Louis Nowra, smh
December 27, 2008
It still comes as a shock to hear racist remarks about Aborigines. A few weeks ago I saw an inebriated Aboriginal woman fall down in a Kings Cross street. A car narrowly missed running over her. While the driver jumped out of his car and rushed to her aid, a crowd of drinkers at the nearby Bourbon hotel laughed at the woman's plight and several shouted out, "Get a look at that drunken Abo". What fascinated me was that the men and women jeering and laughing at her did so without apology as if they knew no one would criticise them. You forget that such casual racism is still a part of our national character.
When I was growing up I never heard my parents make a racist comment. My mother's first husband had been Javanese and two of my aunties also married Indonesian men. I didn't think there was anything unusual about this until I was a teenager when one of my cousins decided to enter the Miss Australia contest. She was beautiful and intelligent. When it looked like she was going to win the state title one of the judges took her aside and said she would have to withdraw because she was coloured. It's all too easy to imagine her profound hurt.
In my early 20s one of my closest friends was a drag queen. He was Aboriginal but told everyone he was Indonesian because, as he once confided in me, he hated being called "a boong" and other such names. My ignorance of such abuse was telling because I thought he was exaggerating. I had no idea, nor did I probably care, of what he had gone through to reach such a stage as to deny his own background.
For most people it is the personal experience that transforms the way you see the world. So it was with me. In my late 30s I began to live with an Aboriginal woman, Justine Saunders. She had come from desperate conditions and had been taken from her mother, placed in a Catholic girls' home and, at the age of 14, forcibly sent to a distant country town to become a maid. She had risen above these circumstances to become a model, then actress on the stage, in film and on television. I remember being in the outback with her once, and a group of Aboriginal children who had just seen her on television rubbed her skin to see if she was really a white woman made up to be black because they just could not imagine a real Aboriginal person being on TV.
There were many things that Justine taught me about the awful, dismal things Aborigines have had done to them and in many parts of Australia still have to endure: the cruel remarks, the constant belittling, the poverty and the cold indifference of government authorities. On the other hand she grew tired of those white people who sought her out as some sort of spiritual guru, just because she was Aboriginal. It was as if she did not exist as a person but as an answer to these white people's lack of their own identity. Perhaps her greatest scorn was for small 'l' liberals who seemed to be merely parroting platitudes about their love for Aborigines; but it always seemed to be talk and no action. "Sometimes I prefer rednecks," she would say after a meeting with such people, "because at least you know where you stand with rednecks."
Through Justine I also got to know many Aborigines, including actors. It was the first time I mixed on such a personal level with actors and I saw aspects of them in private life that I wanted to put on stage. I began to write characters especially for them. I have been asked if I wrote these plays because I was keen to write about Aboriginal "topics". The truth is that I had no ideology. I just wanted to see these men and women playing roles I had written especially for them. Perhaps the culmination of this was the play Radiance. The original production starred Lydia Miller, Rhoda Roberts and Rachel Maza. The idea for it came from a story one Aboriginal woman told me about half-sisters attending the funeral of their mother. During rehearsal it was decided that there would be no mention of the fact that the characters were Aboriginal. We didn't want to write a "problem" play but one about the emotional interplay between three sisters who hardly knew each other and only had their mother in common.
I didn't set out to write a political play but the difficulty about writing for Aboriginal characters is that Aborigines on stage become more than people; they personalise an issue for many critics and audiences. I suppose it was my naivety, but I was amazed when audiences saw it as a work about the stolen generation rather than something more primal and personal.
In 1998 Radiance was made into a film directed by the indigenous film maker Rachel Perkins. She did a superb job. Yet there were a few people, most of them white, who criticised her for being involved in a story written by a non-indigenous writer and a man at that. I was abused by one white woman for "appropriating black women's stories".
In early January 2003 Rachel and her producer, Darren Dale, met me for lunch. They had embarked on an eight-part documentary series for SBS on Aboriginal history and they wanted me to be script editor on episode two, which was centred on the arrival of the English in 1788. I was reluctant because of my lack of time but then the original writer of the episode left and I found myself writing it. A similar thing happened with episode three, and eventually I went on to write eight episodes.
These four years proved to be exhausting, profound, exciting and at times depressing. When you study the history of Aboriginal and white relations since the First Fleet, the great difficulty is dealing with the distressing information that confronts you. It seems that wherever white men appeared in Australia, Aboriginal dispossession, deaths from violence and disease, and suffering followed. It took me some months to be able to deal with such horrific matters.
