Stepping Back to Move Forward. Review of The Distribution of Settlement: Appropriation and Refusal in Australian Literature and Culture

Distribution of Settlement: Appropriation and Refusal in Australian Literature and Culture by Michael Griffiths tells part of the story, from the perspective of a white settler academic, of the effects of settler misappropriation and misrepresentation of Aboriginal people and culture within Australian literature. While the analyses of white literary appropriation presented within are not new for a Black reader, and much work has been done already by Aboriginal scholars in the critique of settler misrepresentation (see for example Behrendt, Leane[1]) the value of Griffith’s work lies in its engagement with genealogies of misrepresentation and some of its legacies for a settler audience, for whom the work is largely intended and for whom the language within is pitched.

As stated in the introduction:

‘This is a book about Aboriginal literary refusal and the legacy of settler misrepresentation that it refuses.’

Griffiths does not set out to tell a new story. His aim is to re-engage with aspects of the ongoing and persistent story of settler misrepresentation in the Australian literary canon; and, to analyse some of the legacies of these acts on the writings of Aboriginal authors Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Tara-June Winch and Tony Birch.

Distribution is divided into three sections. Part One, presents four case studies of settler misappropriation of Aboriginal artefacts, from skulls stolen by anthropologist A.P Elkin and lay ethnographer W.E Harney; to literary publisher and cultural nationalist P.R Stephensen and poet and author Rex Ingamells; to the letters of Myles Franklin winning author Xavier Herbert; and finally to the role, too often overlooked and underplayed in Australian settler literary analysis, that settler femininity played in the writing of artificiality and settler misappropriation in Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s Coonardoo and the films of Charles Chauvel.

Part Two turns the analysis to the relation between these representational forms and their legacies in the present. In this section, Griffiths reads across a selection of 2009 articles by conservative journalist Andrew Bolt before turning to literary tools of analysis to revisit the persistent and damaging western literary legacies of Aboriginal misrepresentation as it manifests in settler discourse on and about Aboriginal people and culture.

Part Three challenges the fallacy of ‘the death of the author’ in the context of Aboriginal writing through a reading of short stories, ‘It’s Too Difficult to Explain’ by Tara-June Winch and ‘Distance’ by Tony Birch. Griffiths examines ‘opacity and refusal’ to demonstrate how reading refusal and opacity within two contemporary Aboriginal authored short stories can facilitate a more nuanced, more ethical engagement on the part of the non-Aboriginal reader.

Part Three also explores opacity and refusal as reading techniques for non-Aboriginal readers of Aboriginal narratives through a reading of the Miles-Franklin winning novels of Alexis Wright and Kim Scott. In the opening chapter to this section, Griffiths addresses the legacy of Herbert’s work and offers a reading of Carpentaria that positions it as a refusal of Herbert’s Capricornia through a close reading of Wright’s text that acknowledges its refusal without reducing the text to operating only on that level. Griffith’s demonstrates, here, that much can be revealed about figurations of Aboriginal presence, endurance, history, dialogue and world-view through reading opacity and refusal in Aboriginal texts such as Benang and Carpenatria as acts of textual intervention to unsettle the settler mythscape.

Griffith’s reading of Prichard and Herbert’s texts of unsettlement of Aboriginal land and culture is a useful model for more meaningful non-Aboriginal engagement with such texts; and, one which opens a space for a critical re-engagement with cultural-nationalist texts. The language, at times here though, however unintentional, lapses into settler apologetics. For example, the author states part of their aim as…to interrogate how white women were symbolically conscripted into the settler project of assimilation and subordination that attended Aboriginal people’s lives…’. This is far too generous in its choice of verb – ‘conscripted’ – as much work in the area by Aboriginal scholars and writers (see for example Huggins, Behrendt, Leane[2]) seeks to demonstrate, that white women are not simply complicit in, or conscripted to patriarchal settler violence, erasure and displacement of Aboriginal peoples. White women are a willing, necessary and integral part of the patriarchal colonial machinery that has and continues to intervene in the lives of Aboriginal peoples; and white women play a significant role in literary misrepresentation – from Katharine Prichard (1929) to Kate Grenville (2005-2008) the legacy continues.

