Keynote address given by Larissa Behrendt
First presented at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013
Larissa Behrendt keynote text: “Censorship Today, Censorship Tomorrow”
At the end of Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, there is a powerful image of a colonial mansion, the new home of ex-convict-turned wealthy land-owner, William Thornhill and his family, being built on rock that has a sacred Aboriginal carving of a whale on it. The house represents the wealth of the new settlers, those who have conquered the Australian landscape, made their fortune and built their future here. The foundations of the house are the Aboriginal people and their culture.
The power of Grenville’s metaphor is that she preserves the Aboriginal presence and connection to land. It is not destroyed in the face of the on-coming colonisation; it is buried. Although it lies hidden, one day, when the civilisation eventually crumbles, the rock with its carved etching, will once more be revealed, the ancient connection to land continuing.
It is easy, when thinking of censorship, to think first of legal definitions. But Grenville’s image evokes a broader, more complex reflection on the concepts of silencing, one that goes beyond the arbitrary and shifting concepts within the dominant legal system. What lies hidden beneath and unseen – like the foundations under a stone house – is also silenced.
Winners vanquish losers; we all know they write history. But each instance of conquest has its own historical peculiarities, its own legacies. And within those historical distinct events and repercussions are a multitude of experiences, the plethora of stories. Some of those stories triumph and become canonical. Others are supressed, still handed down from parent to child and transmitted amongst subgroups and subcultures, but outside of the dominant national narrative.
The capacity of Indigenous people to tell their own stories was impeded in several complicating ways as part of the process of the colonisation of Australia. As an oral culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures relied upon transmission from generation to generation through stories, ceremony, dance, music and art. The high mortality rate from introduced diseases, the processes of dispossession, dislocation and relocation, and the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families, are all factors that made the continuing transmission of these oral traditions difficult, especially in the areas where colonisation was most aggressive.
And secondly, while the removal of Aboriginal children was supposed to give them the advantages of dominant culture, education levels were appalling and Aboriginal young people, no matter what their talents, were ear-marked for manual labour. Boys were to work on cattle stations; girls were to work as domestic servants. Among all of the insidious ways a peoples can be colonised, denying them the tools that allow them to communicate in the imposed and dominant culture is one of the most effective in disenfranchising, disempowering and continually marginalising them.
Literacy rates in Australia have improved gradually but even today there is a large gap between the literacy rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students emerges early. Non-Indigenous students out-perform Indigenous students in benchmark tests for reading, writing and numeracy in Year 3 and Year 5. By Year 7, the gap has widened, even more so for numeracy and competency in science. As Indigenous children get older, the gap continues to widen. Indigenous students are 2.2% of the population in the age groups that can engage in higher education yet Indigenous students make up only 1.3% of student numbers. While 82% of all Australian students enter tertiary education through their previous educational attainments, only 46% of Indigenous students enter university this way. The gaps in their earlier education mean that Indigenous students often have to do additional studies to be able to enter university. It is not a matter of the students not being clever enough for tertiary studies but they were denied the shortest pathway and come to university studies later in life and through a more circuitous route.
The resilience of living cultures must frustrate those hell-bent on assimilation or achieving a cultural hegemony. Attempts to assimilate – no matter how extreme or how subtle – often have the opposite effect. They further bind an identified and persecuted group through a shared suffering and its associated experiences and trauma. Discrimination only succeeds in reinforcing difference, in testing attachment to culture and reinforces a sense of identity.
Attempts to reintroduce marginalised voices into the dominant narrative are not always welcome. My grandmother was removed under the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents. Her experiences as a ward of the state – and my father’s childhood in an orphanage – inspired my first novel, Home. Growing up, I was surrounded by other children, well-meaning but innocently ignorant of these historical practices of separating Aboriginal children from their families as part of a policy of assimilation. Their views were sometimes crudely racist and often lacking in empathy. I had always thought that if Australian children were taught this history, it would increase the understanding of the issues facing Indigenous people. Even if it would not win people over to the Indigenous point of view, at least it would explain why Indigenous people face the issues we face and why we have the political agenda we have.
But the response to the publication of the Bringing them Home report – the detailed national investigation into the extent and impact of the children removal policy – was instructive and sobering. The official response was to dismiss the report by saying that “only one in ten” Indigenous people were removed, that the term “cultural genocide” was too emotive and that, whatever the report concluded, the motivation for the removal of children was often done with the best of intentions and for the best interests of the children involved.
