Why we need to put James Maloney’s ‘Dougy’ series to rest

You know the one. Dougy, Gracey and Angela. Addressing the “issues” facing Aboriginal society. Highlighting the familiar tensions of small town Australia: fear and misunderstanding between white and black communities; resentment of Aboriginal ‘hand outs’; how quickly communities can descend into violence and chaos when tested, exposing the anger, fear and mistrust between black and white people that is found when you scratch the surface.

Very important messages and issues presented in well-written and engaging novels by a highly-acclaimed Australian author.

But – when I open the book and read on the first page that the Aboriginal protagonist’s father was “drunk again”, and that his mother was giggling at him and calling him a “silly boong”, I find it difficult to get my head around teaching it.  So much frontloading needs to be done to prepare students for it, and to explain why we are seeing these stereotypes and racist terms on the page (Maloney is presenting one particular experience of Aboriginal families, and not all families have an alcoholic father; there was a time when Aboriginal people took on the racist terms white people used against them in their own interactions as a joke, a little like how African Americans appropriated the word ‘nigger’, but that is less commonly accepted in Aboriginal circles these days).

And ultimately, I just want to say to students that “not all of us live like this”.  My family, my home town of Dubbo, contains elements of the experiences in this novel but there are a great many more positive things I see that I don’t feel get enough air time in Maloney’s novels.  The love and warmth and laughter. The beautiful stories of land and culture.  My Uncle receiving an award for employing and training Indigenous boys in his panel-beating business. My Aunty and Uncle getting involved in heritage discussions with council to protect the scar tree uncovered in a new residential development area. My many cousins achieving in education and the workforce, and some working to give back to the Indigenous community through education and Indigenous Community Volunteers. My father’s life’s work in Aboriginal policy and higher education, being part of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the Bringing them Home inquiry, running Aboriginal student support centres at universities and setting up Indigenous programs across a range of universities.  My brother educating the local community and school children about Bush Tucker. Our family’s emphasis on hard work, personal responsibility and, above all, maintaining a perfectly clean home, car, and well-groomed appearance!!!   (I must admit this is becoming somewhat diluted through the generations – I keep a pristine home but couldn’t care less about the car, to my dad and uncles’ disappointment!).

Maloney’s novels may have been a good starting point for teachers in the 1990s to begin engaging with Indigenous perspectives.  But – as you can see on my previous blog entries – there are so many contemporary Aboriginal authors who are presenting these perspectives for themselves.  Some present positive representations, some negative, some a bit of both. But the important thing is they are authentic Aboriginal voices.

Furthermore, I’d like to see teachers move away from the “issues-based” teaching of Aboriginal perspectives – or at least provide some balance.  Aboriginality is not a curse. It is not a bad thing to be Aboriginal and not every Aboriginal person or family or community faces unending “issues” and “challenges”. This is a bit of a deficit-model way of thinking.  And it is very pessimistic. Yes, we all have challenges – black or white – and we also all have opportunities and fantastic role models and great achievements to celebrate.

I encourage teachers to move on from Maloney in regards to ‘Aboriginal literature’.  But if you simply can’t, please consider the following points and discuss them with your class to frame your study.

Who’s telling this story?

James Maloney is a non-Aboriginal author representing Aboriginal people and lives, based on 2 years’ experience living and teaching in Cunnamulla, a regional town in QLD.

In his ‘FAQs’ on his website he includes a question: “What experience do you have of Aboriginal life?”

Below are extracts from the website and some comments to think about in terms of framing the text for students.

“I can’t really say that I have any direct experience of Aboriginal life. After all, only an Aborigine could claim this. However, for two years, 1977 and 1978, I watched Aboriginal children growing up, the difficulties they faced, the close family relations that mean so much and the ingrained prejudice of the dominant white culture around them. This was when I lived in Cunnamulla, a small town in south-west Queensland. As a teacher in the State School, there was part of the dominant culture, I must admit and I can’t really claim to have done anything to improve things for my Aboriginal students. There’s not much one person can do and I was only young. The experience had an effect on me though.”

