Authentic and Essential: A review of Anita M Heiss’ Dhuuluu-Yala (To Talk Straight): Publishing Indigenous Literature

by Greg Lehman

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Increasingly, Australia is becoming familiar with Indigenous culture. The mainstream is beginning to collectively recognise the characters that have populated books, television and film over the past fifty years as something more than remote ghosts of the past. Aboriginal people are transforming conceptions of Indigenous identity in Australia by our own effort; breaking away from stereotypes and misunderstandings that have maintained popular perceptions of Aborigines for so long as an amorphous, ill-defined Other.

Much of this transformation from the 1960s to the 90s was achieved through political voice. In Tasmania it was only through a concerted political campaign that we were able to gain acceptance of the continuing existence of Indigenous identity. More recently, in the visual and performing arts and literature, Aboriginal people have increasingly been presented as a culturally diverse assemblage of nations; comprising individuals and families with stories to tell that are rich with struggle, celebration and humanity. Evidenced by the massive bridge walks of that marked the culmination of the Reconciliation Movement, there is arguably a critical mass of cross-cultural understanding in Australia now that is enabling Indigenous narratives to freely emerge – beyond the constraints of what White Australia was once prepared to admit. But the story of how these narratives are able to find voice is less appreciated.

As Marcia Langton1 points out, most Australians know only how to relate to stories about Aborigines. Australians, for several generations, were usually limited to remote and superficial encounters with neatly packaged figures of Aboriginality that, on critical reflection, served principally to symbolise European ignorance. While Hollywood dished up marauding Indians, confused half-breeds and renegade Mexicans as reliable characters in countless Westerns; Australians developed a much better appreciation of the complex figures driving colonial resistance in North America than on their own continent. For most who grew up here, Aborigines were the mysterious bush-dwellers who fed Leichhardt, that were ‘wiped out’ in Tasmania, or at best, characters hinted to possess an unexpected humanity in films such as Walkabout or Jedda. Literature about Aborigines was dominated for decades by half-truths or whitewash, and spoon-fed to Australians – by anthropologists, children’s story-tellers and lamentatious history texts.

Literature by Aborigines was almost unknown. Or so we might think. When Kath Walker’s We are Going was published in 1964, it sold out in three days, selling better than anything since C.J. Dennis’ Moods of Ginger Mick in 1916. So perhaps it is more appropriate to suggest that mainstream Australia knows more about Aboriginal literature than it realises. In 1990 the University of Queensland Press published Paperbark: a Collection of Black Australian Writings. The first anthology of its kind, Paperbark not only reminded Australia what it did know about writers such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Jack Davis, David Uniapon and Sally Morgan, but also introduced some less familiar writers to a wider audience. Paperbark introduced Australians to ‘what’ Indigenous writing could be.

Anita Heiss’ recent publication Dhuuluu-Yala (To Talk Straight): Publishing Indigenous Literature is a highly significant work that offers an intimate and at times painful encounter with the ‘how’ of Indigenous literature. It is an encounter with a much broader range of writers than has been presented before. Her bibliography is probably the most extensive yet published. But what makes Dhuuluu-Yala important is that it tells, for the first time, something of the story of the experience of Indigenous writing: the challenges presented by non-Aboriginal editors and publishers; the difficulties in dealing with Aboriginal publishing houses; the perceptions and expectations around writing for a White audience; the emphasis by mainstream publishing of commercial viability; and the influence of this on their ability to give voice to Aboriginal writers.

Dhuuluu-Yala also poses some profound questions – for readers of Aboriginal literature as well as publishers. How can an Aboriginal author stay true to the demands placed on them by their own community and still satisfy a readership that is predominantly not of that community? Does Aboriginal expression and style constitute a genre or a discourse? How can we criticise Indigenous literature in a comparative sense, when Western values are considered to offer little that is informative in this process? And are Western critical standpoints so irrelevant while Indigenous writers engage so frequently with the impact of imperialism?

