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Conversation with Sam Wagan Watson and Professor Peter Read

Historical Imagination Series
National Museum of Australia, Sunday, 4 November 2007

MARGO NEALE: Welcome to the third public conversation around historical imagination. My name is Margo Neale and I’m the Principal Advisor to the Director on Indigenous Matters and a curator here at the National Museum. It’s my pleasure today to introduce you to these two historic creative types, Sam Wagan Watson and Peter Read. After my short introduction Peter Read will read from one of his works followed by the poet Sam Wagan Watson conducting a short poetry reading. Following that Sam will discuss how historical research informs his poetry, Peter will discuss how imagination informs his research work, and then we’ll have open discussion with questions from the audience. We will all have a conversation; it won’t be ‘them and us’. We will all be able to exchange views and opinions.

This series is based on the whole idea of how writers use history to inspire their works of fiction and, of course, the converse is how history writers use literary devices to create and inspire history writing. In this day and age The Da Vinci Code is almost a too predictable example to mention. There’s very much a fluidity between disciplines and particularly this idea of a blurring of boundaries. We all know that history is a bit of a fiction anyway, so we’re all in the same ballpark from diverse quarters. The whole idea of fact, fiction, history, poetry is a topic that creative minds like to ponder on these days, and the flow between creates fascinating stories and concepts.

Peter Read is a well-known historian who is currently at the University of Sydney. He has spent most of his professional life writing and researching in two areas: the significance of Australian place in Aboriginal history, especially the history of the stolen generations. You may know that in 1980 he was a co-founding member of Link-Up in New South Wales, an organisation that helps to return people who were separated from their communities when they were children. There are thousands of families who have benefited from his work and the work of all the others who have since stepped into the fold of this life mission. His books include: Charles Perkins: A Biography; Returning to Nothing: The Meaning of Lost Places; Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership; and A Rape of the Soul So Profound: The Return of the Stolen Generation. I am sure he will have occasion to talk about his recently completed work on Joy Williams, which is a fascinating story.

Peter deserves a lot of credit for this idea of looking at the urban Aboriginal situation and seeing urban Aboriginal people as not being culturally outcast with a culture of loss. He has very clearly defined the whole history of urban dwellers, and that’s contentious as well, as a continuing and adapting culture rather than one that has been diminished in any way.

Both Peter and Sam attended a forum held some months ago called ‘Who you callin’ urban?’ which was run in conjunction with the 70% urban exhibition currently on at the Museum addressing the idea that at least 70 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban environments. So urban existence as a very strong, dynamic and diverse culture exists for us. For instance, the presentation of one of the speakers, Anita Heiss, was called ‘Concrete Kooris and Westfield dreaming’. [The panel discussions from the ‘Who you callin’ urban?’ forum will be available shortly as part of the Museum’s audio on demand program.] It’s much about defining who we are rather than defining who we’re not, which is usually not us defining that situation, it’s others who remind us. Giving validity to the urban Indigenous experience is a fantastic movement at present. Both Samuel and Peter are focused on that, although in very diverse ways. I will now invite Peter to conduct a short reading for you. Thanks, Peter.

PETER READ: Thanks very much, Margo. My reading is from a biography of Joy Williams, a book that I’ve just finished the draft of. Joy was a Wiradjuri woman who was taken away from her family at a very young age, as was her mother Doretta. She sued the state for wrongful removal and, after a ten-year series of court cases, finally lost everything. I’m writing the book as a series of scenes from her life. Each scene is about 15-20 pages.

This scene is to do with her mother Doretta when she was about 30 years old in 1946 and she’d gone down to the Bomaderry Children’s Home to try and see her daughter Joy, because she had found out where Joy was. Joy had been born at Crown Street four years before that in 1942, and the learned Judge in Joy’s court case found, using my words, that ‘in the absence of any evidence one way or the other, I find that Doretta had given up Joy voluntarily for adoption.’

This scene of mine presents the opposite point of view in which Doretta is told in no uncertain terms, ‘Your daughter is being removed from Bomaderry,’ which is only a baby’s home, ‘and she’s going to be sent to an institution in the Blue Mountains at that time. Doretta is sitting with Joy on a little bench down at Bomaderry, which is near Nowra, when Sister Allen comes out and says:

- Doretta, you may have a few minutes with Joy, then I’d like you to come into the office please.

- Yes Sister Allen.

Doretta and Joy were sitting side by side in the shade on the wooden bench at the Aboriginal Inland Mission Home for Infants at Bomaderry. Doretta wore her best blue cotton dress with a shiny buckle. She looked down at her daughter Joy.

- I have to go in and see Sister, Eileen.

Joy’s green eyes looked myopically up at her.

- Why?

- I don’t know. I’ll be back presently.

Doretta climbed the three creaky steps to enter the long wooden hut whose eastern end formed Sister’s office. Her desk faced the door. Behind her a window formed part of the end of the hut, and above it, a coloured drawing of Jesus cuddling a black and a white baby above the caption ‘All the precious in His sight’.

Sister Allen was sitting in a hard upright chair behind her wooden office desk. Two chairs stood opposite. She smiled at Doretta as she stood framed hesitantly in the door.

- Doretta, sit down.

Sister tried to catch her eye, but Doretta had perched herself sideways to allow herself to see Joy still playing in the gravel. In her tartan skirt and blue cardigan, her daughter, aged four, was making patterns with her shoe. Abruptly without a backward glance she rose and skipped out of sight beyond the long wooden dormitory. Doretta returned her eyes to the seat and the pattern.

