colonization in 1938. There, Patten and Ferguson significantly contested the hypocrisy of presenting acts under which Aboriginal people were treated as wards as acts of protection.6 They further criticized the deprivation of Aboriginal people from rights to citizenship and deplored the 150-year history of exploitation of cheap or free Aboriginal labor.

In this way, postwar indigenous writing is not (as is sometimes argued), the birth of indigenous literature in Australia. But it does represent an accrual of indigenous publication that expands exponentially from the 1960s to the present. The database BlackWords: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writers and Storytellers currently records more than 5,000 published Aboriginal authors. Such Aboriginal writing in English prior to World War II crossed multiple modes and genres. Notably, the 20th century would see the emergence of Aboriginal writing bound in book form.

The Indigenous Book

While indigenous Australian people had written almost continuously since contact with Europeans, the indigenous book would be a 20th-century emergence—and one mired in controversy, complicating any critical effort to come to terms with the phenomenon. For instance, the first book-length piece of writing known to be authored by an Aboriginal person was appropriated by a non-indigenous associate and published under that associate’s name. Raukkan author, priest, and inventor David Unaipon had been compiling the traditional stories of his people since the early 1920s, publishing some of these efforts in several long pamphlets toward the end of the decade through the press of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association.7 In 1930, Unaipon’s writings on Aboriginal belief were commissioned by Scottish anthropologist William Ramsay Smith, who then published them under his own name and did not acknowledge Unaipon. The book did not appear with the proper authorial attribution until 2001, when Unaipon’s manuscript was edited for publication under his own name by Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker.8 Unaipon’s work is syncretic and complex—presenting Aboriginal belief as commensurable with the great monotheistic traditions and, at times, compatible with them—therefore rendering it comparable to such transnational writings about indigenous belief as those by Sioux writer Charles Eastman. Shortly before republication, Shoemaker remarked that Unaipon’s book “combines the deceptive simplicity of the fable with the spiritual depth of religious verse; the apparent realism of anthropological observations with the surrealism of Dreaming narratives.”9

It is generally acknowledged that the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal writer is We Are Going (1964), written by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who was known, at that time, as Kath Walker. Similarly, other “firsts” stand legitimately as achievements of Aboriginal writers even as they enter a much longer history of Aboriginal writing. As well as Oodgeroo in poetry, in the theater, there is the first published play, Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man in 1978. However, the first Aboriginal novel has a vexed status, given that, for the longest time, it was afforded to Wildcat Falling by Colin Johnson (who later wrote as Mudrooroo). After contributing for many years to multiple modes and genres of Aboriginal writing Johnson was famously shown not, in fact, to be Aboriginal.10 While Johnson defended himself on the grounds that, in spite of his descent, he “lived as Aboriginal,” only a very few would consider this the basis for inclusion of his writing in the canon of Aboriginal literature.11

The legacy of appropriation that usurped Unaipon’s status as first Aboriginal author of a book for more than half a century is not simply an unfortunate fact. Rather, cases of appropriation, misidentification, and out-and-out hoaxes have cast a shadow over the history of Aboriginal writing. Other examples include the case of Sreten Bozic, who wrote under the pseudonym “B. Wongar” or “Wanda Koolmatrie” and who, it turned out, was a non-Indigenous man named Leon Carmen. These cases have been documented and discussed.12 Establishing a framework for interrogating what it means for Aboriginality to emerge as such a contested space replete with appropriation, and what consequences this has for genuine, often struggling, Aboriginal writers, offers a way into a deeper consideration of indigenous writing in Australia.

Anne Brewster has asserted that: “before the invasion there was no Aboriginality in today’s sense,” but rather there were a heterogeneous group of cultures and national affiliations.13 However, “the presence of a dominant white culture has brought Aboriginal people together with a common goal of maintaining their culture and improving the living conditions of their people.”14 As such, the heterogeneity of the indigenous inhabitants of Australia means that “Aboriginal” is a signifier without a referent prior to contact with and invasion by non-indigenous people and culture. There are Yolgnu people, Noongar people, and numerous other nations, but “Aboriginal” is a construction predicated on the relation between indigenous and settler colonial subjects in an emergent space called Australia. As Marcia Langton has observed:

Aboriginality is not just a label to do with skin colour or the particular ideas a person carries around in his/her head which might be labeled Aboriginal, such as an Aboriginal language or kinship system. Aboriginality is a social thing in the sense used by sociologist Emile Durkheim. Aboriginality arises from the subjective experience of both Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people who engage in intercultural dialogue, whether in actual lived experience of through a mediated experience such as a white person watching a program about Aboriginal people or reading a book. Moreover, the creation of Aboriginality is not a fixed thing, it is created from our histories. It arises from the intersubjectivity of black and white in dialogue.15

As such, might non-Indigenous assertions, surmises, and perceptions of Aboriginal identity and representation present valid aspects of what Langton calls “Aboriginality” as a social fact? While this hardly excuses a Ramsey Smith of the theft of Unaipon’s intellectual property, one can imagine that the idea of Aboriginality as put forward by Langton might valorize other, less strident forms of non-Indigenous intervention into Aboriginal literary representation. As Shoemaker suggests,

Indigenous culture can be many things: an inspiration, a source, a wellspring, a guide. With respect to indigeneity, many are attracted to the notion that the fictional universe should be theoretically unbounded, that anything can be imagined that can be realised on a page.16

Yet to interpret Langton’s argument about Aboriginality as a social discourse in this open-ended manner misses an important caveat that she goes on to make: “Aboriginality only has meaning when understood in terms of intersubjectivity, when both the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal are subjects, not objects.”17 In this sense, then, non-indigenous engagements with the indigenous cultures of Australia can meaningfully enter into the sphere of Aboriginality, but their value is diminished. Such engagements indeed risk appropriation of Aboriginal culture and, through this, the occultation of the agency of Aboriginal writers and people. A non-indigenous representational invention may have some effect on Aboriginality as a discourse, but such an intervention would only be meaningful when it involves a relation with Aboriginal people as “subjects, not objects.” To recognize that non-indigenous representations of Aboriginality have had a considerable instrumental effect on this discourse should not be to enable any and every such representation as meaningful and authentic. Rather, this recognition of the role that non-indigenous representation has had on Aboriginality foregrounds the profound challenge Aboriginal writers as subjects of representation face: they need not only to express themselves and their culture but they often have also to challenge extant representations of Aboriginality that have considerable influence in spite of emerging from an objectifying, non-indigenous perspective. While refraining from providing a totalizing definition of Aboriginality, Anita Heiss, in her extensive study of indigenous writing and publishing, Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight, suggests that it is worth understanding how “Aboriginal writers define themselves and their peers.”18 As Heiss reports, Bruce Pascoe, among a number of Aboriginal writers, insists that descent, identity, and communal recognition are fundamental prerequisites for a writer to identify as Aboriginal.19

