One man’s history is another woman’s lie

A Review of Fabienne Bayet-Charlton’s Finding Ullagundahi Island and Lynette Russell’s A Little Bird Told Me

by Michele Grossman

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While writing this review I have been following a web-based project by Mark Minchinton, a performance studies lecturer at Victoria University in Melbourne, titled ‘Void: Kellerberrin Walking’. Minchinton’s journey, which is both physical (he is engaged in a 6-week walk from Busselton to Perth to Kellerberrin in Western Australia) and figurative (he is trying to discover/recover the story and significance of his Aboriginal heritage), traces the consequences of ‘losing’ an Indigenous heritage within a generation. He remarks in his introduction to the project, ‘Somewhere between Busselton and Kellerberrin, or perhaps before then, my grandmother “lost”, disavowed, or “forgot” her Aboriginal identity.’ 1 Minchinton hopes ‘to be claimed’ by the landscape that connects him to his Aboriginal great-grandfather, though he rejects any notion that he will ‘become’ Aboriginal by doing so.

Minchinton’s desire to be claimed by a particular stretch of land and, by extension, the ancestors to whom that land is linked, inverts the colonial impulse not to be claimed by the land but to lay claim to it. It is early days for Minchinton’s project but its unfolding, if the introduction is anything to judge by, will explore what it means to desire not to own the past (as official histories do) but to be held and welcomed by its meanings, however risky, uninvited or irresolute these may be for those who live in the present.

Like ‘Void: Kellerberrin Walking’, much of the focus in Lynette Russell’s A Little Bird Told Me and Fabienne Bayet-Charlton’s Finding Ullagundahi Island is on the past, on the encounter with its truths, secrets, and lies and its implacable yet tenuous connection to the present. Yet while Russell and Bayet-Charlton each cover a lot of physical ground in their respective efforts to locate an Indigenous past partially submerged and distorted by both private individuals and public institutions, at another level these journeys are circumscribed not by earth but by paper: archives, documents, letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings, lists, files and records. And beyond the house of paper in which each author finds, or fails to find, the ‘truth’ of her family’s past lie other stories and knowledges never committed to paper but spoken, sung and often silenced.

In this sense, the textual account each writer provides of her search functions as a kind of counter-archive to the histories stored, circulated and maintained within the archives of both the family and the state. Bayet-Charlton and Russell each problematise the idea that we can ever know the Aboriginal past through its documentary record; time and again each text reveals the extent to which institutional or ‘scientific’ accounts of Aboriginal lives distort or occlude the realities of those they purport to represent and constrain within the archive of colonial knowledge. Yet both writers also acknowledge the importance of documentary records in enabling them to piece together various fragments of their family histories in ways that resist and transcend the institutional imperatives that motivated their original inscription.

Lynette Russell’s beautifully written narrative deals with the painstaking discovery of her great-grandmother Emily’s Aboriginal identity, and explores the risks and rewards associated with uncovering family ‘truths’ about the past that generations of women and men have colluded in keeping hidden from view. Russell is an historian and academic, and in A Little Bird Told Me she explicitly sets out to provide ‘an exploration and celebration of what it means to be an Australian who descends from both sides of the frontier’ [17], a frontier defined for Russell not only by the ambiguities of race and gender but also by those of intellectual distance and personal empathy.

Intrigued and disturbed by her grandmother’s varying utterances about her own maternal heritage – Emily is variously figured by Russell’s Nana as a ‘Polynesian princess’ and a ‘gypsy’ – Russell begins to research the history of ‘passing’ for white that marked the experience of at least two preceding generations in her family. With compassion and insight, Russell shows how the politics of ‘passing’ were predicated upon the loss of community that is vital for social and cultural identification as an Indigenous person to be sustained. At the same time, however, Russell emphasizes the Realpolitik of passing as a means of keeping families together to avoid the theft of children by welfare agencies, churches and the state. The irony of Emily’s life is that in choosing what Russell sees as the ‘necessary lie’ of ‘passing’ in order to protect her family from harm, she damages that family’s ability to know and celebrate its own history and antecedents, an experience Russell acknowledges has been shared by many others under the long reach of the colonial gaze.