- I’m glad you came today, Doretta, I wanted to see you.

Doretta made no reply to this unexpected beginning. Her eyes didn’t move from the pattern.

- We don’t like the mothers of their babies coming here. I told you that last time you were here. It was most unfortunate that Mrs. Ingram told you that Joy was here. But in a way it was a good thing because we have a problem with Joy.

Doretta turned her dark eyes from the open door to Sister’s hands holding some papers on the desk.

- We don’t have enough room for Joy to stay here any longer.

Doretta raised her eyes to Matron’s face to squint at her head silhouetted in front of the bright light of the window frame. Her body froze. Surely Sister was not going to allow her to …

- Now Joy is a dear little girl and we love her very much. Especially Sister Leila, she’s become Joy’s special Mummy. We try to let all our babies have a special mummy in their lives. But there are just too many children here. There are two new babies coming in just this week. We’ve grown to love your little girl, Doretta. She’s been very happy here in seeking the Lord. In God’s care she’s been very happy here, but we have to send her away.

Matron looked at Doretta enquiringly. Thinking a response was expected, Doretta gave a tiny shrug.

- And you want the best for her, don’t you?

Doretta made an almost imperceptible nod. No, it was not possible. It was not possible. She dropped her eyes to the floor.

- Now most of our babies usually go off to Cootamundra or to Kinchela when they get older. That’s where you were too, wasn’t it, Doretta? But Joy is really too young to go there. So we’re going to send her to another home just for white children. She’ll be much better off there.

Doretta’s eyes remained fixed on the floor.

- It’ll be the best for her. It’s a good Christian home. With God’s Richest Blessing she’ll come to know the Lord Jesus as a Personal Saviour.

Doretta’s eyes did not shift. In her chair she was of stone.

- Joy is already very attentive to the wishes of the Lord.

Still Doretta said nothing but moved her head to allow herself to seize the gravel pattern to her gaze. Sister, a little unsettled by her evident impassivity, removed her glasses to eye the Aboriginal woman.

- So what I need is for you to sign this form which will allow Joy to be sent there.

Without moving her body, Doretta had almost to glance sideways at the small printed form.

- I’ll fill in the details later for you. You just have to sign it here.

She indicated the paper with one arm of her glasses.

Silence.

- What you have to do is sign this form down the bottom there. Here’s the pen.

More encouragingly,

- This means that Joy can continue to fulfill God’s plan for her.

Doretta dipped the pen in the inkwell and signed below the point of Matron’s glasses.

- Good. Now you can be happy and know that Joy is going off to a better life in a good Christian Home. She often says she loves the Lord. She often surprises with her questions. She is so grown up.’

Silence.

- As you see, she does look out of place amongst all the dark babies here. Do you know that we call our babies our treasures in earthen vessels.’

A pause in which a child’s cry echoed through the fibro wall of Sister’s office.

- Is there anything you’d like to know?

For the first time in several minutes Doretta raised her head. In a continuous movement her eyes circled the table, the dazzling silhouette of Sister’s head, the open door, the splintery floor, and came to alight on her own bright shiny buckle. Without looking up she asked:

- Will I be able to see Eileen there?

- What’s that dear?

- Will I be able to see her where she’s going?

- Oh no, no, no.

More kindly,

- Probably it’s best that you don’t, dear. By giving Eileen - Joy - to us to look after, you’ve been doing the Lord’s work, and I don’t want you to spoil it all now by going up there all the time. You’ll only upset her. That would be really selfish of you. You see, she’s got her own mother now. That’s Sister Leila, and Sister will be going there to see Joy from time to time. She’s very fond of her, you needn’t worry about that. You may hold your daughter in your heart, but it’s for the best that you keep away from her for a long time. She’ll be leaving here by the end of the week.

Through the fibro wall of matron’s office, the baby was crying again. Doretta watched Sister put the form in a folder marked in black, ‘Joy Williams’ and close it.

- So now I’m getting Mr Mack to take you in the truck up to the bus stop. You can wait in that seat outside until he comes. Are you going back to Wallaga Lake?

Almost imperceptibly Doretta nodded. She kept her eyes turned from matron’s questioning gaze.

- I’ve rung up Mr Tucker [the manager] to make sure that you don’t come back here. There is really no use trying to see her any more because she won’t be here. You understand that, don’t you Doretta? You must keep away from her now.

Unable to catch Doretta’s eye, Matron pointed out toward the gravel.

- Well if you wait out there, Mr Mack will be along in a minute to pick you up. Goodbye Doretta.

Doretta descended the creaky steps to the seat and to the pattern.

MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much, Peter. It’s certainly a more insightful way of learning about the history of individual lives through recreating the situation with that kind of dialogue, which Peter does so well in his reading. There’s also a performative aspect to Peter’s history telling. He’s one of the leaders in making history more accessible to people.

I would now like to introduce you to Samuel Wagan Watson. He’s the winner of the 1999 David Unaipon award for his volume of poetry Of muse, meandering and midnight, which was published as part of the University of Queensland Publishing Black Australian Writers series. Samuel Wagan Watson was born in Brisbane in 1972. Like the rest of us he’s a bitser with Irish, German, Bundjalung and Birri Gubba heritage, which makes him very special. In 2005 Sam won the New South Wales Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry for his 2004 collection Smoke Encrypted Whispers.

