Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 32, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

Doin' the post-colonial story? Neidje, Narogin and the Aboriginal narrative intervention

Hugh Webb

This paper is partly polemical and partly speculative. The polemical section is concerned with an interrogation of the category 'post-colonial' while the speculative part of the discussion involves an approach to exemplary texts from Mudrooroo Narogin and Bill Neidjie that raises various narratological implications regarding the functioning of story within these texts. My central focus is the problematic positioning of Aboriginal writing and my central claim is that both Doin Wildcat 1 and Story About Feeling 2 are texts manifestly in excess of the category 'post-colonial'.

... or Flagging the post-colonial: hoisted on whose petard?

'Post-colonial writing'. What is this term 'post-colonial' or, more importantly, whose term is it? Whose interests does it serve? The 'post-colonial' is a confused misnomer in an Australian context. As a framing discursive marker for Aboriginal culture it is also an oppressive misnomer. In a perverse logic drawn from colonial discourses, Aboriginal writing is now post- ( i.e. after) the colonial period. The 'colonial' in Australia has ended? I would not want to try to tell that to Robert Bropho, or to Kevin Gilbert, or to Oodgeroo Noonuccal, in particular. It might be said that the 'post - colonial' is merely a term deployed within the discourses of literary criticism to describe a certain trend in contemporary writing. Maybe. Or that the 'post - colonial' is an enabling term, allowing previously silenced voices to be heard; that it is a compliment, a recognition of liberated difference. But clearly it is necessary to ask: who is still defining and controlling that difference? Whose social and political needs are fulfilled by the claim that what was the 'colonial' is of the past? And whose temporal scheme of past-present-future (pre-present-post) informs the category? Not that of Aboriginal culture. It is not Aboriginal cultural forms that have necessitated the creation of a post-colonial enterprise. In a sense it is an enterprise that answers to a developing Eurocentric recognition of (and need for) a cogent, sustainable schema of theoretical explanation that can relatively unproblematically position those texts of the former 'natives' that otherwise would have a worryingly subversive lack of position. Unchallenged, the danger is clearly that of a new form of imperial hegemony that tends to stress a kind of neutralised similarity at the expense of necessary recognition of specific cultural histories. At best, this process would produce what Mishra and Hodge describe as "a celebration of specious unity rather than a critique". 3 At worst, a subtle form of canonical (colonial) incorporation. Within this process the 'post-colonial' is constructed as an object of knowledge that (suitably enough for Eurocentric intellectual dispositions) can then be critiqued through a postmodern/ novelistic critical discourse. The tendency, as they point out in discussing The Empire Writes Back ,4 is to "remove the post-colonial as a radical political act of self-legitimation and self-respect locked into practices which ante-date the arrival of the colonizer...".5 And, at the same time, it can be seen that the 'practices' of the colonising group are almost invisibly subsumed within the fetishised concepts of 'language' and 'culture' that are deployed as realist summaries of the colonial-contact situation or, at least, as fractions of a truth-telling summary of social experience. The individual text becomes separated from the indigenous-defined realities of its origins and cultural meanings. The 'post-colonial' becomes "a purely textual phenomenon, as if power is simply a matter of discourse and it is only through discourse that counter-claims might be made." 6 The Aboriginal text becomes text-as-discourse to be scrutinised now like almost any other signifying artefact. The lack of cultural specificity in the notion of 'post-colonial' is a strikingly political feature, in terms of rhetorical effects, that seems to include all while particularly recognising none. What cultural specificity (indeed, what cultural respect) can be acknowledged within a post-colonial category that is defined as covering "all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day"? 