As our template we used Ken Burns's magnificent The Civil War documentary series, so we wanted to concentrate on characters and story to bring the episodes to life. Of course, at first, we had to depend on white sources - documents, letters and photographs - but it enabled us to find our way to help tell each story.
As time went on I began to realise something - what I was learning was our true Australian history. I loathed Australian history at school. Who can make the Gold Rush or Federation interesting? It's laughable to think that the Eureka Stockade was a major historical moment when compared with what happened in other frontier societies like America.
But Aboriginal history since Governor Philip contains all the elements of an astonishing history: great men and women, evil doers and flawed men, bloodshed, corruption, ideals and government deceit, racial conflict, broken treaties, love and hate, ideological warfare, bad science, companionship and the survival of a people who were thought to be dying out.
Sometimes the stories had Shakespearean grandeur and moral complexity to them, other times they were as grim as a Samuel Beckett play. This history was breathtaking in its scope and its importance to all Australians. I felt I had come to understand that unless we learned this history then Australians were missing out on something extraordinary and essential for an understanding of how we came to be the nation we are.
As the production process continued over the years I became even more aware of the terrible irony that, while the Aboriginal population is increasing rapidly and its artists are celebrated, many of the urban and rural indigenous communities are being torn apart by male violence and sexual abuse. The combination of history, government inertia, welfare dependency and alcohol had created a perfect storm of community dysfunction. So last year I wrote a slim book about it called Bad Dreaming.
The book was based on government reports, anthropologists, historians and journalists and Aborigines themselves. I can claim no originality. I wanted non-indigenous people to understand just what was happening to our indigenous population. Writing the documentary series convinced me that we owed an obligation to help a people we have treated so badly too much of the time. There were critics of course. One Queensland academic ridiculed me, saying:
"Everybody knows what's going on in these communities." Well, as far as the response to Bad Dreaming was concerned, the academic was wrong. I received many letters and emails, some from people who worked with Aborigines who confirmed my research, indigenous men who had tried to do something about the situation but had been ostracised by elders, but the overwhelming reaction from people was, "We didn't know." I have to say that most were horrified not only by the examples I gave but also the fact that they had paid no attention to it before. I was hoping that First Australians would attract such people who wanted to know more about our common history.
Now, as any documentary writer can tell you, a script is merely a vague blueprint that can be considerably altered by the experts you interview and the visual material you can find. Some interviews can totally change the way you approach a topic. And that's what happened in First Australians. Rachel and the other director, Beck Cole, also an indigenous filmmaker, took the scripts and put them through the exhilarating blender of interviews and visuals to create a fabulous series.
Characters like Bennelong, the young Patyregarang, William Dawes, the charismatic William Barak and the heroic and stubborn Eddie Mabo came alive. Above all Rachel and Beck created a documentary series that did not go out of its way to blame white people for what had happened to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, nor did it portray them as victims as other documentaries had done.
SBS publicised the series brilliantly. The reviews and articles about it were excellent. There were very few negative reactions; perhaps one of the most silly was by Patrick McCauley, in this month's Quadrant, who thought it was another example of the constant reaffirmation of "the invasion/genocide/stolen generation/racist version of Australian history".
The general reaction of people was that they had thought they knew about Aboriginal history, but the series had been a revelation to them.
I was detached enough from First Australians to believe that this wonderful response would result in big audiences. But I was wrong. The numbers generally hovered around the 300,000 mark. A figure that's a little bigger than the quarter of a million people who walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in the Reconciliation March. To put it into even bigger perspective, a bland middle-class family drama, Packed to the Rafters, attracts about 2 million per episode.
I was mentioning this to a friend, a well known writer. She told me she had not seen the series. "I don't have any excuse," she said. "Actually, to be honest, I am totally indifferent to the whole subject of Aborigines." This stunned me, but I was grateful for her honesty. When you've lived with and worked with Aborigines you forget just how many Australians have never met an indigenous person or really care about them.
And really this goes back to the arrival of settlers. Once the white man discovered that Aborigines had nothing to trade nor did they till the land then they could quite easily be gotten rid of or forgotten. The last 200 years saw them pushed onto poverty-stricken reserves, bleak missions or shunted away in communities or urban ghettos so that the general population did not have to be reminded of them.
Those drinkers heckling the Aboriginal woman who had fallen onto the road expressed not so much their racism but the general populace's attitude towards the first Australians - they are indifferent. It's a shame because our historical identity as Australians is inextricably bound up with the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. I can only hope that a younger generation realises this, because, as far as history proves, indifference can be a callous and even cruel thing.
Louis Nowra is a playwright, novelist and screenwriter. His latest novel is Ice.