For too long, the dominant perspective held that Australian literature “began” with the arrival of the colonisers, when white men started writing down (in English) what they observed about this continent. In truth, Australian literary history stretches back to time immemorial, with the oral storytelling traditions of First Nations people. Though, sadly, many of the languages of those nations have been lost to invasion, their traditions continue, and I am awe-struck by their resilience and power. Of course, over time, modes and approaches to telling stories have blended, and local publishers are focusing more and more on distributing and championing the written stories of Indigenous storytellers. Books by Indigenous Australians are no longer an anomaly, or a diversity token: they’re a fixture on our bookshelves and bookstores, and the reading community ever clambers for more.
I’ve got to admit, though, I’ve felt more than one twinge of discomfort, as a white woman, trying to put this list together. I want to thrust forth into the spotlight some of the incredible books by Indigenous Australians that I’ve been lucky enough to encounter – but does that mean I’m taking up space that isn’t mine to hold? Am I part of the problem by putting a white-lady stamp-of-approval on stories that are part of a greater tradition than I could ever fathom? Where I landed is that I think it’s right that I use this platform to celebrate books by Indigenous Australians, but I’ve tried to ensure that the books I’ve selected are endorsed not only by me but also Indigenous readers and writers and reviewers. I also present these books humbly, with the very loud and important caveat that this list is not even close to definitive or comprehensive, and I would strongly encourage you all to seek out any and all books by Indigenous Australians that challenge and entertain you.
Taboo by Kim Scott
Taboo is the fifth book by Kim Scott (who has previously twice won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Australian novels of high literary merit), a descendant of the Wirlomin Noongar people. It’s an exploration of the memory of place, and the stain of violence. Set in present-day Western Australia, a group of Noongar people are invited to re-visit a taboo place, the site of a massacre. Lyrical and evocative, it shows the brutal power of destruction and intergenerational trauma, but also the strength and resilience of Indigenous people and their unique connection with this land.
Am I Black Enough For You? by Anita Heiss
Anita Heiss is a Wiradjuri woman, raised in the Sydney suburbs, who found herself in the middle of a proverbial shit-storm a little while back about Aboriginal identity. In Am I Black Enough For You?, she explores what it means to identify (or be identified) as an Indigenous Australian, and challenges unfounded but pervasive assumptions about what constitutes “an Aboriginal person”. Unfortunately, some segments of Australian media (who shall remain nameless, because they suck) have taken it upon themselves to put forth their own criteria, whereby someone might be “too light-skinned” or “too inner-city” or “not traditional enough” to be Aboriginal. Anita Heiss is not here to play, she rips those arguments to shreds – and I am HERE FOR IT!
The Yield by Tara June Winch
As I mentioned above, one of the most significant and horrifying tragedies of the white invasion of this continent has been the irreparable damage and loss to Indigenous Australian languages. Far too many have been extinguished, and with them cultural knowledge and foundations that were millennia in the making. Tara June Winch explores the devastating effect of this loss through fiction in The Yield. A young woman, August Gondiwindi, returns to Australia after a decade overseas to mourn the passing of her grandfather. She discovers new plans for dispossession of his land at the hands of a mining corporation, and she is called to protect her grandfather’s legacy, and that of the long lineage from which she descends.
Archival Poetics by Natalie Harkin
I can honestly say that I have never read anything like Natalie Harkin’s Archival Poetics. As a poet-activist, Harkin has been working with archives for many years, and this trilogy of poetry collections explores the ways in which violence against Indigenous Australians – especially Aboriginal women – has perhaps been excluded from the “official” narrative of the (white) archive, but recorded and recalled in different ways. It is visual, it is confronting, and it is a radical act of resistance against the colonial forces that would decide for themselves what is “worth” remembering.
