Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

An Uneasy Truce? Aboriginal Women's Autobiography in the Arena of Postcolonial Studies

Anne Brewster

Fortunately, over the last couple of years, the terms "postcolonial" and "postcolonialism" have come under scrutiny. Ella Shohat, for example, interrogates the term "postcolonial" and questions its "ahistorical and universalizing deployments, and its potentially depoliticizing implications" (1992:99). Moreover, since the "post" in postcolonial implies "after" colonialism, the term, she suggests, is imbued with "an ambiguous spatio-temporality" (1992: 102). It collapses the difference between the colonized/ colonizing settlers and the colonized indigenous populations of the settler-states.

In this context, she argues that the term "postcolonial" is unhelpful in talking about Aboriginal constituencies. Because the term "postcolonial" carries implications that colonialism is a matter of the past, she continues, it "leaves no space for the struggles of aboriginals in Australia" (1992: 105). Thus she argues for "a more nuanced discourse" (1992: 108) in which the concept of the postcolonial is "interrogated and contextualized historically, geopolitically and culturally" (1992: 111), a discourse which will "address the politics of location" (1992: 112).

Several Australian theorists have followed the same line of reasoning. Hugh Webb, for example, argues that the term "postcolonial," "[a]s a framing discursive marker for Aboriginal culture . . . is . . . an oppressive misnomer" (1991: 32). Mishra and Hodge also interrogate the term "postcolonial" in the context of a settler-state like Australia. They argue that "[a]n uncritical adulation of pluralism . . . leads, finally, to postcolonialism becoming the liberal Australian version of multiculturalism" (1991: 410) and conclude with the following recommendation:

[S]maller recits must replace the grand recit of postcolonialism . . . so that we can know the historical background better. In these smaller recits it may well be that the term "postcolonial" is never used. (1991: 412)

The proliferation of Aboriginal women's autobiographies is part of a complex process of cultural transformation in contemporary Australian culture. These narratives have had a marked effect on reversing white cultural amnesia and have demonstrated Benedict Anderson's dictum that a country's biography, "because it can not be 'remembered,' must be narrated" (1991: 204). What white Australians are remembering is their own history as colonizers. Pedagogically this movement is represented in the swing from the establishment in the 1920s and 1930s of Australian Studies which charted the process of white Australia's postcolonial emergence from under the umbrella of the imperialist culture, to the establishment some decades later of Aboriginal Studies where the indigenous cultures reconstitute and rename themselves.

I agree that the term postcolonial is virtually meaningless in the Aboriginal context for the same reason that the theorists mentioned above have pointed to, namely that "post" inevitably suggests the passing of a historical period and of a colonizing consciousness. For Aboriginal culture this is patently not the case. White Australia is passing through ever more nuanced phases of neocolonialism where Aboriginal culture, as it becomes more visible, is in danger of being appropriated and commodified by the dominant white culture in which it is inserted.

Clearly white Australian culture is simultaneously post- and neocolonial; contemporarily it could be described as neocolonized and neocolonizing. The postcolonial moment is much more difficult to track in a genealogy of Aboriginal culture. Spivak's dictum that "postcolonialism doesn't exist" (1991: 75) makes sense in this context. She argues that "[p]ostcolonialism assumes that decolonization has taken place. A more appropriate question is who decolonizes?" (1991: 75) In Australian Studies programs of the 1920s and 1930s one would have replied "white Australians"; now the answer is "Aborigines." In discussing Aboriginal women's autobiographical narratives I prefer to foreground the process of decolonization rather than to foreclose on this complex and agonistic process by using the term postcolonialism. And yet, while I would not use the term "postcolonial" to describe Aboriginal culture I would possibly describe my own position as a white Australian observing the process of decolonization in Aboriginal culture as postcolonial.

I would like to take up Mishra and Hodge's suggestion of formulating small rather than grand or totalising recits, in this case to explore the process of decolonization as articulated in Aboriginal women's autobiographies. This process is a productive and generative one. Following Foucault I would describe the recits emerging in the Aboriginal narratives under discussion here as the "insurrection of subjugated knowledges" (1980: 81).

Foucault has described the "insurrection of subjugated knowledges" as "the immediate emergence of historical contents . . . that have been buried and disguised" (1980: 81). Along with this emergence of historical contents, there come to light knowledges which have been "disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: [they are] naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity" (1980: 82).

What emerges out of disinterring these knowledges is what Foucault describes as a "genealogy" which allows us "to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today" (1980: 83). He then reiterates the point that such genealogies can arise only when "the tyranny of globalizing discourses with their hierarchy and all their privileges . . . [is] eliminated" (1980: 83).

The discourses that have tryannized Aborigines are of course Government policies initiated with the formation of the Aborigines Protection Board circa 1883 (NSW) and, particularly foregrounded in these autobiographical narratives, the Aborigines Protection Act which was introduced in 1905 in WA (four years later in NSW) and gave the Government special powers to remove children from their parents.

