Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

Tiddas in Struggle: A Consultative Project with Murri, Koori and Nyoongah Women

Janine Little

"Tiddas in Struggle" is a reading of Aboriginal women's prose that examines some issues of its production and consumption. It focuses on the work of three writers - Sally Morgan, Jackie Huggins and Ruby Langford Ginibi - but is informed by a collective of Murri, Koori and Nyoongah women who speak about issues pervading their communities in far more complex ways than a conventional research project could appreciate. The location of "cultural contexts" in the title alludes to these complexities. It refers to critical methods as much as it suggests cultural specificities that determine the writing and reading of Aboriginal women's texts. In examining the latter, questions gather around the former. The question that should be most prominent is instead rarely acknowledged, let alone asked or addressed. That is, why are Aboriginal women (indeed peoples) not consulted in projects by non-Aboriginal critics attempting to understand their cultural expressions? Because of the rarity of acknowledgment and consideration of these questions, this paper concentrates on causes and alternatives.

Most of the critical material published about Aboriginal women's writing follows the conventions of academic discourse, and offers some useful approaches to analysis. However, these approaches grow dangerously close to becoming the ends, rather than a means of beginning to appreciate Aboriginal women's experiences, memories, struggles and strengths.1 It would therefore be pointless to fertilise the polemics of theoretical approaches to Aboriginal cultural production by being extremist, factional or too wordy. For similar reasons, the questions of:

why non-Aboriginal researchers generally perceive little methodo-logical or ethical problems with contributing to constructed discourses on Aboriginality without speaking to Aboriginal peoples;

how non-Aboriginal critics/readers/researchers might go about consulting with Aboriginal peoples

cannot be answered through one paper, perhaps not through written discourse and certainly not in a twice-removed way: attempting to convey what happens when a critic does try listening to Aboriginal women. In not supplying answers to these questions, the paper instead suggests that they be asked. It is only through consultation with Aboriginal women that these questions can be asked with conviction, and the effects of their (the women and the questions) omission be considered and challenged.

One of these effects is the view that methodological problems are apparently minimal, insofar that Aboriginal studies is a fertile field. Yet, the fact that this is only an apparent effect becomes obvious when Aboriginal women speak. Written discourse can only ever convey certain aspects of the conversations that change attitudes, and function on intuition rather than acquisition. Critical discourses about writing by Aboriginal women have been generated largely through feminist theories that identify a "common oppression" of all women.2 When Aboriginal women speak, however, they identify a domination/subordination ratio in which non-Aboriginal women maintain a convention of relative power.3 Within this convention, cultivated as written discourse in fields far from Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal women's issues and experiences are most often unrecognised and sometimes deferred to politely. They are, along with their particular stories, rarely considered imperative in postulating directions for future debate and research.

The distance (and displacement) of convention for analysis of Aboriginal women's prose from Aboriginal women themselves, enables discourses on Aboriginality to thrive as interpretations of a fixed, ungendered racial body.4 This is the way it happens when Aboriginal women are read only as texts, instead of cultural producers struggling with, and manouvering through dominant constructions of their identities and speaking positions.5 Opportunities for the theorist to see, sensitise, and attach a woman's conversation and presence beyond her published story to political contexts where little has changed, are, as stated earlier, either mediated or absent. It is much easier to acquire a knowledge of "race" while it is in black and white, running in isolated discourses, rather than intersecting, engaging with, and exposing the veneer of guilt and anxiety that glosses over entrenched racisms. Accepting the alternative of consultation means, therefore, considering who and what is invested in controlling discourses, and why "oppositional" does not run well in isolation from those spoken about. This implies scrutinising what is theorised, read, and ultimately written in analysis of Aboriginal women's cultural production.