As Indigenous people we’re very proud of our writers like Sam. Many of us are writers and artists because it’s one of the few ways that we could get any kind of political voice. Sam has a lot to say and gets around to gigs all over the place. He was just telling me about how he’s doing some writing now for the Japanese. His work is highly valued by lots of people, inside and outside this country. I’d like to welcome Sam Wagan Watson.

SAM WAGAN WATSON: Thank you, Margo and thank you, Peter. It’s a pleasure to be back here in Canberra once again. I will relate back to the poetry I’ll read now later in my talk. It’s very special to be here on this spot at the National Museum in which the memories of both my Indigenous ancestry and my European ancestry in one building is equal, whereas unfortunately it’s not equal anywhere else in this country. But even though I do get around I am proudly Australian. Whenever I go overseas I try to be as diplomatic as I can for the current father of our country, Uncle Johnny.

When other countries talk about the history of Australia, there are still several generations of both my European and my Indigenous side that are still living in the recent history of that country. What makes my job as an Indigenous writer so important, I think, is that in my writing I have a chance to help shape the identity of this country. this is what I say to kids every day, ‘We’re a young country and what you write in your creativity can help make a greater identity.’

I will start with this poem ‘Midnight’s Boxer’, which is set in Brisbane. It’s based on several of my uncles who made their teeth as young men in the Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tents:

‘Midnight’s Boxer.’
Midnight’s boxer he has become.
That the ghosts from the tents of long ago pay homage.
Memories that fill the boarding house room.
And busted knuckles soothed endlessly with goanna oil.
And on the soul, scars that can’t.
Stories in his eyes.
He could have been an Olympian.
But try and extract the truth from his fists,
Although he wouldn’t know how to sink in the boot.
A tender honour picked up off the battlefields of assimilation.
Midnight’s boxer he has become,
A 57-year-old gas tank that can’t see empty.
Blackened skin like blackening memory, and hard, plain hard.
The unrecognised pillar of his mob,
And after midnight has gone, way gone, and his time is over,
Will he then only be missed and his triumphs mentioned.
Midnight’s boxer he has become.

This poem is set in West End on Boundary Street and is called ‘Last Exit to Brisbane’:

Boundary Street, that forged black scratch,
A vein from South Bank to West End, with a tail swallowed by the chocolate river.
This is the line, the limit, where the dark skinned were told, ‘Do not cross’.
A fence raised to protect the colonial domiciles of angels and gadflies,
And even today at rush hour that tar permanently keeps the scar alive and the dead languages buried.
To only escape in the bitumen heat haze and fall upon deaf ears.
As this boundary continues to stay true to its makers,
Denying the junkyard dingo the treasures of the city and no access to easy street.
Fringe dwelling in white light static on the last exit to Brisbane.

As I said, I’ll relate back to these poems in my talk. I’ve tried to do the sunsets and butterflies thing with my writing. Unfortunately, sunsets and butterflies stuff doesn’t get published, but what I do try to create are small, textual postcards. What gets published though are glimpses of my history and the history that I’ve grown up with. This poem is about a place that’s totally forgotten in Brisbane, yet millions of people pass through it every day called ‘Crib Island’:

For a while, dad worked in a ghost town.
He’d take us there on weekends after the government moved an entire community,
Empty building after empty building like some big science fiction film set.
Wandering through deserted houses,
We were the first Aboriginal people to analyse the remains of the first Europeans to be cleared from this soil.
Streets strewn with all sorts of treasures;
Armageddon and its apocalyptic merchandising.
Earth moving equipment droning in the distance, always closing in.
And the birds, dark wings sculled from silent twisters of smoldering debris and detritus.
Doorways, whistling breezes, a cadence of toothless old skeletons that filled the smoke encrypted whispers of this mass grave.
I think about those whispers every time my plane takes off or lands on the unmarked tombstones of one of Brisbane’s least known burial grounds.
On deserted streets forgotten newspapers dance. Dust keeps its appeal.

Thank you.

MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much. You can see he is a great reader of his own poetry, and a lot of poets aren’t. It’s very emotive. You can see that it’s very much a lived experience, thus the power of the words and therefore the history.

One of the other important things to say about what both Sam and Peter do is the concept of a shared history. The enlightened ones have moved past this ‘bipartheid’ sort of segregation: We are all Australians, we all have a history and we share each other’s history. That is kind of what is happening in our country, particularly amongst our young Indigenous people and our creative people - it’s not ‘them and us’ and anything you’ve got, we haven’t got,’ and vice versa which, as we know, is a human condition. But those who are open and willing will be starting to receive the messages that we’re talking about our shared history. As ordinary as it may sound, it seems to be a very difficult concept to grasp. Certainly throughout the whole Museum, and in particular the gallery of first Australians, the Museum is very much into that message about our shared history. I would now like to ask Peter if he would discuss how imagination informs his research work.

PETER READ: As Margo says, I am a historian using a variety of ways that I think are appropriate to write my histories. I thought I would change gear a bit and talk about some other work I have done. Although I have always worked with people - I have all my life - I don’t call myself an oral historian because I use every kind of record there is. However, history through talking to people is an absolutely essential part of every book I have written. There were about a hundred people that I interviewed for my book on Charlie Perkins. With my three books on place - I don’t know how many people there are in each of them - I take the view that you can’t understand anything about contemporary society or anything that happened 30 years ago unless we go and talk to people about their views and what they think happened. I have no sympathy whatsoever with the debate about whether oral history is real or not, or whether it makes mistakes, and so on. I won’t go into that now partly because a lot of what I am ascertaining is what people think, what their feelings are about certain events. Obviously that has validity simply because it is what they think at a certain time.

