When they write what we read:1 Unsettling Indigenous Australian life-writing

by Michele Grossman

© all rights reserved

Indigenous Australian writing has, since its emergence, been both constituted by and resistant to paradigms of Western, literacy-based formations of knowledge and representation.  Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been written into the historical and cultural record of the West since the initial encounters between settlers and indigenous peoples in post-contact Australia; as with other Indigenous peoples across the globe, this process has been ‘inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism’ (Smith 1999: 1). The record is an exceedingly dense one. Documentary representations (literary and visual) of Aboriginal peoples in what is now Australia appear as early as 1606 (Mulvaney 1990: 1-45) and persist over centuries in the diaries, letters, log books, court records, memoirs, fictions and reports of colonial administrators, missionaries, travellers, explorers, squatters, policemen, ethnographers and anthropologists.

In this regard, one might say that for Aboriginal people in Australia, as elsewhere, the colonial introduction of writing and textuality was not innocent, neutral or ‘natural’, but was in the first instance something that happened to them: that is, literacy may be understood both politically and culturally as an event as well as a structure (Wolfe 1999: 2). Arriving on Australian shores as a key element of imperial domination, the event of literacy radically interrupts and disrupts – but never eliminates – pre-existing Aboriginal epistemologies by displacing and disenfranchising Aboriginal ways of viewing and being in the world, and by introducing new ways of organising meaning and knowledge that would subsequently be taken up in varying ways and degrees by Aboriginal peoples themselves.  The historical introduction of writing to Aboriginal societies is thus a form of what Gayatri Spivak terms “epistemic violence” (1988), insinuating an invasive order of knowledge, classification and value that attempts to transform Aboriginal consciousness both through suppressing and marginalising its previously analphabète systems of meaning and by re-shaping the ways in which Aboriginal peoples come to know and relate to themselves, to each other and to settler colonialism.

Writing is also something that happensto Aboriginal peoples under colonialism because in the first instance they are written about, in a way first made famous by Roland Barthes in his formulation of “gossip” and later extended by Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989: 67).  Barthes describes “gossip” as a mode of dialogue in which “we are speaking together about others” outside of their presence or participation in the conversation, a “delocution” that “reduces the other to he/she” and, via the use of the “wicked pronoun” of the third-person, “absents” and “annuls” those of whom one speaks (1982: 428-430). The ways in which early writing about Aboriginal peoples constitutes a form of colonial “gossip”, voiding their status as subjects and proposing them as merely and pre-eminently objects of imperial rhetoric and fascination, has been described by the Aboriginal scholar Mick Dodson. He writes:

Since first contact with the colonisers of this country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been the object(s) of a continual flow of commentary and classification … since their first intrusive gaze, colonising cultures have had a preoccupation with observing, analysing, studying, classifying and labelling Aborigines and Aboriginality.  Under that gaze, Aboriginality changed from being a daily practice to being “a problem to be solved”. (Dodson 1994: 2)

Gayatri Spivak sees this process as one of “worlding”; that is, how textuality has been used as part of the broader project of imposing the universalising “world” view of imperialist expansion and conquest upon “supposedly uninscribed territory”, hailing Indigenous peoples and cultures onto the global stage in forms that assume their invisibility and absence independent of imperial epistemological frameworks (1990: 1).  Marcia Langton puts it another way: “[t]he citizens of the imaginary White continent speak of Aborigines in the past tense, as if they can wish us to death” (2003: 83).

Aboriginal relationships with, and uses of, writing and literacy-based modes of thought and communication have thus always been compelled to intervene in, and engage with, a dense web of representations of Aboriginal peoples originating in the colonial period and persisting into the present,2 even as Indigenous Australians have steadily produced written and other representations as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves.3

The discussion above is not intended to create the impression, however, that writing and literacy are merely or even primarily tainted fruits of the imperial tree for Indigenous peoples, either in Australia or elsewhere. Such a stance would deny the historical reality of how Indigenous peoples have interacted with, taken up and made their own systems of writing and literacy-based forms of knowledge- and world-building, which have long since ceased to be the exclusive province of “white” Western cultures and have proved critically important to various emancipatory cultural and aesthetic projects of the colonised.4 The project of Indigenous writing and representation is seen by many Indigenous scholars as crucial and ongoing in order to maintain and strengthen cultural identities, meanings and histories,5 and the risks this involves are seen as counterbalanced by the imperative to assert agency and control over the fields of representation that govern understandings of Aboriginal life and experience.  As Mick Dodson states,

In making our self-representations public, we are aware that our different voices may be heard once again only in the language of the alien tongue.  We are aware that we risk their appropriation and abuse, and the danger that a selection of our representations will be to once again fix Aboriginality in absolute and inflexible terms. … However, without our own voices, Aboriginality will continue to be a creation for and about us.  This is all the more reason to insist that we have control over both the form and content of representations of our Aboriginalities.  All the more reason that the voices speak our languages [and] resist translation into the languages and categories of the dominant culture. (Dodson 1994: 39)

