I have learned, more deeply learned and unlearned so much thanks to Desiree – not just through this podcast interview, but also by following her posts on social media, and undertaking a number of her social justice trainings (including the Diversity Is An Asset and Social Justice Intensive programs – seriously, check them and her new Freedom School out, they’re amazing).
While interviewing Desiree, she invited the white folk listening to challenge themselves to read books written by People of Colour only for the six months and reflect on what they’ve learned after a lifetime of likely predominantly reading books written by white authors. While on the podcast, I personally committed to doing this myself.
Now, I’ll be transparent. I read a few books and then got so overwhelmed with my Master of Human Rights assessments and readings that I did something very out of character – I took a break from reading altogether. *Gasp*
It’s time to return to my book-loving self and Desiree’s challenge again.
There is a social media campaign and movement in the United States called We Need Diverse Books. One of the founders, Malinda Lo (2014) reported as part of her analysis of the Young Adult Library Services Associations 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults that around 10% of the books listed were written by Authors of Colour and about 15% contained main characters who were People of Colour.
Low (2016) of Lee & Low Books also wrote that there is sufficient data to confirm that “the number of diverse books published each year over the past twenty years has been stuck in neutral, never exceeding on average, 10 percent.” He then continues to share that according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 2 percent of children’s books were written by African Americans in 2014.
Furthermore, according to their 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, almost 80 percent of publishing and review journal staff (and 89% of those who review books in the publishing industry) are white. Similarly, Roxane Gay (2011) also found that of 742 books reviewed in the New York Times in 2011, almost 90% (655 books) were written by Caucasian authors.
As you might know, I live in a small town in Australia. After hours of scrolling through the database for my university library, I came to the conclusion that it is challenging to find statistics on the Australian publishing industry and Australian authors. (If you manage to find any articles of interest, please share!)
However, I did observe when walking into a three-storey book store in the city of Melbourne in 2016 to buy a book for my toddler, that I had to search high and low to find children’s books that contained main characters or any characters who appeared to be People of Colour. It was also challenging to find books specifically authored by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – and when I did find such books, they were all grouped together in their own small section. This was not the first or last time that I made such observations upon shopping at a bookstore while travelling.
All you have to do is consult Google to learn that despite being underrepresented in bookstores and libraries, there are of course Indigenous authors in Australia.
So, I decided to focus my first 6 months reading books (as per my acceptance of Desiree’s challenge) written by Indigenous Australian authors. When I am finished, I will also leave a review for each on the main book review sites online.
Want to join me?
For each month, I have chosen one fiction and one non-fiction book to read. I would usually read more than this in a month, but knowing my intensive Masters degree will be starting again shortly, I thought I better not get too ambitious.
The books I have chosen are listed below. If you cannot afford to buy each of them and they are not stocked at your local library – consider asking your library to get a copy. If my little library in Yeppoon Queensland can do this, I’m sure many others can too.
1. Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Dr Anita Heiss (Fiction / Historical)
“Over 1000 Japanese soldiers attempt to break out of the No. 12 Prisoner of War compound on the fringes of Cowra. In the carnage, hundreds are killed, many are recaptured and imprisoned, and some take their own lives rather than suffer the humiliation of ongoing defeat. But one soldier, Hiroshi, determined to avoid either fate, manages to escape. At nearby Erambie Aboriginal mission, Banjo Williams, father of nine and proud man of his community, discovers a distraught Hiroshi, pleading for help. The people of Erambie have seen enough death and heartache, so Banjo and the Erambie community decide to offer Hiroshi refuge. Mary, Banjo’s daughter, recently returned from being in service in Sydney, is intrigued by the Japanese stranger, and is charged with his care. Love blossoms, but life for the community on the mission is one of restriction – living under Acts of Protection and Assimilation, and always under the watchful eye of the mission manager. In wartime Australia, the children are terrified of air raids, but their parents fear a life without rights. And for Mary and Hiroshi, there is much in their way. Mary is forbidden under the Act, and by her own father, to marry Hiroshi, so together they plot their own escape from the mission. But solidarity in the community is eroding and trouble is brewing.”
