Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hey Mum, What's a Half-Caste?

I was proud to launch Lorraine McGee-Sippel's first book last night at Gleebooks. Go buy a copy or ask your local library to order it in.

Here's my speech notes from the launch!

Launch Speech – Hey Mum What’s a Half-Caste?

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of country here in Sydney and pay my respects to the VIPs here tonight, and by that I mean the Very Indigenous People.

It’s fair to say that the launch of Lorraine’s first book Hey Mum, what’s a half-caste? Is almost as exciting for me as it is for our latest deadly author, for I have been part of the long pregnancy that has led to tonight’s birth. And to lay all my conflicts of interest on the table up front, I must say that I love Lorraine like a mother, but that is not to say my views on this book are tainted by subjectivity because I know this book is an important contribution to Australian society – literary and general.

I am so pleased that Lorraine’s story is finally in print after being short-listed for TWICE in the David Unaipon Award in 2006 and 2007 with a manuscript that begun as far back as 1995 I think.

Lorraine’s story is one that will move all who read it, but for those who have ever been called a ‘half-caste’ as I was, you will remember the pain and torment such a phrase can inflict on a person, especially a child trying to understand what the phrase means, let alone why such terminology was even created by westerners in this country.

Historically, definitions of Aboriginality did not emanate from Aboriginal communities. In general, Aboriginal people or communities have not perpetuated or accepted labels such as, half-caste, quarter-caste, quadroon and so on.

In Australia definitions of Aboriginality based on blood underpinned the racist notion that Aborigines fathered by white men were more intelligent and indeed more tractable than their ‘full-blood’ counterparts. Blood-based definitions of Aboriginality were used to justify ‘integration’ into European society and also underpinned the later and official policy of assimilation. Being defined as ‘half-caste’ or ‘part-Aboriginal’ also detracted from someone’s Aboriginality, forcing even Aboriginal people to question their own identity.

The assimilation policy was developed from the racist notion that European society is superior and more highly valued socially than Indigenous cultures. Arguably, everyone in Australia is racially mixed, so why were/are Aboriginal people singled out to be divided into part, quarter, half-caste or full-blood? Because the issue of how much Aboriginal blood someone has is directly linked to the assimilation process, as the less blood you have the easier, in the eyes of the government, it will be for you to assimilate, and ‘be white’. If you don’t believe me, just ask Andrew Bolt!

‘Half-caste’ suggests one is not whole or complete. And it is this phrase that at a young age had Lorraine start to realise her life and her ancestry was shrouded in mystery. She set out on a journey of discovery which lasted over decades and left her ‘emotionally disturbed’ as she tried to find answers to the questions that plagued her mind and her heart. Will I find a sense of self? Where do I fit in? The analysing and over-analysing drove her to find out the truth about who she was.

Reading Lorraine’s story, we learn of the ‘layers of confusion’ that not only consumed her life, but the lives of others like her, searching for a sense of belonging that can only be found with family and knowing where you have come from.

The importance of family is a central theme throughout Lorraine’s life story – her biological family, her adoptive family and the family of friends she made along the way. Because, as we learn through Lorraine’s search for her family, and her search for herself, knowing who you are, makes you whole.

As a child, Lorraine demonstrated compassion and a sense of welfare for others even amid her own emotional trauma. That compassion carried her through her career as an accomplished nurse and into her life today, that has seen her become one of the most respected elders in Sydney, and a fitting recipient of the Yabun Elder of the Year award in 2008, which went some way to recognising the commitment Lorraine has to social justice, particularly in her local area. Lorraine was a co-founder of Lane Cove Residents for Reconciliation and has been an energetic supporter now for over a decade. She has served on the Cameraygal Festival committee run by Lane Cove Council each year, and has also participated in other Lane Cove Council events such as "You and me = Lane Cove".

In nominating Lorraine for the Yabun Award I sought out her friends, asking how they would define their mate. They described Lorraine as courageous, compassionate, generous, highly intelligent, humble and dignified. They say she’s got a deadly sense of humor, is a political advocate, a prodigious networker and a bloody good sport. And a bloody good sort. I’d like to add that she is warm and kind and equally good at listening and storytelling. And an incredibly lucky woman to have met and married a wonderful man like Kevin.

Just as an aside, I Googled the meaning of the name Lorraine today and I really wanted to share:

The origin of the name is believed to be from Lorraine in France and to mean Queen. In modern times, according to one website, the name Lorraine apparently translates to: one who constantly whinges, and will strip for a packet jelly babies. I challenge the whinging comment but am not sure about the jelly babies bit.

As a writer Lorraine has performed her work at the State Library, the NSW Writers’ Centre, Reconciliation meetings and various community gatherings, as well as on Koori Radio 93.7FM, and AWAYE (Radio National) and she has been published widely in anthologies and now in her own book! Hey Mum, what’s a half-caste?

The raw honesty and naivety in Lorraine’s words and her immeasurable generosity in baring her heart and soul to us will inspire readers. Lorraine tells us it is hard for her to convey how fraught the process is for an adopted person to reconnect with their background. And for many of us knowing who we are and where we come from we may never understand Lorraine’s story fully at all. Which is why this is a particular voice, a special story that not only deserves to be read, but must be read, if ever we are to have an understanding of those with similar histories to Lorraine. Please know that Lorraine’s story should not invoke pity, but rather it should engage you in a way that helps you, as it did me, to learn more about yourself and how we can all be more compassionate.

Through her life of heartache, confusion and unknowing, Lorraine – the wonderful writer we celebrate tonight - has emerged as a woman of substance and strength, and someone to be admired. For even though she could be bitter about all the missed stories of her family, the pieces of the lives of her siblings that she will never know, the woman affectionately referred to as “Toots” by her adoptive father Allen, still considers herself lucky to know some of her history at all.

Lorraine’ story not only about her own adoption and her adoptive family life, but the journey to find her way home, to her biological family, to her roots, to her country.

I am incredibly proud to say that the Yorta Yorta woman who resides in Lane Cove and who goes by the name of Lorraine “Toots” McGee-Sippel is in my family too.

And now, in memory of the late Eric Rolls, great environmentalist and writer, who said we launch boats not books, rather we open books, it is my pleasure to declare the soon-to-be-bestseller Hey Mum, What’s a half-caste? officially opened!

Hey Mum, What's a Half-Caste is published by Magabala Books: Magabala Books

© Anita Heiss, 2009


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