Table of Contents
2. The Problem of Defining Aboriginality
3. Aboriginality in Benang: From the Heart
3.1. Facets of Aboriginality in Benang
3.2. Discovered Aboriginality
This term paper wants to examine the forms and functions of Aboriginality in Kim Scott’s novel Benang: From the Heart. Published in 1999 as the author’s second novel, it gained great attention and also won the Miles Franklin Award. Kim Scott is a descendant of the Nyoongar people who have at all times inhabited the south-east coast of Western Australia. They used to be a large homogenous group that shared a common language and culture until the first white settlers landed on their continent. The following clash of cultures had various fatal consequences and “sounded the death knell” for the Nyoongar community (cp. Da Cruz 2003: 14). Apart from general mistreatment of these people, Kim Scott’s novel illustrates how an institutionalized genocide of them and other Aboriginal people was attempted. The story not only includes individual stories of several Aboriginal characters, but also official documents, newspaper articles, letters and reports. Like that, Scott creates a counter- narrative to colonial history and gives voices to those who were oppressed by legislations and racism.
To make clear in which sense I use the expression “Aboriginality” in this term paper, I will begin with a brief, critical overview of former and present notions of Aboriginality. Afterwards I will shortly illustrate different kinds of Aboriginality which, in my opinion, Kim Scott reveals to his readers in Benang. I will then focus on one of them, namely Harley’s discovered Aboriginality. This closer investigation includes the other aspects to some extent, as all of them are closely intertwined. In the course of my survey I will try to work out Scott’s way of representing certain aspects and which implications his choice might have for the interpretation of his novel, especially concerning the implications for a construction of Aboriginal identity and for the establishment of a new historical discourse.
2. The Problem of Defining Aboriginality
The term Aboriginality is widely used in a post-colonial and social context, but still it lacks a precise definition. As it is rather a conglomerate of different aspects and opinions, “to even speak about Aboriginality is to enter a labyrinth full of obscure passages, ambiguous signs and trapdoors” (Dodson 2003: 28). On the one hand, this might be due to past events and to the fact, that the colonizers used it to justify and strengthen their power. On the other hand, this is probably due to the heterogeneous nature of the phenomenon the term tries to grasp: the one and only Aboriginal identity did not and does not exist. Instead there have always been various forms of it. When the first settlers arrived in 1788, hundreds of distinct semi-nomadic tribes were spread over the Australian continent with different traditions, religious systems and social structures (cp. Berndt 1964: 23ff). The assumed numbers of their overall population range from 300,000 to one million and some 600-700 dialects from at least 250 language groupings were spoken (cp. Bourke 1993: 4).
Each group mainly kept to itself and lived according to own rules and habits, but the colonizers ignored this variety and subsumed all of them under the expression Aborigines. Despite the legacy it carries, this word is still in use (and will be used in this term paper) due to a pragmatic reason: a completely neutral alternative term could not been established yet (cp. Schürmann-Zeggel 1999: 32). However, nowadays the diversity of the Aboriginal culture got widely recognised and it got acknowledged “that Australian history does not begin in 1788” (Webby 2000: 17).
The settler’s ignorance was partly caused by the assumption, that Australia was not inhabited by human beings who make proper use of the land. As it was no man ’ s land, a terra nullius, colonial settlement was justifiable and the land rights of indigenous people could be disregarded.1 Moreover, it was the white intruders who thought they could define what Aboriginality is. Right from the start, “colonising cultures have had a preoccupation with observing, analysing, classifying and labelling Aborigines and Aboriginality” (Dodson 2003: 24). In the first reports, the image of the Aboriginal subject ranged from the “noble savage” to the “prehistoric beast”, from happy, innocent creatures to “blood thirsty, cunning” monsters which would luckily die out soon (cp. ibid.: 25). Such contrary representations are striking, but can be explained by the fact that the portrayals of the unknown other “depended on what the colonising culture wanted to say or think about itself” (ibid.: 36).