Let’s think about the way I write about the destruction of Adaminaby in my book Returning to Nothing, which is a book about the destruction of places and how we feel about places which we have lost. There is half a chapter on Adaminaby, which you know in 1957 was flooded by what became Lake Eucumbene but its initial name was Lake Adaminaby. It was interesting that the Snowy Mountains Authority wanted to get rid of that name and didn’t want to remind people of the town that had been there.

There are three things that I used. There are the official documents, because often in people’s reminiscences they can’t even tell you what year it happened, let alone when or how big the lake is or why it was done in the first place, which obviously is really important. My readers will want to know why the Snowy Scheme was happening at all. Not everybody understands who was a victim of that. They might have forgotten or they might have different ideas about it. Readers need to know what the official story is, so I go to the official documents.

But then the real meat of any of the work I do starts with just talking to people. I had spoken to maybe 10 or 12 families who had been involved in the inundation of Adaminaby when I was working there about 15 years ago. About half of them still live in what used to be called New Adaminaby - it is just called Adaminaby now - some live in Cooma, some live in Canberra while others went away after the inundation and never came back.

The reason I like talking to people is I am a natural oral historian. I’m never happier than when I am yarning with people, but also because that gives you that wonderful grasp of detail, which I can incorporate. Generally speaking, almost always under the names of the people who tell me these things. For instance, some of the things people were talking about at Adaminaby, some were expected, some were a little bit unexpected. One of them was about the town we used to have, the town we used to know. People would say, ‘Well, we had six pubs going flat out here. On the Saturday nights the three huge general stores were open until six o’clock in the evening. People from the surrounding stations would drive a two ton truck into town to fill up and get their supplies for the next two months and drive away again. It was such a happy little town. Everyone had half an acre, and they had their cow and their goat. And we would go down to the picnic races. It was a fantastic time.’ You might think it was a bit nostalgic or overly romantic. Yes, maybe it was, but that’s not the point. I’m not trying to make a judgment on whether their views of the town were romantic or not. It’s not my view to say that certainly not in a book like this because I’m trying to ascertain how people felt about the destruction of the town, the specific information and the specific emotion about the town we used to have here.

Much more precise was when I began to ask people, ‘What did you leave behind there?’ I didn’t think that would be a particularly relevant question in the beginning, but I realised that people wanted to talk about that. It was interesting because in the 1950s there was a real sort of push for modernism, so people leaving the old town for the new, not only were they hooked into this Snowy propaganda which was ‘you’re being selfish if you get in the way of progress, because this is a great work for Australian engineering,’ but also ‘you’re going to leave all that old stuff behind. When you move to New Adaminaby you’re going to have running water. You’re going to have electricity. So you can get rid of your old kerosene lamps and your hurricane lamps. You can get rid of all the water pitchers and the old tin bath you have to have a bath with in the lounge room every Saturday night,’ because you’re going to a place where there will be lots of these new amenities. There’s a sort of hint of modernism there which is driving people.

A lady called Mrs Anita Stewart told me, ‘Well, Mum told us to take the big camp oven and throw it in the well. All those pictures on the wall there, throw them in the well as well’. Anita was asking - she was only 12 or something - ‘What are we doing that for? We realise now’, she said, ‘that Mum was in a state of grief’. She didn’t know it at the time. She wanted to destroy these things because she said, well, her excuse was, ‘We can’t take them with us” I looked down there as the pictures, saucepans and things in the cow yard went down the well. All sorts of things we thought we wanted, even in the new town, we threw away’.

People still talk very nostalgically now about the wagons they left behind, and one or two motorcars got left behind. And conversely how they dug the roses out of the garden and took them to the new town. They dug the bulbs out, the daffodil bulbs, irises, and planted them in the new town as a sort of continuity. Everyone wanted to talk to me about the things they left behind or the things they carried with them in such precise details, all of which I was able to incorporate into the new chapter on Adaminaby, partly because it reflected people’s emotions and partly because it gives the text a lot of life having these particular and precise details.

When they got to the new town people’s memories became quite clear. It’s hard to believe that even if your wooden house came with you to the new town on the back of a big trailer, you didn’t necessarily regard it as your house any more. If you had a three-bedroom house and your two teenage kids had just left, you were given another house. And even if you got the same house it was on new stumps. It had been restumped and faced a new direction. Your neighbors were different. People remember that so clearly. ‘Look out the window. They shouldn’t be there.’ The chimney, which never used to smoke when the wind was from the south-east, now began to smoke. The windows wouldn’t open and shut any more. When you walked past the second bedroom and stood on a certain plank the door would spring open.’ Everything was different. When somebody asked for a new back door, the authority gave them a door off the chook yard and when she complained she was told, ‘Aren’t you ever satisfied?’

The uncomprehending and unthinking cruelty of the Snowy Mountains Authority seems remarkable. Yet people weren’t going on to me about the Snowy Mountains Authority cruelty - it’s my role to interpret that. People were giving me these precise details of what they remembered. When they talked about the new town, such precise details were presented again in equally colourful language. ‘You could fire a rifle up the main street on Saturday morning and never hit a soul’, I was told. That’s an example of the language, the deep emotional response which people are bringing which I’m also trying to incorporate in the book I was just reading out just now, and of which I’ve just finished a first draft. Generally speaking, I’m working with a lot of people.