In tracing the decolonizing counter-discourse of contemporary Aboriginal culture I take my cue from Foucault who warns against the reinscription of a totalizing discourse:

. . . it will be no part of our concern to provide a solid and homogeneous theoretical terrain for all these dispersed genealogies, nor to descend upon them from on high with some kind of halo of theory that would unite them. Our task, on the contrary, will be to expose and specify the issue at stake in this opposition, this struggle, this insurrection of knowledges against the institutions and against effects of the knowledge and power that invests scientific discourse. (1980: 87)

We have to be constantly vigilant, for as Foucault reminds us:

. . . is it not perhaps the case that these fragments of genealogies are no sooner brought to light, that the particular elements of the knowledge that one seeks to disinter are no sooner accredited and put into circulation, than they run the risk of re-codification, re-colonization? (1980: 86)

In the discussion of Aboriginal women's autobiographical narratives that follows, I want to propose a reading that keeps two things in mind, one of which is the historical context of contemporary Aboriginal culture, and the other, the performative aspect of storytelling. To elaborate: firstly, I want to read the family in its historical context and the role it plays in resisting white culture. This role is gendered. As keepers of the family, Aboriginal women are the bearers of "naive knowledges," a counter-discourse to white culture. This "naive knowledge" is articulated in the autobiographies. If we remind ourselves of the story-telling nature of these autobiographies (and this is my second point), we can recognize their social and counselling role. By keeping in mind the contingent and performative act of storytelling we can thus avoid depoliticizing and aestheticizing these stories.

To start with the second point first, it is worrying how often reviewers and critics make a slip of the pen in their discussion of these texts in referring to them as having been "written" by the Aboriginal narrator. It is, of course, a fact that several Aboriginal women's autobiographies have been written by the Aboriginal narrator (e.g. Morgan, Ward, Edmund, Gaffney, Pilkington), but the majority have been transcribed from oral narratives (e.g. Eliza Kennedy, Labumore, Smith, Langford, Walker, Cohen and Nannup). In both cases editorial intervention has generally been extensive.

Elsewhere I've talked about the orality of Aboriginal women's autobiographies with reference to Walter Benjamin's work on storytelling. He contrasts the social and companionship aspect of storytelling with the isolation of both the novelist and the reader of novels who each epitomize "the solitary individual" (1973: 87). I like to cite his description of storytelling as an essentially social act which rests upon "the ability to exchange experiences" (1973: 83). The sense of exchanging not simply information but experience, and that of giving counsel, are evident in the enunciative mode of the Aboriginal narratives which are often didactic (drawing a moral from a particular story or incident). They are performative acts drawing upon a repertoire of stories to meet the social requirements and conditions of the enunciative occasion. Above all, these texts are contingent and local.

Moreover, as I've suggested, these stories are not only narrated to/for a white audience. Benjamin says that storytelling is the "art of repeating stories" (1973: 91) and most of the Aboriginal authors are grandmothers who see their stories as narratives that will be repeatedly retold and reread in the family. Many of the oral narratives comprise stories that have been told to the narrator by their mother or family members. These stories are in effect an "education" for the contemporary generation of Aborigines, those who have not lived through the times related by the grandmothers and who, in some cases, did not even know they were of Aboriginal blood until late in their childhood (Morgan 1987, Cohen quoted by Somerville, Somerville 1990: 34). Thus, while many Aboriginal writers are quite consciously aiming their texts at a white market as Jackie Huggins suggests (with Tarrago 1990: 143-4), despite this conscious marketing strategy, Aboriginal texts, as exemplified by women's autobiographies, are hybrid in their enunciation; they are enunciated for both an Aboriginal and a white listener/reader.

To overlook the oral nature and the enunciative conditions of these narratives is to fall into the trap that Foucault describes, and ignore the social and material conditions of the utterance, the performative nature of utterance. It is to decontextualize and de-historicize and thus depoliticize the text in order to aestheticize it and appropriate it for the institutional discourse of literary criticism. Thus is the text re-colonized.

Having insisted on the text's social and contingent nature, I would like now to examine the "emergence" of its "historical contents." Although the initial wave of Aboriginal life stories and autobiographical narratives focussed on men (Merlan 1988: 63), this was followed by a wave of women's narratives which began in the late 1970s, spanned the 1980s, and which, a decade after the first such autobiography was published, gained momentum with the appearance of Sally Morgan's My Place in 1987. Morgan's success focussed new attention on the genre from which point it proliferated, producing nine new books in the space of five years. For the remainder of this paper I would like to speculate as to why women in particular have been telling their stories at this point in time and how the "historical contents" of their stories are gendered.

To address the first issue, I need to look at the cultural positioning of women within the Aboriginal community. Many black women in Australia such as Roberta Sykes (1984: 67), Patsy Cohen (1990: 109), Shirley Smith (1977: 249) and Sally Morgan (1992: 7, 19) have commented upon the prominent position that black women have come to occupy in communal and family life over the decades. There have been various reasons put forward to explain this, including the high numbers of Aboriginal men incarcerated and the statistics on the early average age of male deaths (Sykes 1984: 67). Indeed, several of these women autobiographers are survivors in the literal sense of having outlived their husbands, often being widowed with a large family that may include young children (Walker, Edmund).