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
I was overjoyed to hear that Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2019. Not just because I love seeing books by Indigenous Australians get the recognition they deserve (Lucashenko has both European and Goori heritage), but also because it’s funny! Sure, the humour is dark, and steeped in the mechanisms that have emerged in Aboriginal communities to cope with ongoing trauma and oppression, but still! Funny! Such books are too often overlooked, I think, in favour of more visceral and heart-wrenching depictions of violence and trauma. Too Much Lip proves that while violence and trauma are still ever-present realities for Indigenous Australians, there is also incredible scope for humour and gleeful delight in their storytelling.
Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
“Terra Nullius” is a loaded term for all Australians, Indigenous or otherwise (for international Keeper Upperers, in brief, it was the term used to declare that Australia was “uninhabited” at the time of the white coloniser’s arrival, and as such justified their invasion of Australia as “settlement” of land not owned by anyone else, an obvious fabrication). So, it’s a powerful statement by Claire G Coleman to use Terra Nullius as the title for her incredible book. She projects the real-world systemic oppression of Indigenous Australians into a speculative alternative, forcing the reader to reconsider the Australia they think they know and the history they think they understand. Read my full review of Terra Nullius here.
Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia (Anthology)
Local publisher Black Inc has done an incredible series of anthologies examining what it’s like to grow up in Australia, calling on an incredibly diverse range of voices to tell stories that might not otherwise have a platform. Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, edited by Anita Heiss, was for me perhaps the most affecting and eye-opening. Contributors include both household names – like Adam Goodes and Miranda Tapsell – and emerging voices in the Australian literary landscape. All of the pieces seek to engage, educate, and enlighten, often challenging the stereotypes and preconceived ideas that other Australians might not even realise they hold.
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
Dark Emu was first published back in 2014, and yet it’s still making headlines, and still topping best-seller lists. I think of all books by Indigenous Australians, this one in particular has become emblematic of the resistance against those media commentators (again, who I will not name, because they really suck) who would seek to maintain a status quo that perpetuates inequality and oppression. Those self-appointed cultural guardians perhaps shot themselves in the foot by decrying this book so vigorously and so often – in so doing, they brought it to a far wider audience than it might otherwise have reached (though undoubtedly deserves). Dark Emu completely rebuts many of the lies perpetuated about the pre-colonial history of Australia, and lays out a strong case for an overhaul of how we teach, talk about, and dismantle colonial myths. Pascoe has also subsequently produced Young Dark Emu, a version that allows parents and teachers to introduce young readers to these ideas from the very beginning.
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker
It has been my honour and privilege to attend several events where I’ve heard Gomeroi poet, legal scholar, and life writer Alison Whittaker perform and speak. Basically, I’ll buy a ticket to anything that has her name on it. Blakwork is her incredible genre-bending collection of poetry, memoir, journalism and critique. In it, she examines different kinds of work (including what she calls “blakwork”, from which the collection derives its name), and the ways in which they intersect. It’s experimental, in the sense that it plays with format and perception, but accessible to all readers and curious minds. It has won and been short-listed for multiple awards, and in my view it is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary Australian literature (not just books by Indigenous Australians).
One excellent way to support and celebrate our First Nations people is, of course, to buy books by Indigenous Australians – but if you want to do more, I highly recommend donating, fundraising, or making in-kind contributions to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
Important note: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a project undertaken on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation. This land was never ceded or sold. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and stand with their communities in solidarity against the forces of oppression.
June 4, 2020 at 7:25 AM
Now this is interesting as it’s an area I hadn’t thought about prior to this. I remember when in Australia tours of galleries of Aboriginal art were very fascinating but I hadn’t thought about literature by Aboriginal artists. I remember we attended a show written and starring aboriginal people which as a brief overview of aboriginal history. Something I wish I’d given more time to study.
June 11, 2020 at 9:01 PM
It seems like a really good time to start, if you get the chance, Phil 😉 The storytelling tradition of Indigenous Australians is truly breathtaking, once you start you’ll probably find it difficult to stop.