Thursday, January 16, 2014

What an Interesting Point of View



We are soon approaching one of Australia’s National Holidays – January 26th – Australia Day. I always love a public holiday. Apart from the day off from work, Australians love a good opportunity to have a picnic or Barbeque; an opportunity to pull out the cricket bats and wickets; to sit at water’s edge and enjoy the heat while the kids play in the water. I have been known to tape an Australian flag to the aerial of the car. In the year we were in the UK for Australia Day, we went outside in the freezing cold with our jar of vegemite and Australian flag, wearing footy shorts, singlet and thongs (flip-flops for the non-Australians) and took photos to mark the occasion. Actually I took the photo, my son wore the Aussie garb.

In recent years I have become aware of some agitation that has been coming to light over Australia Day. I’m not going to say I know what it’s all about, but from the bits and pieces I have picked up I would suggest it has something to do with point of view. As writers we are big on ‘point of view’ discussions; how important it is to keep the POV from jumping around, but more importantly as a writer of fiction, it is crucial that we can begin see things from various points of view and show an empathy or understanding if we are to make our characters credible.

I’ve had numerous discussions with my daughter who has been a teacher of Aboriginal Studies for seven years, and is currently studying a masters in Aboriginal Studies. She is very animated when she talks about Australia Day. For some odd reason she doesn’t see Australia Day the same way I do. The chops on the barbie and the cricket on the TV is not what she thinks of at all. If anything she says she thinks of the yobbo’s who drape Australian flags over their shoulders, waving stubbies of beer in their hand, racing around the suburbs inciting violence and yelling racial chants. You might ask if that was our usual family activity for an Australian Day holiday, and I would say: Of course not. I think I saw something of the sort on TV once and dismissed it without a second thought. Those sorts of people are not Australian! Are they?

Then I recall a recent back yard party I was invited to. The family were Indian migrants, and their backyard was full of Indian migrants. We ate some fabulous curry and even joined in some Bollywood dancing to music that was blaring out of the speakers in the parked car. It was very multi-cultural from my point of view. There was me, the lone Aussie Aussie, my husband , who identifies as an Italian, though he was born in Australia, and two or three other Italian neighbours. It was all going very well until I engaged in a conversation with one of the young Indian fellows. He was highly educated, and unlike a lot of his friends at the party who drove taxis for a living (all the taxis were parked in the street), he worked in a slaughter house. He was scathing in his description of the country Australians he worked with. He saw them as racist and abusive. I wanted to object. I am a country Australian, and we are not racist, are we?

This year I was studying Australian Literature of 20th Century for a semester. Of course Dorothea Macellar’s ‘My Country’ was dragged out and examined, and I immediately connected. ‘I love a sunburnt country; jewelled seas; ragged mountain ranges; the wide brown land for me.’ But then there was another poem entitled ‘Australia’ by Ania Walwicz. Walwicz arrived as a twelve year old non-English speaking migrant to a crowded urban environment, and from the way she has written her poem, her experience was not that great. ‘Acres of suburbs watching the telly. You bore me. Freckle silly children. You nothing much. With your big sea. Beach beach beach...you dumb dirty city with bar stools. You’re ugly...’ It’s not what you’d call a poem that inspires patriotism. Clearly her point of view was of a crowded, unfriendly, overwhelming place where she had no escape.

But as we approach Australia Day particularly, I want to look at the reason we celebrate in the first place. I have heard the throwaway line – it’s the day Australia was settled. And in those few words lies the problem. It was the day the Europeans arrived, ran up a flag and proclaimed that the British Empire would build a nation. However there were already settlements and nations all over the land we now call Australia. Of course they were the first Australians. When we look at the first picture we see the ceremony with the flag, the officials standing around about listening to proclamations and prayers. However, the second picture shows us the other folks that we don’t see represented in the first picture. These were the first Australian indigenous people whose land the Europeans were laying claim to. From that day to this, a lot of history has taken place, but usually we only focus on the part that represents from the European (particularly the British) point of view. So when we come to Australia day we of white British descent can give a cheer and thank God for this great land, and for all the good things that we enjoy by way of provisions and freedoms. But while British colonial settlers were successful in building a great future for their white descendents, what was constructed for the indigenous population was characterised by some very ugly history, if we choose to look at it.