The narrative that white women are innately genteel and morally upstanding, and their role in frontier massacre, dispossession, the eugenics project that saw the removal of Aboriginal children; and, that their participation in the colonial project was less than willing has for too long been allowed to persist in the colonial mythscape of Australian national history and literature. Its legacy, continues to overwrite the voices and experiences of many Aboriginal people, veiled still, however thinly and unconvincingly to a Black reader, through the fuzzy filter of ‘good intention’, ‘conscription’ and/or ‘coercion’ by ‘less moral, more aggressive’ white men. This foundation myth needs to be called out and challenged along with the literature it produces. Challenging the ingrained settler language of benign, feminine white naivety is essential to shifting settler reading practices of both Aboriginal and cultural nationalist texts, such as those of Prichard and Herbert.  

As an Aboriginal reader, I had a different take on the closing scenes of Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country. Griffiths read the brutal death of ‘benevolent white settler’ Jeremy Delacy (who is the voice of Herbert) as spiritual transcendence; ‘he, who finally finds himself at home in the soils where he is an invader’. But, how can the rape, mutilation and murder of Savita by Aboriginal Elders, Prindy’s ‘trial by ordeal’ and death and the killing of Jeremy, be read in any way other than one that inspires fear, contempt and loathing for the ‘Aboriginal other’ Herbert constructs for a settler readership?  While his discourse purports to disdain racial prejudice, Herbert’s use (read exploitation) of Aboriginal characters for violent, superstitious, fatalistic and melodramatic purposes can only serve to feed and nourish the racial prejudices her purports to disdain.[3]

But the crucial point here is that any discussion of national settler literature of erasure and misrepresentation must be a juxtaposition of an Aboriginal reading of such narratives over a settler reading such as the one Griffiths offers. This practice is crucial to shifting reader responsibility; and unsettling settler claims to nation and story. In this way, Griffith’s reading of the closing scenes of Herbert’s narrative is valuable as a point of interface, which is contested, unsettled space where the type of layered, palimpsests readings of national literature as back-tracking – still largely missing from the literary landscape can/could begin.

Part Three begins with a reading of two contemporary short stories by Tara-June Winch and Tony Birch. The choice of Winch’s short story, ‘It’s too Difficult to Explain’ is a beautiful cultural metaphor for the important and all too overlooked point Griffiths is exposing, which is: in Black writing (any writing for that matter) it is impossible to separate the writer from the story, the artist from the art or the actor from the act; and it is a western delusion to have ever thought that author intention and lived experience could ever have been separated from the writing/s produced. 

Griffiths’ reading of Tony Birch and Tara-June Winch’s stories moves beyond the limited tools of western literary analysis with its emphasis on deconstruction and dissection to a position that considers the integral connections between the story and the teller in Aboriginal narratives, and, the power of the locale from which the author is grounded and from which the story originates. Griffith’s reading too recognises the cultural responsibilities involved in Aboriginal writing and calls for a reciprocity of settler reader responsibility that requires a constant attentiveness to the artificial nature of settler representation; and, to the continuing settler project of erasure and unsettlement of Aboriginal peoples. Towards this end, Griffiths suggests entering into the territory of an Aboriginal text with settler culture under erasure.

While this is powerful and, as a reading strategy does have potential for a more ethical and meaningful engagement with Aboriginal texts, what is not said is that, most, if not all, Aboriginal literature across genres and geography disavows the whole artificial concept of the nation, Australia, build over and on the dispossession of many Aboriginal Countries. And, it is the nation itself that needs to be interrogated first, in order to understand and subsequently erase the settler literature it produces. The fact that ‘colonial Australia’ is still mainly taught in Australian schools as a ‘thing of the past’ and that those ‘born and/or arriving after a certain time’ are not implicated in the colonial project is a major obstacle to developing such a reading practice.

