Wednesday, March 5, 2008

International Women's Day speech - Shanghai

International Women’s Day 2008

This blog is an excerpt of the speech I presented for International Women’s Day at the Australian Consulate in Shanghai, China.

I am from the Wiradjuri Aboriginal nation of central New South Wales. I was born in Sydney, the traditional land of the Gadigal clan, and I have spent most of my life living on Dharawal Aboriginal land near La Perouse in Sydney’s east.

It is protocol where I come from the pay respects to all the VIPs in the room. However, having met many women here tonight I know everyone of you is significant in your own way, so I pay my respects to everyone. Anyway, where I come from, VIP means Very Indigenous Person!

Some of you may have seen in the news recently that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology on behalf of the Australian government for the trauma and suffering inflicted on a group of people known in Australia as the Stolen Generations. These people were the victims of a seriously misguided and racist government policy from the 1880s to 1970, which forcibly removed children of mixed Aboriginal and European parentage from their families, with a view to assimilating them into white Australian society.

If you are a parent and you can think for one minute what it would be like to have your child taken from you to be raised by strangers, then you will be able to imagine the tremendous suffering this policy caused thousands of Aboriginal families, and the trauma that continues to affect people today. I don’t know one Aboriginal person who has not been affected by the policy of Protection, as it was called, and there are people my age still searching for their relatives, to reconnect with the family they were taken from.

My family, like most Aboriginal families still bear the scars, and the apology from the Prime Minister on behalf of the Australian Parliament and people has begun the road to recovery and the soul of the nation is finally on the mend. Until now no Australian Prime Minister has been willing to apologise for what happened to Aborigines in Australia and this is why the recent apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was such an important event to all Australians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

My speech tonight will touch on this issue, and it is dedicated to the victims of this sad policy. I particularly pay tribute through my words to my own grandmother Amy Williams who was taken at the age of six to Cootamundra Girls Home before she was sent to the Home of the Good Shepherd, and later became a servant to a wealthy English woman in Parsley Bay.

Tonight I want to talk about my desire to explain the diversity of Aboriginality in Australia in the 21st century, as a contemporary urban Aboriginal woman writer.

I hope the conversation we share tonight helps you to understand that there can be no prescriptions as to what it means to be Aboriginal in Australia today.

I’d like to begin by talking about my experiences in a former life when I was an academic. I lectured to large numbers of international students in Australia at Macquarie University, and as part of lecture series across the USA.

On most occasions, students would first enter the lecture theatres with preconceived notions of Aboriginal identity and what kind of person they expected to see up the front of the class.

Most of my students in Australia were American and most of them had seen the Australian movie Crocodile Dundee and David Gulpilil and his role in that film, so they had fairly clear visions of who they thought Aboriginal people were, how we behaved and what we looked like.

Indeed, when I travelled to Austria in 1992 I was in my fathers village of St Michael, where the notion of Aboriginal Australia was based on what people had seen in documentaries or cheap souvenirs they’d been sent by Australian relatives. So their understanding of Aboriginal Australia was based on a physically dark person in the desert sitting on a rock with a spear and speaking one of the 600 different Aboriginal dialects.

It’s fair to say then that many of my students are disappointed when they se me take the microphone. I have to explain that:

I don’t wear ochre – the naturally tinted clay worn on the body for ceremony. Instead I wear Revlon, or Clinique or Max Factor

I don’t go ‘walkabout’ – the term used for Aboriginal people who travelled for business, ceremony and food. Instead I drive a sports car – because it’s faster than walking.

I don’t speak my traditional Wiradjuri language because it was outlawed and then all but died as part of the colonisation process. Instead, I speak the coloniser’s language that of the English.

I don’t tell time by the sun – I tell time by a gorgeous Dolce and Gabbana watch.

But I do tell my students that I hunt kangaroo three times a week – in the supermarket, where most urban dwellers shop for food.
I make an excellent kangaroo stir-fry and kangaroo curry.

On that note, and having explained that I am fortunate to have a nice car and watch I want to ask you what I ask my students when I lecture:

Can you think about the top 1% of your society?
Who are they?
Where do they live?
What occupations are they in?
How much power do they have?
How much money do they earn?

In Australia the top 1% would be bankers, property developers, judges, politicians and so on.

Well I am the top 1% of the bottom 2.5% of Australian society and that’s because I have an education, a job and a car. In an Aboriginal context I am completely privileged. Because most Aboriginal people do not have the luxuries that are basic expectations to many white Australians.