Half a century later, in 1839, what mattered most for a legal definition was the proportion of black blood: the so-called blood-quotum, which began to enter the legis- lations of all territories (cp. Gardiner-Garden 2003: 3). It was designated by mere observation of skin colour and therefore source for inconsistent and arbitrary ascriptions. The increasing numbers of children born from the sexual intercourse between white settlers and Aborigines - which consisted mainly of rape and abuse of Aboriginal women - alerted the government and the blood-quotum was expanded into pseudo-scientific, mathematical categories. Aboriginal people got divided into full- bloods, half-castes (“first crosses of two types”), quarter-castes (“second generation crosses of three types”) and into “1/8, 3/8, f3, fx, 5/8, quadroon, octoroon" (Trindale quoted in Dodson 2003: 26). From the 1850s to the 1970s children with hybrid descent were taken away from their Aboriginal families, in the alleged attempt to assimilate them. They are now known as the Stolen Generation. Depending on the present state of the law, which changed steadily, certain groups were classified as Aborigines and became “protected” by the state. For Aborigines this resulted in a great number of disadvantages and in serious uncertainties about their identity (cp. Schürmann-Zeggel 1999: 81). All in all, the white society did not challenge or question this policy and racism flourished. It is these circumstances which make up a great part of Kim Scott’s Benang and I will come back to them later.
Although removed from the legislations in the 1970s, the occurrence of blood pro- portions as a parameter can still be observed today. Whenever the question of authenticity of Aboriginal life or art is raised, some turn to old categorizations because it is rather easy to do so. In such a way, members of the Returned and Services League spoke of “genealogical examination”, i.e. blood tests, for people who apply for benefits provided for Aborigines (cp. Gardiner-Garden 2003: 5). - And that took place not in an ancient time, but in 1988. Usually, however, the following three-part definition is used which was provided by the Constitutional Section of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1981 (quoted in Gardiner-Garden 2003: 4):
An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is a person, who is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.
Accordingly, the three main factors are descent, self-Identification and community recognition. Each of them has to be fulfilled to be legally recognized as an Aboriginal person. Unfortunately these categories are quite ambivalent and hard to prove. Children of the Stolen Generation, for example, often do not know about their ancestry. Moreover, there is a dispute on the acceptance between Aboriginal groups living in the countryside (tribal Aborigines) and in cities (urban Aborigines). Similarly, it is difficult to measure or assess identification, because it can show itself in diverse ways. Despite such complications, the three-part definition functions as a working definition, i.e. it is applied in court and for the distribution for special government funds.
Still, this definition also belongs to the construction of Aboriginality from the dominant (white) society’s point of view. The question remains how Aboriginal people relate to this term. In the context of my term paper this is a crucial concern, because Kim Scott himself is an indigenous writer and portrays Aboriginal characters in his novel.
To start with, it would be more correct to use the plural and to speak of Aboriginalities. Like this, one acknowledges diversity and individuality at the same time and changes the one-dimensional perspective into a pluralistic one. Once the diversity of experiences is acknowledged, one should also be careful by subsuming all literature produced by Aborigines into one category. As there is not one way of manifesting Aboriginality, there is not one coherent genre of indigenous writing (cp. Schürmann-Zeggel 1999: 29). Of course, similarities can be found. The increasing popularity of (auto-)biographic texts, for example, indicates that in the search for (often lost) Aboriginality many authors turn to the past (cp. ibid.: 75).
Another difficulty for an approach to this topic is, that “those Aboriginalities have been, and continue to be, a private source of spiritual sustenance in the face of others’ attempts to control us” (Dodson 2003: 39). Such a statement leads directly to the question whether Non-Aboriginal readers are able to understand Aboriginal culture or identity in its fullest sense. Maybe it is nothing which can be found among written sentences. For example, Jackie Huggins (quoted in Anderson 2003a: 23) says in her criticism of Sally Morgan’s My Place: “precisely what irks me about My Place is its proposition that Aboriginality can be understood by all non-Aboriginals. Aboriginality is not like that.” Ian Anderson argues even stronger in a similar reasoning when he claims that “Aboriginality is always been theorised, intellectualised and trivialised by those who have never felt the passion, anger or the pain” (Anderson 2003b: 64), i.e. mostly by Non-Aboriginals.