Recognition of the fact that the discursive field of Aboriginality has often relegated Aboriginal writers to the status of social objects and not authorial subjects can ironically produce an understanding of the history of indigenous writing in Australia, in the postwar years and previously. The struggle within this social field has been for Aboriginal writers to gain recognition as subjects and agents of their own culture and its relation with the non-indigenous field of literary representation. As Bundjalung poet and scholar Evelyn Araluen observes: “to build a body of knowledge that could sensitively attend to the complexity and difference of Aboriginal literature would be no simple task, but it is one that must be anticolonial, given the origins of the study of Aboriginal literature and cultural production in anthropology.”20 Similarly, building on a claim of Muruwari playwright Jane Harrison, Wiradjuri author and critic Jeanine Leane argues that “sharing of our histories and of our stories is essential to the health of Aboriginal culture, but first it must be acknowledged who is in control.”21 Aboriginal writing is, in no small part, not only a struggle for self-expression, but a struggle for such self-expression in the face of a social field produced to a large extent through appropriation and misrepresentation. To note, therefore, the history of misidentification and appropriation is not to note a manifold or incidental aspect of the history of Aboriginal writing. Rather, indigenous writing is intrinsically concerned with wresting Aboriginality from the whims of non-indigenous definition as anthropological object and maneuvering it toward an engagement with self-assertions of Aboriginal subjecthood. Sharing stories would remain a part of this intersubjective process provided that the process is, in fact, truly intersubjective.


When Oodgeroo Noonuccal published the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal author, her work—important as it is—was not the beginning of Aboriginal writing but rather entered a long tradition of Aboriginal writing in English. Oodgeroo’s writing coincides with a number of key contestations in Aboriginal politics and poetics. As Waanyi novelist Alexis Wright notes, “the ideology of assimilation was being built when Oodgeroo was beginning to write her poetry.”22 Coming of age in the 1950s, Oodgeroo would engage with both poetry and politics at the exact moment when such culturally oriented “assimilation” was spearheaded nationally by statesman Paul Hasluck. Now no longer predicated on race, assimilation nonetheless envisaged the advancement of Aboriginal people through a settler-defined paradigm of movement toward citizenship.23 But this paradigm included the commonwealth prerogative to make special laws for Aboriginal people and also often entailed the continuation of programs that involved exceptional measures: the status of Aboriginal people as wards of the state and the removal of children to non-indigenous families and state institutions.24 In the late 1950s when Hasluck was advocating in parliament for the policy of assimilation that would be nationalized in 1961, the young Kath Walker joined the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders—a social justice organization that had been initiated predominantly by non-indigenous people.25

By 1964, when Walker published We Are Going, she encountered both widespread acclaim and telling critical disparagement. Her writing made direct, bold political statements vested in producing an effect in the logic of the politics of her day. In “Assimilation—No!” she writes:

The gum cannot be trained into an oak. Something is gone, something surrendered, still We will go forward and learn. Not swamped and lost, watered away, but keeping Our own identity, our pride of race.26

Yet she also embraced the politics of integration and was a passionate advocate for a “yes” vote in the 1967 referendum—a political process to include Aboriginal people in the Constitution. Oodgeroo’s politics was engaged with the struggles of its day and may seem less radical in relation to the emergence of treaty and sovereignty discourse in subsequent decades. Just as she had written “Assimilation—No!” she also penned “Integration—Yes!” There she would advocate that:

Eagerly we must learn to change, Learn new needs we never wanted, New compulsions never needed, The price of survival.27

Such an ameliorative gesture is, arguably, connected to the insistence on the politics of equal citizenship that had a pressing urgency in the 1960s. As Oodgeroo puts it directly in her poem “Aboriginal Charter of Rights,”

Make us mates, not poor relations, Citizens, not serfs on stations. Must we native Old Australians In our land rank as aliens?28

Such sentiments join Oodgeroo’s poetic politics to the earlier insistence by protest writers such as Cooper and Ferguson, who had at once critiqued the hypocrisy of government “protection” policy and insisted on the promises of citizenship that were refused within it. Judith Wright would later write that Oodgeroo’s poems “had a clarity, an incisive quality, that clung to the mind like bindii burrs. That is to say, they were functional as poetry should be.”29

Oodgeroo’s activist role and the political self-assertion of her work, for all its clarity and incisiveness, ironically became the basis for an insistent dismissal of her poetry as aesthetically valuable. An early review of We Are Going claims bluntly that Oodgeroo’s writing is “not poetry in any true sense.”30 Wright, again, would deduce the basis for this in a form of identity politics within which, Oodgeroo “had neither the polish of English poetry nor the ‘authentic voice of the song-man.’”31 Here an exclusionary logic of authenticity (enforced as it is by non-indigenous evaluative schemas) is coupled with a regime of aesthetic evaluation such that Oodgeroo’s poems are rendered neither autonomous enough to be judged art nor authentic enough to be judged, properly, as indigenous “culture.”32 On the one hand, a demand is made of Aboriginal writers that they assimilate to an Anglophone poetic and literary tradition with a specific history (one that is often less than relevant to Aboriginal aesthetics). On the other hand, Aboriginal writing that diverts from Aboriginal authenticity as it is constructed by non-indigenous discursive subjects (“the authentic voice of the song-man”) is depicted as insufficiently or improperly Aboriginal. This regime of devaluation, enforced principally by non-indigenous critics, represents a certain policing of Aboriginality (in Langton’s sense) that pervaded the canonization and criticism surrounding indigenous Australian writing in the second half of the 20th century.

While continually faced with the problem of either a paucity of “authenticity,” or an inadequacy in relation to standard English, Aboriginal poetry since Oodgeroo has not remained inert in relation to this insistent charge. There have arisen numerous strategies for combating this double bind in Aboriginal poetry. In varying ways, they frequently operate by refusing the structures and strictures of Australian English. As Philip Mead has suggested, Aboriginal (and some migrant) poets “live and write within an alternative network of language poetics that has been shaped and defined by its difference from the (exclusive, settled) commonwealth of Australian English.”33 Romaine Moreton, for instance, responds to the fact that her collection The Callused Stick of Wanting was initially rejected by publishers because of its political nature (and the perception that this political assertion belied aesthetic value); she locates the origins of her voice in such an “alternative network.” Her response to this rejection was to insist on the networked, multiple origin of her poetic voice. As such, she, “intentionally focuses on the originality of the myriad black voices that exist in this country and states them as her inspiration.”34 The performative dimension of her work unites the poetic with the polemical in a productive manner.

