Writing while Black/writing while Indigenous: two voices speak on literature, representation and justice

22 Feb 2016 news 3 Comments

AKphotoAmbelin Kwaymullina and I met online a couple of years ago and found that we share similar perspectives on issues of representation in children’s and young adult literature. When I told Ambelin I wanted to write something about “Black excellence,” she proposed a series of posts where we could reflect on “the diversity debate” and the ways current responses dismiss or altogether ignore the needs of kids in our communities. Welcome, Ambelin!


I am an Aboriginal woman who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. I write YA novels and picture books, and I teach law at a university. I’m often told that being a writer and a law academic is a strange combination, but there is a powerful connection between law and storytelling. The global seizure of Indigenous territories by colonial nation-states has long been justified by legal doctrines based in derogatory stories told about Indigenous peoples. In Australia this was terra nullius, the notion that Indigenous peoples did not own the land we occupied because we were not sufficiently ‘advanced’ (which is to say, our life-ways and law-ways did not resemble those of Western Europe). And in Australia and elsewhere, stories continue to influence the way in which Indigenous and other marginalised peoples are treated by the law.

When I began my law degree I had a deep-seated fear of those in a position of public authority, inherited from my ancestors who survived the ‘protection’ era. From the late 1800s onward in Australia, so-called ‘protection’ legislation authorised the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families. It is estimated that from 1910 to 1970, between one in three and one in ten children were taken. In some families, all the children were taken. In other families the removal and institutionalisation of children occurred over successive generations. My great-grandmother and my grandmother were among them; they belong to what is now called the Stolen Generations. ‘Protection’ legislation was also the basis of a system of intensive surveillance and control under which no aspect of Indigenous existence escaped the attention of government officers.

The last remnants of the ‘protection’ regime were dismantled in the 1970s and Australia enacted national racial discrimination legislation in 1975. My law degree gives me the training to locate and interpret the guarantees of equality that now exist. I once imagined that this would be empowering. Yet it has not made me less afraid. If anything I am more so, because if I know the power of the law then I also understand its limits. Law can regulate behavior; it is often far less successful at changing attitudes. But attitudes can subvert the law and make a mockery of notions of equal treatment and equal opportunity. A recent report on racial discrimination legislation in Australia highlighted the persistence of systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples. Health research has shown that Indigenous Australians are one-third less likely to receive appropriate medical care than non-Indigenous patients with the same need. Beyond Blue’s recent study of Australians aged 25 – 44 found that one in five would move away if an Indigenous person sat near them, one in ten would not hire an Indigenous person, and one in five believe it is hard to treat Indigenous Australians in the same way as everybody else. Statistics in relation to Indigenous peoples elsewhere will differ in their details but the larger trends repeat – as was found by the United Nations State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples report, Indigenous peoples across the globe face systemic discrimination and exclusion from political and economic power.

indexBehind all these statistics are the stories. There are thousands upon thousands of stories that distort the identities, cultures and histories of the many Indigenous peoples of the earth. These stories influence other tales in a self-perpetuating cycle supported by the structures of privilege that continue to exclude Indigenous voices from speaking to our own truths. Representation – or rather misrepresentation – in narrative is not separate from discrimination; it is part of what enables it. In those crucial moments when others are making choices that will influence our fate, it is the stories they know about us that alter perception and displace empathy. When diverse authors say that diversity in literature is a matter of life and death, I think some people believe we are using hyperbole. But the grim truth is that the marginalised have no need of hyperbole to make our point. We only need reality.

There are those who study the law because they love the law; I studied the law in search of justice. In the legal systems of the many Aboriginal nations of Australia, there is a strong correlation between the concept of justice and that of balance. Far less so, in Western legal systems. Less so too in the world of literature where there are massive imbalances in power between the privileged and the marginalised. But I am not the only one who would name this imbalance unjust, because I am one of many voices across the globe speaking to these issues. Some of us come from the peoples that have been, and are being, excluded; from a history of voices silenced and stories never told. Some are among the privileged who have inherited the benefits of our exclusion. But we are all part of a future that has not yet been fathomed.

None of us know what the world of literature looks like when all voices are heard equally and all voices have an equal opportunity to be heard. Such a world doesn’t exist. But I think I see it sometimes, or rather I feel it. The sound of a thousand peoples speaking to a thousand different realities. A sense of there being air enough for everyone to breathe. Daniel Older has said that “perhaps the word hasn’t been invented yet [for] that thing beyond diversity.”

I call it justice.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and law academic who comes from the Palyku (pronounced ‘Bailgu’) people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She is the author of the Tribe series, a dystopian trilogy for young adults, the first book of which (The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf) is published in the US. She has also written and illustrated a number of picture books. Some of Ambelin’s commentary on diversity issues can be found here.

Read Part 2 of the series here.