The history of Indigenous textual intervention stretches back to the earliest reaches of colonial history in Australia, as Ian Anderson, Mudrooroo and Penny van Toorn have respectively argued.  Mudrooroo locates the earliest known example of Aboriginal writing in the form of a “handwritten journal” titled The Flinders Island (Weekly) Chronicle produced in 1837 by Walter George Arthur, Peter Bruny and David Bruny, all Tasmanian Aborigines (Narogin 1990: 18).  The journal, which had as its mission the promotion of “Christianity, civilisation and learning amongst the Aboriginal inhabitants”, was published weekly and submitted to George Augustus Robinson, the superintendent of the Flinders Island station to which these men and many other Tasmanian Aboriginal people were relocated, for “correction before publishing” (Narogin 1990: 19). (Robinson became “Chief Protector of Aborigines” at Port Phillip on the mainland in 1839.)  Presumably because of his particular focus on Indigenous literature as a vehicle of protest and resistance, the next piece of writing cited in Mudrooroo’s chronology of Aboriginal textual production is a “petition written to the Aboriginal Protection Board in Victoria” by a Koori man, Thomas Dunnolly, to protest poor living conditions in the early 1880s at the Aboriginal mission at Coranderrk near Melbourne (Narogin 1990: 19).  Although no further details about this particular petition are provided in Mudrooroo’s account, he remarks that other Aboriginal-authored petitions and letters of protest from Coranderrk were in circulation around the same time and became the focus of official police inquiries into forgery in 1882 because “the Aboriginal Protection Board [of Victoria] refused to believe that Aborigines were capable of using the pen” (Narogin 1990: 19).

Van Toorn, who has conducted significant research on colonial and pre-twentieth-century Indigenous Australian textual interventions, goes further back in time and makes a case for tracing the earliest instances of Aboriginal writing to “collaborative” activities of dictation and translation assistance between Aboriginal people, missionaries and colonial administrators beginning in the mid-1790s, a scant twenty years after the arrival of Captain Cook (2000: 320).  Citing a 1796 letter from Bennelong to Lord Sydney’s steward, van Toorn argues that while such early examples of Aboriginal writing have been mined for their historical or linguistic significance by some contemporary scholars, there has been “silence” on the part of literary scholarship regarding the use by Aboriginal people of:

a broad range of written and printed textual forms including letters, poems, essays, pamphlets, newsletters, newspaper articles, petitions, manifestos, speeches, interviews, anecdotes and traditional stories. (1996: 754-765)

This has in turn produced a gap in the record of common understandings of the emergence of Indigenous Australian writing prior to that of the Ngarrindjeri writer David Unaipon (beginning in 1927), despite the willingness of scholars beyond literary studies to acknowledge the long history of Indigenous Australian textual production.

Similarly, Ian Anderson cites an 1847 petition by Tasmanian Aborigines presented to Queen Victoria’s Secretary to the Colonies as an example of how “the written text has been employed by Indigenous Australians as a mode of political and cultural self-representation from quite early in colonial history—it is not a new phenomenon” (2003: 17).6  For Anderson, the signal postcolonial phrase “the empire writes back” should thus “more accurately read, ‘The empire has already written back'” (2003: 18). Nevertheless, the contemporary historical evidence documented by these scholars, the media historian Michael Rose (1996), and others apparently did little to dislodge the discursive colonial construction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a culture profoundly without writing or literacy (as the 1882 suspicions of the Aboriginal Protection Board of Victoria cited above confirm), despite the formal establishment of literacy-based education programs and schools for Aboriginal children in New South Wales, for example, as early as 1815 (Van Toorn 2000: 320).

In his Textual Spaces, an extended theoretical consideration of Aboriginal and cross-cultural understandings and practices of the written, spoken and performed word, Stephen Muecke argues:

There were different forms of writing in colonial Australia, Aboriginal versus European, and … these forms of writing were competing for the major resource, the land.  In terms of … semiotic systems the Aboriginal one was divided into at least two parallel semiotic systems: meanings as encoded in spoken language, and meanings as pictured in designs (carvings in wood or stone, sand paintings, body markings and so on).  The Europeans used a form of writing – the alphabet – that represented the sounds of the spoken language. (Muecke 1992: 6-7)

Muecke goes on to assert that the European commitment to a single system of notation – alphabetic writing – blinded colonists to the extent or significance of pre-existing, non-alphabetic Aboriginal systems of inscription and representation.  The result was the pervasive supplanting of the “non-representational” modes of knowledge evinced by Aboriginal design- or pictorial-based inscription by the phonetically-based representational code of alphabetic writing.  “The consequence of this”, writes Muecke, “for those who cannot make meaning in this new way is that they ‘die’ (become unrepresentable)” (1992: 10). The literary project of the colony (and later the nation) thus becomes a “literature of the living” that is quickly incorporated into regimes of commodification and commerce that exclude what cannot be contained within the consumable artefacts of print culture.  Within this discursive economy, the mode of representation determines the content of what is deemed representable and what lies outside the borders of representation; the ability to write in literacy-based forms slides into the ability to be, or become, writable.  But to be “analphabète“, the French term for “not having the alphabet”, says Muecke, is to be beyond the pale.  Critics such as Mudrooroo (1990) have argued vigorously, although for me unpersuasively (because reductively and essentialisingly), that orality is a constitutive feature of Aboriginal identity, and that writing is in many respects a diminution of that identity, grounded in a disfiguring history of assimilationist ideology, despite its efficacy as a strategic tool of resistance to and subversion of the history and present of colonially-inspired representations of Aboriginality. Yet this position continues to oversimplify radically the challenges posed by Indigenous textuality to the frontierist divide posited between “orality” and “literacy” in Indigenous Australian writing, which I have extensively critiqued elsewhere (Grossman 2004: 133-147; 2005: 277-302; 2001: 148-160; 2006; 2006).