Like Romaine Moreton’s poetry, Samuel Wagan Watson’s poetry continues the tradition of marrying the poetic with the political that has existed since as early as Oodgeroo. Wagan Watson’s poetry demonstrates the way Aboriginal poetry frequently connects transnational political concerns to locally grounded modes of dispossession. When, in 2004, it was revealed that the Australian Wheat Board had been breaking United Nations sanctions and supplying wheat to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in exchange for lucrative bribes, Wagan Watson responded by positioning this particular case of transnational corruption in the context of continuous settler colonial practices of invasion and dispossession. He closes his “Apocalyptic Quatrains: The Australian Wheat Board / Iraq Bribery Scandal,” with the telling lines:

Harvested by the demon-seed of the invader And grain-fed the insatiable hunger of the dictator They danced, until caught red-handed The hands bite the hand that fed them.35

Wagan Watson’s poetic refraction of transnational neo-imperialism in an older history of empire and of settler colonialism reveals a crucial aspect of Aboriginal poetry: the imperative to ground such global experiences of dispossession in local experience. It recalls the legacy of crucial poetic interventions of this kind from Kevin Gilbert (take for instance, “Musgrave Park, Brisbane—During the Games,” and “The Gurindji: News Item; ‘Fasting’ 25/10/70”).36

Continuing the tradition of politicized poetic experimentation in Aboriginal writing, Natalie Harkin, in Dirty Words offers an abecedarian work of Australian cultural paradigms of racism and dispossession and linguistic resistance to them. In the entry for “M,” titled “Mythology,” for instance, Harkin draws out the linguistic dimension of colonization and its capacity to reproduce itself through the metaphor of the echo:

trace it back    the colonial record    a float of words        a message

unfolds    this float of words   an everywhere unfolding      gathering one-

voice      writing into itself      this echo of words      this      echo of

words      one sweeping narrative    The Aboriginal Problem        this

float of words still everywhere unfolding one media voice        reinforcing


Through repetition, the poem both enacts and reflects the logic of the “echo” that everywhere suffuses understandings of Aboriginality within the monolithic “media voice” by which Australian English and Australian colonialism continue to be disseminated and reproduced in the 21st century. Harkin’s work deconstructs the internal cogency of Australian English’s understanding of itself as vernacular and emancipatory.

Perhaps the most sustained indigenous poetic project of critique to unsettle Australian English and its literary nationalism has been that of Lionel Fogarty. Fogarty has produced numerous collections of poetry since his first, Kargan, was released in 1980. In the preface to a 1995 anthology, Fogarty suggests that his poetry is a challenge to a linguistically limited English language:

You have to understand all the poetry I write in order to get the message. It’s a performance in literary oral tradition, of even using their English against the English. The way they write and talk is ungrammatical, because it doesn’t have any meanings in their spirit. . . . My writing is to give direction to Aboriginal people coming up in the future, to stay away from European colonialist ways of writing and the disease of stupidity in their language.38

For Fogarty, then, using English against itself is a reaction to the spiritual limitations of a language that has been invested in dispossession from the outset.

As Mead points out, from the moment of early contact, language was not so much fluidly as forcibly exchanged; for instance, Governor Arthur Phillip “forcibly captured Arabanoo (Manly) and in the next year, Bennelong and forced them to learn English and to teach the colonists their Eora language.39 For Mead, invasion and colonization were always accompanied by and undergirded with the imposition of an ambition for English monolingualism. As Mead continues, in relation to Fogarty in particular: “the sense of ‘stupidity’ within European colonialist language, that Fogarty mentions in his preface, derives, no doubt, from this first-hand experience of the double speak of dispossession and racism” derived from Fogarty’s upbringing on Queensland’s Cherbourg mission.40 Spaces such as the mission were sites of assimilative dispossession but could also be spaces in which resistance and preservation were undertaken. Drawing on the Aboriginal phrase “to grow up in the ashes”—meaning around the traditional family campfire, Mead suggests that the metaphor of the ashes might apply to Fogarty’s (and by extension other Aboriginal) poetry that disrupts English in order to return itself to an authentic sense of Aboriginality produced within the ashes of nontraditional “English” with their novel “meanings in the spirit.” For Mead, Fogarty (and, one could suggest, other Aboriginal poets mentioned here) draws out of the “ashes of ‘English’” to “reconfigure English, one of the primary weapons of settlement used against Aboriginal people, into a language of Aboriginal culture and spirituality.”41 Aboriginal poets, then, find inspiration in their poetry’s political valence and their networked connections to kin, community, and nonstandard Englishes; such sources of inspiration and power have, unfortunately, been the basis for the dismissal of many Aboriginal poets by Australian critics and publishers.

Life Writing

Anita Heiss notes that while Aboriginal writers are working across an ever-increasing number of genres and modes, “we are still categorised and known largely for life-writing.”42 A search in the Austlit database of Australian Literature and criticism quickly reveals 1,481 entries under the search term “Indigenous” (cross-referenced to the form “life story”).43 This includes collaborative life writing, individual autobiography, memoir, anthologies, and numerous other modes of publishing Aboriginal life stories. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson has argued, indigenous life writing is fundamentally political, intrinsically collaborative, and, as a form of “Indigenous intellectual production,” life writing, “might be inspired by a different understanding of the human subject” from normative Western liberal frameworks of self and individual.44

Life writing, in the indigenous context, is fundamentally given to collective rather than individualized accounts of life. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson has, among others, noted,

In [. . .] life writings experience is fundamentally social and relational, not something ascribed separately within the individual . . . life writings are based on the collective memories of inter-generational relationships between predominantly Indigenous women, extended families and communities.45

Oodgeroo Noonuccal suffered from being dismissed as both inadequately literary and insufficiently authentic (according to a gendered fetishization of “the authentic voice of the song-man”). Similarly, an attempt at a bifurcation of Aboriginal writing was made by Mudrooroo in the 1980s, deriding indigenous women’s life writing emerging at that time with key, influential, and widely read texts by Sally Morgan, Jackie Huggins, Ruby Langford Ginibi, and Doris Pilkington Garimara.46 While the dismissal of such female life writers (which has, apart from much else, to do with their success with a wider readership, particularly in Morgan’s case) represents a particularly fraught (and perhaps, unfair) moment in the history of indigenous writing’s inclusion in the Australian canon, this classic boom in women’s writing is not the limit of indigenous life writing. Dick Roughsey and Jack Mirritji had published co-written life stories in the 1970s, for instance.47 Similarly, the collaboration between non-indigenous anthropologist Stephen Muecke and Nyikina elder Paddy Roe has given rise to a number of other collaborative endeavors, for instance in the work of Stuart Cooke, and parallel collaborations such as that of Gagaadju elder Bill Neidjie with Keith Taylor.48 Life writing has continued to flourish with, for instance, the success of Magabala Press, and it remains a force in Australian indigenous literature.