Of course, each of these questions will raise further ones in the minds of those with a critical interest in Indigenous literature. And this will be one of the most valuable aspects of the book.Dhuuluu-Yala draws us into a world that is far from Black and White, where there are perhaps more questions than answers. The book is adapted from Heiss’ PhD thesis. It is always a challenge to transform a thesis onto a book. The exploration of hypothesis, the critical analysis of methodology, the assessment of success are easily obscured. The transformation to popular text ‘blurs’ these things – making the book readable, yet often less defined and critical.

For all its strengths, Dhuuluu-Yala is an incomplete survey of Indigenous literature. While many nationally important works are referenced, local publications are missed. While these may not be easily accessed, they are arguably the most raw and naked accounts of Aboriginal experience – with rare and precious locality that lies at the heart of the community experience of its own culture. Dhuuluu-Yala also leaves out many essays, short stories and poems that have appeared in anthologies not constructed primarily of Aboriginal authors, or by Aboriginal editors. Consequently, those who have penetrated the mainstream successfully are missed in an analysis that tends to concentrate on a particular realm of Indigenous literature: that concerned with attesting identity. For me, criticisms of Dhuuluu-Yala are all to do with the issue of categorisation – who is Aboriginal, what is Aboriginal, how is Aboriginal.

The matter of legitimacy of Indigenous voice is one of Heiss’ primary concerns. She points in particular to the problem of uncritical acceptance by publishers and readers of authors that self-identify as Aboriginal. But while it takes some care to canvass a range of opinions from accepted Aboriginal writers about this matter, Dhuuluu-Yala nevertheless stakes out its own clear position on the complex issue of Aboriginality. Not that this is wrong in any way. But to attempt such definition in an arena that is itself so poorly defined – in academic discourse, Commonwealth and state judicial and administrative process, and in the hearts and minds of Aboriginal communities themselves, is to run a serious risk of essentialising amongst issues that intrinsically defy categorisation.

Heiss refers to the issue of authenticity as part of her consideration of the value of appropriate support frameworks for Aboriginal authors, the role of informed and supportive editing and the difficulty experienced by Aboriginal authors in obtaining publishing contracts through ‘mainstream publishing houses’. In her own words, “the issue of authenticity in Aboriginal writing…” relates to “…the role the individual Aboriginal author plays in maintaining his or her credibility.” This takes Heiss directly into an examination of the phenomenon of ‘Black’ writers such as Roberta Sykes and Colin Johnson (Mudrooroo), as well as more flagrant frauds such as that of Leon Carmen. But Dhuuluu-Yala falls short of engaging with the matter of authenticity in a way that would take this work into the territory of a ground-breaking critical text. Instead, Heiss uses the approach of many Indigenist scholars and positions herself in an assertive role, championing the Indigenous voice as an essential figure in the literary landscape.

Heiss defers to a number of powerful and respected Aboriginal authors, including Jackie Huggins, Robert Bropho, Cathy Craigie and others on this, to cement the baseline of her charges about authenticity. Of course she is not alone in attesting an essential discontinuity between ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘non-Aboriginal’. But, for me, the most profound issue to emerge from the diversity of historic, racial and cultural credentials that are presented by – or have been exposed of – writers of Aboriginal voice, is that there does not appear to be any objective demarcation between what is ‘Aboriginal’ and what is ‘non-Aboriginal’.

Heiss points out that Johnson is, according to the testimony of his sisters, Afro-American, rather than Australian Aboriginal; that Roberta Sykes is similarly positioned. That these observations are important, and probably accurate, is not to be disputed. But experience over two decades of Indigenous higher education in Australia has left me with the disturbing conclusion that the formulation of neat notions of ‘authenticity’ usually falls well short of the complex reality of cultural identity. Aboriginal students at the University of Tasmania (and many other institutions) throughout the 1990s used both Johnson’s and Sykes’ books as texts with which to explore their own identity. So, whether we like it or not, the narratives of these two contentious figures have become embedded in the expression of contemporary Aboriginality. That these authors do not have Australian Aboriginal ancestry is a disturbing factor in mapping the ‘how’ of Australian Indigenous identity, and is an even less clear indicator of the ‘what’ of it.

