What experience do you have of aboriginal life?
I can't really say that I have any direct experience of aboriginal life. After all, only an aborigine could claim this. However, for two years, 1977 and 1978, I watched Indigenous Australian children growing up, the difficulties they faced, the close family relations that mean so much and the ingrained prejudice of the dominant white culture around them. This was when I lived in Cunnamulla, a small town in south-west Queensland. As a teacher in the State School there, I was part of the dominant culture, I must admit and I can't really claim to have done anything to improve things for my Indigenous students. There's not much one person can do and I was only young. The experience had an effect on me, though.
It was those years that formed the basis for "Dougy" and "Gracey" though the towns described in the books aren't supposed to be Cunnamulla. That wouldn't be fair. I could have lived in any town in Australia with a mixed population and it would have been much the same, perhaps many times worse.
Since leaving Cunnamulla, I have maintained an interest in political and social issues associated with indigenous Australia, even if I don't have any close aboriginal friends. My "experience" today stems more from reading newspapers and watching television news and documentaries.
Can a white person write about black experience? It's a vexed question. Some answer no and criticise me for doing so. Others praise me from trying to understand the viewpoint of indigenous Australians even if I haven't got everything right. I have never claimed to speak for aboriginal people. That would be wrong. But having observed and been both moved and troubled by what I saw, I think I was right to produce these novels.
Are any of the characters based on real people?
Dougy is named after a boy I taught in Cunnamulla. Read the dedication and you will know what happened to him. My Dougy is very different from the real boy except in the attitude he had towards himself in class. He felt he was a failure and I could see that the curriculum I was expected to follow was never going to allow him to succeed. It wasn't just the curriculum. It seemed that the schooling practices of our white society weren't flexible enough for the way Dougy and his family lived their lives.
The characters aren't based on any one in particular. However, the attitudes and the dialogue are pretty close to what I observed in "small town" Queensland. Many country people will tell you that they have black friends and they like aboriginal people but this can't mask the fact that they have a deep and abiding disdain for aboriginality. They are not alone. City people are not much better in my experience. Australians who pride themselves on our multiculturalism and embrace all the various ethnic groups from Macedonia to Vietnam still reject aboriginal culture and can't see the oppression and dispossession that has happened to indigenous people in the past 200 years.
Is Gracey's character inspired by Cathy Freeman?
No, not in the way you might expect. When writing Dougy, I needed a way to make his older sister special. It was 1990 and the Commonwealth Games were on TV. I saw a sixteen year-old aboriginal girl win a gold medal as part of the relay team. I didn't even pay any attention to her name but used the idea that Gracey could be a champion athlete. Of course, four years later, at the next Commonwealth game, that young aboriginal girl won the 200 and 400 metres and was photographed with both the Australian and Aboriginal flags. Cathy Freeman has been a household name ever since. But that was 1994. Dougy was written in 1990 and Gracey was written in 1991 and 1992, two years before the Games.
Gracey is not modelled on Cathy in any real sense.
What do you think about reconciliation between aborigines and other Australians?
I think it is essential that true reconciliation occur but I think we have a long way to go before it is achieved. It will take half a century, perhaps even the rest of the 21st century.
Why am I so pessimistic? Because the generation of white Australia who currently control politics and other powerful public institutions have been raised within a fairly racist mind-set. These are people about fifty or older. It is difficult to change a life time of thinking at this age. These leaders and the people who support them don't understand what reconciliation is about and largely deny there is need for it.
The next generation, people from about 25 to 45, have many among them who are more sympathetic towards aboriginal needs but they will have trouble convincing the rest. Unless a great leader emerges who can sweep the rest of the country along with him/her, there will be only slow progress - and Australia is suspicious of high profile leaders who come from the left-wing of social and political ideas. The good thing is that this generation is influencing education and public opinion among the young.
The real hope are young people, those still at school and University. While things aren't perfect yet, young white Australians grow up with a much more positive view of aboriginality and with a far greater exposure to the truth about how aborigines were treated. There is some recognition of the way black children were separated from their families as a matter of government policy, of the wars of resistance that aborigines waged against the taking of their land. Knowledge of these matters and more are essential of reconciliation is to be achieved.
Where did the ideas come from for Dougy?
I've written about living in Cunnamulla and about how Gracey came to be an athlete. The idea for Dougy came when I wanted to work through my own feelings about what I had observed of aboriginal life in a small town. I wanted to know what I thought and I decided to try to write it from a black boy's point of view. I had been startled by the undercurrent of violence that lay just under the surface of everyday life. I was also interested to see that while friendships between black and white were common, as soon as some issue sprang up, particularly to do with government funding, everyone quickly retreated to the stereotypes and prejudices of their own kind. Most country households have a gun somewhere. I thought I would have the petty resentments and jealousies explode into a war.
While I was in Cunnamulla, the town was cut off by flood waters. As I was thinking about the book in 1990, a much worse flood occurred and I saw TV news footage of rowboats rescuing people from first floor windows.
The Moodagudda came from listening to my black students talking about a scare they'd had down on the river bank one night. They had heard something in the water. They mentioned this name. I changed it around to make my own name. I was interested in the way some of the young children believed in it and the others just laughed at them.
Where did the ideas come from for Gracey?
After Dougy, I didn't intend to keep the story going. However, I found myself thinking about Raymond. At that time, an inquiry was being held into why so many aboriginal men killed themselves in gaol. I felt I could guess part of the answer. For young black kids in their late teens and early twenties, there were few opportunities - for jobs, for esteem in the community, for access to the things that most young men want such as a car, a bit of money in the pocket, a bit of excitement. This leads into a cycle of helplessness and then hopelessness, often getting them into trouble with the law for mainly petty offences.
I thought Raymond might go the same way but his story would have been too depressing on its own. Gracey had gone off to a boarding school and started to wonder whether she would lose her identity. The idea for the bones must have come when I was watching an excavator at work. I had read about murderers burying their victims in the back yard and the bones being discovered after the murderer was dead. It makes an interesting concept - that a modern Australian town is built over the bones of those killed so that it could be built. I thought it would be important to Dougy that the dead men had died fighting, instead of just being passive victims of murder, so I came up with the historical story.
Where did the ideas come from for Angela?
Angela was written six years after "Gracey". Again, I never intended to keep the story going. However, when the report about the "stolen" generation was published, I took a special interest. One afternoon, I heard Sir Ronald Wilson on the radio. He described what had happened as genocide. I was very angry to hear him say this. Genocide is what the Nazis did to Jewish people and what Pol Pot did in Cambodia. That wasn't what happened in Australia, surely.
I obtained a copy of the report "Bringing Them Home" and read it. This led me to read another report titled, "For the Benefit of the Child," about what was done in NSW. After reading these, I had to admit that Sir Ronald was right. It was government policy to see the aborigines and their culture die out in this country and they wanted to speed up the process by separating the children from their parents so that this "inferior" culture could not be passed on. In some cases, children were taken away by force. In others, they were reluctantly surrendered by their parents who had no legal rights and no idea of what the government was really trying to do. Either way, the children were stolen.
When I realised this, I wanted to write about it. It would have to be a story through a white person's eyes this time because I had reached an end to my observations of aboriginal life. I chose Angela, Gracey's friend from the earlier book as my heroine.
The story about the black babies in the hollow log was told to me by a person in Ipswich, referring to an incident in Western Australia. I'm not certain it actually happened.
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