If I’m going to be just an oral historian, I would just gather all the recordings, transcribe them, and call the book Adaminaby. But I’m an historian, not just an oral historian reproducing other peoples’ texts, even though I do that as well. My role is first of all - I’m sure Sam will agree with this - is that we writers have to put an imaginative ring around it and say, ‘That’s what I want to write about. That’s the experience of human beings in this particular place at this time’. Our duty is to grasp that emotional and historical experience imaginatively and see it as something we can write about.

Secondly, I see my imaginative task as putting myself in the minds of those people, and I began to do that by thinking about my own home. I was looking at my own garden. Where would the water be at the end of week 33 when it was rising about 15 or 20 centimetres a week? There it is at the back fence. Three days later, creeping up the back lawn. Three days later, what’s left of the daffodils are gone. Three days later, the tomato patch is under water. Three days later, it’s up to the door sill of the back door. Three days later, it’s in the fireplace. Three days later, it’s coming out the front door in a steep block. Three days later, the fruit tree in the back yard suddenly dies. Three days later, the water is rising and rising until the top of the stone wall. Oblivion.

Of course, the water has gone down on several occasions. The first big drought was in 1982, some people were too traumatised to go back there, but some did go back there. I think people said prayers in the ruins of the old church and they had picnics in their old garden. They found to their amazement some of the bulbs they’d left behind were actually growing again. I’ve walked around my house imagining what would be the first to emerge and what would I find there? What would have been left behind?

I’m not saying all historians have to let play this emotional response to what they are researching, but it’s something that has driven me all my life as a historian. I’ve had plenty of critics. I’ve hardly had a good review in years of any of my books. The social scientists get to them and say, ‘Read is off on another little trip again’. However, you’ve got to have a thick skin to be a historian writing imaginatively. But what I’m always trying to do - I don’t have to try and do, but turn to quite easily - is put myself in the minds of the people who are having the experience.

The third role I have as a historian is putting a ring around those experiences and then trying to encapsulate them - not to generalise about it and say ‘all people feel the same about losing their houses,’ because they don’t. Rather, I write, ‘This is the experience of that community at that particular time confronting that particular trauma, and my readers then can draw whatever conclusions they want from it’, I try and just present the information as it is, put my own imaginative response to it, and let people draw their own conclusions.

MARGO NEALE: One of the myths that’s really interesting about the orthodox historian is those who really believe that they’re not being imaginative. They actually are, except it’s sort of a subterfuge. Whereas people like Peter is being overtly imaginative, because we all know there’s no such thing as value-free facts because you choose what to put in or not to put in, or what to juxtapose or not to juxtapose. So despite their protestations to the reverse, they are in fact being imaginative. To pretend that they are not actually engaging their own value systems and imagination is actually quite a myth, and thus we get into the history wars.

SAM WAGAN WATSON: Thank you very much. On that note I’ve been looking at the past two years - my next book - which unfortunately I lost 80 per cent of due to a hard drive crash last week.

MARGO NEALE: Lost in a flood.

SAM WAGAN WATSON: Almost a flood - a flood of not being at home and taking for granted the value of technology. I think everyone has a sense of the value of history, but I’ve been looking at the price of history. One basic example is the irony of the English language. I am a thief. I appropriate the English language, a language that has been used to suppress my culture. The irony of the Mabo decision was that, while Mabo was won on incredible legal terminology, one of the big things that helped the Mabo decision was that non-Indigenous anthropologists went in and recorded the history of the Murray Islanders. That was one of the reasons why it was won.

I’ve had the joy of looking through my family histories and I’d just like to read you a piece. It’s the end of a letter to the Protectorate of Aborigines about one of my earliest recorded ancestors who was moved to Palm Island. This letter was addressed to W Robinson [?], Protector of Aborigines in Queensland. It sort of enforces why I think I’m a thief and why I’m a bit of a cad because it says, ‘I would like to point out this Aboriginal is cunning, cheeky, treacherous and a dangerous Aboriginal and would not hesitate to use anything that he could get a hold of.’ That’s one of my earliest ancestors in a character reference from the Protectorate of Aborigines.

History has been such an important thing because, as a young Australian, I’m still living recent history. But, the fact that I’ve now become an enterprising Indigenous writer - you just have to look at the last five winners of the Walkley Awards, the highest awards in journalism, they’ve cut their teeth on debunking Aboriginal leaders and on debunking Aboriginal issues. History is so important to me because one day I could be cut down for the stuff I write.

In reading that first poem to you, ‘Midnight’s Boxer’, I had a bit of a sad epiphany yesterday morning when I opened up the newspapers in Queensland to see an article from the Q Weekend. The Midnight’s Boxers were men in our community who couldn’t get permission to join Olympic teams, they couldn’t get permission to travel. They made their entire yearly income from the Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tents. This is from an article in yesterday’s Q Weekend about the situation of the homeless in Brisbane. This is one of the people that the journalist found. He’s interviewing an Aboriginal woman on the street and she points to a man sleeping in a gutter:

‘You know who this is?’ she asked, ‘that’s Adrian Blair’. In 1964, Cherbourg boxing champion Adrian Blair, boxer Frank Roberts and basketballer Michael Ahmatt became Australia’s first indigenous Olympians, competing at the Tokyo Games. This man, gaunt and weary, with a red cask-wine stain on his beard, is a member of the Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame. Sweet and personable, he offers a hand for a shaking. His daughter Margaret and her two small children rest by his side. ‘My dad is a legend’, says Margaret. ‘He boxed for this country.’ Her eldest boy, a beautiful toddler who bounds around the grotto like a slippery featherweight throws a series of shadow punches: ‘Legend!’ he sings.