Essentialist analyses of Indigeneity are typically able to discern clearly between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, but have difficulty in accounting for the flux of identity as a social construct. The ‘Blackness’ of Johnson and Sykes proceeds from Indigenous ancestry (ie. African). The error that has been made is in wrongly associating them with Australian Indigeneity. We make judgements based on racial affiliation and the contemporary geographic location of the author. I think these are too arbitrary and limiting for the complex task of analysing literature. These parameters can only reveal part of the story of writing that is presented as Indigenous. Such analyses take account of the Aboriginal descent of ‘White’ writers even less well than they do of the disputed Aboriginality of ‘Black’ ones. If Indigenous voices are to be valued as ‘writing from the fringe’, then we need to position our analysis ‘out there’, wherever the phenomenon occurs.

Historian Henry Reynolds and Uniapon Award-winning Tasmanian writers Rosalie Medcraft and Valda Gee are interesting examples. These authors are presented within the milieu of Indigeneity, but are unusually positioned. While Reynolds, who acknowledges his Aboriginal descent, writes copiously about Aboriginality as a ‘White’, Medcraft and Gee, presented as ‘Black’, write in The Sausage Tree about what it is like to be ‘White’. To make matters more complex, Medcraft and Gee are argued by key Tasmanian Aboriginal organizations to be without ancestry. Heiss misses this and as a result The Sausage Tree is listed as an Indigenous publication, yet the work of Archie Weller, whose descent is similarly contested, is excluded. The situation is complex to say the least! And what of Aboriginal writers who have spent most of their lives without knowledge of their descent? Those who have made a deliberate decision to construct a cultural identity for themselves are surely a different sort of literary figure than those whose cultural identity was forced upon them from birth.

The reality of the Aboriginal experience – especially in areas of Australia that have been most heavily impacted by assimilation – is that people of Aboriginal descent must be concerned with authoring their cultural identity as Aborigines. As a part of this process we soak up all manner of sources that influence the evolving narrative of our identity. These same sources will also influence the hegemonising forces of ‘mainstream’ Australian culture, creating an appetite for a cultural performance that we (all too often) willingly fulfil. This is nowhere more apparent that in the tourism and entertainment industries, where the expression of culture is driven by a gaze that demands a continually refreshed and ever-convincing Otherness.

Heiss’ analysis implies a profound difference between ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘non-Aboriginal’. This difference is often apparent in the political text of our lives. There are the Invaders and the Invaded. The Oppressed and the Oppressors. These differences are written into colonial histories – histories that Aboriginal scholars have privileged via our revisionist discourse over the past thirty years or so. And we position ourselves accordingly. But how distinctly is it to be found in the phenomenal reality of our lives? As Graham Hingangaroa Smith2 often observes, Indigenes live bicultural lives as a matter of necessity. This implies that while we are Black – we are also consummately White. I’m not certain that Dhuuluu-Yala engages with this adequately. It acknowledges, in Chapter Two, the derivative nature of Aboriginality, yet treats difference more as an essential reality rather than a construct. And this is important – as the intrinsic ‘authenticity’ of Aboriginality is a central tenet of its thesis.

I would have no hesitation in listing Heiss’ book as a prescribed text in any course of study that considers Aboriginal literature. But its analysis is incomplete for me, and I would want to counterpoint it with a number of other voices. Cherokee educationalist Thomas Alcoze, who asserts that there is no such thing as a ‘non-Indigenous’ person (that we are all from somewhere), comes immediately to mind. As does Stuart Hall. I am persuaded by Hall’s contention3 that only a non-unified conception of identity allows a proper understanding of the traumatic character of the colonial experience; ‘cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made within the discourses of history and culture… Not an essence but a positioning’

To predicate an analysis of Aboriginal literature on authenticity begs a more sophisticated treatment of what is being understood by the term ‘Aboriginality’ within the text of Dhuuluu-Yala. Otherwise it is likely that readers will simply take away a reinforcement of what Lynette Russell4 would call an ‘homogenised, identity; created as a consequence of the need to establish political resistance, but not necessarily accounting for the diversity of the experience of Aboriginal identity’. If, as Russell argues, Aboriginality is a cultural concept, determined by the processes of socialisation, and not limited by calculations of ‘genetic accounting’, then Heiss locates many Aboriginal voices beyond the fringe.

