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Can White Authors Write Black Characters?

September 11, 2013

Mullumbimby by Melissa LucashenkoMurri author Melissa Lucashenko says, “As a general rule it’s a bad idea for non-Aboriginal people to write about us.” So, as a whitefella, did Jacqueline Wright have the authority to set her Miles Franklin longlisted novel, Red Dirt Talking, in an Indigenous community?

Lucashenko has just been awarded the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction for her novel Mullumbimby. She and Wright joined Anita Heiss at the Brisbane Writers Festival to talk about the representation of Indigenous people in fiction.

I’ve suggested previously that what defines writers is the ability to write about characters who differ from them, whether by gender, race, culture, age, sexuality or class. Nam Le inhabits the consciousness of seven utterly different individuals from diverse cultures in his book of short stories, The Boat, (see my review here), while Colin Cotterill enters the point of view of an elderly Laotian man in his Dr Siri books (review here). But I also know that writers are not immune from the general ignorance about Indigenous community and culture. Would this session clarify my ideas?

Lucashenko wants white writers to stick to what they know for two reasons:

  1. It’s hard for a non-Aboriginal to know the distinction between law stories, which are sacred, and everyday stories for entertainment, so it is easy to blunder into areas where nobody except the owners of those stories belong.
  2. Unless you’ve lived and worked in communities for decades you’ll be drawing your information and your characters from a big, poisonous well of Australian mythologising about Aboriginal people. Drawing upon that well, the work you produce will be damaging, because it will perpetuate stereotypes.

According to Lucashenko, the authors who most want to write about Indigenous people are those feeling most distressed by the persistence of the colonial relationship. Such writing becomes a form of therapy.

Red Dirt Talking by Jacqueline WrightJacqueline Wright’s novel Red Dirt Talking (my review here) is about Aboriginal Australia. Do Lucashenko’s comments apply to her? No, because Wright has spent decades living and working in Indigenous communities. Before publication she requested a manuscript assessment by Lucashenko, who was horrified, “because I don’t endorse white writings.” But from the first few pages she realised that Wright understood Aboriginal sensibility. She found the book to be helpful, not damaging, and endorsed it.

Wright wrote innumerable drafts trying to get it right. Sitting on her shoulder was a sort of guardian angel, constantly nagging her – why are you doing this, why are you doing that – making her totally accountable for what she was writing. She discussed her drafts with many Indigenous people, and had another manuscript assessment done by a writer who was a member of the community on which Wright based her fictional community.

Do Aboriginal writers have to be this careful in writing about non-Indigenous characters? Clearly there is a difference, in that control of education and entertainment makes white culture much more well-known to Indigenous people than their culture is to other Australians. But Lucashenko also cited the nature of the colonial relationship, similar to that of the owner-slave relationship in America. As the plantation owner and his family dine, the slave standing behind him knows exactly what the owner wants. A slight nod, and the slave knows instantly that the plates are to be removed. Moving the glass a fraction is an order to pour more wine. The slave knows everything about the owner, but the owner knows little about the slave. “And that’s what colonialism is,” said Lucashenko. “That’s why we understand white Australia, and white Australia has few imperatives to understand us.”

For me, this clarified the role of the writer. Yes, fiction writers need the skill to write about people who differ from them. In a previous essay, I wrote that each writer develops this skill in their own way, “training their powers of observation and imagination, becoming aware of how their own culture influences how they think and behave, while discovering beneath that the humanity they share with everyone else. They learn to root out stereotypes, to overcome monolithic thinking, and to stop conceiving of people who differ as ‘The Other’. And they spend a lot of time getting to know people in the group they are writing about, and listening to their stories.”

Listening to Lucashenko helped me to appreciate how much more difficult this process is for a white author writing about Aboriginal people. It’s possible if you’re a Jacqui Wright, living and working in communities for years. But how many writers can do that?

Lucashenko’s parting shot was: “Every book that’s published means another book will not be published. It’s a zero sum game. If you’re going to write about Aboriginal Australia, you’d better be damn sure that you can do it just as well, if not better, than an Aboriginal writer could, because your book is replacing the book that they could write.”

Update 19 February 2014: For an excellent exploration of this issue by Whispering Gums, see White Writers on Indigenous Australians, which also includes a lively comments section. I have a related post at What are the limits to a writer’s imagination?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2013 4:18 pm

    Fantastic review of the session Bryce. When I was back in my hometown, on my usual evening walk, reviewing the sessions thinking about; what I should have said, what I neglected to say, etc.etc. concerns my response to Melissa’s question, ‘Why did you write Red Dirt Talking.’ I answered, as you might recall, ‘To make sense of my experience working at Mijijimaya,’ or something along those lines. I wanted also to add that, as I wrote, that main premise changed to wanting to make sense of WHY I wanted to write about Indigenous people and culture. And as I wrote more, the mirror turned upon myself and that was reflected in the way my main character, Annie, was represented in the novel.
    Thanks for giving me a second chance to articulate myself better.

    • Bryce permalink*
      September 12, 2013 5:18 pm

      Yes, I can feel how that premise could have evolved with the writing. What an extraordinary interior journey you have taken with this book.

  2. February 19, 2014 10:16 pm

    Oh I missed this post Bryce because I was overseas at the time. I particularly like your point that ‘The slave knows everything about the owner, but the owner knows little about the slave. “And that’s what colonialism is,” said Lucashenko. “That’s why we understand white Australia, and white Australia has few imperatives to understand us.”’ A character in Merrilees book basically says we watch you, and I’ve heard other indigenous people say similar things. Makes sense, doesn’t it! Anyhow, thanks for the link.

    • Bryce permalink*
      February 20, 2014 9:19 am

      Yes, at the festival I was particularly struck by Lucashenko’s slave-owner analogy. Something that, as a whitefella, I had little awareness of, but which becomes obvious once it’s pointed out. Makes me wonder what else I’m missing out on, and even more uneasy about any attempt to write from the point of view of an Indigenous character.

      • February 20, 2014 9:38 am

        That’s it isn’t it … we just don’t have the perspective. That’s Merrilees conundrum. Even if we try to write about our experience we really need to have the indigenous character there but as soon as they talk we are assuming an understanding of their perspective. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.


  1. In Praise of a Plural World | The Echidna and the Fox
  2. What Are the Limits to a Writer’s Imagination? | The Echidna and the Fox

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