A Companion to Australian Aboriginal Literature (Camden House 2013), edited by academic and author Belinda Wheeler, is a carefully curated selection of 11 non-fiction essays that collectively cover a comprehensive discourse on writing by Indigenous people. At the time of publication, Wheeler was an Assistant Professor of English at Clafin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Originally from Australia, her interests lie with Australian Aboriginal literature and scholarship and also African-American poets and authors.
The book opens with a Foreword by Nicholas Jose, (then) Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, in which he cites not only the increasing number of contemporary Aboriginal writers creating new work, but also the enormous amount of previously undocumented or unpublished work by Indigenous writers which has more recently come to academic attention. The term ‘Aboriginal literature’ is broadly used to include oral, visual, performative, story, lore and language content and Jose states that ‘…taking power in their responsibility for custodianship and transmission of culture … [is the reason] why Aboriginal literature is an exciting area of creative achievement, worthy of attention, celebration and scholarly inquiry’, and praises Wheeler’s book as ‘… an important contribution to the work in the field, extending and deepening our understanding’.
Then comes a fascinating Chronology, which provides a brief overview of Australian Aboriginal history, with emphasis on significant cultural events as well as moments of Aboriginal achievement in literature. Beginning almost 70 000 years ago, it includes the traders and sailors who visited Australia long before James Cook, the history of Bennelong and his interactions with white people, various ‘wars’ and massacres, the movement of Aboriginal people into mission stations, the Aboriginal Protection Act, population numbers, service records, the year voting was allowed, and of course the 1967 Referendum. The first literary reference is in 1929, when David Unaipon published his collection, Native Legends, and then begins a list of Aboriginal performers in opera, carnivals, music and film. In 1964, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (previously known as Kath Walker) published We Are Going, the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal author; in 1977, the Aboriginal Studies Press published its first work by an Aboriginal author, Jimmie Barker. Indigenous people are variously named Australians of the Year, Mabo is ongoing, blackfella music and writing becomes more popular, and Sally Morgan’s My Place is published in 1987. Magabala Books comes into existence and the University of Queensland Press grants the inaugural unpublished Indigenous writer award to Graeme Dixon in 1989. Through Royal Commissions, Reconciliation Councils, High Court decisions and the Bringing Them Home Report, to the official apology and National Sorry Day and the fortieth anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, this is an easy-to-read and inclusive list of important dates.
Belinda Wheeler then gives an introduction, in which she decries the traditional lack of celebration or even recognition of Aboriginal cultural artists until fairly recently but notes since 1988, the gradual shift to a national pride in our Indigenous artists. She mentions many familiar names including Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Anita Heiss, Doris Pilkington Garimara, Ruth Hegarty, Samuel Wagan Watson, Rachel Perkins, Larissa Behrendt, Tara June Winch, Marie Munkara and Melissa Lucashenko. She speaks of the necessity of this book as a companion for students and researchers studying Aboriginal literature, to provide background and context for the texts studied, citing history, difficulties, prejudice, practical problems, foreign recognition, academic acceptance, dominant genres within the canon, and editorial control. She concludes with the statement that ‘Many … communities from around the world are increasingly noticing the work of Australian Aboriginal writers and artists … the continued conversation between these groups and an acknowledgement of the past … will continue to promote reconciliation …’
The included essays cover a range of topics and are all well researched and notated. While I didn’t read every essay in detail, I note that this is certainly a research book that writers should add to their list if they are exploring Aboriginal literature. The essays include: Indigenous Life Writing by Michael R. Griffiths; Australian Aboriginal Life Writers and Their Editors – Cross-Cultural Collaboration / Authorial Intention by Jennifer Jones; Contemporary Life Writing by Martina Horakova; European Translations of Australian Aboriginal Texts by Danica Cerce and Oliver Haag; Tracing a Trajectory from Songpoetry to Contemporary Aboriginal Poetry by Stuart Cooke; Rites/Rights/Writes of Passage: Identity Construction in Young Adult Fiction by Jeanine Leane; Humour in Contemporary Adult Fiction by Paula Anca Farca; White Shadows (The Gothic) by Katrin Althans; Bold, Black and Brilliant (Drama) by Maryrose Casey; The Stolen Generations in Feature Film by Theodore F. Sheckels and finally A History of Popular Indigenous Music by Andrew King.
As I am neither Aboriginal nor an academic, I feel unqualified to judge this book from either position, but it impressed me enough that I would certainly recommend it as an excellent source for writers interested in finding out more about the above topics, or who wish to deepen their knowledge of Aboriginal literature and culture to strengthen their own writing.