7 Apart from the obvious problem of cultural 'lumping' that such a definition suggests, how would one decide which parts of a culture are those "affected", and by whose definition of that culture is the impact assessed? Specifically, in the case of modern Aboriginal writing, the definition is that of the invader-culture's discourses of understanding. This leads to the quaint situation where the newcomers are defining an existing culture as a type of damaged cultural artefact while, in the process, ignoring the fact that it is Aboriginal culture which is the senior culture on this continent (and not only in a temporal sense). Interestingly, in The Empire Writes Back , these contradictions are tacitly acknowledged - albeit in a tentativeness in the area of textual analysis. A listing of major authors is provided8 but no discussion of specific texts. While this tentativeness does not prevent the authors making the sweeping and unsupported claim that "...Aboriginal writing provides an excellent example of a dominated literature..."9 (where the easy parallelism of excellent and dominated signifies more than is perhaps realised), overall the sense is one of a cautious hesitancy about the specifics of Aboriginal writing. Yet the move to incorporate Aboriginal writing into the hegemonic discourse of the 'post-colonial' is well under way in this country. The booklet issued for the 1991 Writers Festival in Fremantle is rather poetically entitled "Old Lands, New Writings: Literature and Post-Colonialism" 10 and lists the invited writers (the majority of whom are identified as 'Aboriginal').11 The Leavisite ring to the title - based on a superficial binary that suggests some form of fascinating dialectic between old/new, land/culture - evidences the colonial nature of the discursive fields involved and, within those fields, the writings of Aboriginal people are positioned as both symptomatic of this purported dialectic and representative of literature in a period of 'post-colonialism'. These are writings, the booklet makes clear, forged by the experience of post-colonialism. And what is the nature of that experience? It is defined as "growing up with a language formed in another place and for another culture". 12 Despite the almost ludicrous reductionism of this definition (where the 'post-colonial' is situated like some incipient childhood nightmare of a linguistic kind), the decision to focus on the categories 'language' and 'culture' is a revealing one. The central move is to equate language with culture in a contextual domain where culture is seen to be present because of language, absent because - unlike in the 'old days' - there is 'English' (or 'english') and not some putatively-defined 'real' Aboriginal language. This is, simultaneously, the voice of nostalgia and domination. We see here a fetishisation of languages employed in texts as if 'language' is the most valid marker of colonial ( and post-colonial) experience. The result: a remarkably mechanistic, static, syntactical view of Aboriginal culture. The whole question of 'language and culture' in the defining process surely needs to be challenged. Is there any reason to accept, so unquestioningly, that (for instance) writing is 'power', non-writing - read 'oral culture' - is 'non - power'? In any case, was/is Aboriginal culture dominated by language (words) or by the gun, the chain and racist socio-political power? There is a revisionist mystification of historical processes at the heart of this 'language' fetish, one constructed from a superior stance of the technological. The booklet continues: "before whites came to Australia Aboriginal narrative was entirely oral - told to each generation, rather than written down or processed on a keyboard". 13 This is, of course, a massive oversimplification of the dominant (multi-media) modes of Aboriginal culture that include drawing, body-inscription, painting and the physical narrative of the land. And if the feeling is of something lost or displaced, is it the "keyboard" that is, in practise, the key metaphor? After all, what is so powerful, so defining, about a keyboard? In all these definitions of the 'post-colonial', the sense given is of a people struggling to express themselves in an alien context. Even a cursory reading of Neidjie's Story About Feeling leaves this sort of claim seeming very dubious indeed. The book, transcriptions of Neidjie's speaking, constitutes a powerfully central commentary on Australian continental culture.
What has occurred is that the 'post-colonial' is no longer a term operating in the classificatory spaces of a literary history. It is now functioning something like a genre - a genre not only of texts but of peoples, of cultures. And we know (following Jameson) that a genre operates as "a socio-symbolic message ... immanently and intrinsically an ideology in its own right."14 The cultural framing involved in this process becomes clearer when one considers the ratification function involved. Genres can be seen as "the socially-ratified text - types available within a community ...", 15 as Terry Threadgold has pointed out. So who is ratifying the ascription of the 'post-colonial' to Aboriginal writing? Not the Aboriginal community.