The ‘Midnight’s Boxers’ poem has now been translated into several languages and I have read it in several countries - these are real people from my history. What I do is that I basically write textual postcards on what I’ve been taught about. The second poem I read, ‘Last Exit to Brisbane’, has now been turned into a documentary. I have to say that the director of this documentary [Hedi?] is now my fiance. I tried to make it a professional relationship but I couldn’t help falling in love with this beautiful artist. It was amazing: when she heard that poem and she wanted to learn more about the boundary in Brisbane. She looked at the UBD and the broken line of the boundary street. It wasn’t up until about 1965 that our people wouldn’t get pulled up by police. Black American servicemen who were on R&R from Vietnam went to the black pubs in West End because that’s where their music was being played, and they’d constantly be pulled up by the Bjelke-Petersen police force. What Hedi couldn’t get over was how much information was in the State Archives - the maps and the documents about stopping our people from crossing that line.

‘Crib Island’, that poem I talked about - it was sad as a kid, and now there’s not many of those old people left. Most of the people that lived on Crib Island were immigrants escaping the Holocaust, escaping World War II. They’d bought a cheap little block of dirt and built it up beautifully to suddenly find out one day that they were getting thrown off.

I’m exploring the price of history quite heavily in my work now. I’ve grown up with the value of history, but the price of it? What worries me is that we live in a country now that has a real censorship on history. What I do is a bit subversive, because now I’m starting schools and I find I can really get the kids. If I can’t change their parents’ minds, I can change their minds. But what’s so scary is I’ve been running these little workshops where I say, ‘what’s the capital of Australia?’ And they guess ‘Sydney’ until someone finally says ‘Canberra’. ‘Oh, that’s great’, ‘Where’s Homer Simpson go after work every night?’ And they’ll go ‘most heaven!’

The scary thing - it is one of the important things about my job, Peter’s job and Margo’s job - is that we’re being desensitised so much by media. People are no longer coming home and sitting around their dinner table at night and talking about their days. They’re getting in front of the TV. Kids know more about Springfield in The Simpsons than they know about their own back yard. Anyway, that’s my rant.

From that letter to the Protector of Aborigines, there are so much in the archives about my family. The crazy thing is that there’re not that many Indigenous historians that are well published. Why would non-Indigenous historians, when they’ve got so much to go on, make this stuff up? What has got me all my life about people like Windshuttle that talk about these made-up massacres: What did my people have to gain, and what did they have to compare a massacre to to lie about it? In my culture when you lie about the death of someone, it really upsets the state of balance in nature. It upsets your state of balance mentally. Why would we make these things up?

It is important to me to write these textual postcards down not only to give a bit of dignity to the people I write about, but also I am worried about getting pulled up. You’re always getting shot down. When I won the 2005 Book of the Year, one journalist in The Australian said, ‘I stole it from Tim Winton.’ Well, yes, Tim Winton is one of my heroes, but I don’t know that I stole it from him. But you are always getting shot down, I think, as an Indigenous artist. You can only persevere and hope that things will change in the future. Thank you very much.

MARGO NEALE: The Aboriginal dilemma is that, if you’re successful, it’s because you’re an Aboriginal and you’ve got special treatment; if you fail it is because you’re an Aboriginal and you don’t know how to do it. It’s an interesting little dilemma that you experience; or, if you do succeed, it’s because of the white in you, not the black. I am sure you have heard all these things. What’s interesting about it is that it still persists. I will put this to both Sam and Peter: by doing history, either in the poetic form or the dialog form, does it enable you both to talk about the emotive quality of history as we know it in a safer less confrontational way? Is there something about telling history in the way you two guys tell history that enables you to get a message out?

PETER READ: Yes. I hope I am not too much of a polemicist although some people accuse of me being that. I am always aware of who I’m writing for, whether you’re trying to write to an academic audience or to a general informed readership, which is what publishers like these days. But you always have to realise that there are a good many people that you’ll never convince. I had a debate with Keith Windshuttle a couple of weeks ago on the Stolen Generations, and he had several arguments to try to demonstrate that I was wrong. For example, he said, ‘If the state government wanted to take all the children away, why were they building so many schools on reserves?’ I replied as best I could - that the Aboriginal schools were being built at a time before the removal policy was really under way, when governments were still trying to hold Aboriginal populations on reserves. So the biggest construction period was before the First World War, while the removal policy didn’t begin in full swing until after 1918. It’s not a mystery.

Sometimes one can’t convince. But, if I’m talking to a mob of students, I think my duty is to problematise the issue. Aboriginal mothers did sometimes sign their children away. Let’s talk about why. What sort of pressures were they under that they want to do that? Why weren’t there any relatives around who could take the kids? This is what history for history students should be about, looking at the complications and the problems. But I’ll choose my audience to say that. If I’m talking on Alice Springs radio, I’m not going to come up with that argument, because that just complicates issues the other way, because I’m trying to convince people there that we do have an issue with the stolen generations that needs very serious addressing. So I’m not going to introduce qualifications there. I’ll probably give a list of children whom I know were taken away from Alice Springs and come up with some quotations from various chief protectors and other people in the Northern Territory to the effect that ‘we are taking large numbers of children away, because we think it’s a good thing to do so.’ All of we historians choose our message all the time, depending on whom we’re talking to. Whether Sam does that or not, I don’t know, but I would be interested to find out, so we should ask him.

