Taking control of our stories

Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Michelle Roger

Book cover of Me, Antman and Fleabag

Coverage of Indigenous and disabled writers is both sorely lacking and, largely, falsely homogenised in the current Australian literary market. This lack extends beyond the literary community and is a pervasive issue throughout all forms of mass media from television to film.

The talent is there, but access and categorisation with a focus on genre combine to exclude and limit readership of stories told by these groups. It was issues like these that were examined through  discussion of two works by Indigenous writers, Tony Birch and Gayle Kennedy, during Blak Book Club, a joint session with Writers Victoria Write-ability program and the Blak & Bright, Indigenous Literary Festival 2016.

Reviews of Birch's work Ghost River continually applaud his ability to chronicle life on the margins and was recently awarded the Victorian Premier's Literacy for Indigenous Writing 2016. The same could be said for Kennedy's humorous and at points confronting 'Me, Antman & Fleabag.' The stories both authors tell, the way they are told, and the characters they contain aren't those that are generally familiar. But something about such repeated categorisation of their works and the stories they divulge, reinforces yet another layer of marginalisation upon both the authors and the narratives they tell. A self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the works continue to be classified as stories from the periphery because the sharing and access to these narratives are controlled by literary markets who regard and promote books like these as niche, rather than another part of the rich literary diversity Australia has to offer. 

But these stories are not so unfamiliar as to be classed as niche. Can readers not relate to the joy of friendship and youth seen in Birch's Ren and Sonny? The fight against change and their relationship with the river men. Do the stories of family and the loving humour we find in “taking the piss” as Kennedy describes it, seem so foreign as to be relegated to the margin? Can readers not appreciate the familiarity of such themes while embracing the unique styles and content bought by the authors?

Kennedy has been outspoken regarding the “ghettoising” of books where her works such as Me, Antman & Fleabag are placed in the Indigenous section of the book store as opposed to the Humour or mainstream literature sections. Similar concerns have been raised in the use of other categories in marketing such as “migrant stories” where rich diversity of experience and subject matter is yet again reduced to that of a homogenised group. Some form of “other” which falsely limits the audience for these stories and the authors who create them.

Kennedy says that disability, just like Indigenous writing, is not a genre. She is right.

We are disabled. we are also simply writers. We write with voices touched by all the history that has proceeded us to this point, just like any other writer.

Despite what the pervasive cultural narrative tells us, the lives and interests of Indigenous and disabled writers are multifaceted and this is reflected in the works created.  And yet somehow the lives of Indigenous and disabled Australians continue to be reduced to a small subset of voices. Or, if Indigenous and disabled an almost non-existent voice.

Where stories by those with lived experience can provide a nuanced and often unexpected narrative, Indigenous and disabled characters are reduced to palatable stereotypes time and again. That Indigenous and disabled writers may have something unique and valuable to offer seems to be silenced by the underlying idea that others know our stories better. The recent success of programs such as 'Black Comedy' and 'Cleverman' on the ABC  do mark a small change, both in authorship and content, but it is a change which is only starting to break through into commercial television and film, and is only very recently to be incorporated in mainstream literature.

Kennedy's series of stories and anecdotes give insight into her life and the lives of those around her. Her vivid use of language in “The purebreed pedigree” and “Shopping with Auntie Perlie” are characters unto themselves. Her taking the piss is matched with a clear respect and warmth that gives insight into a side of Aboriginal life not generally seen. Interestingly, while Kennedy's book was seen as embracing her Aboriginality there was surprise during the Blak Book Club discussions that Birch's book Ghost River was not instantly recogniseable as “Aboriginal”. This issue is a small snap shot of our failure to see diverse mainstream representations of Indigenous works. And a pervasive negative homogenising of what Indigenous writing should look like.

As Anita Heiss stated in her opening address:

“Come to our writing for the truth of our realities. Plural. Yes, because there are many. There is no one Aboriginal experience. There is no one Aboriginal voice or perspective. Come to our writing because it will dispel the myth of pan-Aboriginality.”

Parallels between the obstacles faced by Indigenous and disabled writers are evident. However, the marginalisation and narrow focus of our stories is an artefact we can correct.

Change must be top-down, bottom-up and storming through the middle. We need to see better funding and mentoring for both groups. We need to see more inclusion not just on panels at festivals but at all levels of literary organisations.

Heiss's '20 reasons to read Black' and movements such as #criplit point to those with lived experience taking control of their stories. The juxtaposition of Kennedy and Birch’s books is a window into the rich and unique stories to be found in Indigenous literature. We need to move these stories to their rightful place. From other to a valued part of the diverse narrative that is the Australian experience. 


© Michelle Roger 2016

Writers Victoria acknowledges the generous support of Perpetual Trustees for the Write-ability Goes Regional program and these commissions.