On the face of it, Mudrooroo Narogin's Doin Wildcat is an exemplary post - colonial text as defined by criteria developed by the writers of The Empire Writes Back. It is a text full of linguistic innovation, full of language-play. The full title of the work is surely a sign, too, of the post-modernist mode: Doin Wildcat, A Novel Koori Script, As constructed by Mudrooroo Narogin (Previously known as Colin Johnson) . It is a text that displays, rejoices in, its radical constructedness. There is a constant problematisation of fact/fiction (and genre) boundaries, experimentation with both language and literary forms, a complex of narrational and contextual schemes, and evident intertextual and counter-discursive elements. This brief extract demonstrates many of the exemplary features:

June: I've just got here. Didn't know if you would turn up, or not. I'm at that table with a few friends.

She takes Ernie by is arm. Ee allows imself to be led to the table. Ee is introduced to the men.

June: This is the boy I met on the beach yesterday.

Ernie doesn't say a word. Ee sits nervously on a chair. Ee lights up a cigarette.

June: Frank and Bill here are doing Social Anthropology. They are really interested in the plight of the Aborigines...

Even though I ave written these lines, I inwardly shudder at em. I know what's comin, ave bin in such scenes, an know the whole thing. This'll be their first meetin with an Aborigine, and ee'll be expected to be cluey on all aspects of what I've written as 'the plight of the Aborigines'. Naturally, I've written it to show what we come up against from even well meanin whites. Ernie squirms in is chair. There's a few takes an cuts, an this disrupts the questionin. Still it goes on. 16

In terms of narrative/thematic processes it is clear that Doin Wildcat is a rewriting (a new construction) of the author's first novel Wildcat Falling .17 A liberating performance - though Ernie never gets the film that he wants - getting out from under the alienated discourse of the earlier work with its European - style idiom and racist 'foreword'.
The exemplary post-colonial text? Perhaps. But there is something just too exemplary, too forcefully knowing here. A doing of what is expected and then a laconic, flaunting resistance. After all, this is a text from an author who changed his name "as a special Bicentennial event" 18 ! It is a text that, like the name change, signifies Aboriginality. To mark Doin Wildcat as merely 'post-colonial' is not seeing the wood for the trees. For this novel is intervening into a very complex socio-literary situation. The author's autobiographical poem "Seeking Mudrooroo" is an interesting intertext in terms of positional complexities. The second stanza of this poem begins:

His words should be treated
As the joke of his absence
Seeking Mudrooroo ....19.

So it is a question of reading this text (these words) as a "joke" - a very serious discursive joke - and not at all what it might appear to be in terms of non - Aboriginal categories.20 Specifically, in such a reading, Doin Wildcat can be seen as a powerful rendering of the polysemous terms of Aboriginal cultural expression (with shifting significations of narrative items depending on the context, site and function of the cultural 'explanation' at hand). Doin Wildcat , then, a telling of Aboriginal intellectuality in the life-story mode. And, in my view, story is the key term here.


The sheer cultural confidence (the palpable narrative force of its cultural intervention) is the most striking feature of Bill Neidjie's Story About Feeling . If all Aboriginal culture has been colonised, changed utterly, then how can this book (from the Magabala Press in Broome) appear? We read - or, more properly, listen to - a series of interlocking narratives that have the Aboriginal notion of story as not only their formal linkage but, more interestingly, as their thematic focus. Or, given the unity of functions in this Story , it is more accurate to say that formal/thematic elements coalesce. This is a story about story (which is also feeling):

Tree smooth
What about you'n'me smooth skin?
Might be sunburn you but you got white, no-matter me.
But this the story. You can't split im,
you can't change im, you can't do anything.
This story you got to keep im ... in your feeling.
Tree for us, eagle ... anything.
Eagle, bird, animal, rock ... this the story.
('Tree') 21

A tight cluster of important cultural terms - 'skin', feeling, tree, bird, animal, land - is deployed in a powerful rhetoric of unity directed against the splitting semiotics of non-Aboriginal ontologies. The notion of story provides the encompassing meaning-structure (as it is enunciated).Subject/ object, speaker/story dichotomies are thus radically challenged. In 'Laying Down', story is again both the central organising category and the means of cultural expression:

Listen carefully, careful
and this spirit e come in your feeling
and you will feel it...anyone that.
I feel body same as you.
I telling you this because the land for us,
never change round, never change.
Places for us, earth for us,
star, moon, tree, animal,
no-matter what sort of a animal, bird or snake...
all that animal same like us. Our friend that.