2. Am I Black Enough For You? by Dr Anita Heiss (Non-Fiction / Memoir)
“What does it mean to be Aboriginal? Why is Australia so obsessed with notions of identity? Anita Heiss, successful author and passionate campaigner for Aboriginal literacy, was born a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales, but was raised in the suburbs of Sydney and educated at the local Catholic school. She is Aboriginal – however, this does not mean she likes to go barefoot and, please, don’t ask her to camp in the desert. After years of stereotyping Aboriginal Australians as either settlement dwellers or rioters in Redfern, the Australian media have discovered a new crime to charge them with: being too ‘fair-skinned’ to be an Australian Aboriginal. Such accusations led to Anita’s involvement in one of the most important and sensational Australian legal decisions of the 21st-century when she joined others in charging a newspaper columnist with breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. He was found guilty, and the repercussions continue. In this deeply personal memoir, told in her distinctive, wry style, Anita Heiss gives a first-hand account of her experiences as a woman with an Aboriginal mother and Austrian father, and explains the development of her activist consciousness. Read her story and ask: what does it take for someone to be black enough for you?”
3. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina (Fiction / Fantasy)
“They’re known as Firestarters. Boomers. Skychangers. The government calls them Illegals –children with inexplicable abilities– and detains them in menacing facilities so that society is kept out of harm’s way. Ashala Wolf and her Tribe of fellow Illegals have taken refuge in the Firstwood, a forest eerily conscious of its inhabitants, where they do their best to survive and where they are free to practice their abilities. But when Ashala is compelled to venture outside her territory, she is betrayed by a friend and captured by an enemy. Injured and vulnerable, with her own Sleepwalker ability blocked, Ashala is forced to succumb to a machine that will pull secrets from her mind. It’s only a matter of time before the machine ferrets out the location of the Tribe. Her betrayer, Justin Connor, is ever-present, saving her life when she wishes to die and watching her every move. Will the Tribe survive the interrogation of Ashala Wolf?”
4. Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism by Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Non-Fiction / Feminism)
“Dr Aileen Moreton-Robinson “talks up” in this provocative interrogation of feminism in representation and practice. As a Geonpul woman and an academic, she provides a unique cultural standpoint and a compelling analysis of the whiteness of Australian feminism and its effect on Indigenous women. Through an extensive range of articles by non-white scholars and activists, she demonstrates the ways whiteness dominates from a position of power and privilege as an invisible and unchallenged practice. She illustrates the ways in which Indigenous women have been represented through the publications and teachings of white Australian women. Such renderings of Indigenous lives are in contrast to the many examples provided of life writings by Indigenous women themselves. Persuasive and engaging, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is a timely argument for the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in developing the teachings and practices that impact on Australia’s pluralistic society.”
5. The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (Fiction / Science Fiction)
“The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute young woman called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.”
6. Talking To My Country by Stan Grant (Non Fiction / Memoir)
“An extraordinarily powerful and personal meditation on race, culture, and identity. As an Aboriginal Australian, Stan Grant has had to contend with his country’s racist legacy all his life. Born into adversity, he found an escape route through education and the writing of James Baldwin, going on to become one of Australia’s leading journalists. As a correspondent for CNN, he travelled the world, covering conflicts everywhere, from Baghdad to North Korea. Struck by how the human spirit can endure in the face of repression, he found the experiences of individuals he met spoke to him of the undying call of family and homeland. In the stories of other dispossessed peoples, he saw that of his own. In Talking To My Country, Grant responds to the ongoing racism that he sees around him. He writes with passion and striking candour of the anger, shame, and hardship of being an indigenous man. In frank, mesmerising prose, Grant argues that the effects of colonialism and oppression are everyday realities that still shape our world, and that we should never grow complacent in the fight to overcome them.”
7. Legacy by Larissa Behrendt (Fiction / Contemporary)
“Simone Harlowe is young and clever, an Aboriginal lawyer straddling two lives and two cultures while studying at Harvard. Her family life back in Sydney is defined by the complex relationship she has with her father Tony, a prominent Aboriginal rights activist. As Simone juggles the challenges of a modern woman’s life – career, family, friends and relationships – her father is confronting his own uncomfortable truths as his secret double life implodes. Can Simone accept her father for the man he is and forgive him for the man he’s not?”
