One of the fundamentals about books is how they allow us to see through another’s eyes. In this part memoir, part polemic, part primer on Indigenous Australia, Anita Heiss gives a sharp, funny, moving account of what it’s like to be an educated, urban Aboriginal woman with an Austrian father, and the freight of expectations that come with that.
The book’s genesis lies in the court case that Heiss and eight others brought against News Ltd columnist and blogger Andrew Bolt. In 2009 Bolt published a nationally syndicated column claiming that Heiss and other ‘light-skinned’ Aborigines had ‘chosen’ to identify as Aboriginal for the benefit of their careers. The column made specific claims about Heiss, her family and her professional life that were false.
In addition, the column generated a huge number of angry reader responses online. Readers claimed Heiss was ‘rorting the system’ and that ‘Aboriginality is the get out of jail or get ahead free card’. (Given the rates of imprisonment of Aboriginal people the latter would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic: in the book Heiss quotes figures for WA in 2008 showing that Indigenous people ‘were twenty times more likely to be imprisoned that non-Indigenous people’.)
The ignorance of Bolt’s readers reflects the ignorance of the wider community about Aboriginal life, and a significant part of Heiss’s intention with this book is to educate non-Indigenous Australians and place some facts on the table:
I am not unlike many others today; 32 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in urban centres and enjoy all the experiences and changes that city life brings. And yet, I feel that we as Blackfellas are still expected by many to remain static as Aboriginal people. That in order to be ‘authentically Aboriginal’ we must not evolve as a community … [that we are] only being really Aboriginal, or really black, if we are desert-dwellers, poor, uneducated, at risk and dark-skinned. So myself and the other people mentioned in the Bolt article must therefore be whites taking Black jobs. Our reality, though, is that we are all educated Blackfellas wanting to give back to our communities by working roles that allow us to do just that.
Heiss has encountered racism all her life – from the kindly neighbour who suggested that life would be easier for her if she were to ‘pass’ as Spanish instead of Aboriginal, to enduring taunts of ‘abo’. The legacies of white ‘protection’ policies towards Aborigines are part of her family history: her grandmother was removed from her family at Nyngan by the Aborigines Protection Board and taken to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls.
In addition to expectations that she be ‘authentically Aboriginal’, Heiss has also had to deal with being treated as an ‘Aboriginal encyclopaedia’, knowledgeable about every aspect of Aboriginal life, from life expectancy and health issues to literature (her true specialty) to spiritual matters. With understandable exasperation she asks how any non-Indigenous person would fare trying to explain every aspect of Australia’s political, economic, social, cultural and spiritual life to a stranger.
The particular expectations placed on Aboriginal women have a chapter of their own entitled, ‘If You Are a Black Woman, You Should’. In it she points out that what can seem a statement of empowerment (‘Black women are strong’, for example) can have the opposite effect, instead reinforcing the idea that women don’t need support or that their situations need not change.
I’ve often felt that my life is about making others understand that you can’t prescribe Aboriginality, and you can’t place genetically based stereotypes on individuals.
As a writer Heiss has energetically avoided stereotyping, publishing books across an astonishing range of genres: poetry (Token Koori), satire (Sacred Cows), historical fiction (Who am I? The diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937), two children’s books (in collaboration with the children of La Perouse school, Yirra and her Deadly Dog, Demon and Demon Guards the School Yard), she co-edited The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, and is the author of four popular novels firmly in the chick lit (or what she calls ‘choc lit’) genre. She holds a PhD from the University of Western Sydney in Media and Communications and has spoken at conferences around the world.
It’s impossible to pigeonhole her: she is an admirer of poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) as well as Oprah Winfrey (who gets a chapter); she enjoys teaching in the bush but hates camping; she is an academic who writes chick lit.
One striking aspect of the book is Heiss’s lack of anger. This is a woman more concerned to educate than to rage, more interested in building bridges than burning them. Throughout she is grateful for the opportunities she has had and the support she has received from her family and others. She shows through her own experiences the strength of the Aboriginal community – from the encouragement she received when she was studying at university, to the teaching and mentoring she has done in turn with young Indigenous students.
In the introduction Heiss declares herself ‘a proud Wiradjuri woman’, an identification with her mother’s family. She points out that, unlike many non-Indigenous people, who may immigrate and take on a new national identity, for her, even though she has spent most of her life on Gadigal land in Sydney, ‘Wherever I am in Australia or overseas, I am always Wiradjuri.’ The identification with country is fundamental and non-negotiable.
Heiss is a powerful and passionate advocate for Aboriginal people in literature and in education. All too aware of the statistics for Aboriginal literacy (in the Northern Territory, only 40 per cent of Indigenous students can ‘read or write at the national standard’ compared to 85 per cent of non-Indigenous students), one of her many roles is as an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
(On the subject of reading, the book could have had a more thorough proofread: there are errors such as ‘Callum Park’ for Sydney’s Callan Park and ‘comfy heals’ for comfy heels.)
There were 17 Aboriginal people named in Andrew Bolt’s article; nine of them became part of a group action against him brought under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The book weaves the court case lightly through the story of Heiss’s life. While it’s questionable that the case (which Heiss and her fellow-plaintiffs won) will have the effect she hoped for in improving standards of journalism, there is no doubt that it has been a significant one in media law.
But really this is a book about the woman, not the court case, which has already been widely covered. It is a vibrant, intimate, courageous account of a unique human being who has important things to say about what it’s like to be an Indigenous woman in twenty-first-century Australia, and about our right to define our own identities as we wish.
To find out more about the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, click here.
To read the Australia Council’s Protocols for Producing Indigenous Australian Writing, put together by Terri Janke with input from Anita Heiss, click here.
Anita Heiss Am I Black Enough For You? Random House 2012 304pp PB $34.95
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