Arguments that seek to establish “orality” as the constitutive feature of “authentic” or “inherent” Aboriginal identity are problematic not merely for these reasons alone. They also homogenise and unify a construct of  “Aboriginal culture”, past and present, in ways that do not accurately reflect the uneven histories of the distribution of colonial or contemporary literacy programs, Indigenous interests in literacy and bi-cultural learning programs, the historical suppression and marginalisation of Indigenous languages, and the survival, maintenance and in some cases renewal7 of Indigenous analphabetic systems of epistemology and communication across diverse regions of Australia since colonisation. As importantly, they fail to attribute to Indigenous Australian people, across a wide and diverse range of cultural and political communities and settings, the agency that governs their ability to invent and manage their own identities, stories, representation and destinies.

A key site in which to examine these issues is the domain of Indigenous Australian life-writing.  It should go without saying that Indigenous Australian writing in the sphere of published works spans all genres and forms of contemporary textuality, including scholarly research and criticism, journalism, poetry, film and radio scriptwriting, technical reports, novels, history, biography, electronic and documentary writing, to name only a few. Why, then, focus on Indigenous Australian life-writing?

First, life-writing has proved a particularly attractive genre for Indigenous Australians wishing to re-vision and re-write historical accounts of invasion, settlement and cross-cultural relationships from individual, family and community-based Indigenous Australian memories, perspectives and experiences. In so doing, life-writing has constituted a dynamic form of historical intervention that both revises colonial historical narratives and also challenges, in its articulations as “history from below”, the generic paradigms in which such histories may be inscribed and represented, and by whom.  Although there have emerged dominant cultural narratives of “Aboriginal life-writing”, establishing key texts, key subject positions and key sites of articulation that are susceptible to contestation (Grossman 1998: 169-188; Heiss 2001; Brewster 1995; Mudrooroo, 1997), the range of texts that may be defined under the banner of “life-writing” is instructively diverse, spanning and collocating genres including both conventional and experimental auto/biography, oral history, testimonial writing, ficto-memoir, biography, essays, and auto-ethnography.

Second, its expansion of and at times resistance to conventional strategies of textual organisation and conventional codes of textual valency has proved hospitable to authors, and sometimes editors, who wish to allow modalities of oral and written composition to co-exist within the text. Life-writing arises in part from the conjuncture of mainstream cultural and critical discontents with the strictures of traditional Western autobiographical forms, and in part from the insistence of “minority” writers since the 1970s that the cultural specificities of their voices, knowledges, histories and modes of telling and representing remain both visible and active in texts concerned primarily with relating historical or auto/biographical narratives. Accordingly, for the producers of life-writing texts in cultures that have both a long history of living oral traditions and also a history of involvement in and commitment to European cultures of literacy and print, the cultural status of life-writing as a genre more willing to engage with representational métissage across cultural and language traditions and communities than conventional literary Western paradigms has offered new opportunities for adapting the published text to the concerns and contributions of those whom such paradigms formerly excluded or marginalised, particularly at the levels of “speaking” and “writing”.

Yet critically expanded perspectives on the life-writing genre, developed over the last thirty years, remain continue to be troubled by how and whether we can read retrospectively, as it were, Indigenous texts that we may now wish to position as instances of Indigenous “life-writing” but which were produced under a set of very different possibilities, conditions and codifications concerning Indigenous texts, their valencies and their meanings.  Moreover, recent criticism of Indigenous autobiography (I am thinking here particularly of Tim Rowse’s 2004 “Indigenous Autobiography in Australia and the United States” (2004)) has attempted to corral and limit definitionally – in Rowse’s case by resort to the highly contestable construct of “canonicity” – the expansive and elastic generic economy of life-writing inaugurated by the work of John Beverley (1992), Caren Kaplan (1992), Marlene Kadar (1992), Carole Boyce Davies (1992) and others.  In his excursion into comparative Indigenous autobiographical writing, Rowse relies heavily on monograph-length critical studies, anthologies of Indigenous narratives and on book-length Indigenous autobiographies to construct the field into which he critically intervenes.  This is explicitly at odds with the emphasis in much contemporary critical analysis of life-writing, which has tended to focus, as I indicate above, on the fragmentary, occasional, episodic and ephemeral as well as more standard genres of representing the auto/biographical impulse. My purpose here is not to argue about who is included or excluded in Rowse’s inferred “canon” of Indigenous Australian writers (however problematic this list may be), but it is to question the premise and the politics of exclusion that animate his approach, and to ask what might be occluded by way of critical and historical understandings of Indigenous writing and representation in the realm of life-writing as a consequence, if we are to engage with such texts as “powerful correctives to Australian forgetfulness” (Rowse 2004).  What is to be gained or lost from these renewed efforts to discipline the Indigenous life-writing text at the level of genre?

