At Raven Reads, we spend a lot of time reading Canadian Indigenous authors and learning about Indigenous history. As each book, author, and voice helps us to gain perspective on Canada’s people and our past, we can also learn from other Indigenous experiences and people. That is why we are venturing outside of Canada this week, to explore Australian Indigenous authors.
Three Must-Read Australian Indigenous Authors
Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Her first novel, Carpentaria,won the Miles Franklin Award in 2007. Her most recent book, Tracker, about the “charismatic Aboriginal leader, political thinker and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth,”[I] won the Stella Prize (2018). She has also written the novel The Swan Book, and the non-fiction works Take Power, an oral history of the Central Land Council; and Grog War, a study of alcohol abuse in the Northern Territory.
Alexis Wright is one of Australia’s finest Aboriginal writers. Carpentaria is her second novel, an epic set in the Gulf country of north-western Queensland, from where her people come. The novel’s portrait of life in the precariously settled coastal town of Desperance centres on the powerful Phantom family, leader of the Westend Pricklebush people, and its battles with old Joseph Midnight’s renegade Eastend mob on the one hand, and the white officials of Uptown and the neighbouring Gurfurrit mine on the other.[ii]
Kim Scott, of Noongar heritage, is a prolific writer. He is the first Indigenous author to win the Miles Franklin Award (1999), for the novel Benang: From the Heart.His book That Deadman Dance won both the Miles Franklin Award (2011) and the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal (2011). Taboo is his most recent work of non-fiction, and he has written several children’s books bilingually in English and Noongar.
Scott “has gained widespread critical acclaim for the way in which his writing explores questions of identity, race and history, and also for his interest in finding ways that Indigenous people might connect their ancient heritage to contemporary life.”[iii]
Taboo takes place in the present day, in the rural South-West of Western Australia, and tells the story of a group of Noongar people who revisit, for the first time in many decades, a taboo place: the site of a massacre that followed the assassination, by these Noongar's descendants, of a white man who had stolen a black woman. They come at the invitation of Dan Horton, the elderly owner of the farm on which the massacres unfolded. He hopes that by hosting the group he will satisfy his wife's dying wishes and cleanse some moral stain from the ground on which he and his family have lived for generations.
But the sins of the past will not be so easily expunged.
We walk with the ragtag group through this taboo country and note in them glimmers of re-connection with language, lore, country. We learn alongside them how countless generations of Noongar may have lived in ideal rapport with the land. This is a novel of survival and renewal, as much as destruction; and, ultimately, of hope as much as despair.[iv]
Melissa Lucashenko is a much-respected author of Ygambeh/Bundjalung heritage, and “her writing explores the stories and passions of ordinary Australians with particular reference to Aboriginal people and others living around the margins of the first world”.[v]
Her first book, Steam Pigs,won the l998 Dobbie Award for Women’s Fiction. Her novel Mullumbimby has won the Queensland Literary Award in Fiction (2013). and the Victorian Premier's Literary Award (2014) for Indigenous Writing.
When Jo Breen uses her divorce settlement to buy a neglected property in the Byron Bay hinterland, she is hoping for a tree change, and a blossoming connection to the land of her Aboriginal ancestors. What she discovers instead is sharp dissent from her teenage daughter, trouble brewing from unimpressed white neighbours and a looming Native Title war between the local Bundjalung families. When Jo unexpectedly finds love on one side of the Native Title divide she quickly learns that living on country is only part of the recipe for the Good Life.
Told with humour and a sharp satirical eye, Mullumbimby is a modern novel set against an ancient land.[vi]
Two Must-Read Emerging Australian Indigenous Authors
Ellen van Neerven is of Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch Heritage, and is definitely one to watch.
Her first book, Heat and Light (2014), won the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize. Her 2016 book of poetry, Comfort Food, was shortlisted for numerous awards. Personally, she won the 2017 Queensland Writers Centre Johnno Award, and the 2015 Express Media Award for Outstanding Contribution by a Young Person in Literary Arts.
In this award-winning work of fiction, Ellen van Neerven takes her readers on a journey that is mythical, mystical and still achingly real.
Over three parts, she takes traditional storytelling and gives it a unique, contemporary twist. In ‘Heat’, we meet several generations of the Kresinger family and the legacy left by the mysterious Pearl. In ‘Water’, a futuristic world is imagined and the fate of a people threatened. In ‘Light’, familial ties are challenged and characters are caught between a desire for freedom and a sense of belonging.
Heat and Light presents an intriguing collection while heralding the arrival of an exciting new talent in Australian writing.[vii]
Claire G. Coleman is of Noongar heritage, and wrote her much-acclaimed first novel, Terra Nullius (2017) while travelling around Australia in a caravan. Its unconventional writing certainly didn’t affect Coleman’s work, as the novel has been nominated or shortlisted for six awards in only its first year.
In the near future Australia is about to experience colonisation once more. What have we learned from our past?
Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running.
The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, reeducation is enforced. This rich land will provide for all.
This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.[viii]
[ii] Giramond Publishing
[iii] Author’s Website
[iv] Summary and Images from the Pan Macmillan Australia
[vi] University of Queensland Press
[vii] University of Queensland Press
[viii] Hachette Australia