More on contemporary Aboriginal poetry: two great publications

Charmaine Papertalk-Green’s “Just like that and other poems” (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2007) is a gruelling little book of poems that packs a punch on all manner of topics from Aboriginal identity, racism and land rights to womanhood, being a single mother, domestic violence, family and love.

“Young One – You Don’t Understand” is a poem structured like a dialogue between a young Aboriginal person asking an elder questions (why so sad? the whites give you all you want, don’t they?) and the elder’s response (you don’t understand, we’re not free, we don’t have our land and our pride).  It’s not only a good way to discuss the importance of land to Aboriginal people but also the differences in opinions and life experiences between people of different generations.  Perhaps the ‘young one’ in this poem has grown up wadjella way (white way, using the Western Australian Noongar word for white), and doesn’t have any memory of a different way of life.  Perhaps the ‘young ones’ in Aboriginal communities do not understand the struggles their forebears have faced to maintain culture and language within the context of colonisation.  There are many issues you could tease out in the classroom with this poem.

“My English” is a great piece which lists some examples of Aboriginal English: “That becomes dat, Apple becomes happle”.  It speaks to me because some of the examples reflect the way some of my family members speak, and I have a way of slipping into this vernacular when I go home to Dubbo.  The poem highlights the bilingualism many Aboriginal people negotiate – we speak “white” or “black” depending on the context, and this also applies to urban Aborigines who may not have their traditional language but speak some form of Aboriginal English when among their community.

In his introduction to this collection of poems, poet John Kinsella compares Papertalk-Green’s writing to Queensland Aboriginal poet Lionel Fogarty’s in the way in which they use and adapt English, the language of the coloniser, to assert Aboriginal culture and heritage.  Fogarty’s work can be seen at http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/fogarty-lionel.

Ngarla songs” by Alexander Brown and Brian Geytenbeek (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004) is an important publication put together with the Wangka Waya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre which showcases anecdotal songs passed down through the generations of the Ngarla people from the top of WA (whose country stretches from Port Hedland on the Indian Ocean 150km east and 50km inland along the De Grey River).  The book is set out with the Aboriginal language song on the left and the English translation on the right side of the page.  The songs document aspects of traditional culture and daily life as well as contact with colonisers and other seafarers (e.g. “Japanese Pearling Fleet”, a poem composed before World War Two).  It gives a fascinating insight into the history of the Pilbara region, infused with the Ngarla peoples’ extensive knowledge of country.

Why Indigenous perspectives in school?

This is an excerpt from my ACTivATE journal article, 2011

 

Being in Western Australia for the 2010 Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) Conference provided an interesting opportunity to reflect upon some of the state’s seminal Aboriginal authors whose works have made their way into Australian consciousness: Sally Morgan, Archie Weller, Jack Davis, Doris Pilkington Garimara, Glenyse Ward and Jimmy Chi, to name a few.  What I wondered was, if there have been so many great Aboriginal authors and scholars in Western Australia alone, why is it that the Australian education system, however inadvertently, continues to exclude and marginalise Aboriginal peoples and cultures?  Why don’t our Aboriginal leaders (in literature, arts, politics or any other field) have enough impact on the Anglo-Australian school system to make schools a place where all Aboriginal students are expected to achieve similar greatness?

Award-winning author Sally Morgan spoke to us about the Indigenous Literacy Project, whereby students produce books about themselves and record and translate the songs of their elders.  The project also supports Aboriginal authors to write books for children that are published with biographical information and maps outlining each author’s country and heritage.  Teachers have reported their students’ enthusiastic reactions to these books and the pride they felt when seeing that an author was from the same country as them.  Sally emphasised that this was an important aspect of the Indigenous Literacy Project – inspiring young Aboriginal students to write by providing adult role models.  The improvement of Aboriginal participation and achievement in the education system hinges on the ability to create space for Aboriginal cultures and voices in the classroom.