“The Settlement lies”: Disciplining the (Aboriginal) text

At the beginning of 1930, a young Aboriginal woman named Gladys Gilligan forwarded a written composition entitled “The Settlement”8 to A. O. Neville, “Chief Protector of Aborigines” in Western Australia and senior administrator of Aboriginal affairs in that state from 1915 to 1940.  The “Settlement” in question was the Moore River Native Settlement at Mogumber, established by Neville in 1918 and “home” to hundreds of Aboriginal children until its closure in 1951. Along with more than 60 other government settlements and missions that operated between 1842 and 1965, Moore River Native Settlement was a key player in the institutionalised removal and separation of Aboriginal children from their families and their enforced assimilation under Western Australia’s Aborigines Act 1905,9policies from which it is estimated “‘not one’ Aboriginal family in the state … escaped the effects” (Haebich 2000: 228).10

The Moore River Native Settlement, like that of nearby Carrolup in its first incarnation (1915–1922), was run according to principles that Haebich characterises as the “hallmarks of [Neville’s] administration – economy, efficiency and control” (2004: 260).  The settlements were funded on a “shoestring budget”; living conditions, bleak from their inception, resembled internment camps, with children living “in dormitories in a compound supervised by white staff,” and exposed, particularly at Carrolup, to disease, limited rations and regimes of excessive physical labour (Haebich 2004: 260-61). By 1934, according to Haebich, the “Moseley Royal Commission described the [Moore River] settlement as a “woeful spectacle”: the buildings were overcrowded and vermin-ridden, the children’s diet lacked fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk and their health had been seriously affected.  The Commissioner concluded that in its present condition Moore River had “‘no hope of success’ in its work with the children” (2004: 262).

As the research of a number of historians and anthropologists has demonstrated,11 government policies throughout the assimilation era were enforced through an interlocking matrix of institutional, welfare and legislative schemes.  One of Neville’s contributions to the state’s management of Indigenous peoples in Western Australia was the Native Settlement Scheme, a program of  “social engineering and segregation intended principally for Aborigines of mixed descent” (Haebich 2000: 259) that echoed earlier schemes devised by colonial administrators in other parts of Australia to rescue Aboriginal “savages” from desuetude and rehabilitate them as industrious subjects of Empire.

Nominally, a key element of this project was the role played by education in order to transform, in Levi-Strauss’s terms, “la pensée sauvage” into “la pensée domestiquée” (1966).But the localised and decentralised nature of educational programs and opportunities for Indigenous children, many of which were run by an assortment of missions and churches and overseen by state governments with varying philosophies and practices of Indigenous welfare in general, virtually guaranteed that educational programs for Aboriginal children would be inconsistent at best.  In a comment published in a local Western Australian newspaper in 1922, Phillip Morrison, a Nyungar man, observed of the Moore River Native Settlement:

I see little boys and girls humpin’ sugar bags full of gravel for long distances from the pits to the camp to make footpaths, instead of bein’ at school. … We can’t let our children [from the Katanning district] go there for schoolin’.  Too far to go – anyhow only teach them to carry gravel and wood. (qtd in Haebich 2000: 261-262)12

Morrison’s remarks here leave little room for doubt about the subordination of education – which in any case merely reprised the “three Rs” at Moore River, rather than following Western Australia’s general state school curriculum – to the imperatives of disciplining Aboriginal schoolchildren through labour and “training” in preparation for lives to be spent in domestic service (girls) or as stockmen and labourers on pastoral stations (boys).13  Despite this, one of the most frequently cited justifications for removing children – particularly those deemed “half-caste” in the eugenicist nomenclature of the time – from their families and relocating them to settlements like Moore River was the need to provide schooling for Aboriginal children, as attested by the recollections of many former inmates in Susan Maushart’s Sort of a Place Like Home: The Moore River Native Settlement (1993: 22-41). Christine Walton comments of such imperatives:

Historically, minority education has provided a litmus test of prevailing ideologies. … Early theories have relied on presumed genetic differences.  At the turn of the century Social Darwinism, colonialism, and genetic explanations of educational outcomes interlocked to create a climate in which certain distinctive cultural and linguistic groups (those being colonised or invaded) were educationally isolated and the device of schooling functioned to destroy their culture and language.  There can be no question about the overt racism of this culturally genocidal phase of Australian history.  Education in general and the related area of language policy were integral components of colonial policy. (1993: 57)

Gladys Gilligan’s sojourn at Moore River guaranteed her involvement in schemes designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of rehabilitating Aboriginal “natives” through pedagogy and discipline.  According to Gladys Gilligan’s cover-note to Neville (Maushart 1993: 13), the set-piece she wrote had been solicited by the Chief Protector during an earlier visit to Moore River. Gladys Gilligan had lived and worked at Moore River Native Settlement since 1921, after being taken at age seven from her home at Moola Bulla, a government-managed Aboriginal cattle station located in the East Kimberley region. “The Settlement” was composed when she was 16 or 17 years old, and had already provided “years of unpaid service as a pupil teacher at the settlement school” (Maushart 1993: 271-272). The essay produced by this “graceful, well-spoken prodigy” would have been intended, at least by Neville, to serve as “a charming advertisement of what the settlement system was capable of accomplishing” (Maushart 1993: 271-272), much as Gladys herself served when she was “displayed with pride to white visitors” to Moore River (Maushart 1993: 271).