Part of this implication is an acknowledgment of how "an ideology of capitalist control and relations underlies most academic discourse" (Mudrooroo).6 It may be restricted to problematising the position of Left intellectualism in australia,7 where most critical discussions of Aboriginal cultural production take place, in relation to dominating historical and cultural views. Still, the connections need to be acknowledged. The link between a national ideology of Mabo paranoia and the relative absence of Aboriginal women's voices telling their stories does not then seem overstretched. It is traced, in fact, later in this paper through a brief look at a particular "place" in australian memory. At this point, however, the question of an homogeneous, ungendered Aboriginality and its organising function in national conscience, should be acknowledged (Hodge and Mishra: 26). Another question, that of why "nobody in the official intellectual world seems to think there is any feasible organisation of society other than capitalism", then affords Left intellectual work the capacity to "call power by its right name."8 It also means alluding to another story to be told elsewhere, about my own speaking position as a working class woman critic, and how class does make a difference.

There is a difference in how I connect these stories told by Aboriginal women to the theoretical approaches applied in reading. My reading illustrates a lived background that brought me to the disciplines of literary/cultural studies with lifelong friendship and family bonds with Aboriginal peoples. That also cannot be experienced on the page or second hand, nor erased from memory. The dynamic of this, combined with experiences of "intellectual work", produced the commitment to consultation with Aboriginal women. There is a power investment in rendering particular stories silent. If there were no communities where whites and blacks shared their lives in poverty and struggle, then no one would find these communities. They would be erased from collective memory as complex and differentiated individual speaking positions are shifted to suit accepted perceptions of "the marginal".

The abandonment of "the myth that there will never be positive liaisons between Indigenous and non-Aboriginal women because of racism" must be demonstrated through projects that question conventions of authority, accountability and knowledge (Bellear: 1993).9 Aboriginal women's stories and issues can then inform truly vivid and brave critiques of cultural production and consumption, instead of being acquired by cultivated discourses that allow little space for mutual respect and equal participation. Stealing knowledge from Aboriginal women is not only possible, it is common practice. Jackie Huggins, Cathy Craigie, Liz Flanagan, and Ruby Langford Ginibi all tell of their own experiences of this. The theft might consist of robbing their writing of its community contexts and its oral underpinnings by disregarding matters of authority and accountability. It is, of course, more complex than this, and a non-Aboriginal critic is always in a process of learning it.10 This not only influences the way that discussions proceed, but also impacts upon how the written products of those discussions are shaped and circulated, if at all.

An effect of active consultation with Aboriginal women has been an awareness of the urgency of a scrutiny of the shaping and circulating of research. This scrutiny involves questioning the concepts of authority, knowledge, accountability and subjectivity. Whether this is conducted through the theoretical paradigms of feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism or postmodernism is not the central issue. All of these approaches attract and repel the attention of the Aboriginal subjects they read through texts. The extent of questioning of concepts displayed by the written results of analysis (when and if they are made available to Aboriginal readers) is the underlying determinant of the type of attention they attract, if any.

A key incentive for "Tiddas in Struggle" is the development of a composite approach to cultural analysis that Aboriginal women call "tiddaism." In framing their paper Felton and Flanagan argue for "tiddaism" as a field of analysis and discussion of Aboriginal women's cultural production that is working towards an indigenous form of black women's literary and cultural analysis.11 Although little is known about this work outside the Murri and Koori women's collective that instigated it, the imperative for readers/critics of Aboriginal women's writing to afford "tiddaism" serious critical attention is pressing. Felton and Flanagan are working with Jackie Huggins on a "Tiddas Manifesto" that might redress "the oppressive imposition of white domination" that Aboriginal women perceive in some strains of feminist analysis. They are particular about "White feminism" as constrained by dominant ideologies and a "dominant white culture that benefits from the dispossession and oppression of Koori people."12 A composite theoretical approach in "Tiddas in Struggle" situates tiddaism not as counter-discourse, but as informing discourse. To posit tiddaism as counter-discourse would leave the existing critical arena intact as an intellectual field that acknowledges an alternative voice through approaches that apparently work. As an informing discourse, tiddaism challenges the field to go to the informants and ask for whom the approaches work. Part of the answer to this question is the recognition of the fact that the theorist most often speaks from a position of power from which the Aboriginal woman is excluded, or in which she occupies a peculiar place.