Is 2 years working in a community enough to make general comment on all Aboriginal lives?

As a white teacher he would not have been trusted by the Aboriginal community during a time of much racism and division.  Therefore it is unlikely they would have told him much detail about their lives and cultures – he may only have a small piece of their story. He might not understand all the reasons behind the issues they face.  He might not know any positive aspects of their culture, rituals or knowledge which they likely kept secret from him as a white man and a teacher/representative of the government.

Could his statement “there’s not much one person can do and I was only young” be considered defeatist, or show a resignation to the poor conditions of Aboriginal people? There are many examples of single people, black and white, who have become activists for reconciliation and change.

“It was those years that formed the basis for “Dougy” and “Gracey” though the towns described in the books aren’t supposed to be Cunnamulla. That wouldn’t be fair. I could have lived in any town in Australia with a mixed population and it would have been much the same, perhaps many times worse.”

Is it fair for him to think that all towns in Australia have the same, or worse, problems than Cunnamulla?  Some communities function better than others, and all towns have their positive and negative aspects.

“Since leaving Cunnamulla, I have maintained a deep personal interest in political and social issues associated with Indigenous Australia, even if I don’t have any close Aboriginal friends. My “experience” today stems more from reading newspapers and watching television news and documentaries.”

In the ‘about the author’ section of his website, Maloney says he lives in Brisbane and loves travelling overseas, meeting new people and learning about their culture and history. Why do you think he does not know Aboriginal people or have any experience with them beyond the media? As someone who knows how to travel, explore and meet people he could perhaps do a little exploring around Brisbane and go to local events such as NAIDOC week, go on bushwalks (Boondall wetlands, Musgrave park), visit the DandiiriMaiwar culture centre, attend events at the kuril dhagun Indigenous Knowledge Centre at the State Library of QLD, attend the annual Dreaming festival or look up the ‘Black Book’ which lists all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island events around Brisbane.

These events were found in 5 minutes by looking up ‘Aboriginal cultural events in Brisbane’ on google.

For someone who claims to have maintained a deep personal interest in Aboriginal affairs it would seem relevant for him to interact with local Aboriginal people an organisations.

“Can a white person write about black experience? It’s a vexed question. Some answer no and criticise me for doing so. Others praise me from trying to understand the viewpoint of Indigenous Australians even if I haven’t got everything right. I have never claimed to speak for Aboriginal people. That would be wrong. But having observed and been both moved and troubled by what I saw, I think I was right to produce these novels.”

The history of colonisation in Australia includes periods of time where Aboriginal people were not listened to – the government made policies about them and designed services for them without asking them for their opinion (as we normally would do in a democracy).  Therefore ‘representation’ is a sensitive issue an Aboriginal people are sceptical of non-Aboriginal people who claim to represent them and their viewpoint.

In 1993, when Dougy was published, Aboriginal authors were less well known in the mainstream, but they were around: Boori Pryor, Sally Morgan, Kerry Reed Gilbert, Ruby Ginibi Langford and Archie Weller, to name a few notables.  There were plenty (and still are plenty) of Aboriginal people writing for themselves – it is not necessary for a non-Aboriginal person to ‘be their voice’, and Maloney acknowledges that.

There is a general belief that in fiction an author can choose to represent whatever they like, however they like, because it is fiction.

The lines become blurred when an author seeks to teach others, or provide some understanding of reality, through the fiction – as Maloney says he was “trying to understand the Aboriginal viewpoint”.  If this “viewpoint” in a fictional novel is taken by readers to be based on reality, then it becomes complicated: whose reality is this?  Is this really the reality of all Aboriginal people? Does a non-Aboriginal author have the right to present an Aboriginal person’s ‘reality’ without asking them?