Gerry Bostock has noted that “when people think of black theatre, they think of political theatre.”49 As has been suggested so far, Aboriginal writing has a long history prior to the emergence of the first Aboriginal books in the latter half of the 20th century, and this history was constituted primarily out of political statements such as petitions. The connection of Aboriginal theater to related forms of social and political praxis coalesces a conceptual continuity with both life writing and poetry, which frequently suffered from the critical refusal of literary value, on the one hand, and “cultural authenticity,” on the other. This connection to kinship and politics also continues the early indigenous traditions of using writing in concert with public protest that flourished from very early in the 19th century. For instance, the National Black Theatre (NBT) flourished in Redfern from 1972 to 1977 and the Tent Embassy was also initiated in 1972 by Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey, and Bertie Williams (several of whom were directly involved in NBT).

In 1968, Kevin Gilbert penned a three-act realist play, framed by a mythic prologue that stretched back to represent the dreaming and the arrival of European colonizers to Australian shores. While not published until 1988, when it was also revised and expanded, Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers was first performed by the Nindethana Theatre in Fitzroy in 1971, making it the first Aboriginal play to be written and performed. Gilbert did not permit the play to be performed interstate as a protest against the lack of support for the training of Aboriginal actors and theater-makers; nonetheless, Aboriginal theater would proliferate nationally in the following decades.50 Bob Maza, a driving force behind Nindethana, was invited to Sydney in 1972, giving force to the establishment of the NBT in Redfern. As well as initiating the comedy review Basically Black, this collaboration also gave rise to the staging of Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man in 1974. In 1975, a six-week training course for young black theater-workers was mounted, among whose students was Nyoongar man Jack Davis. Davis returned to Western Australia to write Kullark, which was staged in Perth in 1979. The NBT in Redfern was part of a wider set of indigenous-led and initiated activism and civil society. As Bostock recalls:

When we started black theatre in Sydney, the people involved in black theatre were also involved in the medical service, were also involved in the legal service, were also involved in housing projects and community activity, because we are the ones who know what is needed and where it is needed.51

There was, in other words, in the 1970s, a nationwide network of writers, performers, and activists connected to the various indigenous theaters that was also connected to an emergent Aboriginal civil society.

There are thematic connections between key early indigenous theatrical productions. Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers, Davis’s Kullark, and Merritt’s The Cake Man each narrate the relation between historical dispossession and contemporary Aboriginal social life. While the majority of The Cherry Pickers is a social realist drama about the deprivation experienced by a group of Aboriginal agricultural workers, it is framed by a mythic and historical opening. The three opening scenes of The Cherry Pickers are explicitly marked by Bungaree—the prologue figure—as a necessary digression into such mythic and historical time:

To introduce the play we must digress

irreverently perhaps—for relevance—

in words and manners of a long time gone

for each his part in the white founders’ lie

that bodies such as I did not exist.52

Noting that such “white founders” were also guilty of “claiming this land was terra nullius” and “denying me my rightful sovereignty,” Bungaree introduces several short scenes that dramatize creation, the arrival of Cook, and genocidal colonial practices such as the poisoning of water holes.

Merritt’s The Cake Man similarly reveals the way colonial contact engendered the negative social conditions of contemporary Aboriginal life in the 1970s by producing structural connections between an opening scene depicting precolonial Aboriginal life, interrupted by contact with European colonists, and a social realist story about a contemporary Aboriginal family living in Cowra in western New South Wales. The idyllic scene of an Aboriginal father, mother, and child playing together stages a kind of precolonial primal scene as a priest, soldier, and civilian arrive, eventually killing the Aboriginal father. The action of the play proper concerns the incursion of the mission manager, an inspector, and a civilian (who has accused the Aboriginal family’s son of stealing). Crucial structural links such as the triad of colonizers create resonances between the events of initial colonial contact and dispossession as an ongoing structure lived and experienced by the play’s contemporary characters.53

Similarly, while much of Kullark is concerned with the difficult trials of the Yorlah family living in the southwest of Western Australia in 1979, each of the two acts explicitly connects the social alienation they experience to concrete historical events. Act 1 connects the experiences of the 1979 Yorlahs to the earliest experiences of coexistence, vilification, resistance, and finally massacre in the Swan River colony as the story of Nyoongar resistance hero Yagan is narrated. Although Jamie Yorlah is gaining access to education and becoming radicalized, his parents, Rosie and Alec, struggle with their daily existence and refuse radical politics. In act 1, Alec labels Jamie’s engagement with black activism simple “do-gooder” foolishness. Yet, as the play continues, the theft of liquor from a local bar—as well as the risk that the Aboriginal family will be scapegoated for it—is explicitly connected to the brutal murder of Yagan and the removal of his kaart, or head, which was sent to England as a scientific specimen. Similarly, in act 2 of Kullark, the trials of the previous generation of Yorlahs are explicitly connected to Western Australian Aborigines Department attempts to clear the wheat belt region of Aboriginal presence through forced removal of “Natives” to reserves such as the notorious Moore River Native Settlement. The repeated attempts by both the family’s grandfather, Thomas, and a younger Alec to gain “exemption” from treatment as Natives under Aborigines Department legislation leads to the depoliticization of Alec that the audience has witnessed in act 1. In Kullark’s second act, then, concrete historical laws associated with the assimilation era are shown to produce particular kinds of social experience for Aboriginal subjects at the moment of staging and reception (1979). Kullark is the most complex elaboration of a form of theatrical structure that emerged through the 1970s in crucial indigenous plays like The Cherry Pickers and The Cake Man. In each of these works, through the juxtaposition of precolonial dreaming stories (in The Cherry Pickers) and idyllic precolonial life (in The Cake Man), as well as historical accounts of colonial contact with social realist depictions of contemporary Aboriginal life, the social conditions of living Aboriginal people are concretely shown to emerge from an insistently colonial structure of invasion, theft, and dispossession.

