To set the scene it was April, 2022 in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). A group of First Nations creatives travelled from all across the continent to meet and yarn in the red centre. Sitting amongst singing orange hills, bone dry river beds and long restaurant tables, stories were shared, laughter echoed, and kinships were not only created but affirmed.
Phoebe McIlwraith and Lay Maloney are members of neighbouring First Nation groups – Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr, both situated on sides of the Clarence river on the Mid North & North Coast of NSW. This saltwater connection flowed into deeper conversations about their experiences as First Nations writers.
During a workshop run by Wiradjuri poet Jazz Money, the pair had felt empowered in an exercise of letter writing. Those letters led to yarns over dinner where both of the young writers couldn’t stop smiling while drowning in the topic of writing. In the glow of warm streetlights, along the cement footpath back to the hotel Phoebe chased down Common Ground’s Gemma Pol and exclaimed, “We have an idea!”
‘Why Write?’ is an email conversation between two nation-cousins who together attempt to unpack the power and tension of what it means to be Black writers.
Hope you are well my cousin.
We have talked a lot lately, especially about our place as Black folk in writing and our relationship to this form of communication.
We as First Nations people belong to oral cultures, where our systems of knowledge sharing have relied on systemic intergenerational dialogues for millenia. The act of storytelling is how we maintain culture, spirituality, science, kinship, law and the lived histories of our families.
The strength of our oral traditions continue to today. My family uses art, music, place and photographs to prompt memory, and often these stories hold important counter-narratives to mainstream histories shared by media and government. When I was a jarjum (kid), I thought the mechanics of the universe were held in the memories of my people and all the stories that make us.
Despite English being violently imposed on our communities we have been able to utilise Aboriginal-English, dialects which better reflect our kinship and address terms, traditional grammar, and worldviews. Since the late 1780s, First Nations people have used writing to communicate with the settler-colonial world and assert our distinct identities and needs as Indigenous peoples.
However, what does writing mean to you? What does this tool look like for Blackfellas in the here and now?
I am doing good! I wish it was autumn again. How’ve you been my cousin?
When I was six years old, I moved from Yarrabah to Gumbaynggirr Country. I learned very quickly that people couldn’t understand my accent and speaking became embarrassing. I started learning Gumbaynggirr but I couldn’t read or write. My dad sat me down in my grandmother’s living room and taught me how to read letters and write them. Letters became words. Words became sentences. Sentences became paragraphs. Paragraphs became books.
Reading and writing helped me to become more “normal” but I now understand this was assimilation through institutionalism. Being praised and awarded for getting things right, and ignored or punished for getting things wrong. I’d get bullied for how I spoke ‘funny’ so I changed that too. Learned the ability to code switch at a mere eight years old. While the white girls were braiding each other’s hair, I was practising conversations aloud with trees.
Being proficient in English was about survival.
I still have a difficult relationship with the concept and occupation. We currently write in English – the tongue of the colonisers. The colonial dialect that appropriates every other language for its own use. Changing the euphonic rolling R’s of my mother into deviants of speech.
Writing [verb]: To make physical what is said. To read what can’t be heard. The use of symbols to represent oral language.
Writing is the cage as much as it is the key. I write to tell stories. Stories that attempt to inform and inspire change.
My storytelling is for Blackfullas… but how can I say that when I write in English? How can I say that when we have poor literacy statistics? How can I say that when institutional racism in education has been used to assimilate our people, like you’ve said? How can I possibly write down the thousands of words my Ancestors speak to me in an alien language that feels like home?
This is where Alice peers down the rabbit hole.
I love reading and I love writing! I love pushing the rules and expectations of English over the edge! I love poetry! I love consuming Indigenous literature!
David Unaipon was the first Indigenous published author. He started an inevitable legacy for First Nations people in literature and even used it as a tool for activism!
Our Indigenous literary canon holds multitudes of stories with a backbone of anti-colonial sentiment in its very existence. It’s nearly ironic, Indigenous writers are scooping up Australia’s most prestigious literary awards!
I’m sure we aren’t the first and we aren’t the last Indigenous folks to utilise written word for our own means, then question it.
My dear cousin, why do you write? Is writing difficult? Is it a means to an end or something more?
I wish it was summer! Saltwater summers filled with family and the biggest feeds of fish.
English, and being proficient in it, has always been a type of competition for me. I’ve always felt the need to prove that I can speak and write in English.
Questions (and denial) of our people’s intelligence have historically been central to justifying colonisation and genocide. Notably, the work of Charles Darwin and Francis Galtron became the foundation to the claim that we were the ‘least progressed’ of all humanity. This work, among others, has encouraged deeply racist beliefs to be intertwined within the Australian conscious; where 3 out of 4 people hold negative views of Indigenous people.
Statements from peers of how ‘naturally dumber’ my race is were around me as a teen. Questions on whether I’ve learned how to speak ‘proper English’ have followed me to my early 20s when I dare speak Aboriginal-English. Shock at how ‘well-spoken’ I am still follows when I answer questions in job interviews. From these experiences, I feel the need to not just be good at English but to be great at it.
This need probably stems from discovering that during some of the first NSW statewide examinations in 1819, an Aboriginal girl won first place in front of 100 white students. It shocked me that white Australia could claim our inferiority when we not only match them but exceed them in their own spaces?
Of course, that reflection focuses on the standards of settler-colonial institutions. It sparks deeper questions of when have non-Indigenous people ever attempted to perform in Black spaces or gain the skills that are valuable in our cultural context? Could we claim they have no intelligence if they don’t succeed like they did with us? Why are the standards of Indigenous capability always confined to our success in white spaces?
Back to writing, it doesn’t feel fun to me but it does feel like mobility and survival (as you said). Writing feels like the endless act of translating/retranslating my entire existence to a completely different cultural context, in a language that never envisioned a place for me or the people I am proud to belong to.
bell hooks describes language as a place of struggle and asks, “dare I speak to oppressed and oppressor in the same voice?”. Sometimes I struggle to know where I speak from and who I am speaking to. In those moments I think back to who I come from and find a sense of direction there. All I aim to do now is speak honestly, in all tensions and questionings, in the hope that the story is carried to the place it is meant to.
How amazing are our differences and our similarities? How would you summarise the perspectives we have shared?
Biggest mob hugs,
Mmmnn, look what ya did! Ya making me hungry now! Save me some garlaany.
This yarn is gonna be like a river in that it’s gonna change with the tides of time and be reshaped by our people to fit their needs.
You explained that we come from oral traditions that pass from generation to generation. This tradition connects us to our Ancestors, families, Nations and Countries through storytelling. It gives us place, people and a sense of self that is rejected by colonial powers. Despite colonial assimilation tactics, these traditions continue strong!
I expanded on my experiences learning how to write and why English was difficult for me growing up, dilemmas I’ve faced writing in English through assimilation, and how it remains an enigma! I must tip my hat and thank Indigenous writers for excelling in literature and writing the stories I desperately needed to read.
You continued on to First Nations excellence in the area of English, and using the tool of the colonisers to not only be equal but better. Beating them at their own game was necessary because Darwinism and biological essentialism was created then weaponised against our knowledge and practices. First Nations people, like yourself, are not only proving themselves capable of learning colonial knowledge but reaching levels of excellence that are ignored in prejudicial mindsets and colonial institutions like academia. These institutions never consider how settlers would fare learning Indigenous knowledges and how we would define their success.
What you said about ‘hoping the story will find the place it’s meant to be’, resonated deeply with me. I think at times – especially when it comes to storytelling – all we can do is hope. Hope people listen. Hope people commit to change. Hope our words are enough.
Darruya nginumbala gayigu,