There are, of course, Aboriginal people who will disagree powerfully with the suggestions of Russell and others who acknowledge the existence of an Aboriginality that is independent of ancestry. This is surely the most challenging and intriguing dimension of ‘Aboriginal’ literature. And one that is marginalised by Heiss’ discussion. Arjun Appadurai5 warned us decades ago of what he called ‘Metonymic freezing’, in which one aspect of non-Western people’s lives comes to epitomise them as a whole. A racial basis to cultural identity is arguably a recent phenomenon in Aboriginal ontologies – owing more to European values and impositions than on the traditions of our ancestors. Yet it has come to define us.

To dismiss Johnson, Sykes and Weller from the body of ‘Aboriginal’ literature is to simplify the phenomenon of Aboriginal writing because Aboriginal writing and writing about Aborigines are often interchangeable and difficult to discern. Both these pursuits occur within the realm of what Marcia Langton calls the ‘inter-subjectivity’ of Aboriginality. For Langton,6who draws on the sociology of Durkheim, ‘Aboriginality arises from the subjective experience of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who engage in any intercultural dialogue’, either through lived or mediated experience. As we continue to unpack our constructions of race and identity over the next few decades, I suspect that I will want to draw more and more on critical analyses that are unconstrained by the simplified language of race that many of us grew up with in the 1960s and 1970s. However, while the Aboriginal voice occurs in a market space of contested cultural property and commodification, concerned with recognition, success and enterprise, self-determination and the struggle for justice; there will continue to be a demand for the distinct cultural boundaries offered by Dhuuluu-Yala.

Heiss attempts to leave the matter of defining Aboriginality open. But it is clear from her language where her heart is. ‘Prominent Australian citizens who are physically ‘Black’ but not indigenous to Australia, are often lumped together by publishers, readers, academics and booksellers, mistakenly or otherwise, with us, Indigenous Australian writers. This response could suggest a lack of responsivity to community discourse on issues of Aboriginality.’ This may be true, but I’m not convinced that ‘community discourse’ is clearly articulated on this matter, especially for those outside of Aboriginal communities. It might also mean that those who are doing the ‘lumping’ are perceiving that boundaries constructed by some within the ‘community discourse’ are based on values and positionings that are and will continue to be in flux.

Heiss provides a well-researched and informative survey of many of the players and challenges in the field of publishing Indigenous literature. And the surveys of Maori and Canadian First Nations literature that are included in this work provide a valuable comparative dimension. Dhuuluu-Yala should be welcomed by teachers and students. It will prove to be surprising and enlightening to many who are unfamiliar with the political and cultural terrain of Aboriginal writing. But for me it underlines the need for companion works that dig deeper into the ‘unstable positioning’ that characterises cultural identity, and unpack further the way we continue to differentiate ourselves, perhaps a little too neatly, as a clearly defined Other presence in Australian literature.

Greg Lehman is a Tasmanian writer descended from the Trawulwuy people.


1. LANGTON, M., 1993; Well, I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television, Australian Film Commission, Sydney.

2. See Hingangaroa Smith, G., 2000; ‘Protecting and Respecting Indigenous Knowledge’, in Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, in Batiste, M., (ed), UBC Press, Vancouver.

3 . HALL, S., ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Jonathan Rutherford (ed). London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990.

4 . RUSSELL, L., 2001; Savage Imaginings: historical and contemporary constructions of Australian Aboriginalities, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.

5. APPADURAI, A., 1988 “Putting hierarchy in its place”, Cultural Anthropology, 3(1) pp36-49.

6. Cited in Russell, pp 74-75.

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