To read “The Settlement” against the background I have outlined above is to enter a realm of contradictory and elusive textual motives and motifs. The settlement condemned by the Moseley Royal Commission as a “woeful spectacle” four years after Gladys Gilligan composed her text is described by her thus:  “The settlement lies on the bank of a river called the Moore River, the hills surrounding it making it look quite a pleasant little home”, neat, tidy, ordered and bucolic, with “a patch of young pines of one year’s growth, which are all growing rapidly”.

There is no mention of vermin, overcrowding, or poor health amongst the children.  In fact, the daily regimen described by Gladys Gilligan is punctuated by interludes of wholesome play and leisure, including cubbyhouses, fishing, swimming, and mushroom picking, interspersed with hair combing, sewing for girls, arithmetic and the Lord’s Prayer at tea-time. The children are collectively described as “skipping”, “chattering”, and “scampering”; they are obedient and know how to “stand quite still”, “form…straight lines” and “march into their places quietly” when cued by the bells that ring at various points in the day.  The children are “seen to” by Matron and by Nurse, and they are said to appreciate:

the goodness of the government and Chief Protector in providing food and clothing, and are thankful for the kindness of the Matron and the Superintendent and Staff for the good work they have done for them, particularly the teacher who has taught them to read and write which is the most important thing to know. (Maushart 1993: 21)

There are no sugar bags full of gravel, no labouring to make footpaths in Gladys Gilligan’s portrayal of “The Settlement”.  The entire composition is testament, on its face, to the “good works” of “Superintendent and Staff” on behalf of these children, who are spared the suffering of “some of our colour who are still uncivilised [and] are being cruelly treated by some of the bad white people.”

There are, however, the bells.  Bells ring constantly in “The Settlement”, a minimum of nine times a day, excluding awakening and breakfast.  In a narrative that is opaque when it comes to details about some things – there are no specifics given about what kind of food is served up at mealtimes, for instance, although each daily meal is mentioned – the bells and their ringing come in for a good deal of attention in Gladys Gilligan”s brief composition. “At 8:30 the sewing bell rings and the girls go down to the workroom immediately they hear it ring”, “then at nine the school bell rings”, “then the school bell rings again at eleven”, and when:

the dinner is ready at twelve … the bell is rung three times, to make sure everybody hears. The first bell rings when the dinner is being given out, when the second bell rings everybody comes to the dining room.  When the third bell rings everyone goes in and stands quite still until the Nurse who’s on duty comes in.  Grace is said, and they sit down and have dinner. … The same is done at teatime… (Maushart 1993: 18-19)

As Bain Attwood argues in The Making of the Aborigines, the imperial project of reshaping the “minds and hearts” of Australia’s indigenous peoples and “making them anew”, in order to transform indigeneity where it could not be suppressed or extinguished, has been an ongoing process since European invasion (Attwood 1989: 1).14 Gladys Gilligan’s anodyne narrative both arises from and directly addresses the second of these colonising impulses, and on one level “The Settlement” can be read as evidence (both in its content and in the grounds of its articulation) of the extent to which the colonial projects of rehabilitating “the native” (through education, labour and religion) and subduing her (through institutionalisation and incarceration) were made manifest in the daily lives of Indigenous people.  Certainly, Gladys Gilligan’s text rehearses the (only partially successful) interpellation of Aborigines as docile imperial subjects forged in the crucible of intersecting regimes of hygiene, education, social propaganda and vocational training.  In this sense, “The Settlement” resembles similar efforts by countless Aboriginal children and adults to “produce, in prose”, as Tim Rowse says of an early composition by Ruby Langford Ginibi, “the aspirations of a model client of the Aboriginal welfare bureaucracy” (1993: 86).  It also appears to resonate with the ways in which the dominant culture, “through its construction of the minority subject”, can “elicit the individual’s own help in his/her oppression,” as Abdul JanMohamed has observed (1987: 246-47).

Yet if “The Settlement” rehearses these discourses, it also potentially resists them.  From the opening sentence, the text makes it possible to contemplate the fissure between how things appear to outsiders and how they are, or are experienced, by insiders at Moore River:

The Settlement lies on the bank of a river which is called the Moore River, the hills surrounding it making it look quite a pleasant little home [emphasis added].

Within the stifling strictures of the set-piece (that drearily familiar model of school composition set for generations of pupils in England and the colonies to demonstrate their “good learning” and progress in letters), it is possible to read this as a subtle but defiant subterfuge that, like the careful lingering over the regimentation of the bells, speaks poignantly to the possibility of Gladys Gilligan’s struggle to say what she could about life at Moore River while avoiding censure, punishment or humiliation.  It also speaks to the complexities of how Gladys Gilligan may understand and negotiate her own subject position as an Aboriginal person both ontologically and textually, as the slippage between “they” and “our” indicates (“they sit down and have dinner”, “some of our colour” [emphasis added]).

This is an interpretive response to “The Settlement” that will seek to look further at the textual negotiations between oppression and resistance, agency and hegemony as these are manifest in writing produced by subjects who are simultaneously constrained by, collude with and resist the textual codes of a dominant cultural order. But any reading of Gladys Gilligan”s composition, no matter whether or how one privileges it with respect to hegemony, resistance, collusion, domination, agency, subjectivity or truth-effects, will inevitably have to confront (even if only to critique or defy) what Jacques Derrida calls the “law of genre” (1980: 203-24): is it, or can it be read as, an instance – even a fragmentary one – of Indigenous Australian autobiographical writing?

