By Emma Gibson
One of my primary motivations in applying to be an ACT Lit-Blogger of the Future was the opportunity to engage not only with Australia’s contemporary literary scene, but also narratives of the past. I don’t think we can look to the future without understanding the past.
The talk Indigenous Lives was about stories of early contact, considered from the perspective of Indigenous Australians and the Europeans who lived in their communities.
Professor John Maynard and Professor Victoria Haskins, both from the University of Newcastle, undertook extensive research for their book, Living with the Locals – Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Life, published by the National Library of Australia last year.
Maynard is a Worimi Aboriginal man from the Port Stephens region of New South Wales and author of a number of books, including True Light and Shade: An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett’s Art, also published by the NLA. Haskins first became interested in Indigenous history when a photograph of her grandmother’s Aboriginal nursemaid led her to discover a family history of activism and advocacy. Her research often focuses on the shared history between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
In conversation with John Paul Janke from AIATSIS, Maynard and Haskins shared their experience researching the 13 stories for the book and finding the missing Indigenous perspective. Many of the stories of castaways or convict escapees were originally told in the ‘ripping yarn’ tradition and for this reason, and the colonial attitudes of the day, cannot be considered accurate or objective. Maynard and Haskins had no easy task in sifting through the often sensational claims, of which Eliza Fraser is a famous example. Shipwrecked and claimed ‘captured’ by the Aboriginal people, she went on to style herself as an expert, detailing her mistreatment (she had to help look after the children! She wasn’t invited into a hut when it was raining!) and mythologising her experience. Yet, Eliza was not alone. Other Europeans from the ship also came ashore— as did her trunks of luggage—and moreover, her ‘ordeal’ cannot have lasted any more than six weeks. Her myth-making had terrible consequences for the people who took her in and has been widely discredited.
This made me think about how white settler narratives have often erased the history of Australia’s first peoples. White people lost in the bush is a popular trope and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is a notable example. It’s become common practice for visitors to Hanging Rock in Victoria to cry out for missing schoolgirl Miranda. It’s the kind of thing you might not think twice about, like holding your arms aloft and humming Celine Dion if you find yourself on a boat. The Miranda Must Go campaign makes the argument that real Indigenous lives and histories of this place are crowded out by the freeze-framed image of a blonde girl in a white dress. Fiction has pushed fact out of frame.
Books like Living with the Locals are important to redress the dominance of the white perspective and representations of Aboriginal culture and history. This is part of a bigger conversation and one that has been touched on before by people more qualified than me, but as you can see, this collections talk has kept me thinking long afterwards. I’m looking forward to reading the book for a fuller picture.
Spoiler: in the talk, Haskins revealed that convict escapee William Buckley is not, after all, where the phrase ‘You’ve got Buckley’s chance’ originated.
Emma Gibson is a writer and performance maker from Canberra, Australia. She writes plays and writes about place. Her previous plays include Johnny Castellano is Mine (Canberra Youth Theatre/Street Theatre), The Pyjama Girl (HotHouse Theatre), Widowbird (The Street Theatre).
Emma’s work has been performed internationally and includes War Stories (24:7 Festival; Re:Play; Greater Manchester Fringe; Buxton Fringe), Bloodletting (Bread and Roses Theatre, London), and collaborations at the Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and The Lowry.
Emma has undertaken artist residencies and participated in festivals internationally. Turning recently to prose, Emma has had short pieces published in the Skagastrond Review, Seizure, Iceview, and an anthology written in the sands of the Sahara Desert. She’s previously contributed to Broadway Baby, BMA and Lip Mag. Emma has created a site-specific poetry installation in Spain, helped run an artist residency in remote Iceland, reviewed 100 shows at Edinburgh Fringe, and made an audio walking tour around Garema Place for Canberra’s You Are Here Festival. She is currently studying a Masters of Creative Writing (Place Writing) with Manchester Metropolitan University.
Collection Talk: Indigenous Lives
20 June 2017, National Library of Australia
Emma is participating in the 2017 ACT Lit-Bloggers of the Future program, which is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre in collaboration with the National Library of Australia. Participants are mentored by Sue Terry of Whispering Gums.