SAM WAGAN WATSON: I don’t try to be confrontational but I do find that, unfortunately with poetry, you are speaking to the converted. I hate walking into Borders bookshop and finding my book next to Max Walker’s cricket yarns book in the Australiana section, but it does happen. What I try to do is paint pictures and encourage people, through reading my poetry, to paint their own pictures of recollections of the past. When I was listening to Peter talk I was thinking about the fires that just raged through California where every person they interviewed talked about the most prized possession that they lost were their wedding photos or their family photos in the fire. My Mum has always said, ‘Look, if the house burns down I’ll be throwing you kids out and then the photos after that.’ I look at my poetry as the same sort of thing - they’re textual photographs. As I said, I find that at writers’ festivals and events like this I’m speaking to the converted. I’m still looking at ways to get the poetry I write across to the wider populace. The good thing now is that with the HSC I’m speaking to school kids in New South Wales all the time and they get so emotionally charged about my work. They go nuts over it. ‘I can’t believe this happened in my country!’ They come out with things like ‘This is sick!’ They come up with all these terms. As I said, if I can’t get through to their parents, I’m getting through to the next generation of voters who maybe will think twice. It’s a bit of a subversive way with the HSC as it was a conservative government that brought in putting writers into schools. But at least one group I am getting through to is kids by helping to develop their own little social conscience. Australia to me is still such a young country and, as a writer, one of the main jobs of Peter and me is helping strengthen the national identity through our work.

MARGO NEALE: It’s interesting that the history that they’re getting, the history that they don’t know about, they’re now getting through poetry, which is very much back to the beginning of the question. Are there any questions?

QUESTION: The book that you read, I presume that came from a conversation with Doretta. Is it right?

PETER READ: No, Doretta was a bit past it by the time I met her. It’s really based around the document, which Doretta signed, which says, ‘I give permission to take this child from Bomaderry to Lutanda because she’s a fair-skinned child’ and ‘I wish her not to associate with Aboriginal people,’ or words to that effect. Doretta said to Joy - and I know this from Joy - that this form wasn’t signed at the time. I’ve no reason to think that Doretta was inclined to give Joy away to Lutanda, because she used to come to visit her all of the time from Wallaga Lake after she found out where she was. Therefore, my scene has been constructed around that, using the document as a base, and everything else follows from it, knowing what Bomaderry looks like and so on.

QUESTION: Thanks. I thought you probably had interviewed Doretta. But those stories of the pain of people who have gone through a thing like that - you can get that into you, you know and then you can express it. It’s the person sitting on the other side of the desk which is a lot harder. How do you get that story because they’re so reticent?

PETER READ: Yes, that’s true. There’s only one part where I have - I will have to be very careful; I don’t want to be sued by the home in question - during the course of Joy’s trial they went to talk to all of the people who’d been associated with Joy, both fellow students of Joy and the staff. One particular person whom I won’t name since this is going online maintained strongly in very strong language why Joy’s moral character was so deficient - she was about 14 at the time - because, one, her mother was a drunkard; two, she didn’t want her; and, three, because she was an Aboriginal. She made some extremely disparaging remarks about aboriginality in general. This would sound very familiar to Sam, I’ve no doubt, and was certainly very familiar to me growing up in the 1950s.

It was two young trainee solicitors who took the deposition down and they didn’t get the lady in question to sign it. So the judge accepted the written evidence from all of the people in the home, except that one. He said, ‘It wasn’t signed off and they weren’t properly trained interviewers’ and various other objections, ‘and therefore I’m not going to admit this into evidence.’ But I have it admitted into my legitimate evidence because I’ve got no reason not to. I don’t have to follow legal rules. Those opinions and prejudices sound extremely reminiscent of the 1950s. It’s everything that I myself grew up with. They were two young trainee lawyers who went on to become solicitors in the New South Wales Aboriginal Legal Service, and they both signed off on it by themselves. There were two of them - not just one.

I’ve used that as a conversation in one of the subsequent scenes in which they were debating whether they should get rid of Joy out of the home that she was in, and I’ve used this as evidence. That puts them in a rather pejorative light, by today’s standards, and we will have to consult some lawyers about what to do. I’ve never written this kind of fiction before. I’m trying to work towards understatement rather than overstatement. I’m trying not to tell my audience readership what to think. The only person I ever try to get inside the mind of - and I’m trying to be careful about this - is Joy herself. I’m not trying to get into the minds of other people. I am trying tried to let my readers make up their own minds about things. Apart from that instance, I haven’t tried to get in the minds of all sorts of people who influenced Joy in the course of her life.

QUESTION: That’s very helpful. I’ve been in Canada and what I saw was that the staff of those institutions and their former inmates have had a whole lot of dialogues across the country. It’s really brought a lot from the white people, but we’re nowhere near that yet.

PETER READ: No. How true.

QUESTION: This is a question directed to both Sam and Peter. I’m just interested in whether you feel a sense of optimism when you talk with the younger generation about a shared history and whether the sharing component is a bit larger than perhaps it was when we were kids?

