BOOK BUFF Jane Sullivan’s rumination on the disputed right of white authors to put themselves inside the heads of Aboriginal characters brings to mind a little piece of Australian literary history, one steeped in delicious irony by the Fairfax veteran’s decision to begin her little piece with fond memories of the children’s books written and illustrated by the Durack sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, of whom she now takes a dim view. “Fascinated by Aboriginal stories and art,” Sullivan writes, the sisters “began to appropriate these stories and pictures into their own art.” She finds this “questionable” and observes with smug approval that “two white sisters claiming to represent Aboriginal culture would probably not find a publisher today.”
Two paragraphs on, having hailed a new kiddies book written by genuine blackfellas, she speaks glowingly of the “immense and demanding” effort – community consultations and deciphering a long-dead American anthropologist’s notes – required to see the book from conception to printer. Then she tosses in that element of unintended irony: “ I can’t imagine the Durack sisters going to all this trouble.”
Really? How peculiar, because another of the Durack girls’ most energetic projects to promote aboriginality, to use the race solons’ favourite word, not only won Sullivan’s approval, it also prompted her to defend a fraud. If you want an example of how contorted our thinking has become on the subject of race, the then and now of Sullivan’s sentiments captures it to a tee.
Briefly, in the late 1950s a young and dark-skinned man turned up at the Durack homestead and was taken in, as so many others had been before him. Elizabeth had made his acquaintance while visiting Aboriginal prisoners, which she did throughout her life, and as Maureen Clark explains in her 2004 PhD thesis, her mentoring, encouragement and editing saw an ex-con blossom into a literary talent. By 1965, her protege had completed a novel, Wildcat Falling, which was published under the pen name Mudrooroo and hyped as the first such work by an Aboriginal writer.
But there was a problem: Mudrooroo, whose real name was Colin Johnson, boasted not a trace of Aboriginal blood, a fact subsequently exposed by the revelation that such melanin as he possessed was the legacy of an African-American grandfather. This is all very well known, and Clark’s thesis does a good job of recapping the basic facts, once the reader penetrates the requisite academic verbiage and obligatory references to “colonial imperialist narratives” and the like.
Now let us return to Jane Sullivan, who in 2000 reported on an antiquarian book fair at Malvern Town Hall – a gathering which, just coincidentally, a bookish Bunyip also attended. One of the vendors, Michael Treloar, was hawking as a job lot a collection of Australian literary frauds that ran from Angry Penguins to The Hand That Signed The Paper and the autobiography of Wanda Koolmatrie (another bogus blackfella who turned out to be no Aboriginal woman but a white, male taxi driver). Amongst the collection of hoax authors, Sullivan spied a copy of Wildcat Falling, which inspired her to inform Sunday Age readers that it had been misclassified:
The last item in the collection, Mudrooroo's 1965 novel, Wildcat Falling, stretches the definition of a hoax, as it seems there was no deliberate attempt to fool anybody. Mudrooroo is a highly respected author and academic who has done much for indigenous writing, but recently activists have alleged that his grandfather was an American Negro (as far as I know, Mudrooroo hasn't commented on this).
By that stage there was no doubt about Johnson’s pedigree, certainly not amongst the Nyoongar people, who several years earlier rejected his claimed heritage after he declined to meet elders seeking to investigate his bona fides. His name was subsequently added to the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation’s Wall of Shame (see note 23) dedicated to those lacking the correct bloodlines to appropriate, to use Sullivan’s word, Aboriginal culture and heritage. Yet, despite all this, Sullivan was discomforted to see Johnson branded a fraud and his book a hoax. While not referring directly to Sullivan, Clark explains the indulgent mindset:
The irony of Johnson’s real life narrative however is that it was his skin colour that not only constituted the primary mark of his alienation but which, for dominant white society, also determined the potential legitimacy as an Aboriginal writer.
Then, quoting another academic, Clark gets to the nub:
Gerhard Fischer has argued that it was Mary Durack who determined Johnson’s Aboriginal identity from the physical evidence before her and who made him what he was to become, an Aboriginal writer.
When viewed through the fractured prism of race relations and current racial politics it seems the Duracks are to be condemned for “appropriating” Aboriginal myths and art, yet Johnson, their creation and the greatest example of their handiwork, is to be cut lots of slack because, while his DNA is deemed inadequate, skin tone alone is just dark enough to get him over credibility’s line.
These are strange times when black is white and white is black and the spectrum of acceptability in between is determined by a well-intentioned white woman's mentoring and the subjectively political eye of those who would condemn her while embracing her creation.
God help us all.