The debate is still an actual one and cannot be covered fully at this point, but in my opinion it is essential to keep this problem in mind while dealing with indigenous literature. To solve it for the purpose of my paper, I will use the term Aboriginality not in an exclusive or fixed sense, but I rather understand it as a collective term for feelings of belonging, daily practices and traditions which Kim Scott reveals to his readers by telling the stories of people like Fanny, Harriette, Harley and others. In that manner I follow a definition provided by Jeremy Beckett (quoted in Greig, Lewins and White 2003: 129) who defines Aboriginality as “the ways in which Aborigines select from their experience and their cultural heritage to communicate a sense of identity to their young people, to Aborigines of differing backgrounds, and to other Australians”.
3. Aboriginality in Benang: From the Heart
3.1. Facets of Aboriginality in Benang
As mentioned in the previous part, it would be more correctly to speak of Aboriginalities instead of the singular to indicate that different forms of it exist. As a matter of fact, Scott’s novel describes different kinds, too. Each character in Benang has an individual conception of his/her Aboriginality and what it means for everyday life. These conceptions are strongly shaped by the individual ways of coping with political and social pressures. With the characters of Fanny, Harriette and Jack, readers of Benang may encounter practiced Nyoongar culture which gets handed down to the next generations. Of course, due to the hostile environment, this living out of Aboriginality could not happen overtly and had to be hidden. Scott’s narrator Harley mentions the name “Shell People” to describe this fact and compares the situation of his people to “a mollusc that withdraws until it is safe again” (455). The characters William Coolman and Sandy One Mason are examples for Aborigines who decided to repress their origins, because it seemed to be the only possibility to live a decent life or to survive. Will has an unusual fair skin and is able to pass as white in most cases. To avoid the danger of being brought under the Aborigines Act, he keeps away from his people, even from his mother Harriette. He marries a white woman from post-war Germany and does not tell his children about their Aboriginal relatives. The price for assimilation, however, is high: feelings of loneliness and shame accompany Will all life long. He becomes someone who teaches Harley, how Nyoongars “have conspired in their own eradication” (98). Sandy One Mason also tries very hard to adapt to white society. He takes care that his children get registered, because it means a certain degree of protection: when there is a certificate “then it would be murder when they took, used, killed like they did” (178). At a later date, he arranges a marriage between his daughters and the white Coolman twins. He does everything the “white man’s way”, because he thinks “this might be the way to do things, the way of surviving” (346). Nonetheless, it becomes obvious again and again, that white people would never accept him and his kind as equal members of society.
Through the description of mostly racist reactions of the white population and the inclusion of official documents and quotes, another perception of Aboriginality gets revealed, namely the white conception of it. This one was based on the presumption that whiteness is a biologically inherited quality which is superior to other races. Such a scientific discourse, created around the topic of skin colour, offered stable meanings and power relations. It is represented in the semi-fictionalised character A.O. Neville and his fellow eugenicists, especially Ernest Solomon Scat and Sergeant Hall. The cruelty and narrow-mindedness of that scientific discourse displays itself in the quotes of documents or of Neville’s book Australia ’ s coloured Minority: Their Place in Our Community, which Scott admits “was a continual - albeit perverse - source of inspiration” (1999: 497).
The vulgarity and lecherous desire behind the white-superior mentality is revealed by characters like Ern and Hall and their treatment of Aborigines (particularly women) and their way of talking:
1 This “legal fiction” was officially contradicted in 1992 when the Australian High Court decided that the Meriam people had had a pre-existing system of law and landownership (cp. Webby 2000: 7, 17)