Breaking Taboos

Alexis Wright at the Tasmanian Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, September 1998

© all rights reserved

A response to this essay has been received from Marcia Langton.

I was surprised when I received a copy of the festival program to find that I was on a session called Breaking Taboos. I will explain why. I had just returned from Kalkaringi, which is an Aboriginal community 1200 kilometres north west of Alice Springs. Kalkaringi is next to Daguragu, another Aboriginal community. Daguragu was where Vincent Lingiari led his people, the Gurindji, when they walked off Wave Hill cattle station in 1966 because of the way they were being treated by the owners of the property, the British company, Vesteys.

Their complaints were that they were sick of living off starvation rations, camping in just anything, and, in their words, they were sick of being treated like dogs. After a ten year struggle, of holding the line with everyone laughing at them for asserting their land rights, the Gurindji people won title to their traditional lands. The Gurindji struggle symbolises the struggle for land rights in Central Australia.

I was at Kalkaringi because of a convention there to talk about the Northern Territory Government’s indecent push to become a state by the year 2001. The Northern Territory Government has treated Aboriginal people with its usual contempt by not seriously involving us in the process of developing a Constitution for Statehood. The Combined Aboriginal Nations of Central Australia fear that what rights they have gained for land in the Northern Territory will be substantially watered down when the Northern Territory becomes a state.

A move from a self governing territory to a state will mean that 120,000 people will continue to be governed by the same government which has held power in the Northern Territory for over two decades — non-stop. The relationship is not good for people who do not vote for this government. This government has fought elections based on race, spent millions of dollars opposing every land claim, has failed to provide adequate essential services to communities, and has failed to improve race relations in the Northern Territory. Aboriginal people, who represent 30 per cent of the Territory’s population, the majority of the permanent population, and who own half of the land, feel justifiably uneasy about their future.

The convention at Kalkaringi was hosted by the Central Land Council for Aboriginal people within its vast region. The place where we had the meeting was about twenty kilometres outside of Kalkaringi. It was held on a large flat area of land where the nine hundred or more Aboriginal people, representing thirteen Aboriginal nations of Central Australia, would feel comfortable camping in somebody else’s traditional country. It became a very dusty place with the movement of people over the four day period and the public ceremonies that were conducted each night. During the day it was very hot as the heat of the sun made its way through the flimsy shades. The wind picked up by about 10 am and dust flew in people’s faces for the rest of the day, and the flies stayed all over us. In the camps people made their own wind breaks, their water came in a leaking tanker on the back of a truck, there were no showers, but we had pit toilets.

The ceremonies were led by the Gurindji people, and the meeting did not start until they opened the Convention. All codes of conduct were strictly adhered to and respected. Over the four days all of the men sat on one side, and the women sat on the other side. Even at meal time, women and children had one line for food, while the men had another. Traditional maps were painted of country by the people who had the right to make the paintings for their particular groups. Four interpreters worked non-stop over the four days to ensure that everyone understood the issues being discussed. Younger speakers spoke with their old people by their sides. The people who spoke at the Convention came with a mandate to speak from their communities. Their strength and determination to follow their own law and to develop their own Constitutions, and their own Aboriginal Government was powerful.

Even though I had done a lot of work as the co-ordinator of this Convention, I only made one public address, when I was invited. I come from a different tribal group, and it would have been completely out of place for me to speak openly at this event. As someone said to me afterwards, the Convention was equivalent, in an Aboriginal way, of being at church. It would have been entirely inappropriate to not have attended this Convention, or not to have made the appropriate arrangements if you were unable to attend.

What one is left with at the end of the day from an event such as this is the reinforcement of culture and your place in it. The feeling of what is the right way to conduct yourself. There are taboos about breaking the codes of conduct. This includes the relationships to one’s elders, to other people and their land, and what is considered good manners.

So, in the context of my culture, I do not break taboos.

The taboos I do break are to do with the way this country generally views itself in its relationship with Aboriginal people. I do not like the way we are being treated by successive governments, or the way our histories have been smudged, distorted and hidden, or written for us.