8. My People’s Dreaming: An Aboriginal Elder Speaks on Life, Land, Spirit + Forgiveness by Max Dulumunmun Harrison (Non-Fiction)
“′Uncle′ Max, as he is widely known, has been sharing his cultural knowledge for over 30 years – in that time taking more than 6000 people from all walks of life onto country and explaining Aboriginal ways. This book′s content is drawn from extensive interviews with Uncle Max, who states that the teachings he reveals are ′the living treasures of my life′. Uncle Max provides simple and clear understandings into Aboriginal culture for people from all nationalities. His teachings cover their Creation Dreaming, bush lore, foods, healing, laws and punishment, spirituality and the significance of relationship to land. In passing on traditional wisdom Uncle Max focuses on three truths: See the land…the beauty; Hear the land…the story; Feel the land…the spirit.”
9. Sister Heart by Sally Morgan (Fiction / Young Adult)
“A young Aboriginal girl is taken from the north of Australia and sent to an institution in the distant south. There, she slowly makes a new life for herself and, in the face of tragedy, finds strength in new friendships. Poignantly told from the child’s perspective, Sister Heart affirms the power of family and kinship.”
10. Out of the Box Thinking on Indigenous Leadership: Simple Strategies to Create an Empowering Future by Wendy Watego and Vicki Scott (Non-Fiction / Leadership & Motivation)
“The past does not have to constrain your leadership potential. International authors and education and training experts Wendy Watego (Quandamooka woman) and Vicki Scott look newly at leadership. They drill down to the core of your cultural identity and spirit. You get to see how your habits, your decisions, and the way in which you communicate and build relationships is impacted and shaped by unresolved upsets from your past. After reading this book you will have a very different mindset about what is now possible for you. You will be the true “author-ity” of your life, and have the power to self-determine the direction of your future and your leadership.”
11. Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (Fiction / Contemporary)
“A darkly funny novel of romantic love and cultural warfare. When Jo Breen uses her divorce settlement to buy a neglected property in the Byron Bay hinterland, she is hoping for a tree change, and a blossoming connection to the land of her Aboriginal ancestors. What she discovers instead is sharp dissent from her teenage daughter Ellen, trouble brewing from unimpressed white neighbours, and a looming Native Title war among the local Bundjalung families. When Jo stumbles into love on one side of the Native Title divide she quickly learns that living on country is only part of the recipe for the Good Life. Told with humour and a sharp satirical eye, Mullumbimby is a modern novel set against an ancient land.”
12. The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman (Non-Fiction / Autobiography)
“It looked bleak and predictable for little Keelen Mailman: an alcoholic mother, absent father, the horrors of regular sexual and physical assault and the casual racism of a small outback town in the sixties. But somehow, despite the pain and deprivation, the lost education, she managed to absorb her mother’s lessons: her Bidjara language and culture, her obligations to Country, and her loyalty to her family. So it was no surprise to some that a girl who could hide for a year in her own home to keep her family together, run as fast as Raylene Boyle and catch porcupine and goanna, would one day make history. At just 30, and a single mother, Keelen became the first Aboriginal woman to run a commercial cattle station when she took over Mt Tabor, two hours from Augathella on the black soil plains of western Queensland. This is the heartland of Bidjara country, after all, the place her mother and grandparents and great-grandparents had camped on and cared for, and where their ancestors left their marks on caves and rock walls more than 10,000 years ago. In this unflinching memoir, the warmth of Keelen’s personality, her determination and her irresistible humour shine through as she recalls her extraordinary life.”
- Some of the links to books included in this article are Book Depository affiliate links. This means if you use my links to purchase the books through that store, I might get a small commission.
- The photographs, book descriptions and category types were taken from Good Reads and/or Book Depository.
Gay, R. (2012, 6 June). Where things stand. The Rumpus. Retrieved from http://therumpus.net/2012/06/where-things-stand/
Lo, M. (2014, 20 February) Diversity in YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults: Updated in 2014. Diversity In YA. Retrieved from http://www.diversityinya.com/2014/02/diversity-in-yalsas-best-fiction-for-young-adults-updated-for-2014/
Low, J. (2016, January 26). Where is the diversity in publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results. Lee & Low Books. Retrieved from http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/