It might surprise you to learn also that at the point of invasion, when Captain Cook planted the flag on Possession Island in 1770, there were no Aborigines in Australia, none at all. There were just people. People who were defined by their connections to specific geographic areas, and to their language groups, clan groups and so on.

Definitions of Aborigines were created by the new Government and they were based on a caste system - such as half-caste, quarter caste, quadroon, octoroon and so on, depending on how much “Aboriginal blood” it was believed they had. This caste system was meant to kill off Aboriginal peoples. And although whole populations were decimated through disease and war, we have not disappeared completely. I am here tonight as living proof of that. But in many ways Aboriginal people still remain invisible on the national identity radar, and that can almost be worse than not existing at all.

Let me give an example. On a Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles in 2003 I overheard a conversation between an American tourist and a man from Melbourne. The tourist said, “I’ve just been in Australia and I met a fourth generation Australian. That’s pretty good isn’t it?” The Melbourne man responded, “Well, you just don’t get any more Australian than that!

I turned to my Wiradjuri colleague and said, “Try four thousandth generation Australian!” Clearly our long history, tens of thousands of years of existence on the land, doesn’t count in terms of who is and who is not Australian. We are invisible in terms of the national identity.

And so, with that in mind, I was pleased about the release my children’s novel Yirra and her deadly dog, Demon, co-written with the students from La Perouse Public School in Sydney. The aim was to put the Aboriginal students from the area on that identity radar by having other Australian students reading about them in the classroom.

Yirra is 10 years old; she lives on the mission, which was land designated for Aboriginal people to live on in the past, freeing up more usable land for land grants to white settlers. It is now land owned by the local Aboriginal people. Yirra goes to La Perouse public school, she likes the beach, yoghurt, her ipod, Kasey Chambers, a boy at school called Matt, and her Siberian husky dog called Demon. But Yirra's mum is sick of vacuuming up fur balls, the neighbours are tired of having their underwear stolen from the clothesline, and her step- dad just wants his shoes back. If Yirra doesn't find a dog-trainer soon, she'll have to give her beloved Demon to a new family — one who likes dogs who run and dig a lot!

What Yirra and her deadly dog, Demon does as a book used in schools is provide young Australian readers of all backgrounds a contemporary view of urban Aboriginal life in Sydney. It shows that Aboriginal kids in La Perouse in 2008 are just like other Australian kids having fun and growing up. The book also puts the suburb on the map for something other than the French landing there, and Tom Cruise shooting some scenes for the film Mission Impossible.

The urban Aboriginal experience is important to me. It is who I am. And the city has helped shape me as a woman. And it is a reason I wrote the chick lit novel Not Meeting Mr Right.

I wrote the book because I wanted to challenge some of the notions of what it means to be Aboriginal in the 21st century. I wanted to make that point that Aboriginal women read commercial fiction so why shouldn’t we write it. Like other women I read escape type novels at the beach and I wanted to write a book that other women regardless of cultural heritage could read at the beach also. I wanted to purge myself of some disastrous dates with some very unlovable men, and the book was a wonderful cleansing for that. But I also wanted to show the similarities between us as women. Too much emphasis is often place on the differences between us as women, as human beings, as members of the same societies and planet.

Aboriginal women like most women also fall in love, we fall out of love, we make love, we have disappointing dates, we fear rejection, we dream about meeting Mr Right and so on.

We also live by the beach and drink cocktails, we exercise and work in private schools, we talk politics, we go to the beautician, we want roses on Valentine’s Day, we take holidays, we are political and so on.

The point is, we are women, full stop! Regardless of heritage or socio economics there are some things that are universal to us as women, and that is our experiences as women, particularly with men.

But, it has also been my experience as an Aboriginal woman that shows there are some differences when it comes to dating. I have in fact, had a man give me my business card back once he realised I was in fact, Aboriginal. He behaved like I was a leper. So I do think it is harder for an educated, intelligent Aboriginal woman to meet her Mr Right, at least in some parts of Australia.

And speaking of intelligent Aboriginal women, I’d like to finish with something from my book I’m not racist, but…. It’s an Ode to my Mother:

Ode to my mother

She inspires and never tires
But always conspires –
to motivate
to procreate
to maintain
and sustain
to nurture
and protect
always direct
what is left of Koori-dom.

An audience
with the Pope,
gives her hope
that the future
will be better
than the past.

Her smile
lights the universe
wrinkled hands
invade her purse
and she gives,
and gives
and gives
and gives

Black curls
frame a face
full of grace
and dignity.

Forgiveness reigns
in my Mother’s heart
too often torn apart
by unnecessary pain.

Her commitment to family
matched by no other
for she is the eternal mother
her role as matriarch
the key to her identity.

1 comment:

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