Women, then, over the decades, have come to occupy a focal position in Aboriginal culture. In their autobiographies we can observe gender-specific strategies of resistance to white racism such as the maintenance of the family and a distinct way of life. This has been in opposition to the government's policy (the WA Aborigines Act of 1905) of breaking up families by removing children with white blood and allocating them to city dwellers as domestics or to white farmers as domestics and station workers and where they were used virtually as slave labour. Roberta Sykes has described the forced removal of these children from their families as "a major crime against Aboriginal people and humanity generally, and . . . arguably the most despicable white activity of the past century" (1991: 181). A genealogy of the family is thus crucial in light of the devastating effects of this Act.

The importance of family in Aboriginal women's lives and narratives can be seen to run against the grain of some thinking in First-world feminism which critiques the family as the locus of oppression. However, as several Black feminists from the U.K. have suggested, the family has a different significance for minority constituencies. Hazel Carby, for example, suggests that in the U.K. "the black family has been a site of political and cultural resistance to racism" (1982: 214) and Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar in their work reclaim the notion of family from white feminists and anthropologists to "locate the Black family more firmly in the historical experiences of Black people" (1984: 11).

In their constitution of family life aboriginal women's autobiographies are laced with descriptions of the practice of home-making, and talk about traditional foods and cooking, health remedies and wisdom. The naming of recipes, of bush tucker and health remedies, like the naming of tribes or language groups, is an important act of decolonization, of re-inscribing domestic and geographical space. The construction of a genealogy of the family is also a process of naming, of articulating what Foucault calls "naive knowledges" which are "located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity" (1980: 82). And indeed, at least one white critic has discounted this kind of knowledge, finding the constant references to cooking in Aboriginal women's autobiography a mark of trivialization. [1]

In their autobiographical narratives, the "naive knowledges" of Aboriginal women exist side by side with the scientific knowledge they have acquired from white culture. Ellie Gaffney's autobiography is in large part a history of her nursing career, studded with references to Western notions of health, medicine and hygiene. And yet this discourse is interspersed with stories from an incommensurate discourse, namely traditional lore and local wisdom as we can see in the relating of this story:

Husbands of pregnant women are forbidden to hunt and kill during their wives' pregnancies.

This tale I am about to tell is a true story I experienced with two Torres Strait Island women in my nursing career. It could have been a coincidence, but it is strange. The women's husbands had decided to go deer hunting during this period against the elders' wishes. Whilst hunting, they shot a deer each. One of the deer was still showing signs of life so the older of the hunters butted the deer's mouth and then shot it through the heart. His wife gave birth to a baby boy with a hare lip and a cleft palate, and a hole in his heart. That child died at the age of two-and-a-half. The other hunter merely scalped his deer for the six pointer horn. His wife gave birth to a beautiful girl, except she was an anancephalic (sic). An anancephalic (sic) is a child born usually fully formed, except it has no scalp bone and the brain is exposed; the child usually dies in a few hours. In this case, it died soon after birth. In my twenty-six years of nursing, that was the second anancephalic (sic) I had witnessed. They are a rarity. (1989: 33)

Many of these women who were born in the 1930s became politicized during the 1960s especially those on the east coast. Edmund and Gaffney, in particular, had quite high profile political careers, Edmund as a Shire Councillor, a Federal Commissioner and an endorsed Labor party candidate. In 1986 she was awarded the Order of Australia. Gaffney also had a high profile in Aboriginal affairs, mainly in the nursing and education fields and in Aboriginal media organizations in Queensland. Smith and Tucker were awarded M.B.E.s and Simon, who was born in 1902, is hailed as "[p]robably the first Aboriginal woman to be made a J.P." (1978: 14) Many of these women have high community profiles and some appear regularly in the media (Langford and Morgan). Several went through tertiary education after they had raised their families (Nannup and Cohen). It is clear, then, that they are writing from a position of social prestige and achievement.

Their narratives are those of recollection, a (re)reading of the narrator's own life, re-evaluating the past from the perspective of the present and its clearly changed conditions for Aboriginal people. Their powerlessness as children, adolescents and struggling mothers, contrasts with their present status in the community. Their awards and recognition, that is, their personal success, highlights the huge gulf between the present and the past. The narrativization of Aboriginal women's memoirs constitutes the project of making the invisible history of the colonization of Australia's indigenous peoples visible, and reinscribing and renaming decolonized space. It is important that these spaces are not re-codified, re-colonized and appropriated by white discourses.

"Naive knowledges," which emerge through storytelling, exist outside "the hierarchy of knowledges and sciences." It is important, therefore, that they are not subsumed and coerced into a "theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse" (Foucault 1980: 85). I use Foucault's term "naive" not in a patronizing sense but to describe extra-cognitive and extra-scientistic local and popular practices. In order to avoid re-codifying these knowledges/practices as sciences, we must always be attentive to their local and particular aspects, that is, in the case of Aboriginal women's stories, to the social, material and contingent nature of their utterances. In constructing this type of genealogy in teaching Aboriginal women's texts we can hopefully avoid depoliticizing and aestheticizing them in a universalizing discourse such as postcolonialism.

Curtin University of Technology

Works Cited

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[1] This observation has been made by Robyn McCarron (1991: 19)

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