My experience as an Aboriginal educator has made painfully clear to me that many if not most Australian settler students do not encounter an Aboriginal authored text until they reach university where they may choose a course in Aboriginal writing, or Aboriginal Studies more broadly, if they desire. At this point, the task of dismantling and ‘erasing’ the imagined Australia that they thought they grew up with falls largely to (but not always) Aboriginal educators. It takes a long time to undo a nation and its stories. Griffiths is right, a meaningful engagement with Aboriginal literature does require an ‘unsettlement’ of settler claims, but such a practice also requires the unsettlement of the whole imagined concept of the nation, Australia.

In concluding, Griffiths encourages settler readers to read Aboriginal literature in relation to settler representations of Aboriginality in order to further expose settler appropriation; and to read settler representations of Aboriginality in light of their refusals by Aboriginal writers, without reducing Aboriginal writing to only refusal. I agree, these are useful reading strategies. But any shift in settler readership will require alongside this, a deconstruction and disavowal of the mythscape of the settler nation that inspires, encourages and nurtures settler narratives of displacement and erasure.  And, a refusal, to continue to accept the ingrained benign language in which the colonial structure is veiled; and a willingness to read through the mask of genteel, benign language to expose the violence and displacement it seeks to disguise and write over.

Distribution of Settlement offers new useful, reading strategies for teachers of Australian literature, especially non-Aboriginal teachers of Aboriginal writing, and settler readers more broadly. For me, as an Aboriginal educator, the value of the book lies in the settler perspective it offers of Aboriginal texts, in terms of what is or appears to be opacity and/or refusal in the works of four Aboriginal writers. And, to serve as a reminder of the all the work still ahead of Aboriginal educators. This book does go some way to challenging and shifting current settler reading practices for Aboriginal story and for critiquing the ongoing nationalist project of settler literature of erasure and displacement of Aboriginal people, our cultures and Countries.

What I appreciated most about Griffiths book is its insistence on ‘going back’, over what some may see as a well-worn track to the nationalist literature of the twentieth century (Prichard, Herbert) in order to understand, not only the present state of Australian literature, but the present state of Australian settler discourse on and about Aboriginal people.

Distribution shows that a settler readership needs to ‘step back’ and understand its own literary past and the legacy it still holds, before there can be any meaningful engagement with Aboriginal writing and the history and experiences it speaks to and from. And, that while some of these Australian classics (Prichard, Herbert, White) are possibly less read by Australian readers, their legacies of legitimising invasion, perpetuating the myth of settlement and the persistent benign language and deficit mentality of the settler nation  towards Australia’s First Peoples have been institutionalised in national discourse – in government, in education, in health, in law, in policy.

These literary legacies live long after the author really is dead.

[1] See for example Larissa Behrendt, 2016, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, University of Queensland Press; and Jeanine Leane, 2014, ‘Tracking Our Country in Settler Literature,’ Journal for the Association of the Studies of Australian Literature (JASAL), Vol. 14: 3, 1-17.

[2]  See for example Jackie Huggins, 1998, Sister Girl: The Writings of an Aboriginal Activist and Historian, University of Queensland Press; Jeanine Leane, 2014, ‘Tracking Our Country in Settler Literature,’ Journal for the Association of the Studies of Australian Literature (JASAL), Vol. 14: 3, 1-17; and Larissa Behrendt, 2016, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, University of Queensland Press.

[3] See Jeanine Leane, 2014, ‘Tracking Our Country in Settler Literature,’ Journal for the Association of the Studies of Australian Literature (JASAL), Vol. 14: 3, 1-17.

Jeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri writer, poet and academic from southwest New South Wales. She has published widely in the area of Aboriginal literature, writing otherness and creative non-fiction poetry and prose. Her poetry and short stories have been featured in Hecate: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Women’s Liberation, The Journal for the Association European Studies of Australia, Journal for the Association of Australian Literary Studies, Australian Poetry Journal, Antipodes, Overland, Best Australian Poems, Lifted Brow, Southerly and Australian Book Review. Jeanine currently teaches Creative Writing and Aboriginal Literature at the University of Melbourne and her project "Aboriginal Writing: Shaping the literary and cultural history of Australia, since 1988" is recipient of an Australia Research Council Grant.

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