Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia is a 2018 autobiographical anthology, with 52 short essays by Aboriginal people about coming into their own identities. It’s the second in Black Inc’s Growing Up series, a collection that aims to ‘enlighten, inspire, and educate’ (see also: Growing Up Asian In Australia, Growing Up Queer In Australia, and so on). The tagline promises “childhood stories of family, country, and belonging”.
The anthology is edited by Anita Heiss, an Aboriginal Australian author, poet, cultural activist and social commentator. She’s done an excellent job of collating diverse stories from a broad cross-section of Aboriginal people. Contributors to Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia include a handful of writers you might recognise – like Tony Birch, Evelyn Araluen, Tara June Winch – but they are mostly non-writers. For many, it’s the first time they’ve published anything they’ve written. The only requirement Heiss laid out for them is that their stories be true, non-fiction accounts about (as the title suggests) growing up Aboriginal in Australia.
Mostly, the stories are told in a straightforward essay format, though some of the contributors mixed it up, offering conversation transcripts, open letters, and poetry. On the whole, they’re not particularly arty or Literary(TM). That’s good in the sense that it makes these accounts widely accessible. You don’t need to be a “reader” to appreciate and learn from them, nor do you have to be an adult (I’d say Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia is appropriate and accessible to just about any age group with an interest in reading it).
However, if you’re looking for literary masterpieces about First Nations people, this isn’t the collection you’re looking for. You should try reading Melissa Lucashenko, or Alexis Wright. That’s not to say that their Literary(TM) writing is any better than that in Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, or vice versa – simply that different styles will appeal to and resonate for different readers.
It’s also not a particularly graphic or explicit collection, if anyone’s worried about that. Of course, traumatic events and racism are frequently mentioned throughout Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, but they’re never exploited or discussed in gratuitous detail.
The feeling of not being “black enough” or “Aboriginal enough”, and lamenting loss of connection to ancestry and culture, is present in almost all of these stories. That’s the most heartbreaking aspect of Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia for me – the impact that colonisation has had, and the damage it has done, in deciding what a “real” Aboriginal person “should” look like, or how they should live.
Each account reveals, to some degree, the impact of invasion and colonisation – on language, on country, on ways of life…Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia (Anita Heiss, Introduction)
My personal favourites from Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia include Finding ways home (Evelyn Araluen), White bread dreaming (Shannon Foster), A story from my life (William Russell), It’s too hot (Alexis West), and Aboriginemo (Alison Whittaker). Most of the contributions I particularly enjoyed were ones that focused on a single incident, or period in the person’s life – but that’s a purely personal preference. Some of the stories do that, others offer a more sweeping overview of the contributor’s childhood. It seems like Heiss gave them pretty free rein to tell their own stories as they saw fit.
Whichever approach they take, each contributor clearly speaks from the heart in their stories, with a strong desire to humanise their identities and reject the stereotypes they have been subjected to throughout their lives. Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia encourages empathy and demands respect, a wonderful contribution to the canon of First Nations literature in this country.