The peculiarity of this place is reflected in issues surrounding the production and consumption of texts by Aboriginal women. Rather than conduct a quantitative reading of Aboriginal women's writing, "Tiddas in Struggle" conducts a qualitative project heeding the ideologies that inform contexts of writing and reading. Sally Morgan, Jackie Huggins and Ruby Langford Ginibi provide valuable contrasts for such a project, as Nyoongah, Murri and Koori women authors with different stories told in prose. With its strong links to orality and storytelling, prose enables an analysis that invokes the contentious issues of authority, collaboration, knowledge and accountability mentioned earlier. It offers a clear illustration of how consultation with Aboriginal women speaking and writing reveals the peculiarity of place as temporal, geographical and ideological. Reading/criticism might therefore participate in other stories that remain largely unheard, even as they are told.

Aboriginal women's prose flourished after the publication of Sally Morgan's My Place in 1987, preceding the australian bicentennial of 1988. The steady flow of new publications, called Aboriginal women's life writing, autobiography and biography, needs to be identified as being sparked by a particular historical/critical discontinuity in post-invasion australia. Colonial australia was celebrating its stride into a postcolonial era, only a small step from republicanism. Popular reception credited Sally Morgan with writing the first Aboriginal woman's story, notwithstanding those of Monica Clare, Glenyse Ward, Ella Simon, Marnie Kennedy, all published earlier. There is a story behind the displacement of these Aboriginal women writers from critical memory. Literary history and production reflected the amnesia of a white australia that retained the need to gloss over its place in the colonising process. Sally Morgan wrote and told australia of a "new beginning", becoming a text and providing the space for an ideological sidestep. She discovered her Aboriginality gently and sadly; many white australians took the step with her and discovered their "australian-ness."

More Aboriginal stories made it through the publishing process in the wake of My Place, but could this be considered a sign that white australia wanted to read and recognise Aboriginal women's perspectives? Again the temporal, geographic and ideological peculiarities of place need to be scrutinised. There was an element of the personal heroic, the "battler" story that My Place and A.B Facey's A Fortunate Life shined up for the historical stepping-off place of the bicentenary. These texts assisted the political, social and historical contradictions that dominant white australia is founded upon in their interpretation through, and relegation to, a safely demarcated arena of interpretation.13 australia appeared to be listening as the stories were told, and Aboriginality was acknowledged as another component of battling through. Sally Morgan's femaleness was more an aesthetic representation of Aboriginality in popular perception than an acknowledgment of the importance of Aboriginal women's stories. Thus Aboriginal presence could be used to legitimise that of white australians, with both telling or not telling their specific stories in secret. australian readers/critics generally know Aboriginal peoples as texts, running with the notion that they can translate Aboriginality for their societies. There are still holes in consequent representations of history and culture, absences in the stories that are told and the way they are heard/read. Aboriginal women's stories have been largely ignored in the race to fill these holes with some legitimation of white australian occupation of Aboriginal sites.

This race is running mainly through a postcolonial incentive to highlight "the Aboriginal voice", with a procedural map for the committed non-Aboriginal figure in Aboriginal studies. Places of interest on that map are visited via theoretical perspectives that seem often to lead to the postmodern vista of obscure inadequacy.14 No single model works, parts of some are useful, and a dilemma remains. How is political agency made to function in representations of Aboriginal cultures through white australian discourses when white australia remains mostly ignorant of those cultures? What is more these discourses had (and still have) a hand in destroying them or modifying them for popular and academic consumption. These questions must also be considered with the additional factor of a white australian mainstream that knows little of the political, historical and social issues that must be addressed by any committed critic working in Aboriginal cultural studies.

