Wednesday, September 25, 2013

AM I BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU? a review by NSW Shadow Attorney General Paul Lynch

Bantam 2012RRP: $32.95

Anita Heiss is an impressive Aboriginal writer and intellectual. She’s worked in many genres including social policy and politics as well as ‘chick lit’ (which she describes as ‘choc lit’). This book is a memoir – specifically a memoir on identity.

Heiss and others (including the equally impressive LarissaBehrendt) were viciously attacked by Andrew Bolt, resulting in Federal Court proceedings under the Racial Discrimination Act. Bolt’s putrid rantings claimed Heiss had chosen her Aboriginal identity for political and career motives, was motivated by political and financial advantages and was a ‘white Aborigine’. The entirely correct Court decision condemning this drivel was greeted with outrage by pro-Bolt forces with rhetoric about free speech. Mike Carlton and David Marr pointed out and Heiss reinforces here that’s arrant nonsense – Bolt got things hopelessly wrong, seemed to do no proper checking and displayed appallingly sloppy research capacities.

That doesn’t mean this is a book about the Court case or a legal analysis of legislation or an attempt at retribution. It’s much broader, much more interesting and much more fun than that. The first page includes this “I am an urban beachside Blackfella, a concrete Koori with Westfield Dreaming, and I apologise to no one”. That gives a sense of the book.

Heiss’ focus on being an urban Aboriginal in contemporary Australia is incredibly important. One fifth of Australian Aboriginal people live in Greater Western Sydney (32% of Indigenous Australians live in urban centres). That is not what the mainstream media or most of the non-Aboriginal community think. Many think that to be ‘authentically Aboriginal’ you have to be a desert dweller, poor, uneducated, at risk and dark-skinned. That is an identity being imposed by non-Aboriginal people on Aboriginal people. But they’re still blacker than Bolt, who’s setting up degrees of blackness among Aboriginal people. And it doesn’t explain fellow students at Heiss’ primary school calling her ”Abo” and others harassing her on her way to high school.

Heiss’ father was an Austrian migrant with whom she clearly had a very deep bond. It’s not intellectually difficult to understand the idea of someone with Aboriginal identity and Austrian heritage. It’s no harder than understanding non-Aboriginal Australians with Greek, Italian or Irish heritage.

This memoir tells of Heiss’ life - schooling then UNSW and a PhD at UWS and academia and then working full-time as a writer.  It deals with life coaches, Oprah, Mr Right and being a workaholic. It also stresses the importance of education, the need to respond to racist slurs and criticism from within community. It’s well written and some of it hilariously funny (especially some of the bits about camping – this urban Aboriginal’s concept of traditional camping “under the stars” is to be on a bed in a house and seeing the stars through a window pane!). None of that makes it any less political or any less a great work of advocacy.

Paul Lynch
Member for Liverpool
NSW Shadow Attorney General

Am I Black Enough for You? is available from Gleebooks, Avid Reader, Readings, Booktopia and all good bookstores.

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