This story e can listen careful
and how you want to feel on your feeling.
This story e coming through you body,
e go right down foot and head, fingernail and blood.
through the heart.
And e can feel it because e'll come right through.
And when you sleep you might dream something. 22

Clearly there is a complex discursive event taking place (being performed) in/by these narratives. Patricia Baines - in her study of Nyungar stories from the fringe-dwellers - describes some of them as being "a careful configuration of meaning and metacommentary woven into the waiting moment". 23 That can stand as an exact description of Story About Feeling too.

There is a positivity in the Neidjie text that makes nonsense of the 'struggling, oppressed post-colonial' syndrome. It is a text that initiates (in a cultural sense) rather than simply reacting to an invader culture. This feature has been noted by Veronica Brady who writes of "a kind of heuristic device" at work in Story that has the effect of (as she puts it) "leading us out from our own limited order into a more inclusive and insightful way of conceiving the world...". 24

This more inclusive narrative 'way' is very much a physical and an environmental way. Story is certainly part of a physical process:

Listen carefully this, you can hear me.
I'm telling you because earth just like mother
and father or brother of you.
That tree same thing.
Your body, my body I suppose,
I'm same as you...anyone.
Tree working when you sleeping and dream.
This story e can listen carefully, e can listen slow
If you in city well I suppose lot of houses,
you can't hardly look this star
but might be one night you look Have a look star
because that's the feeling.
String, blood...through your body.
('Laying Down')25

And while white Australia has the abnoxious Toyota advertising story - 'Oh, what a feeling!' - complete with platoons of leaping humans, Neidjie's story is an ethical one, confident and eloquent. In 'Earth' he raises and answers the question "What's wrong with Toyota?":

This ground, tree, water, anything...for us.
Body in your body.
You cover, you sleep, you sleep with earth.
Earth for us, lily, any sort of a thing, plum.
This Toyota not for us but we learning something.
But e don't want to forget.
I don't forget.
"What's wrong with Toyota?" I said...
"Well something wrong!"
I had a argue little bit but I hang on my culture. 26


Returning to Mudrooroo's lines ("His words should be treated/As the joke of his absence"), this should alert us to the provisional, shadowing quality of discourses in Aboriginal culture (a feature strongly evident in Story About Feeling ): words flow, words 'evoke' rather than functioning to signify concreteness, to signify separateness.
When Roland Barthes wrote that language "is, as it were, an abstract circle of truths, outside of which alone the solid residue of an individual logos begins to settle",27 he was (I hope) thinking of European writing. Because his point is precisely not true of Story About Feeling. Language does not work like that here, nor does an individual logos 'begin' to settle. There is no such abstraction (individual and story) or alienation at work. Further, in both Story and Doin Wildcat - each constructed with 'English' words - there is little evidence of the dispossession (the linguistic trouble) that theories of post-coloniality attribute to so-called New Writing away from the metropolitan centre. These theories are clearly developed around a posited historical situation of cultural alienation. When one considers Marx's definition of alienation as (partly) "... the relationship to the sensuous external world, to natural objects, as an alien and hostile world" 28 then it becomes clear that Doin Wildcat knows that and knowingly thematises the notion itself. Rather than capitulating, Mudrooroo positively positions 'alienated' segments of his earlier novel to achieve a new narrative energy. As for Bill Neidjie, he does not languish in some marginalised, alienated space. He tells the listener/reader of ways of functioning that have personal and social coherence by means of a passionate enunciative enactment. His is a complex narrative enactment, too, with no readily-identifiable 'narrative point'. Both Story About Feeling and Doin Wildcat in fact explicitly (within the texts) deny any specific, single point as the organising fulcrum of the narrative. 29 In this way and in many others they mark the Aboriginality of their discourses. Something called 'the post-colonial' has little or nothing to do with that cultural marking. "But this the story. You can't split im, you can't change im ... this the story".30

Murdoch University


1 Mudrooroo Narogin, Doin Wildcat : A Novel Koori Script As constructed by Mudrooroo Narogin (Melbourne: Hyland House, 1988).