Representations of these issues are formed principally through non-Aboriginal arenas of discussion, empowered through written discourse.15 Conducting a research project within Aboriginal cultural studies without consulting with Aboriginal peoples perpetuates ignorance. It is only through conversation with Aboriginal peoples - listening, not reading - that an understanding of how this occurs can be approached. For example, racism viewed from inside white australia might appear as a simple product of ignorance that many of us work to oppose. Critical discourse serving this work prefers the referent of 'race', a term that implies running, that is in danger of objectifying the people it seeks to understand.16 Left as a conclusive keyword, however, 'race' becomes one of the ends, described at the start of this paper, that are not talked about anymore. The consequent risk of entertaining "an ancient and universal feature of racism: the assumption of the undifferentiated other" remains unchecked and unchanged (Langton: 27).

The alternative is consultation: listening to the stories of Aboriginal peoples and how they speak of daily experiences of racism in its many dimensions, and looking around the social and political scene. There is not much written about what actually occurs in the streets, schools, prisons, and other institutions of power although Aboriginal authors often write about it. Non-Aboriginal critics read it often in terms of 'race'. It becomes a translation: something twice removed from the place where we might be compelled to act, to try talking and finding out why the dominant construction of Murri, Koori, Nyoongah, and other Aboriginal social groups continues to suggest that "all Aborigines are alike and equally understand each other, without regard to cultural variation, history, gender, sexual preference and so on" (Langton: 27). While discourses run on such misrepresentations, ignorance is perpetuated. Misrepresentation opens up a world of opportunities in analysis and discussion for all except those being misrepresented. It does not take much time speaking with Aboriginal peoples to hear this message.

A committed critic might be one who brings this responsibility home. They might look around their backyard and see stolen land, a site occupied in the same way that the discursive site can be stolen and occupied in the name of acquisition. Acquiring knowledge does have a parallel with acquiring land. Just as the fundamental issue of dispossession impacts on Aboriginal cultures and peoples regardless of place, so must the issue of ownership and use of knowledge come home with non-Aboriginal researchers constructing discourses on Aboriginality, regardless of the theoretical paradigm in play. The thrill of the intellectual debate has its price, though, in terms of fostering dialogue with Aboriginal women writing and speaking their stories. It can instead "foster a view of intellectual activity as a solitary individual enterprise rather than a project with social origins and political consequence."17

If the price aspect of this debate is taken home as part of the issue of ownership and use of knowledge, the non-Aboriginal critic/reader arrives at the imperative of consultation. Within the confines of academic discourse, however, theory and consultation may not move comfortably together. In the backyard, the resulting pile of intellectual compost might smell slightly off. Through consultation the smell can be traced back to the hegemonic interests that nurture the growth of knowledge of home, called australia. The cultivation process is kept distant from its own political and social history by its own unquestioned power as textualised, written and acquired knowledge. A few questions gathering around critical methods of appreciating Aboriginal women's cultural production have been presented here as part of the project, "Tiddas in Struggle." It is, however, part of a much wider, more important experience of consultation with Murri, Koori and Nyoongah women, meaning the questions are not answered, and the stories go on.

University of Queensland


1 See further Elizabeth Grosz, "A Note on Essentialism and Difference" Feminist Knowledge: Critiques/ Constructs. Ed. Sneja Gunew. London: Routledge, 1990. Grosz comments on feminism's dilemmas of theory and practice, essentialism and difference, especially her inclusion of Gayatri Spivak's suggestion that concepts and theories be treated as weapons and tools of struggle, not blueprints. ". . . it is a question of negotiating a path between always impure positions, seeing that politics is always bound up with what it contests (including theories), and theories are always implicated in various political struggles (whether this is acknowledged or not)." Further, Thesis Eleven 10/11 (1984). Impurity is, I believe, almost an honest description of what non-Aboriginal critics do when we read and write about Aboriginal culture.