In finding Emily, Russell finds too the ‘other’ secret that her family has conspired to keep hidden, that of Emily’s ‘madness’. The most challenging aspect of A Little Bird Told Me is Russell’s clear-eyed effort to work through the ways in which her great-grandmother’s Aboriginality and mental illness were variously constructed by the policies, politics and practices of early twentieth-century Australia, and the extent to which Emily’s illness may have been caused by the repression of her own Aboriginality. Russell questions whether Emily was indeed ‘mad’ or merely interpreted to be so by a society that could not accommodate the voices that spoke to Emily except as a pathology, speculating that if Emily ‘had been born only a generation or two earlier, before her family was dispossessed of their heritage, her spirits would not have been classified as “voices” or “auditory hallucinations”. She would have been venerated as a clever woman’ [137].

Emily’s daughter, Russell’s Nana, was able to approach the subject of her mother’s madness and its impact on Emily’s husband and children only obliquely, through euphemism and denial. In seeking to recover and record the history of Emily’s incarceration in both the Royal Park facility for mental patients in Melbourne and the Sunbury Lunatic Asylum to the west of the city at various points between 1925 and 1941, Russell is painfully aware of the extent to which her own need to know functions as a countermand to her grandmother’s imperative not to know, or to create alternative realities predicated on repression and fantasy. Russell’s main challenge in A Little Bird Told Me is how to tell a story that does not want to be told, and consequently how to relate a narrative of women’s resistance – Emily’s, Nana’s, Russell’s – that is simultaneously a story highly resistant to being narrativised at all. In a sense, Russell’s own text resists the resistance demonstrated by her grandmother to the truths of Emily’s life; in contradistinction to Nana, Russell insists on listening to the songs sung by Emily when language proved inadequate to the task of maintaining her integrity as an individual who was by turns spoken over, ignored or denied. Yet Russell does not fall into the trap of denying Nana’s truths in her efforts to restore those of Emily, and it is this commitment to the imperatives of multiple truths, what one might call the ethics of Russell’s listening self as well as her writing one, that finally makes A Little Bird Told Me so valuable. The multiple, intersecting truths of Aboriginal and European heritage, history and identity in A Little Bird Told Me become a metaphor for the multiple truths of the nation, and the risks and possibilities of engaging with those of its stories as yet unsung and unheard.

Both A Little Bird Told Me and Finding Ullagundahi Island are characterized at many points by hidden lines of contact and flight. In Russell’s text, these hidden lines are frequently electric, as the deceptively orderly grid of historical and archival research sparks with the random, uncanny charge of possibilities half-glimpsed and connections half-discerned in the gloom of retrospection.

In Bayet-Charlton’s work, the same hidden lines are more sinuous, less nervy, perhaps because Bayet-Charlton is seeking to trace the specificity of her Aboriginal family history rather than, as Russell does, its possibility. In Finding Ullagundahi Island one encounters not power lines but trees, an ‘enormous family that branched from the strong, sturdy trunk of Nana. Only nobody really knew how far it stretched, how it covered just about half the continent and was fixed deep into the earth’ [73]. Penetrating the soil as well as extending toward the sky, the partially submerged nature of her grandmother’s family tree becomes a controlling metaphor for the way in which Bayet-Charlton’s narrative partially submerges its own status as and interest in the ‘truth-claims’ of memoir, toying productively with key concepts of authenticity, narrative and textuality in the process.

Essentially a ficto-memoir that both remembers and invents, Finding Ullagundahi Island is by turns a moving, droll, acerbic account of Bayet-Charlton’s journey toward the double centre of gravity in her family history: her grandmother, Mabel Louise Fre, and Ullagundahi Island, one of over three hundred islands in the middle of the Clarenc River near Grafton, New South Wales. Framed as an extended letter to her own daughter, Ashlyn-May, Bayet-Charlton employs a range of narrative strategies, some avowedly postmodern, to trace the struggle she encounters in her efforts to locate the island of Mabel Freeburn’s childhood and effect a form of homecoming for herself and her daughter: ‘We’ve all wanted to know for years where we really come from. We all want to know why, after being born in New South Wales.we have ended up in the middle of Australia, the desert, Coober Pedy’ [12]. Bayet-Charlton, true to her sense of herself as ‘a door between two rooms, a fence dividing two pieces of land, two countries, two universes’ [148], provides varying answers to these questions, contrasting the abundance and clarity of the creation stories in sections titled ‘Clay’, ‘In the Beginning.’ and ‘Yams’ with the flatness and invisibility of her family’s past as retrieved from libraries, councils, town halls, research theses and history books. In one memorable passage, Bayet-Charlton writes of the internal island she inhabits when confronted by this void:

Within the largest collection of Aboriginal-related material in the southern hemisphere, no, in the world, I am marooned. The white anthropologist who collected the material of my family, of my ancestors, has greater right of access than I do. It is his work. It is his information. I am dispossessed of it. Another gate has been locked. I wonder how many other people have come into this great institute, this wonderful cornucopia of information, and gone away empty-handed. [157]

Having initially approached her task of finding her grandparents’ community as ‘I had been taught. Like a good little history a good little Aborigine’ [153], Bayet-Charlton comes to realize that ‘definitive history does not fit on a computer because history never stops. And one man’s history is another woman’s lie ‘ [116]. In many ways, Finding Ullagundahi Island is a sustained challenge to the idea that any truth can survive its institutionalization. Her experience as a parliamentary researcher in Canberra teaches her that ‘the tales [told in Parliament House] are darker and more complex than those imagined yet defy truth. It is up to you to decide whether this one is real. It might be. It might not.’ [137]; her stint as a university researcher proves that appearance is everything and substance of little value; her independent research into her family at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, in the local library at Grafton and through the ‘viciously detailed’ work of the anthropologist Norman Tindale demonstrates painfully that ‘in many ways, within and beyond Ullagundahi Island, Mabel Louise Freeburn simply did not exist’ [188].

Accordingly, she begins ‘thinking of other ways to go home. I’m thinking, there must be other ways I can try’. [137] Finding Ullagundahi Island is an account of that alternative search, and Bayet-Charlton is skilled at balancing the predominant lyricism of her prose style with the disarming personal candour and sharp critique that punctuate her ultimate connection with the Island that by turns nurtured and failed her grandparents’ generation, making of it:

not a sanctuary, it is where they put them, it is a prison, in the margins, on the fringes. They put these people on fragments of land suspended by water. Refugee camps in the middle of the river. Refugee camps for those dispossessed. Are we dispossessed? Who really belongs here? [210]

Like Russell, Bayet-Charlton has reservations about the status of any narrative’s claims to universal truth, including her own, remarking at one point, ‘There is, of course, plenty for me to say and do but I’d be strung up and slaughtered as a mad woman. [.] Don’t take my word for it. You can never trust an Aboriginal woman’s word anyway. It’s best just to keep some things to yourself. Secret.’ [144] Her mocking reminder of the racist, misogynist construction of both women and Aborigines as inherently untruthful and untrustworthy is characteristic of the way in which Finding Ullagundahi Island does not allow its readers to sink into the comfort zone offered by more anodyne tales of family quest narratives that resolve (and dissolve) into the soothing fiction of reconciliation with the past. Taken together, A Little Bird Told Me and Finding Ullagundahi Island engage in confronting and vivid ways with the politics and ethics of secrets and lies, as they negotiate new understandings of public histories, private fictions and contested truths in the context of Aboriginal women’s lives lived otherwise.

Fabienne Bayet-Charlton’s Finding Ullagundahi Island and Lynette Russell’s A Little Bird Told Me were both published by Allen & Unwin in 2002.

Michele Grossman is senior lecturer and chair of graduate studies in the Faculty of Arts at Victoria University in Melbourne, where she teaches literary studies and professional writing. Her most recent book is as coordinating editor of Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians, Melbourne University Press, 2003. Her work on Indigenous Australian writing, representation and culture has appeared in a range of journals and edited collections.

1. Mark Minchinton, ‘Void: Kellerberrin Walking’,, accessed 22/9/03.


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