Now I am about to enter contentious waters. Come with me a little way – it will be OK. In 1938 at the 150th anniversary Australia Day celebrations, a small group of courageous aboriginal people staged a silent demonstration, proclaiming the day as a day of mourning. This group was led by a William Cooper and his nephew, Douglas Nichols. They weren’t saying ‘Europeans have stolen our land’; nor were they saying, ‘Europeans go back to where you came from’. What they were saying was, ‘let us be a part of the nation you have built’. This was the beginning of Australia’s own civil rights movement where this group had written a petition to the King asking that Aboriginals be given civil rights: to be counted, to be allowed to have a say over their own affairs, to vote, to be allowed to go into the public swimming pool, for their returned soldiers to be allowed admittance to the RSL clubs. At that time they were still having children being taken from them indiscriminately, and they were only allowed to live on certain reserves. They were not allowed to move around from those reserves, nor were they allowed any say on how the reserves were run. All of that was left to white overseers. Some were benevolent, some were cruel and unkind. William Cooper begged his nephew, Douglas Nichols, to use his influence to help their people. Doug Nichols was the first indigenous professional football player in Victoria. He was reluctantly accepted by the VFL(they couldn’t refuse his skill), but he was refused the usual rub-downs that all other football players received. But he persisted in the game, and eventually joined his uncle in the cause. After he finished his football career, he became a Christian minister, and using his influence he pursued the cause of equal rights for his people. It is an inspiring story of Australia’s civil rights leader – he is our Nelson Mandela; he is our Martin Luther King. Why don’t we know much about him? Perhaps you do, but if you don’t, I strongly encourage you to take a look at a TV documentary you will find on You Tube. It is from the series ‘First Australians’ produced for SBS. This episode is called ‘A Fair Go for a Dark Race’, directed by Beck Cole.

This Australia Day as you enjoy your chops and sausages with good old tomato sauce (translation ketchup for American friends), and you cheer wildly while the Aussie’s beat the Poms in the cricket, don’t forget to give a nod of recognition to the other points of view. In our country today there are many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds represented. Sometimes their experiences have not been so great. Perhaps we could offer a prayer for our government and for our people, that we can find the course of grace and wisdom that will help us travel difficult roads together towards a more loving and accepting time.

Meredith Resce
Author of Cora Villa, Mellington Hall, For All Time and The 'Heart of Green Valley' series


15 comments:

  1. Many thanks for your in-depth point of view, Meredith. It is good to remember our history. And like the history of many settled lands it has its sadness at the great cost to its original inhabitants who of course were the original caretakers.

    As a child I mixed and played with many Aboriginal children on a reserve overseen by my grandparents in country NSW.. They were loved and respected by the folk there and I hold lots of great memories of those times. However, it has been a long, hard road for them to gain understanding and any sort of equality. The true Christian message has had a very real part of that developing.

    Yes, we should always include our Aboriginal folk at every opportunity. I like the way the Rev Hon Fred Nile of the Christian Democratic Party invites Aboriginal Pastors and leaders to take part in various services held in NSW Parliament House. But we also can open our hearts and show hospitality whenever we are able and maybe even more so on Australia Day.

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  2. Great comments Meredith. I think the writer's mind for detail, bigger picture, plot, characters etc, enables us to see more than one thing going on at point of time and to explore the links between actions, motives, inter-relationships. This is a great reminder that Australia Day does not denote the beginning or the end of Australian's story.

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  3. I learned new things from this Meredith. Thanks. What a great illustration about POV. The same event can be viewed in so many different ways, giving us a greater understanding. Does this mean that writers should use mare than one point of view?

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  4. Very interesting post, Meredith. I learned a few things too. Douglas Nichols sounds like one of those now unsung heroes who many people haven't heard of. I would be interested in learning more about people like him. As I was reading, I couldn't help thinking that this sounds like a great backdrop for a new fiction, or faction. If we want to exercise point of views, and get into many characters' heads, what an opportunity. What a contentious date Jan 26th is, when it comes to celebrating.

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    1. In fact, Paula, Doug Nichols was eventually knighted by the Queen and appointed governor of South Australia - the first, and I think the only aboriginal Queens representative. A character worth reading more about.

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  5. Great post Meredith. I hadn't heard of William Cooper or Doug Nichols. I must admit I've felt a little uneasy about Australia Day over the last few years because of the indigenous issue. One of my indigenous work colleagues referred to it as "Australia Invasion Day". But you've given some great food for thought. And an excellent example of POV.