2 bell hooks quoted in Noga A. Gayle, "Black Women's Reality and Feminism: An Exploration of Race and Gender" The Anatomy of Gender: Women's Struggle for the Body. Eds. Dawn Currie and Valerie Raoul. Ottawa: Carelton UP, 1992, 232.

3 Roberta Sykes quoted in Lisa Bellear, "Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Women and non-Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Women Working Together." University of Melbourne. Unpublished research paper; Catriona Felton and Liz Flanagan, "Institutionalised Feminism: A Tiddas Perspective" Lilith 8 (1993): 53-57; Jackie Huggins, "A Contemporary View of Aboriginal Women's Relationship to the White Feminist Movement" Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought. Eds. Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. 70-79; Melissa Lucashenko, "No Other Truth? Aboriginal Women and Australian Feminism" Social Alternatives 12.4 (1994): 21-24, as some examples.

4 Lattas, Andrew, "Essentialism, Memory and Resistance: Aboriginality and the Politics of Authenticity" Oceania 63.3, 1992: 240-67 describes an oppositional discourse, fostered by the white intellectual interpreters of Aboriginal culture, in which Aboriginal peoples are defined and afforded political agency only in terms of their relation and opposition to Whites. White intellectuals working in Aboriginal studies, he argues, seek rational and demystified constructions of Aboriginality and condemn any tendencies toward essentialism as complicit with oppression. See Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side Of The Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990, especially their work on "Aboriginalism." The denial of memory and essence in the critical dismissal of essentialist identity has important implications for Aboriginal women's stories, most often appearing as "life writing". Aboriginal women's relative silence pervades ideological constructions of "Aboriginality". See also Marcia Langton, "Well, I Heard it on the Radio . . . ", Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993: 26-29, Mudrooroo. "Comments on Hollingsworth" Oceania 63.2, 1992: 156-57.

5 Marcia Langton 23.

6 From a personal discussion, Perth, 1994. I am grateful to Mudrooroo for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this paper.

7 I use the lower case "a" for australia throughout this paper in support of Jackie Huggins' adoption of it. See "In My Terms" Hecate 17.2 (1991): 171.

8 Joel Kovel, "Speaking Truth To Power" Meanjin 4 (1991): 447-462.

9 Unpublished paper, permission for use kindly given.

10 This of course means if the critic tries in the first place. Much of this cannot be expressed in written words, and I do not have the authority to do that anyway. The women mentioned help me to keep the difference between these two points always in mind.

11 "Institutionalised Feminism: A Tidda's Perspective" was presented at the First National Indigenous Women Writers' Conference, Brisbane, 1993. "This paper examines the need for us, as Koori women, to develop a Tidda's Manifesto to articulate our experiences and analyse the factors that shape our reality."

12 Felton and Flanagan: 53.

13 See Pat Buckridge, "Canons, Culture and Consensus: Australian Literature and the Bicentenary" Celebrating A Nation: A Critical Study of Australia's Bicentenary Eds. Tony Bennett, Pat Buckridge, David Carter and Colin Mercer. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992: 76, for a closer analysis of the ambiguous role of "literature" in/around the Bicentenary as an historical moment.

14 Barbara Holloway, "Finding a Position: non-Aboriginal Reviewing of Aboriginal Women's Writing" Australian Women's Book Review 5.1 (1993): 20-21, esp. 20.

15 Mudrooroo, for example, argues that Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, in Dark Side Of The Dream, "commit the same construction of 'Aboriginalism' they deplore in Aboriginal texts".

16 The analysis of the application of "race" and "racism" at various times, in varying contexts is complex. My apparently cursory treatment of it here is by necessity, rather than design.

17 Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt, "Toward a Materialist-Feminist Criticism" Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture. Eds. J. Newton and D. Rosenfelt. NY: Methuen, 1985. xv.

New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 20 April, 2015