In week 1 of the class we began discussing what borders are, but specifically what borders we might cross in our writing: race, gender, class, age, disability, sexuality, ethnicity – ‘all the things’, as one of my students put it.
The border is a liminal space, oppositional but also dependent, inclusive as much as it is exclusive. By using Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance as the spine of this course, we can assess how one writer has approached the task of writing into history, writing cross-culturally, and writing with a particular aim as we experiment with various modes of address, of place, time, and writing difference.
Scott’s writing is ‘writing that is doing something rather than simply saying something’ (to paraphrase something I heard the Waanyi author Alexis Wright say at a conference), but as Scott says, fiction isn’t polemic and in his nuanced detailing of the relationships between Noongar and Noongar, Noongar and European and Noongar and story, time and language we find what he refers to as the ‘ambivalences’ of his story, the uncertainties.
This first week was an introduction to the novel, to my, a white Australian, approach to reading Indigenous writing (and why we should) and to a number of texts that discuss Scott’s work and that we will be reading later in the course. I also introduced the idea of ‘whiteness’ and the rigour we need when attempting to decentre white culture and privilege so as not to refocus our writing onto ‘what whiteness is, rather than what whiteness does’. [This is a line of Sara Ahmed’s but I’m not – this minute – sure where it is from.]
Anne Brewster, a writer and academic at UNSW who has done a lot of work around Scott’s writing, has argued that:
‘The personal address of whiteness writing seems to me in part predicated rhetorically upon the ethical imperative to reply’. (Brewster, 2005)
And I began the discussion of how our writing might fit into a dialogue across borders, a call and response of sorts.
I also asked my students, there are 36 of them but only a few are of mixed heritage and none are Aboriginal, these questions:
Who feels overwhelmed or uninterested or indifferent when a story about Aboriginal people comes on the television? Who thinks it doesn’t affect them or have any bearing on their lives? And if you think that, can you understand that that position is a position of privilege?
I told the students that a friend of mine refers to this feeling as ‘Aboriginal Fatigue’, but I continued, by saying ‘I decide if I care or not’, we are making a statement of choice, of privilege. Brewster would say that we, non-Aboriginal Australians, have an ‘ethical imperative to reply’ to these stories – and a reply might not mean we say anything, it might just constitute attention. It might just mean we listen. Sara Ahmed argues that:
‘You can attend to what you don’t know, you can offer an ethics of attention’ (Ahmed 2013 p.121)
Scott talks about the ‘means of production’ in his interview with Anne Brewster (2012), when he is talking about finding the right form for resistance, collaboration and ethical relationship between Noongar and wadjila:
He [Bobby] takes on the military dance that becomes the Dead Man Dance. He’s an expert at that and he fancies that his whole dancing quality is all about rhythm, for example, the dancing on the ship. I think it’s really important, that idea of rhythm. However in some of that he may have erred. He’s not quite the dancer he thought he was; or perhaps the dance as a form is not necessarily the form that’s going to powerfully speak to this mob—the ones that get up at the end of the novel, dismissively; he hasn’t got them. But, just possibly, writing is [the form]… (Scott, 2012 p.233)
Scott believes there is true value in writing – for the writer, for the reader, for the story, for our culture.
And bell hooks, African-American academic and writer would agree. She argues, in her book Feminism is for Everybody, that,
“To critique sexist images without offering alternatives is an incomplete intervention. Critique in and of itself does not lead to change.”
And so, the world needs writers – even if we don’t think we can change the world with our writing, even if what we think we are writing is foolish. If we are trying to offer alternatives, or insights, or opportunities, then even at our most flawed and foolish we have succeeded.
I concluded the lecture by saying that in this course, we are going to waver between knowing, and not knowing, replying and sitting with the inability to reply. It is quite fine to not know, to not understand but, I would argue, it is unethical for us not to be conscious of our privilege, to dismiss the border we are crossing in our writing, and to be open to the complexities of writing across that border.
I will blog about the tutorials separately very soon – and there are more weeks of discussion to post too. Stay tuned.