Sally Morgan’s daughter, Ambelin Kwaymullina, spoke about how important it is for Aboriginal students to “see themselves” in the classroom.  I would wholeheartedly agree, noting that in my own childhood, the classes in which I was most engaged and achieved the best results were those where Aboriginal perspectives were included.  Teachers worry about tokenism, but I think it is better to include some Aboriginal perspectives than to exclude a whole section of the population entirely.  When you have quality texts by local Aboriginal authors, as Sally’s project is producing, you have a wonderful opportunity to provide powerful, contextualised and relevant learning materials; however, when these are not available there is no reason to give up.  You can still provide texts by Aboriginal authors across the nation or with Aboriginal themes and ask your students how the text represents a similar or different understanding of the world to them, just as we do in any English classroom with any text.

In the ACT context it is perhaps more important that teachers do not shy away from including Aboriginal perspectives in the classroom just because they think that there are no ‘real Aboriginal’ students in their classes.  Ambelin Kwaymullina spoke of the stereotypes about ‘traditional’ Aboriginal people that pervade the way in which people relate to her and her writing.  She remarked on how people have always assumed they have the right to pass judgement on her identity and decide whether she really ‘qualifies’ as an Aboriginal person.

Just before attending the conference, I had been reading the literature around Aboriginal literacy for my masters research, and I was able to reflect on how the current literature echoes some of the important messages Sally and Ambelin conveyed.  Regarding the identity debate, Sharifian et al (2004) assert that communication difficulties between Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal teachers occur just as frequently in metropolitan contexts where the Aboriginal students appear to be using Standard Australian English.  Thus “cultural schemas”– worldviews influencing the way experiences are conceptualised – are also at play (Sharifian et al 2004, p. 203).  The “schemas” of many Aboriginal students (regardless of the extent of their traditional Aboriginal knowledge) are often different to many other Australians.  I can remember feeling this as a student, even though I knew how to perform in the SAE educational world.  The message is that regardless of how many Aboriginal students you have in your classroom, and regardless of your personal opinion of ‘how much’ they are Aboriginal*, it is important to include their perspectives and voices.  Besides that, cross-cultural understanding (‘reconciliation’) among all students cannot be achieved without making a place for Aboriginal voices in the classroom.

 

*No-one has the right to question another person’s identity and discount their identification, so if your students identify, then they are Aboriginal.  Do you question and arbitrate other students when they tell you they have some Scottish, German or Irish heritage?

 

Resources/further information:

Sally Morgan is best known for her acclaimed autobiography, My Place, which won the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission humanitarian award in 1987, the Western Australia Week literary award for non-fiction in 1988, and the 1990 Order of Australia Book Prize.

My Place is available in picture book adaptation and on e-book.  The original novel is generally taught to Year 9-10 students.

Morgan has written the Stopwatch series with her children, aimed at (mainly) boys 7-9, http://www.walkerbooks.com.au/Books/Stopwatch-Book-2-The-Land-of-Mirthful-9781921150784.

She has a long list of other titles, many written in collaboration with her children, at Fremantle press, http://www.fremantlepress.com.au/authors/338/Sally+Morgan

Ambelin Kwaymullina has written books for children, including the heartwarming story The Two-Hearted Numbat, teaching about the need to be kind and compassionate but also strong and tough, available through Fremantle Press, http://www.fremantlepress.com.au/authors/336/Ambelin+Kwaymullina. Her latest book, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, has just been published by Walker books and I intend to post a review on this blog shortly.

The Indigenous Literacy Project:        www.indigenousliteracyproject.org.au.  Donations can be made to this organisation and schools can celebrate Indigenous Literacy Day in September.

For more on the Aboriginal identity debate, see the recent memoir by Anita Heiss, Am I Black Enough For You? http://www.anitaheiss.com/am_i_black_enough_for_you_.html

Reference

Sharifian, F, Rochecouste, J & Malcolm, I 2004, ‘But it was all a Bit Confusing . . .’,

Comprehending Aboriginal English Texts’, Language, Culture and Curriculum, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 203-228.