Through the success of Kullark and Davis’s second play, The Dreamers, Davis had forged a strong relationship with non-indigenous Perth theater-maker Andrew Ross that saw the development of a flourishing indigenous theater scene based in Western Australia through the 1980s. In 1984, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust commissioned two plays from Davis. The first of these was Honey Spot, a play aimed at children, that dealt with the intersection of environmental conservation and relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.54 No Sugar, the second play emerging from that commission, is perhaps the most important Aboriginal play of its era. It developed in a more complex, realist mode the history of the clearing of the wheat belt that had been touched on in Kullark. Similarly, No Sugar also presented Australian and international audiences with crucial aspects of the Australian history of indigenous dispossession such as child removal and massacre that had heretofore been largely suppressed at a moment when historians were beginning to bring them to the attention of policymakers to a more sustained degree than ever before. No Sugar toured extensively in Australia and represented Australia in the Vancouver World Theatre Festival of 1986.55 Davis’s legacy played no small part in the establishment, in 1993, of Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre Company (later simply Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company). Yirra Yaakin has staged numerous important productions and in the early 21st century was the largest Aboriginal theater company in Australia. As artistic director of Yirra Yaakin from 1997 till 2003, David Milroy also penned several significant indigenous plays. King Hit (1997) was co-written with Geoffrey Narkle, whose life story it tells, and deals with the removal of Geoffrey and his sister to Wandering Mission in the mid-20th century, against the backdrop of rural boxing matches in Western Australia.56 Perhaps Milroy’s most successful production has been the one-woman show Windmill Baby, which is set in the Kimberley and won the 2003 Patrick White Award.57

Wesley Enoch has made a significant mark on contemporary Australian theater and indigenous theater in particular. An important early production of Enoch’s was the collaboration The 7 Stages of Grieving. It was written by Enoch and Deborah Mailman for a 1995 production, which he also directed, and was performed by Mailman. The 7 Stages, nonlinear and experimental, maneuvers between physical performance and evocations of stand-up comedy, incorporating the use of such dynamic staging as projection, lighting effects, and the suspension of giant blocks of ice. The play explores numerous intersecting lived experiences of contemporary indigenous life, such as family history, deaths in custody, and the practice of protest, with its relationship to grieving. Crucially, the later sections of the play devote attention to the myriad ways in which the Australian public sphere attempts to grieve, mourn, and commemorate the traumatic violence inherent within its treatment of indigenous people, and how indigenous people live the experience of this mourning and the trauma it reflects. Closing with a recollection of the Harbour Bridge Walk of apology for the Stolen Generations, the play is nonetheless critical of reconciliation as a practice, in one scene branding it “Wreck, Con, Silly, Nation.”58 The theme of parodying contemporary practices of reconciliation was continued on the stage a number of years later in Milroy’s Waltzing the Wilara (2011), the first production of which was directed by Enoch.59 The spirit of experimentation that emerged with 7 Stages was continued in 2000 with Black Medea, which reimagines Euripides’ classic story of maternal love and violence in the context of an indigenous family wracked by poverty and social dysfunction. The Story of the Miracle at Cookie’s Table (2007), in combines this experimental tradition with the practice of personal testimony that has characterized Enoch’s style since The 7 Stages of Grieving.60

Prose and the Novel

While it is hard to generalize about the indigenous Australian novel, it has been dominated by, at turns, social realism and, conversely, a panoply of engagements with indigenous religion and spirituality that include (but do not reduce to) magical realism and related genres. A key representative of the social realist thread can be located in the work of Bruce Pascoe. In his 1988 novel, Fox, Pascoe presents the narrative of a fugitive from an initially unnamed crime, Jim Fox, whose rediscovery of his Aboriginality is central to his personal redemption.61 This was followed in 1996 with Ruby-Eyed Coucal, which sees Fox engaged in the Papuan independence struggle, while related characters, Doris Arinyeri and Father Father, struggle for land rights in Australia. Here, Pascoe began experimenting with greater numbers of intersecting narrative strands, implicitly connecting decolonization struggles in Australia to transnational struggles for national liberation. Like Pascoe’s Jim Fox, John Muk Muk Burke’s Chris Leeton struggles with the personal, educational, and social problems emergent from the systematic denial of Aboriginality that had been imposed on him. In Bridge of Triangles, Leeton’s personal emancipation is also linked to his rediscovery of his Aboriginality. Leeton’s Wiradjuri mother, Sissy, having fled her controlling white husband and escaped to Sydney, enrolls her children in school. However, education is experienced as a scene of further trauma by Chris, as a colonial triumphalist narrative is imposed upon him and his family by the teachers—a not unfamiliar scene of imperialist pedagogy. In this key scene, Chris asks of a narration of Cook’s arrival: “But what about the people who already lived here?” and receives the reply:

Well, they didn’t really live here. Not properly—not like us. They just moved away a bit further into the bush. You’ve got to understand, they just wandered around the place—there was plenty of room for everyone. Now let’s get back to how the first people in the new settlement set about clearing the land and building their houses.62

Muk Muk Burke here narrates a realist engagement with a pedagogical scene witnessed by many indigenous people, in Australia and around the colonized world (take, say, Jamaica Kincaid’s relation to Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”). Following this reportage with the clear, realist narration of affect in the next line, “something disturbed the boy deeply,” Muk Muk Burke brings to the fore the psychological effects of such imperialist pedagogy—a process that develops and is overcome as the novel unfolds.63

The social realist novels of Pascoe and Muk Muk Burke have paved the way for several confronting variations of plot, gender, and race within a still social realist mode in the work of Melissa Lucashenko. Both her 1997 Steam Pigs and 1999 Hard Yards address working-class Murri life and do not shy away from social problems from poverty to gender-based violence. Steam Pigs is a remarkable variation on the concern principally with masculinity and identity that forms the center of Pascoe and Muk Muk Burke’s respective social realist novels.64 Hard Yards is another variation on the plots found in those earlier works vested in regeneration of Aboriginal identity through rediscovery and exploration because in Hard Yards the protagonist, Roo Glover, does not know that he—like many in his social and familial sphere—is indeed Aboriginal.65 This innovative structural irony develops key implications of the legacy of removal while also producing generic variation in relation to the wider field of realist Aboriginal fiction. In recent years, Tony Birch’s novels Blood and Ghost River have also enriched this field with their concern with class, empathy, and the tragicomic dimensions of the everyday.66

Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, Pascoe, Muk Muk Burke, and Lucashenko engaged with questions of Aboriginality through social realist novels, Sam Watson was simultaneously engaging with the exploration of indigenous religious and spiritual tradition as a framework for his novel The Kadaitcha Sung.67 The Kadaitcha Sung cannot properly be identified as magical realist because the backdrop within which the extraordinary takes place is already fantastical. Watson populates his narrative with creative spirits such as Biamee, Kadaitchas (or clever men, shamans), and Jonjurrie (small hairy spirits) within an operatic version of Australia (the “South Land”) in which aspects of Australian history (such as systematic genocide and attendant sexual violence) are heightened in intensity and degree.

