Review - Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

***Warning: spoilers ahead!***

Before I begin this book review, I would like to acknowledge Australia’s past policies of forced child removal and the hurt and suffering that the Stolen Generations continue to inflict upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families to this day. I would also like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land upon which I now live and work, the Wodi Wodi people of the Dharawal nation, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. 

To commemorate Sorry Day (26th May) and celebrate Reconciliation Week (27th May - 3rd June), my book review for May focuses on Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, a fantastic new anthology published in 2018 by Black Inc. The anthology was edited by Anita Heiss, a well-known Aboriginal writer and comedian.

(Note: The anthology is not technically Aus YA, but almost every story describes experiences of childhood and young adult life as an Aboriginal Australian.)

To summarise Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in a single word: wow! It was an honour to read this collection of tender, poignant, spiritual and often painful stories, shared by fifty fierce Aboriginal writers, activists, artists, athletes, grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, and young people.

Each story in the collection is true to the author’s lived experience and connection to country - from the rivers of Bundjalung country in northern New South Wales; to Wurundjeri country in inner city Melbourne; to the remote plains of Yolngu country in Arnhem Land. Yet the stories are woven together by common threads, like the fundamental importance of growing up with your mob, and the sharing of knowledge, wisdom and culture across the generations.

Retracing history

Sadly, many of the authors depict their experiences growing up without their kinship ties and close-knit communities because they – or their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents – were forcibly taken from their families and placed with white families as part of the Stolen Generations. It’s important to note that while the child removal policy no longer exists, Aboriginal children are still being removed from their families today. 

When I started reading the anthology, I was struck by the number of authors who had little to no knowledge of their true ancestry until they were adults. In one of the first few stories, Murri + Migloo = Meeks Mob, elder Norleen Brinkworth tells of her birth in 1947 at the Yarrabah Mission near Cairns, Northern Queensland, where her grandparents were placed after being taken from their families as children. Curious about why she, her father and siblings had lighter skin and a different last name to her extended family, Brinkworth spent years researching her ancestry. Brinkworth made a startling discovery: her paternal great-grandfather was a white English naturalist with the last name 'Meek' - the origin of her maiden name.

Obscured family histories are not unusual in the anthology. In So Much Still Pending, renowned singer and playwright Deborah Cheetham confesses that she is still growing up Aboriginal at age fifty-three. Raised by white parents, Cheetham had no knowledge of her birth mother or her Yorta Yorta family for thirty years. There is a lovely moment in Cheetham’s story where she describes connecting with her ancestors for the first time: “…all my life, the voices of my ancestors have been calling to me from the banks of the Dhungala…When I finally heard them calling, my response was the opera Pecan Summer." Cheetham is playful and matter-of-fact about her experiences, but she expresses sorrow for all those years of not-knowing and not-growing up Aboriginal.

“Just as I have gone from not-knowing to knowing, from youth to maturity, I think it is fair to say that, in Australia, we could all benefit from growing up a little more Aboriginal.” – Deborah Cheetham

In December 21, Sharon Kingaby describes the day she was adopted from the Joyce Wilding OPAL (One People of Australia League) home on 21st December, 1967. Taken in by a white family, Kingaby didn't see her two sisters - who also lived in OPAL Home in Brisbane - for an incredible forty-eight years. As Kingaby says, "I didn't know what assimilation was then...But when I learnt about it, I recognised its face immediately. It looked like me." With acute observation, Kingaby reflects on the institutionalised and casual racism she experienced; her journey away from her culture; and finally, her return to it later in life. 

Skin deep

Many, many stories in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia confront racism and discrimination on the basis of skin colour. I counted at least five stories that refer to skin colour in the title itself, including: Growing up beige by Ian Dudley; There are no halves by Jason Goninan; Black bum by Celeste Liddle; Grey by Melanie Mununggurr-Williams; and Too white to be black, too black to be white... by Carol Pettersen.

The authors bravely share their experiences of discrimination for being too black, or too white, depending on the context. For example, in Growing up beige, Ian Dudley recalls the mysteries of his ancestry, from inaccurate birth certificates to unaccounted-for relatives. He reflects on his own internalised racism and the insistence of family members that, "We're dark because we're Spanish". For Dudley, though, growing up beige was - and remains - a badge of honour. Happily, he wants his own children to be "proud to grow up beige, latte and caramel". 

In There are no halves, Jason Goninan, a Gunditjmara man, talks about being adopted by white parents as a baby, and reconnecting with his birth mother later in life. Goninan grew up thinking of himself as "half-Aboriginal", only to be corrected by an aunty as an adult: "...you are Aboriginal...there are no halves." (So true!) Goninan concludes his story with a very important message: that you don't have to look or act a certain way in order to be Aboriginal. What matters is the ancestral blood that flows through your veins, and the culture you identify with. 

In Black bum, Celeste Liddle describes becoming aware of her Aboriginality at age five, when she was teased by a classmate for being a "Black bum". Liddle grew up in predominately white neighbourhoods in Canberra and Melbourne, with a white mum and Aboriginal dad. Interestingly, Liddle notes that she often faced a greater struggle to belong among her peers as a woman, rather than as an Aboriginal. Liddle says that her experiences of racism and misogyny shaped her into the proud feminist, activist and writer she is today - but that we still have a long journey ahead to achieve gender equality and justice for Aboriginal people in Australia. Totally agree with that! 

In Grey, Melanie Mununggurr-Williams writes about the futility of labels and the "grey area" of having a white mum and an Aboriginal dad. Despite the institutionalised racism she faced, Mununggurr-Williams feels that she grew up to be "someone who can walk in both worlds, who understands and writes both sides of the story". With poetic flair, she reclaims her mixed identity as the source of her strength and wisdom. 

"Growing up grey...It was darkness in the beauty of mainstream neon lights. Difference, like spots among the stripes. Walking alone in a crowd and swimming against the current." - Melanie Mununggurr-Williams

In Too white to be black, too black to be white..., Carol Pettersen, a Noongar woman, talks about the deeply racist concept of "caste" and its impact upon her childhood. While living in a mission, Pettersen was separated from her dark-skinned brother so that she would not become "contaminated". Pettersen's story is harrowing, and I found myself blinking away tears when I read her words: "I've often asked myself: how many times a day can you break a little kid's heart?"

Life lessons

While Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia deals with the confronting truths of Australian history and intergenerational trauma, it's also filled with stories of love, hope and happiness.  

In Thanks for the childhood travels, Karen Davis shares the excitement of life on the road as a child, travelling around Australia with her family in the 1970s, stereo pumping Elvis Presley and Jonny Cash. In the form of a letter to her parents, Davis reminisces about riding in a blue Holden station wagon from northern Queensland to Darwin and Top End, a summer road trip to Melbourne, and adventures on the north coast of New South Wales. Davis' memories conjure the wonder and magic of childhood first experiences, and her story is a joy to read. 

In Life Lessons, or something like them, Shahni Wellington provides some great advice for young Aboriginal people about being true to your identity, respecting your culture, educating others, and staying strong. Wellington describes herself as "one of the lucky ones" because she grew up in the nineties with her loving family around her. A proud Jerrinja woman, Wellington says, "We know pride, we know love, and we know that we always feel better by the ocean." Just like Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in its entirety, Wellington's words are beautiful, honest and true. 

"Learning from each other and telling our stories is how people continue to grow up proud blackfellas, continue the longest-living civilisation on earth and make changes for a better future." - Shahni Wellington

Further reading