My reading of ‘The Settlement’ intentionally troubles the way in which it might be taken up by a variety of critical approaches commonly brought to bear in thinking about and interpreting Australian Indigenous life-writing.  As I note above, a number of theoretical perspectives, which have widened the field of autobiographical representation over the last several decades to include a range of inscriptive practices, including diaries, letters, archival material, and other forms of writing, would have less difficulty in reading this work as one kind of life-writing.  While the piece functions superficially as textual confirmation of the assimiliationist imperative – that is, that the task of suppressing and excising all traces of “Aboriginality” and transforming Aborigines into “white” citizens of the nation – at another level, as I have suggested above, it brings into sharp focus the kinds of subversions and resistances that may be manifest in even the most apparently compliant and conventional of literary texts.

Yet how one reads “The Settlement”, and how one understands the conditions and effects of Gladys Gilligan’s narrative production, depends to a significant extent on whether one brings a “minority” reading strategy, in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of that term (1986), to a text that for all intents and purposes mimics the majority culture by which it has been both generated and constrained.  Tim Rowse has recently entered this territory during his discussion in “Indigenous Autobiography” of Waipuldanya and Douglas Lockwood’s 1962I, The Aboriginal (Rowse 2004).  Towards the end of his essay it might seem that Rowse – in his emphasis on “bicultural competencies”, “calculated performance” and code-switching between modes of “white” (for which read “modern”) and “Aboriginal” (for which read “traditional”) subjectivity – has adopted a similar strategy. However, this is significantly undercut by his acceptance, which I have already touched on, that “autobiography” continues to be defined (canonically, authoritatively) by the imperative to locate “security of cultural self-definition” within certain rigidly construed patterns and boundaries of narrative and subject formation.  Precisely because Rowse (following the “Weintraub/Brumble thesis”) relies on (though he eschews a preference for) a “developmental” notion of narrative selfhood to define Indigenous “autobiographies”, he remains curiously un-alert to the possibility that Indigenous self-representation may also seek at times not only to “secure” a narrative “self” (and sometimes not even that) but to disrupt or at least implicitly interrogatethe readerly self (both white and Indigenous) and its assumptions about lives lived and articulated simultaneously within and beyond majority cultural frameworks.  The notion of “personal development” hardly categorises “The Settlement”, for example; putatively, the piece itself is not about Gladys Gilligan or the “selfhood” she negotiates at all.  Yet it tells a story of how her life, and the lives of her peers, was lived at a particular historical, institutional, cultural and ideological juncture, and if we were to dismiss her writing as insufficiently “autobiographical” because it does not conform to the “personal development” trope of conventional autobiography, we would miss precisely what I speculate here may have been struggling to be heard.  Indeed, from another critical angle, as Anne Brewster persuasively argues (following John Frow) (2005), a piece like “The Settlement” is pre-eminently an instance of what she calls “personalised embodied narratives” because it “foreground[s] the particularity of … everyday” life and compels readers to consider how the “power of everyday transactions—in the home, the workplace and other locations” informs and infuses the “technologies of the self” that are constructed, mediated and negotiated as a result.

“The Settlement” thus confounds a range of axiomatic assumptions that continue to be brought to bear concerning the ways in which Indigenous life-writing texts perform acts of narrative construction, resistance and intervention, and the terms on which they write back to the whiteness of imperial domination.  As I have argued above, an element of that domination in the realm of textuality has historically involved the cultural dictates of “literacy” (and its correlate, “literariness”), discerned as one kind of sine qua non for distinguishing between the “civilised” empire and the “savage” natives who were to be transformed by its supposedly superior technologies, including technologies of communication. In this sense, “The Settlement” unsettles a range of critical and theoretical constructs that have been mobilised in thinking about and evaluating Indigenous life-writing and raises questions about genre, valency and – pre-eminently – “voice”.

In Susan Maushart’s deployment of “The Settlement” as the opening of her Sort of a Place Like Home, Maushart appears to have adopted the strategy of letting Gladys Gilligan’s writing “speak for itself”. Maushart offers no verbal commentary or contextualisation for the initial encounter with “The Settlement”, but she does intercut Gladys Gilligan”s text with a series of photographs of the Moore River settlement that give the lie, visually speaking, to the bucolic scenes sketched out in the opening lines of the composition. This is of a piece with a now-familiar and largely (though not always) ethical orientation in cross-cultural engagements between non-Indigenous critics and Indigenous texts; namely, not wanting to speak for, over-write or otherwise occlude Indigenous voices.  It also participates in a specific cultural history of representational strategies in which writing is rendered suspect by image, and the witness of the image-recording “eye” of the photographer is juxtaposed to the witness of the textually encoding “I” of the scribe.