Multiple elements of social realism and engagement with indigenous tradition come together in the works of two of the most influential contemporary indigenous novelists to emerge from Australia: Noongar writer Kim Scott from Australia’s southwest and Waanyi writer Alexis Wright from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Scott’s first foray into this mode was 1993’s True Country—an episodic, largely realist fictionalization of the author’s time as a teacher in remote communities.68 Scott’s next novel and Wright’s first are each experimental texts dealing with the legacy of the Stolen Generations. Wright’s first novel, Plains of Promise, also contains social realist elements, dealing in part with the assimilation and rediscovery of the Aboriginality of the Koopundi family across several generations. In three parts, Plains of Promise tells, first, the story of Ivy Koopundi’s traumatic sexual abuse by the priest at a mission to which Aboriginal children are removed.69 It then goes on to recount her internment at an insane asylum before turning to her (again, removed) daughter Mary’s work for an Aboriginal NGO, which allows her to rediscover her relation to her indigenous heritage when she finds herself back at the mission. The novel is experimental and complex in its treatment of the legacy of the Stolen Generations, limning the effect of indigenous tradition through a sustained narration of the arrival and departure of varying species of birds, for instance crows and waterbirds. While Mary’s story is told in a largely realist mode, the figuration of birds indicates the ongoing relation to the sacred, connecting the novel to the elements of Waanyi tradition that frame the text’s opening. In this way, Plains of Promise attempts to bring together magical realist elements with a realist account of the present.

Scott’s second work, Benang: From the Heart, similarly refracts, this time, the historical novel through an incorporation of magical realist tropes.70 Intriguingly though, the levitation of Benang’s Stolen Generations protagonist Harley, which serves as the key magical realist trope of the novel, while ambiguous in its metaphorical nature, figures (at least in part) the colonial archive. Harley floats, principally, when inspecting the archive of papers that his white grandfather keeps as a record of his attempt at whitening the family line. Magical realism tropes colonial techniques of removal and the archives that reflect them in the novel. But Scott’s novel also invests heavily in the magic of Noongar oral tradition as Harley has to learn to remain grounded through reconnecting with the stories told by his uncles. Like Plains of Promise, Benang figures the Stolen Generations through a lens that takes in something resembling magical realism, the former troping indigenous belief and connection to or dislocation from Country, the latter the legacy of colonial archiving. Wright fully develops a vision of realism engaged with the Waanyi dreaming stories in 2007 Miles Franlin Award–winning Carpentaria.

There is an important caveat to the labeling of such tropes of indigenous belief and culture as “magical realist.” This caveat emerges insofar as, while these novelists are no doubt certainly well read, self-aware, and engaged with the transnational legacy of magical realism in Latin America and the subcontinent, their investment in departures from realism is more vested in indigenous belief as such. Magical realism is therefore an often convenient but potentially misleading label that may, indeed, risk imposing transnational literary perceptions of the diffusion of genre onto more localized indigenous ontologies and epistemologies. Wright and Scott have not, however, remained bound to such explorations.

Indeed, a further caveat lies in the way Scott, for instance, has been bound to neither magical nor social realism. Scott’s That Deadman Dance intervenes in the well-worn Australian historical novel of early contact, making this mode fresh once more. The novel tells the story of early contact between Noongar people and white colonists in the 1830s and 1840s on the south coast of Western Australia.71 Known as the friendly frontier, That Deadman Dance, the area around King George Sound was, for a time, an instance of relatively nonconfrontational cohabitation between settlers and indigenous people. In telling the story of Bobby Wabalanginy and his relations with colonists and whalers, Scott continues his project of connecting living Noongar storytelling with a critical engagement with the archive (begun in Benang). But That Deadman Dance also implicitly proffers an indigenous perspective on the historical novel and, in particular, the narrative of early contact: a genre that has been fundamental to non-indigenous engagements with the colonial legacy in Australian literature. From Patrick White’s Fringe of Leaves to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, contact narratives have been a key genre in Australian literature, if a controversial one into which Scott rightly asserts an indigenous-centered perspective.72

Wright, for her part, has also moved into complex generic space in her most recent novel, The Swan Book—a lyrical engagement with a speculative account of a future Australia wracked by climate change and continued state intervention into Aboriginal lives.73 Similarly Scott’s latest work, Taboo, evades a simplistic generic summation. Telling the story of an attempt to reconcile by the Noongar and white descendants of the victims and perpetrators of a massacre, Taboo, while predominantly social realist, aims to “speak of magic in an empirical age.”74 Scott’s own afterword frames the novel as “a trace of Fairy Tale, a touch of Gothic, a sufficiency of the ubiquitous Social Realism and perhaps a tease of Creation Story.” The aspects of “Fairy Tale” and “Creation Story,” that Scott alludes to are accomplished through prolepsis, repetition, and resonance to the conventions of traditional indigenous storytelling. For instance, Taboo is framed by an opening account of a car crash that is then re-narrated in narrative sequence at the novel’s close, resonating with an indigenous dreaming-epistemology of temporal rebirth.75 Such recent experimental texts as The Swan Book and Taboo reveal a continued engagement with indigenous knowledge and epistemology that informs and varies the generic possibilities of realism, creating a form of something like (though not reducible to) an indigenous Australian magical realism.

Indigenous writing has also engaged not insignificantly with genre fiction. Lucashenko’s novel Mullimbimby in part tells (and undercuts) a romance narrative as the protagonist Jo Breen falls for and later finds herself critical of the activist Twoboy, who is heavily involved in a Native Title dispute. The novel conceals critical reflection on the state of indigenous land tenure within such a familiar romance plot—making such issues available to a wider audience. Prior to this, such questions of politics and Aboriginal history were incorporated into Anita Heiss’s series of novels within the chick lit genre, beginning with Not Meeting Mr Right (2007).