SAM WAGAN WATSON: I’m constantly week after week jealous of those little suckers. If I had my life over again I’d rather be a school student in this generation. The weird thing is that it’s the big, exclusive schools in Sydney where the Packers and Murdochs send their kids - the sad thing is that the money and the exclusiveness of school buys them more of a space to develop a social conscience. It’s those kids that really take to me. There are kids that actually apply to spend five minutes with me and show me their writing. It’s those kids who are really interested in Indigenous issues.

I always try to be optimistic. I don’t want to come away from a school and have a parent ring up the school to say, ‘This Wagan guy, he filled my... He’s making petrol bombs in the back yard and going down to Kirribilli House.’ I don’t want to do that. I want them to paint their own pictures with the pictures I create. If they decide to take up a cause when they leave school and develop their own social conscience, that’s a big plus. It’s like putting a seed down: if it sprouts, it sprouts.

I have two little boys. I do not want them to get this idea that they have to attack everything and tear down everything down that’s built around them. I’d rather they become respecting young men who, if they choose to become activists like their grandfather, then that’s a good thing. Kids are just so impressionable. It’s a stick of dynamite sometimes; you’ve got to treat it gently.

MARGO NEALE: It’s interesting what you say about the kids in wealthy schools because they’re the people that are going to have the power, the money and the voice. It’s very interesting that it is about buying an education enables them the space.

SAM WAGAN WATSON: Another thing I have noticed though is that at the wealthy schools there is still a form of segregation. The Asian kids will sit on one side of the theatre and all the other kids will sit on the other side. It’s mostly the Asian kids that fire me the difficult questions about being put down as a kid in school. So there’s still a bit of that harsh schoolyard thing happening. It’s the non-Indigenous kids in the schools who come from really influential families that ask me the intrinsic questions about Indigenous culture.

PETER READ: Yes, I have to agree with that. In my book Belonging I spent a bit of time talking to black and white kids on both sides. It seems a bit of a cliche to say it, but it’s true that the ones who were least responsive to what you might call the general mainstream currents of society were some girls from an exclusive boarding school in Sydney who all came from the country, who were completely unrepentant, undergenerous and unreconstructed. Frighteningly so. But most of the other non-Aboriginal kids I spoke to were much more receptive.

On the other side, Jackie Huggins and I run a program called ‘Seven Years On’ for the National Library where we go and interview around 80 young Indigenous people around the country, of whom one is Sam. We first spoke to him around seven years ago. We then return to them every seven years to continue the story. That is absolutely inspiring. You’d hardly believe the inspiration that Jackie and I draw from young people - and the not-so-young Indigenous people whom we’ve returned to; we’ve been doing it for 15 years now - who are absolutely passionate and so incredibly capable. When you think back to people like Joy who had the same abilities but who spent her life as a drunk and a junkie and a child abuser, what wasted potential there has been in the past, but how exciting are the things that are going on at the moment. You must find that as well, Sam.

SAM WAGAN WATSON: Sadly, at a lot of the high schools I have been to lately where we have a session where the Indigenous kids can come and spend time with me, and I don’t get any kids turn up - none. At the last high school I went to they ended up buying a crate of my books so that all the Indigenous kids turned up and got a book signed and then left. I’ve gone to high schools in New South Wales with really big Indigenous populations and it’s not compulsory, so the kids don’t turn up.

MARGO NEALE: Why do you think that is?

SAM WAGAN WATSON: I don’t know. I blame the media to an extent. Most Indigenous speakers are only seen to be - what’s that new word?

PETER READ: Reconstructives?

SAM WAGAN WATSON: They see most of our community leaders as people who only speak when they’ve got a gripe against things. Maybe the kids think I’m going to preach to them about pulling up their socks. That is one sad reflection.

QUESTION: I have one question to Sam. With the books of poetry that you’ve published, have you ever found them in a library classified under ‘English language and literature’?

SAM WAGAN WATSON: No, I always find them under Australiana. It’s still hard for Indigenous writers to break into that literary genre. You can only pray it’ll get better. When the film Rabbit Proof Fence came out the book had been out for at least a decade, and then suddenly the publishing house had this big interest in it, there had to be rewrites and covers had to be remade and this and that. It is quite weird. Literary festivals up until a couple of years ago had a thing where they had to have a black poet on stage. You had to have someone who would explode, and little bits of cinder from that black writer would sprinkle all over the audience. But now there is a generation of fresh Indigenous voices of all age groups coming up and, yes, we are becoming a bit of a literary force, which is good. I no longer feel alone on the circuit. The Sydney writer Anita Heiss is now getting into ‘chick lit’, which is a huge market and she’s breaking into it quite successfully.

QUESTION: I’m trying to put what you two were saying in the context of the wider society. I wonder whether you do have the advantage at least of distance, because you can look back, whereas what’s going on under our noses at the moment is the destruction in the minds of Australians of the union movement. Every single day during this campaign that’s being waged we hear of the evils of unionism. I wonder whether the people perpetrating that realise that their long service leave owes its origins to the union movement, whether they realise that their equal pay owes its origins to the union movement, et cetera. Yet they get up there and are constantly destroying alas the sort of stuff that Keith Windshuttle does but is coming out of the mouth of the man that’s well known to all of us who is trying to win yet another election that the union movement is absolutely evil. And it just ain’t so.

SAM WAGAN WATSON: For those of us that know.

MARGO NEALE: It is probably time. Thank you very much to Peter and Sam, and thank you everyone for coming.

Date published: 23 March 2009