2 Bill Neidjie, Story About Feeling , edited by Keith Taylor (Broome: Magabala Books, 1989).

3 Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge, "What is Post(-)colonialism? Reading The Empire Writes Back ", forthcoming, Textual Practice, Autumn 1991.

4 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989).

5 Mishra and Hodge, op.cit. , p.11.

6 Ibid.

7 Empire, p.2.

8 Ibid. , p.144.

9 Ibid., p.32.

10 "Old Lands, New Writings: Literature and Post-Colonialism", 1991 Writers Festival booklet (Festival of Perth). Fremantle Arts Centre, March 1991.

11 Specifically: Jack Davis, Patsy Cohen, Sally Morgan, Bill Rosser, Daisy Utemorrah and Jock Shandley.

12 "Old Lands, New Writings", p.2.

13 Ibid.

14 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Methuen, 1983), p.141.

15 Terry Threadgold, "Talking About Genre: Ideologies and Incompatible Discourses", Cultural Studies, vol.3, no.1 (Jan.1989), p.109. Genres are seen here as providing "the possible formats for the construction, combination and transmission of the discourses and stories...".

16 Doin Wildcat, p.62. Mudrooroo read much of this extract as part of the programme "What Do You Really Do For a Job?", SBS Television, April 4th, 1990.

17 Colin Johnson (now Mudrooroo), Wild Cat Falling (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1965).

18 Personal conversation with author, November 1990. This is an ongoing process: from Colin Johnson to Mudrooroo Narogin to (now) Mudrooroo Nyoongah, with the emphasis on 'Mudrooroo'. See his latest novel Master of the Ghost Dreaming (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1991).

19 From "Seeking Mudrooroo", unpublished poem recited by the author, on "What Do You Really Do For a Job?", op.cit.

20 See Mudrooroo's comments on realist modes: "I haven't found much development in the novel. As I wrote in my book Writing from the Fringe we shouldget into Aboriginal reality, which is the Dreaming now . But what happens is that there's too many plays and stories in which the reality is very flat and is only 'what they done to us'... I find this exceedingly tedious. I have abig problem with this sort of realism. Aboriginal reality is more akin to surrealism in fact..." in Liz Thompson (ed.), Aboriginal Voices: Contemporary Aboriginal Artists, Writers and Performers (Sydney: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p.59.

21 Story About Feeling , p.32.

22 Ibid. , p.19.

23 Patricia Baines, "A litany for land" in Ian Keen (ed.), Being Black: Aboriginal Cultures in 'settled' Australia (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1988), p.240.

24 Veronica Brady, Review of Story About Feeling in Westerly , no. 1, March 1990, p.92.

25 Story About Feeling , p.3.

26 Ibid. , p.161.

27 Roland Barthes, from Writing Degree Zero, reprinted in Susan Sontag (ed.), A Barthes Reader (New York: Noonday Press, 1988), p.31.

28 Karl Marx, "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" in Ernst Fischer, Marx in His Own Words (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), p.49.

29 It is interesting to note how often (non-Aboriginal) readers/listeners of Aboriginal narratives make the comment that they cannot 'see the point' of the story. Note Patricia Baines' comment: "The ending took me completely by surprise. I had never heard a story ended in this way before..." (Baines, op.cit. , p.239).

30 An earlier version of this paper was presented to the AULLA XXVI Congress, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia (February 1991)

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