I want our people to have books, their own books, in their own communities, and written by our own people. I want the truth to be told, our truths, so, first and foremost, I hold my pen for the suffering in our communities. Let it not be mistaken: suffering is widespread in our communities. I do not write stories of ‘getting on and getting by‘.

Getting on and getting by‘ — these words were used to describe the subject matter and mood of an anthology of Aboriginal stories published recently, which contained two of my short stories. But neither of my stories was about, as described in the preface, ‘celebrating and expressing a hearty optimism’. What I know of our struggle gives me no cause for celebration or hearty optimism. There are stories I know about people from my homeland that cannot be spoken about outside of closed doors.

Our people die young, too frequently, and many die badly. The majority of Aboriginal deaths are associated with poverty and neglect, while governments abuse us for their lack of decency and responsibility. Our story is about unfulfilled lives, unfulfilled histories — stretching over 200 years.

What I try to do in my writing is make some sense of our world, the stupidity of it, the despair of it, and create a record of it. In [the novel] Plains of Promise (UQP 1997), I was concerned with what happens when you cannot crawl out of the pile at the bottom of the barrel. What happens when you are an outcast in mainstream society because you are black, and you have become, for some reason or another, stigmatised, an outcast in your own society? How do you cope?

In ‘imaginary homelands‘ Salman Rushdie discusses a similar impasse in relation to the literature that came out of Germany after World War 11; the writings of authors like Gunter Grass, which was termed Rubble Literature. These writers tried to make sense out of what had happened, and tried also to build something of their lives in the society in which they were born. We have also been through war. And we are not through yet.

I recently read a remarkable book by the great Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. He said, that, in Mexico, all times are living, all pasts are present. No time in Mexico has yet fulfilled itself. I think the same applies to Aboriginal people and our traditions. At the same time etched in our memories is the history of our 200 year relationship with Australian governments and the state of cross-cultural relationships here today.

Fuentes refers to another Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo, who, in his writings, defended a community of drunken Indians after they had carried a corpse in almost a total state of decomposition, 30 to 40 kilometres across the mountains on their backs. Fuentes proposes the image of the corpse as the plight of the Indians and Mexico: a legacy of being weighted down with neglected civic duty. The Aboriginal people also carry the corpse for this country’s neglected civil duty to our people. We need to talk through our difficulties with each other, to recognise the past, and to build a new future for this country.

I write fiction unless I am asked to write differently, as I was for Grog War (Magabala Books, 1997). This book was written for the Warumungu people of Tennant Creek, through their organisation, Julalikari Council. It is a non-fiction book, but it also contains two chapters of fiction because I was asked not to identify members of the community who have suffered from the consequences of alcohol and the state of cross-cultural relationships in that town.

I write fiction partly because I feel that if I tried to write the real story, I would fail. I think I would be like some people who, in the end, found it so difficult to write anything for Take Power, an anthology I edited recently of stories and essays on twenty years of land rights in Central Australia (Institute for Aboriginal Development Press, 1998). They were not able to find the words.

I set my writing in my own traditional country which is in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This is where I believe I belong and the place that I know best; it is the place that I carry in my heart and learnt from a very early age from my grandmother’s memories. We have very little land rights over our traditional country. The pastoral properties over our traditional domain are owned by a mining company and subleased to the previous owner, an absentee, overseas landlord. The gates to the pastoral properties remain locked. Most of our people have to live outside, most in former reserves and missions. Our language will die soon if we cannot get the last speakers back on traditional country to live in order to teach the children.

The taboos I try to break are this nation’s silence about Aboriginal rights.

Thank you.

Alexis Wright is a writer, researcher and social commentator, widely published in magazines and journals. Her first novel Plains of Promise was published in 1997 to critical acclaim. 1997 also saw the publication of her history Grog War, and an anthology of essays and stories exploring Aboriginal Land Rights in Central Australia, titled Take Power, has just been released. The essay published here is a transcript of a paper Wright delivered at the 1998 Tasmanian Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, where she was part of a panel considering the breaking of taboos.

A response to this essay has been received from Marcia Langton.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]