Settling on three books that speak of Australia was difficult for every reason that it should be: the richness and quality of that choice and because, in taking a snapshot of literature one sees how inextricable books are with personal expression, and their vital role in representation. A childhood favourite is here along with books that fracture dominant narratives, giving us marginalised voices, repressed histories. In the darkroom of stories brought together one hopes to arrive at an image of who and how we are.
My Place (1987) This book was on our shelf when I was young and at different times my parents recommended it to me. I read it only recently, and I realise now that it’s rare they both told me about the same book. Sally Morgan takes us into the past to document how she came to learn of her Indigenous Australian heritage. It is her journey back, both to the stories and to the land of her family.
I have long been preoccupied with questions of memory and place, recollection and amnesia, the preservation and destruction of stories. The searching quality of Morgan’s work helps us to see how one tries to assemble a story in the face of dislocation and disempowerment, working against the cultural amnesia that is both product and aftermath of colonial violence and the racism embedded deeply in Australia.
Yet it feels an empowering work, of claiming the right to one’s own story. With her mother, husband and children, Morgan visits family, old acquaintances of her relatives, and the land. There are long car rides and plane journeys. There is joy and family and love, arguments and jokes and tears. Often she will tell us only that the weight of emotion—at those moments of recognition when we are told something that connects us to the dead—could only be conveyed in a look between Morgan and her mother.
As I seek to convey in my own novel, to speak one’s memories is a kind of elemental art, the sharing of stories. The repression of stories feeds amnesia, or fuels an inequitable narrative. It is important that My Place is told in Morgan’s words, as an Indigenous Australian writer, but also in the uninterrupted monologues of her relatives, tape-recorded by Morgan. In this way her book is memoir but it is more. At these times, Morgan steps out of the narration, as if literally walking off the stage, so that her family members tell their stories in their own words. Her approach of layered narratives struck me as the truest form of art.
Old books sometimes tell a history of their reading: one particular page I folded down in our copy of My Place had already been dog-eared by someone else before me—maybe my parents or the person with a name unknown to me, scrawled in blue ink on the inside of the front cover. I wonder now what line it was the person saw and wanted to remember. For me it was this one, from Morgan’s uncle:
I want my story finished. I want everyone to read it. Arthur Corunna’s story! I might be famous. You see, it’s important, because then maybe they’ll understand how hard it’s been for the blackfella to live the way he wants. I’m part of history, that’s how I look on it. Some people read history, don’t they?