In the context of Maushart’s evocative and informed documentary history of the Moore River Native Settlement, with its explicit commitment to allowing the archives to tell their stories and to force the reader to actively constitute and contextualise the narratives that emerge, this strategy is undoubtedly effective but also problematic. On the one hand, it is a deeply ethical response to the fact that neither Maushart nor anyone else now can ask Gladys Gilligan what she was doing in and with “The Settlement”, and why; nor can the conditions of production governing the composition be reliably reconstructed. Despite this, however, mirroring the interpretive dichotomies set up by reading practices that oppose the “resistant” to the “collusive”, Maushart’s re-presentation of “The Settlement” sets up binary distinctions that by implication oppose the “real” portrait of the Moore River settlement to the “false” image of it provided by Gladys Gilligan’s narrative.  This positions Gladys Gilligan as a suspect narrator, or at least it positions her account as a narrative of whose claims we should be deeply suspicious, contaminated as they are by the importunings of Neville and the broader discourses that produce Gladys Gilligan as an object of prideful display.  A different reading might be produced, however, by asking whether it is possible that the text invites or at least accommodates readerly suspicion (and consequently dis/composes the conventional readerly subject position of life-writing). This may be not so much because the narrator herself may be suspect, but because the objects of that narration – the “good works” of Moore River, its claims, its “truths” – are.  In other words, it is possible to read “The Settlement” not for whether it is able to speak “authentically” or “truthfully” as an instance of Indigenous articulation about colonial structures, but for how mimicry and ventriloquism may be deployed to call attention to the arguable stratagems and duplicities of the text’s constitution.

A thematic way of putting this would be to say that a number of critical discussions of Aboriginal life writing have tended to read works in this genre for either resistance to or collusion with dominant, colonially-based structures of articulation and value, as earlier controversies surrounding Sally Morgan’s My Place have made clear (Huggins 1993, Narogin 1990: 148-149, Attwood 1992, Birch 1992: 458, Rowse 1992: 465-468, Tarrago 1992: 469, Cooper 1995, Mueke 1988).  In so doing, they have posed “resistance” and “collusion” as oppositional terms, and thus have tended to foreclose on interpretative strategies that have a more nuanced, less structuralist orientation toward the political and cultural complexities of Indigenous life-writing.  “Collusion” can sometimes be a form of resistance; if Gladys Gilligan had not “colluded” with the forms of writing imposed on her by the pedagogical regimes and limits of the day, the alternative might have been not to write at all, and to have her voice remain unheard even in the coded forms in which it arguably emerges here.  As Aileen Moreton-Robinson notes,

In our engagement with white Australian society, Indigenous people have learnt to create meaning, knowledges and living traditions under conditions not of our choosing as strategies for our survival.  Our cultural forms take account of the ambiguous existence that is the inevitable result of this engagement. […] There is no single, fixed or monolithic form of Indigenous resistance; rather than simply being a matter of overtly defiant behaviour, resistance is re-presented as multifaceted, visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious, explicit and covert, intentional and unintentional (2004: 128).

To slightly shift the emphasis of the Personal Narratives Group’s focus on gendered identities, “[t]raditional explorations of social dynamics have tended to emphasise either the constraints of social structure or the power of individual agency. […] Our reading of…personal narratives suggests the need to understand the dynamic interaction between the two” (1989: 5).  Much the same can be said about the “social dynamics” and interactions between the constraints of social structures and the power of individual agency inflected by colonial histories and race as well as by patriarchal histories and gender; the limitations of the “either/or” approach apply in both cases.

I have chosen to focus in part on Gladys Gilligan’s composition here for a number of reasons, some of which have to do with the challenges it poses to a number of critical orthodoxies about the categorisation of Aboriginal auto/biographical and life-writing, its definitions and limits, and some of which have to do with the ways in which it complicates dominant cultural templates of Aboriginal writing and textuality more generally. While a text like “The Settlement” is clearly an Indigenous narration of aspects of a life, and it is obviously writing, it nevertheless frustrates a range of assumptions about agency and the impulses and goals of Indigenous life narratives that have characterised critical discussions of the genre, including those of Brewster, Mudrooroo and, more recently, Rowse.  As an instance of writing that loudly flags its insertion within an economy of literacy, texts like “The Settlement” also confound claims about the intrinsic or predominant “orality” of Aboriginal written narratives, claims that are frequently linked (for example in the work of Mudrooroo and to a certain extent Brewster, 1995: 52-64) to arguments about the authenticity and indeed the agency of Indigenous texts.  Finally, I would argue that the relations of production that characterise the making of texts like “The Settlement” – their genesis, structuring, and circulation – have valuable things to tell us about how Indigenous writing and textuality functions in what Mary Louise Pratt calls “the contact zone”, that “space of colonial encounters…in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations” (1992: 6) in the form of transcultural exchanges, which  Françoise Lionnet (along with Edouard Glissant) sees as “an absolute fact of life” despite the habit of denial often exercised within Western colonial and postcolonial traditions (1995: 12).

If one were to exclude a text like Gladys Gilligan’s from the genre of Australian Indigenous life-writing, as an analysis like Rowse’s might, such an exclusion would rest in part, I think, on valorising this as a mode of uncomplicated self-expression rather than conscious self-representation. Theoretical distinctions between “expression” and “representation” remain crucial, for they reveal the extent to which approaches to Indigenous Australian writing and textuality are intimately bound up with differences in perspective on the “technologies of self” that such texts produce and mediate.  On another level, the distinctions posited between “expression” and “representation” also speak to those asserted between the oral and the literate, which at times function as racialised codes for distinguishing between “white” and “Aboriginal” ways of structuring consciousness and articulating experience.