Aboriginal poet, novelist and historian, Tony Birch, wrote of this response to the Bringing them Home report:
Indigenous communities across Australia have become the memory bank of white Australia’s violence by proxy. It is time for white Australia to take over that responsibility. Perhaps it is time to make an ethical withdrawal of responsibility. Such a need has become more acute in recent years, with the outcome of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Bringing Them Home report providing an opportunity for white Australia to take ownership of its colonial past in a more than selective manner. Unfortunately the backlash against Bringing Them Home has been more substantive than any acceptance of, and responsibility for, the colonial violence that it has provided testament to. It was the delivery of the report that motivated the most ferocious elements of the History War; an orchestrated campaign conducted by the right in Australia against the legitimacy of Indigenous memory.
Birch’s observations resonate with me and are a reminder that these “history wars” or “culture wars” that waged amongst academics and writers of opinion pieces may have argued the semantics and the numbers in the halls of universities and on the pages of broadsheets but, like the stone hidden under William Thornhill’s house, the lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by those polices remained unchanged by those debates. The ideological battle was not really about Aboriginal history; it was about the competing narratives that non-Indigenous Australians want to tell about themselves.
And this reaction, which included the official government response, showed me that I was wrong to believe that hearing the stories of people who had suffered under the removal policy would be the pathway to better understanding of Indigenous history and culture.
The response was much more complex than that. What it did show was that evidence in its most human form can be so powerful that it is simply too confronting and the easiest way to deal with it for some people is to attempt to silence it, dismiss it by falling back on to contested statistics or distract from it with semantic debates.
This reaction does, however, give testament to the power of stories. The Bringing them Home report was littered with extracts from testimony – not just from those taken away, but from the parents, grandparents and siblings left behind. So many government reports are written after investigations, contemplation of the research and a list of sensible recommendations to address the problem to sit on shelves, gather dust and fade into the mists of bureaucratic memory. What challenged people more than any legal or historical argument made in the report, what made it so dangerous to those who felt so challenged was the power of human testimony, the power of their stories. George R. R. Martin, author of the now culturally iconic Game of Thrones wrote in another novel, A Clash of Kings, that “when you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”
The impact of the removal policy has been a strong theme through much Indigenous writing – not surprising since it formed such a large part of the contemporary Indigenous experience. Sally Morgan’s My Place and Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence are quintessential examples of this – and the response to the Philip Noyce film adapting Pilkington’s book to the screen was met with a similar response to the Bringing them Home report from, predictably, the same quarters.
Telling these is not just an essential part of Indigenous culture; love of stories is instinctive and primal to all human beings. So it is no surprise that there is a vibrant creative drive within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia to continue to tell stories. The renaissance of Indigenous writing, which has been driven by writers such as Tony Birch, Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kim Scott and a pantheon of others. It been accompanied by other Indigenous storytellers using other mediums – Stephen Page and his work through the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Wesley Enoch and his work on the stage, the rise to eminence of Indigenous art whose aesthetics point to ancient connections to country, the new wave of Indigenous film makers, including Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton and the establishment of National Indigenous Television Ltd. All these new technologies have been adopted for the telling of our most ancient stories.
So coming from this perspective, it might seem natural that I would blindly embrace the concept of the “right to free speech”. But it is more complicated than that. An essential part of any rights culture and of any human rights framework is the complex balancing of rights. I believe free speech is important but, like any other right, needs to be balance with others, including the right to be free from racial discrimination and vilification. Where that line is drawn should be the debate of a healthy and inclusive participatory democracy. Observing the psychological and emotional scars of racism enacted as policy or disseminated through popular culture and political narrative, I am wary of blanket claims of absolute rights, suspicious of extremes demanded by a dominant culture that has only championed well its own interests, not those of the groups it has marginalised.
The heightened precedence given to the right of free speech against other rights is a particularly American value but also symptomatic of the way that our civil and political rights are often given precedence over economic, social and cultural rights. For marginalised and culturally distinct groups, exclusion from economic and social participation and freedom of cultural expression are perhaps valued more and seen as being of equal importance to the civil and political rights that more easily engage members of dominant cultures and political elites. Besides, the notion that any society supports the concept of free speech in an unfettered way is absurd. It is regulated, rightly, in relation to defamation and libel. It is regulated, rightly, in relation to trade practices, to ensure that consumers are not duped by unsubstantiated claims.
I find it difficult to support blanket statements about the concept of censorship. For me, the arguments about where to draw the lines in theory are slippery and contradictory. Of more interest, and of more importance, is the question of what is seeking to be censored and why. When the censorship is one where the weight of the dominant culture is used to silence dissenting views and to silence the marginalised, I think it raises a complex set of moral and ethical questions. I don’t pretend to know where that line is but I believe that the balancing of the right to free speech against other rights is one of the on-going conversations in a healthy participatory democracy. This might sound utopian but I say this as someone who is inherently suspicious of the way the dominant cultures laws sometimes draw lines. The fact that the dominant culture often gets to decide that line is often problematic. Its adjudicators are never without their own cultural bias even though they often assume that they can be objective on such matters. But I do think the discussion about where those lines are drawn needs to be an open, honest and fluid one and needs to include voices that are often marginalised within the dominant culture.