In addition to the novel, the short story cycle emerged as an experimental mode among early-21st-century indigenous writers. Tara June Winch’s 2003 Swallow the Air follows May Gibson, a young Wiradjuri woman living in the south coast of New South Wales.76 Following the death of May’s mother, May takes to the road, and the text moves episodically across stories of her various travels. The stories (many of which were independently published as stories prior to the publication of Swallow the Air) seek a formal unity distinct from that of a novel, predicated instead on concrete connections between autonomous narratives. Tony Birch’s collection Shadowboxing similarly weaves together autonomous short stories that nonetheless unify around the stories of a boy named Michael, growing up in Fitzroy.77 Birch’s stories (in Shadowboxing) frequently refuse to overtly signal the Aboriginality of characters, implicating the urban Koori experience within a wider politics of working-class solidarity and life. Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads weaves together similarly semi-autonomous episodes in the childhood of a Wiradjuri girl growing up near the town of Gundagai in the mid- to late 20th century.78 The stories use humor, resistance, and collective solidarity between women and return to the theme of the discovery and acceptance of Aboriginality in a time of marginalization. Ellen Van Neervan’s Heat and Light is another composite prose work. The title story cycles—Heat and Light respectively—frame a speculative fiction novella Water. Heat is a short story cycle structurally reminiscent of those by Birch, Leane, and Winch—drawing together connected stories of the Kresinger family across three generations. Light, by contrast, is made up of a series of discrete stories. But across the three sections of the text, a unity forms through a repeated concern with kinship, the need for community and autonomy, and examinations of authenticity and its policing.

Discussion of the Literature

The publication of Anita Heiss and Peter Minter’s Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature not only made available numerous contemporary Aboriginal literary voices, it also collected numerous archival voices of Aboriginal writing from the 19th century.79 Penelope Van Toorn’s Writing Never Arrives Naked is a seminal study of these early writings.80 Anne Brewster’s earlier work in the field in Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography provides useful analysis of women’s life writing in particular.81 Analysis of life writing was further developed by Aileen Moreton-Robinson in her first book, Talking Up to the White Woman.82 Brewster also provides a wide ranging overview through interviews with and studies of seven major authors (working principally in prose, though also in poetry).83 The crucial classic study of Aboriginal theater, drawing from both documentary and oral sources, is Maryrose Casey’s Creating Frames.84 While a definitive study of Aboriginal poetry has yet to be written, useful analysis has been undertaken in the context of Australian literary studies and other related fields by scholars such as Philip Mead, Stuart Cooke, and Matthew Hall, to name only a few.85

Further Reading

  • Allen, Chadwick. Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  • Brewster, Anne. Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia. Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2015.
  • Carlson, Bronwyn. The Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today? Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016.
  • Casey, Maryrose. Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004.
  • Heiss, Anita, and Peter Minter, eds. Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2008.
  • Kinnane, Stephen. Shadow Lines. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2003.
  • Moreton, Romaine, Alf Taylor, and Michael Smith. Rimfire: Poetry from Aboriginal Australia. Broome: Magabala Books, 2000.
  • Moreton Robinson, Aileen, ed. Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2007.
  • Munkara, Marie. A Most Peculiar Act. Broome: Magabala Books, 2014.
  • Nakata, Martin. Disciplining the Savages/Savaging the Disciplines. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006.
  • Nannup, Alice, Lauren Marsh, and Stephen Kinnane. When the Pelican Laughed. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1992.
  • Povinelli, Elizabeth A. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Ravenscroft, Alison. The Postcolonial Eye: White Australian Desire and the Visual Field of Race. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2012.
  • Wheeler, Belinda, ed. A Companion to Australian Aboriginal Literature. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013.
  • Wheeler, Belinda, ed. A Companion to the Works of Kim Scott. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2016.


  • 1. Chris Clarkson, et al. “Human Occupation of Northern Australia by 65, 000 Years Ago,” Nature 547 (2017): 306–310.

  • 2. Stephen Muecke, “Always Already Writing,” in Reading the Country: An Introduction to Nomadology, ed. Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke, and Paddy Roe (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984), 69–73, quote on page 72.

  • 3. Penelope Van Toorn, Writing Never Arrives Naked (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006), 68.

  • 4. Van Toorn, Writing Never Arrives Naked, 11.

  • 5. Nicholas Jose, ed., The Literature of Australia (New York: Norton, 2009), 245.

  • 6. Jose, The Literature of Australia, 370–377.

  • 7. Philip Jones, “Unaipon, David (1872–1967),” in Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1990.

  • 8. David Unaipon, Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, ed. Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker (Carlton: University of Melbourne Press), 2006.

  • 9. Adam Shoemaker, “Tracking Black Australian Stories: Contemporary Indigenous Literature,” in The Oxford Literary History of Australia, ed. Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Strauss (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998), 334.

  • 10. See Maureen Clark, Mudrooroo: A Likely Story: Identity and Belonging in Postcolonial Australia (Bruxelles and New York: Peter Lang, 2007).

  • 11. Mudrooroo, “Me Yes I Am He the Villain: Reflections of a Bloke from Outside,” JASAL 11, no. 2 (2011): 1–23, quote on pages 1–2.

  • 12. Shoemaker, “Tracking Black Australian Stories,” 332–347.

  • 13. Anne Brewster, Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1996), 4.

  • 14. Brewster, Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography, 4.

  • 15. Marcia Langton, “Aboriginal Art and Film: The Politics of Representation,” in Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians, ed. Michele Grossman (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003), 116.

  • 16. Shoemaker, “Tracking Black Australian Stories,” 340.

  • 17. Langton, “Aboriginal Art and Film,” 117.

  • 18. Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala—To Talk Straight: Publishing Indigenous Literature (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2003), 22–24.

  • 19. Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala, 22.

  • 20. Evelyn Araluen, “Resisting the Institution: On Colonial Appropriation,” Overland 227 (2017): 3–10, quote on page 7.

  • 21. Jeanine Leane, “Other People’s Stories,” Overland 225 (2016): 41–45, quote on page 45.

  • 22. Alexis Wright, “A Weapon of Poetry,” Overland 193 (2008): 19–24, quote on page 20.

  • 23. Anna Haebich, Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950–1970 (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2008).

  • 24. Patrick Wolfe, “Structure and Event: Settler Colonialism, Time, and the Question of Genocide,” in Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation and Subaltern Resistance in World History, ed. A. Dirk Moses (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008); and Michael R. Griffiths, “Interventions: Race, Culture, and Population via the Thought of A. P. Elkin,” in Globalizing Unsettlement, ed. Bruno Cornellier and Michael R. Griffiths, special issue, Settler Colonial Studies 6, no. 4 (Winter 2016).

  • 25. Kathie Cochrane, Oodgeroo (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994), 27.

  • 26. Oodgeroo, My People (Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Press, 1970), 21.

  • 27. Oodgeroo, My People, 22.

  • 28. Oodgeroo, My People, 37.