But where does that leave writers like Gladys Gilligan in these debates? Or, more precisely, where does it leave critical assessments of subject formation and flux when these rely only on textual or archival fragments such as “The Settlement”? Does the fact that Gladys Gilligan’s composition was forged in the crucible of literacy make her Aboriginality more suspect, less viable? What are the consequences of responding to that question in the affirmative or the negative? And what is its importance in coming to a broader understanding of how Aboriginal subjectivities have historically been constructed and reproduced?

As “The Settlement” demonstrates, at least in my reading of it, varieties of Aboriginal life-writing are frequently produced and mediated by “entangled subjects” (Thomas 1999), all of whom – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, writer and reader, editor and publisher – are always already inter-subjectively (and inter-textually) in dialogue with both a pre-settler cultural past and a settler-dominated but not totalising cultural present.  It is often assumed, particularly in light of postcolonial theories that privilege notions of “hybrid” identity for colonised peoples, that “entangled subjectivities” are the province of the colonised alone, as has long been argued with respect to the enmeshments of Indigenous subjectivities with settler economies of identity and culture, and as, for example, Rowse suggests of Waipuldanya.  Yet settler subjects are just as “entangled” in this matrix, just as multiply positioned by the cultural and social dynamics of métissage that characterise the history of cross-cultural encounter and transaction in Australia.


1. This reverses the title of Caroline Brettell’s 1996 edited collection, When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography.

2. For a discussion of how contemporary representations of Aboriginal peoples continue to resonate with colonial knowledges and antecedents see, amongst others, Dodson (1994), Langton,  (1993: 31, 33), Andrew Lattas (1993: 240-268; 1990: 50-69).

3. For a very small sample of this work, see the essays collected in Grossman (2003), particularly those by Nakata, Moreton-Robinson, Dodson, Anderson (17-24 and 43-51) and Birch.

4. See Freire (1973), (1985); Freire and Macedo (1987); Street (1984), (1995); Gee (1990).

5. For an array of contemporary Indigenous Australian criticism both articulating and enacting this position, see the essays contained in Grossman (2003).

6. Anderson (2003: 18) notes that suggestions that the Indigenous petitioners did not actually draft and write the petition themselves have been decisively investigated and dismissed by the historian Henry Reynolds. The debate recalls that over the Coranderrk petitions recounted by Mudrooroo Narogin in hisWriting From the Fringe (1990: 19).

7. See for example Jeanie Bell’s discussion of Aboriginal language maintenance and revival in ‘Australia’s Indigenous Languages’ (1994: 45-61).

8. This and subsequent references to Gladys Gilligan’s writing and her time at Moore River are drawn from Susan Maushart’s remarkable documentary history, Sort of a Place Like Home: The Moore River Native Settlement (1993). See especially ‘Introduction: One: The place’ (13-21) and Chapter 6, ‘One Half-Caste Girl’ (271-315).

9. For a detailed discussion of Western Australian policies concerning the government and administration of the area’s Aboriginal inhabitants and the complex network of institutions, settlements, homes and missions that supported this, see Haebich (2004: 208-287).  The Summary of Aborigines Act 1905 is reproduced by Haebich in Table Two of this chapter (220).

10. See also Western Australian Government, 1996.

11. A by no means exhaustive list of work in this arena includes, for example, Haebich (2000) and her earlier work on Western Australia (1992), Andrew Markus (1994; 1990), Maushart (1993), Rowse (1992; 1998), Ann McGrath (1995), Heather Goodall (1996) and Rosalind Kidd (1997; 2000).

12. The original citation for Morrison’s quotation is The Southern Districts Advocate (Katanning, WA), 4 September 1922.

13. Debbie Rodan cites the following from Alice Nannup’s When the Pelican Laughed to provide some insight into the circumscribed role of education for Aboriginal children at Moore River: “Moore River did nothing for me by way of schooling; I had to learn through experience and picking up little bits here and there on my own. Really, all I ever did there was work. I had chores to do before school and chores to do after. I tell you, they never allowed me to be idle”  (Nannup 1992: 69; Rodan 2000). Rodan continues: ‘While she was at Moore River, Mr. Neville came to visit the mission. Nannup recounts that when she was in the sewing room on one visit she overheard Mr Neville “standing talking to the sewing mistress”.  She heard him say: “Ohh, it’s all right, as long as they can write their name and count money … that’s all the education they need”‘ (Nannup 1992: 71: Rodan 2000).  Rodan also includes an account from Connie Nungulla McDonald, which ‘recounts that at Forest River mission school the missionaries taught the girls “to learn the 3R’s; going to church to learn about God and learning to cook at home, learning to sew, learning to set a table, learning to run a household so that when a girl got married she would know how to run and look after her home and family”‘ (McDonald and Finnane 1996: 14; Rodan, 2000).

14. This passage is drawn from my essay, co-authored with Denise Cuthbert (1998: 109-126).

Michele Grossman is Associate Dean (Research and Research Training) in the Faculty of Arts, Education and Human Development at Victoria University in Melbourne.  She has published widely on Indigenous Australian writing, representation and culture, and was recently awarded a 2006 Canadian High Commission research fellowship to pursue work in the area of cross-cultural textuality in comparative Indigenous Australian and First Nations Canadian contexts.


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