It strikes me that one of the deepest cultural differences between Indigenous culture and dominant Australian culture is around the concept of knowledge. Within the spiritual life of Indigenous societies there was a clear delineation about knowledge holding. There were issues that were “men’s business” and “women’s business” and the concept of “secret and sacred” knowledge, which only the custodian or the initiated were entitled to know. The concept that there is information that you are not permitted to know is one that sits uncomfortably with European intellectual tradition. It remains the case today across Australia that there is still knowledge, images, practices and artefacts that remain sacred to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cannot be shared.
Respecting that, I do not, however, ascribe to the view that a non-Indigenous person can never write from the perspective of an Indigenous person. Writers with talent can write from any perspective. The trick is to get the authenticity – the truth – of the situation, the characters and the essence of the interaction. The challenge in crossing any divide – gender, religious, cultural – is that unless the writer can stand in the shoes of the character, can adeptly interpret the perspective, the writing will ring hollow, will ring untrue.
In this way, Indigenous writers are advantaged. They better understand, by virtue of their interaction with the dominant culture, the views from the other side of the cultural divide. It has always challenged Australian writers – even writers of great skill – to be able to interpret well the world of Indigenous people. That is not because it is impossible but just because the level of understanding needed to write authentically is so deep, that the general ignorance of Indigenous culture often makes the translation a challenge for those seeking to interpret it from the outside.
Patrick White, one of our greatest writers, meditated on the perspectives on Indigenous people within Australian culture in several of his books. He did so reflectively in Riders of the Chariot and Voss. But he was much less successful in his novel inspired by the shipwreck of Eliza Fraser in the 1860s, A Fringe of Leaves. During the heroine’s time amongst Aborigines, she becomes closer to her more natural state and, as part of this psychological reconnection, engages in a ceremony that includes an act of cannibalism. Instead of understanding that there was no practice of cannibalism within Indigenous communities in Australia, White buys into this myth – and thus perpetuating it – but seeks to excuse it by using the act of consumption of flesh as a metaphor for our most primitive desires, the instincts our society represses. White paints the Aboriginal people in this novel in the classic noble savage role. I’ve argued elsewhere that the depiction of Aboriginal people in this romanticised role is an unhelpful and dangerous as the portrayal of Aboriginal people as savages.
Grenville avoids this trap in The Secret River. She tells the story of William Thornhill’s conquest of his land and the Aboriginal people who lived there before him without romanticism. Her novel also tells the story of Aboriginal people and she chose not to do this by creating an Indigenous character to guide us through this perspective but by telling us the same story from the unsympathetic viewpoint of a white Australian who sees Aboriginal people fearfully – fearful they will retaliate, they will fight, they will challenge. And through the eyes of such characters, she says so much with deep truth about the underlying unease which not only pervades the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal people and the dominant Australian culture, she also explains why so much unease and conflict remains amongst that dominant culture about the way in which they tell the story of their own history.
This is a deft skill but I want to conclude by celebrating what uncensored, unselfconscious writing can achieve even when it misses the mark. Another great Australian novelist is Thomas Keneally. Of his enviable body of work sits a book, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, written in the 1970s when Australia was confronting a new political era in its relationship with Indigenous people. Influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States, a black power movement and a land rights movement had emerged , along with a new kind of Aboriginal activist. Keneally’s novel is inspired by the outlaw Jimmy Governor and explores the inevitable consequences of trapping a young man between the ambitions available to white people and the discrimination against his own black skin. What blind ambition to try to write a book about this subject matter. And in the most part, Keneally succeeds. But the portrayal of Aboriginal women seemed so one dimensional, especially contrasted to the insights Keneally showed for Jimmie’s own plight as an Aboriginal man. That aspect of the book annoyed me n contrast but I have a great affection for both the book and the author for its audacity. Keneally has since written that he would write the book differently if he wrote it now. I am glad he wrote it when he did. It gave me more to think about, more to contend with, a greater slate against which to try to articulate my own views about my feminism and the intersection between my gender and my race and what that meant in contemporary Australia against this historical backdrop. Along with A Fringe of Leaves, Keneally gave me a book that provoked me to articulate my own views, providing me with a conversation of depth and intelligence I could find nowhere else within Australian society. That is the gift a brave, thoughtful, imaginative and uncensored writer can give.
So I don’t think the territory is off limits but I think that the challenge for writers who want to explore that terrain is that the extent to which one must be familiar with it if coming from the position of the privileged, from a position where many of the voices will be hidden, is very difficult.
And such is the skill of great writers. They translate. They interpret. They hold a mirror up. And that s why they are, when talented, so threatening.
© Larissa Behrendt, 2013