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  6. Excellent post Meredith. I have been in Australia for only 15 years so I am a newcomer. My experiences have been mostly very favourable. I am very grateful to Australia for the welcome she has given us - for all you wonderful friendly people - for many amazing opportunities we have enjoyed here - for a good life - for safety and security - for fair elections - and much much more.

    However, I have also been aware that for the indigenous people - life has been drastically changed since the Europeans came into their country. I confess I felt a bit guilty about it myself - especially in my early days here - knowing that the arrival of migrants has changed life for the indigenous folk as they knew it. And they have had a lot of difficulties and changes to adapt to. And some of them still bear scars from all that occurred.

    Thank you for educating me on much I didn't know. I love the way you talk of POV. As Christian writers - it's so crucial that we learn to look at the POV's of others - of other nations of other races - of others in minority. It's so important that we do something about it - being writers we can educate others. Which is what you have done. Great job!

    Thanks Meredith. Really appreciate it. Hopefully I will open my eyes and mind and heart a little bit more this Australia day!

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  7. Thanks, Meredith--a really thought-provoking read. I remember Sir Douglas Nichols coming to our church in Victor Harbor SA when we lived there--my husband happened to be preaching that day. In the morning service, he came with all the regalia of Governor, as was expected of him. But he also came back for the evening service just dressed casually and just because he wanted to--he was so gracious and gentle.

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  8. Thanks for a great post Meredith. It is good to look at our history from different POVs - and to discover the many untold stories. I was reading today about the play Black Diggers (to play at the Sydney and Brisbane Festivals - maybe others) of the many aboriginal diggers in WWI - the only time, some said, that they were treated as equals was when they were fighting for a country that did not recognise them as citizens & which then didn't acknowledge their service when they came home. One family sent 5 sons off to war. Thanks for showing the broader picture.

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  9. I think the indigenous perspective has been mostly misunderstood by the majority of white Australians. A different POV is just what is needed.
    We never really celebrated Australia Day, however last year we found ourselves also the 'Aussies' among a group of foreign friends. We decided to host the day, and will do so again this year. Last year I asked many of our guests what they loved most about Australia. It was a real eye opener for me to see that many of these people were as passionate about this country as I was.
    This is a great country, with wonderful people, but there are times we forget to love one another. Sometimes it's about taking the time to listen to those POV's.
    Great post, Meredith.

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  10. I learned something; thank you, Meredith. Not being a sports fan I had never heard of Doug Nichols. Caroline Fraser, a friend of mine, has written a very good historical romance (Christian fiction) that relates the Aboriginal POV.

    Her book Jocelyn's Journey, originally published by Arkhouse Press in 2007, is set in the present with flashbacks to Australia's colonial past, particularly as it impacted on the indigenous population. There are flashbacks to 2 infamous massacres of Kamilaroi people of North West NSW, and also a flashback to a Kamilaroi initiation ceremony. The book looks at the issues of racism and reconciliation from a Christian perspective of mutual forgiveness and moving forward. Caroline hopes that white Australians will come to some understanding of the problems faced by our Aborigines and that Aborigines may come to understand the difficulty many white Australians have in relating to them. Her book was written to help foster mutual understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, respect and love between our peoples. It is very worthwhile reading.

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    1. I also read a good novel written by an indigenous author called 'That Deadman Dance' by Kim Scott. He represented the characters from both white and indigenous POV and it was based on a true story. It was a good book that helps to build mutual understanding and reconciliation. I recommend it, though the writing style was odd.

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  11. I think Australians in general are so laid-back that we don't really see that others in our community may be struggling - not just the indigenous but also immigrants, as that poem by that young lass brought out. I don't think we need to feel ashamed of our whiteness, but more awareness is a good thing.

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  12. A great discussion Meredith. I often think about what others' perceptions of Australia Day are. Whether it's from an immigrant point of view, indigenous, overseas visitor or long term citizen of Australia, it will be quite a different perspective.

    As Paula suggested, the story of Douglas Nichols sounds inspirational and the storyteller in me wants to find out more.

    Bottom line, I think we have to respect each others' perspectives and try to understand where someone is coming from before judging them. Out of all the points of view, truth is drawn and a shared experience can perhaps create a new story in the future of our country.

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