  • 29. Judith Wright, “The Poetry: An Appreciation,” in Oodgeroo, ed. Cochrane, 173.

  • 30. Andrew Taylor, “New Poetry,” Overland 36 (1967): 44.

  • 31. Wright, “The Poetry: An Appreciation,” in Oodgeroo, ed. Cochrane, 173.

  • 32. Here I have in mind Elizabeth Povinelli’s work on the “evaluation” of alternative social worlds such as indigenous modes of kinship and collectivity. See for instance her Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). See also my discussion of the way the classical poēsis/praxis distinction devalues Aboriginal writing as inadequately aesthetic: Michael Griffiths, “Indigenous Life Writing: Rethinking Poetics and Praxis,” in A Companion to Australian Aboriginal Literature, ed. Belinda Wheeler (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013), 15–34.

  • 33. Philip Mead, Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008), 454.

  • 34. Romaine Moreton, “Author’s Note to the Callused Stick of Wanting,” in Rimfire: Poetry from Aboriginal Australia, ed. Moreton, Alf Taylor, and Michael Smith (Broome: Magabala Books, 2000), viii.

  • 35. Samuel Wagan Watson, Loe Poems and Death Threats (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2014), 8.

  • 36. Kevin Gilbert, The Blackside: People Are Legends and Other Poems (South Yarra: Hyland House, 1990), 22, 40.

  • 37. Natalie Harkin, Dirty Words (Melbourne: Cordite Books, 2015), 18.

  • 38. Lionel Fogarty, New and Selected Poems: Munaldjani, Mutuerjaraera (South Melbourne: Hyland House, 1995), ix.

  • 39. Mead, Networked Language, 407.

  • 40. Mead, Networked Language, 427.

  • 41. Mead, Networked Language, 427–428.

  • 42. Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala, 35.

  • 43. Austlit, search conducted August 25, 2017.

  • 44. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, “Whiteness, Epistemology, and Indigenous Representation,” in Whitening Race, ed. Moreton-Robinson (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004), 75–88, quote on page 85.

  • 45. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talking Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2000), 1–2.

  • 46. Griffiths, “Indigenous Life Writing.”

  • 47. Dick Roughsey, Moon and Rainbow: The Autobiography of an Aboriginal (Sydney: Reed, 1971); and Jack Mirritji, My People’s Life: An Aboriginal’s Own Story (Melbourne: Milingimbi Literature Centre, 1976).

  • 48. Paddy Roe, Gularabulu: Stories from the West Kimberley (Crawley: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2016); Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke, and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology (Melbourne:, 2014); George Dyungayan and Stuart Cooke, Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle (Melbourne: Puncher and Wattman, 2014); and Bill Neidjie, Story about Feeling (Broome: Magabala Books, 1989).

  • 49. Gerry Bostock, “Black Theatre,” in Aboriginal Writing Today, ed. Jack Davis and Bob Hodge (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1985), 63–73, quote on page 63.

  • 50. Kevin Gilbert, The Cherry Pickers (Canberra: Burrambinga Books, 1988), vii.

  • 51. Bostock, “Black Theatre,” 69.

  • 52. Gilbert, The Cherry Pickers, 4.

  • 53. On the notion of settler colonial dispossession of Aboriginal people as structural and ongoing see the work of Patrick Wolfe, “Structure and Event.”

  • 54. Jack Davis, Honey Spot (Sydney: Currency, 1987).

  • 55. Jack Davis, No Sugar (Sydney: Currency, 1986).

  • 56. David Milroy, “King Hit,” in Contemporary Indigenous Plays, ed. Vivienne Cleven, et al. (Sydney: Currency, 2007), 83–116.

  • 57. Milroy, “Windmill Baby,” in Contemporary Indigenous Plays, ed. Cleven et al., 201–227.

  • 58. Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, The 7 Stages of Grieving (Brisbane: Playlab Press, 2002), 70. Originally published 1996.

  • 59. David Milroy, Waltzing the Wilara (Sydney: Currency, 2011).

  • 60. Wesley Enoch, “Black Medea,” in Contemporary Indigenous Plays, ed. Cleven et al., 55–82; and Enoch, The Story of the Miracle at Cookie’s Table (Sydney: Currency, 2007).

  • 61. Bruce Pascoe, Fox (Fitzroy, Victoria: Penguin, 1988).

  • 62. John Muk Muk Burke, Bridge of Triangles (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994), 71.

  • 63. Muk Muk Burke, Bridge of Triangles, 71.

  • 64. Melissa Lucashenko, Steam Pigs (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1997).

  • 65. Melissa Lucashenko, Hard Yards (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999).

  • 66. Tony Birch, Blood (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011); and Birch, Ghost River (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2014).

  • 67. Sam Watson, The Kadaitcha Sung (Victoria: Penguin, 1990).

  • 68. Kim Scott, True Country (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993).

  • 69. Alexis Wright, Plains of Promise (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1997).

  • 70. Maria Takolander, “Magical Realism and Irony’s ‘Edge’: Rereading Magical Realism and Kim Scott’s Benang,” Journal for the Association of the Study of Australian Literature 14, no. 5 (2014): 1–11.

  • 71. Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2010).

  • 72. Jeanine Leane discusses White’s engagement with Badjala knowledge of the Eliza Fraser story and the limits of that engagement in “Tracking Our Country in Settler Literature,” JASAL 14, no. 3 (2014): 1–17, quote on page 9; for an engagement with the controversy around The Secret River, see Brigid Rooney, “Kate Grenville as Public Intellectual,” in Lighting Dark Places: Essays on Kate Grenville, ed. Sue Kossew (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010). 17–38.

  • 73. Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2013).

  • 74. Kim Scott, Taboo (Sydney: Picador, 2017), 7.

  • 75. Scott, Taboo, 283.

  • 76. Tara June Winch, Swallow the Air (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006).

  • 77. Tony Birch, Shadowboxing (Melbourne: Scribe, 2006).

  • 78. Jeanine Leane, Purple Threads (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006).

  • 79. Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, eds., Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2008).

  • 80. Van Toorn, Writing Never Arrives Naked.

  • 81. Anne Brewster, Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1996).

  • 82. Moreton-Robinson, Talking Up to the White Woman.

  • 83. Anne Brewster, Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2015).

  • 84. Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004).

  • 85. See Mead, Networked Language; Stuart Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages: A Theory for Australian-Chilean Postcolonial Poetics (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2013); and Matthew Hall, “Nuclear Consumed Love: Atomic Threats and Australian Indigenous Activist Poetics,” Angelaki 22, no. 3 (2017): 51–62.