Interview with Donna Williams
Hi Nick. We met recently over email and you kindly sent me a copy of Hollywood, Amarroo. It’s a very provocative book.
Could you tell the readers a bit about what compelled you to write it?
When I tell my friends that I wrote a book about Aborigines, they are startled. ‘Why write a book about Aborigines?’ they ask, ‘when you have a classical education and a science background.’ They short answer is the stories pick the writer and not the other way around.
The shorter answer is ‘Humanism’ because I deeply believe that if someone hurts, everyone hurts. If someone is killed in Iraq or Palm Island we mourn because our humanity is diminished. As Aborigines suffered so much pain for so long, I feel a strong emotional connection with them. I can’t imagine spending three years researching a topic and writing a book about people with whom I had no emotional connection.
Nick, the 1970s were times unlike many of today’s youth would struggle to imagine.
Give us a feel for the 1970s. What was it like, what was happening in the world?
While the cultural links between Australia and Great Britain remained intact, the links between Australia and the United States strengthened during WW2. After the war we opened our doors to European migrants, Japan became our most important trading partner and we joined our American allies in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 1972 the Whitlam government pulled our troops out of Vietnam.
The wars and these political realignments had a profound effect on us. Instead of being an obscure and isolated member of the Commonwealth, Australia was becoming a member of a dangerous and complex world. The UK was firmly integrated into the European Union while Australia was becoming a member of the Pacific Rim countries.
In the suburbs it was hard for the locals to accept the migrants. Through their eyes the migrants had weirdo customs and didn’t speak the language. They ate black or green olives and their women drank Brandy instead of shandy, beer, or lemon squash. With the passage of time however European migrants were accepted and the migrants from Asia had similar experiences. Non acceptance at first but eventual acceptance some time later.
By contrast Aborigines never ceased to be the targets of prejudice and to this date they are not accepted in our communities.
Most people tend to think of Australia as ‘the lucky country’, a privileged place, a multicultural place. What’s your place in that stereotype?
Australia is a Lucky Country because it has an overabundance of natural resources. Further it has the capacity to produce large quantities of wheat, livestock and wool. The educational standard is high and tertiary education was almost free for my generation. Lastly business opportunities are significant for hardworking entrepreneurs.
Multiculturalism is a beaut concept and the politicians value multicultural votes. The astute observers however claim the present PM never uttered the word ‘multicultural’ in his speeches.
We are wealthy because we export ores but we don’t have a strong national manufacturing base. In simple terms Australian wool, to take only one example, is suitably processed by let say, the Italians who then export high value garments to us. We don’t earn much for our wool but they make handsome profits because they add value to our wool.
It is depressing to note that we live as if there is no tomorrow. What is to happen when Australia has no more ores to export? The standard of living would drop and the countryside would resemble an abandoned quarry. We, and especially the young, have every reason to feel depressed about the future.
Rosalie is the central figure in your book. She’s based on a real person. Tell us a bit about the place of Indigenous people in this ‘lucky country’ in the 1970s and 80s?
Everyone who reads sociological studies taken over many decades would know that our attitudes toward the Aborigines never changed with the passage of time. After we grabbed their land, we pretend they don’t exist.
It’s true what Elie Wiesel wrote:
“The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.”
In November 2006 Dr Ken Henry admitted Australia’s failure to solve the problems of ‘dysfunctional and disintegrating Aboriginal communities. Most Australians,’ he added, ‘preferred the mental image of the indigenous community as a sheltered workshop for the permanently handicapped.’ His conclusion that Indigenous disadvantage diminishes all of Australia, resonates with my basic Humanist beliefs
Dr Henry, I hasten to add, is not a leftie academic associated with an obscure University. He is a respected economist and the Treasury Secretary.
Away from sociological studies and the observations of a high government official, Allison Gray chronicles the lives and times of the Aborigines living in reserves in the late sixties/early seventies. She and her lover Peter Russell blaze a trail to reconciliation when they decide to ignore the prejudices of the day and defend Rosalie, an Aboriginal mother accused of manslaughter.
Today there are many Aboriginal women who experience what Rosalie experienced. Without any education they are marginalized, hungry and suffer from severe capability deprivation. Lastly recent events in Palm Island aptly demonstrate how vulnerable Aborigines held in jails, are. My book therefore is a disturbing reminder that nothing has changed for the indigenous people of this land.
Whilst multiculturalism was a step up from an assimilationist, anglo-Australian mono-culture, what have these two movements meant for indigenous people and can you contrast this with your own family history as someone who adds to the multiculturalism of this country?
Multiculturalism, at least in theory, means that other cultures apart from the dominant Anglo-Australian culture can offer us valuable insights into the Human Condition. While this is universally true, we don’t include Aboriginal Culture in the mix.
I consider myself lucky because I espoused what is best from the Greek and the dominant Anglo-Australian Cultures. From my family I inherited the love for Education because we deeply believe that without education a person cannot understand the modern complex world. More importantly education enables a person to reach his/her full potential. We were not rich so I pursued my studies on a part-time basis. I even gained my doctorate while I was tutoring. Work, hard work, is a defining characteristic of the migrant experience.
Many of us don’t recognise that Australia is a nation of Volunteers. That is what I adopted from the dominant Australian Culture. I served as a volunteer for the local Meals-on-Wheels Association over many years and I continue to help The Red Cross because I believe that when we give something to the community we become richer.
I’ll never forget an elderly woman I met while serving meals. She was overweight and could hardly walk because her ailment caused her aches and pains. She needed an operation but had to wait for two years because her operation wasn’t life threatening. Yes! And she was only one of many people I was fortunate to meet during my rounds.
Over the years I’ve encountered overtly racist Australian’s who continue to see indigenous people in terms of stereotypes and sweeping assumptions. Do you think its changed or changing? What are the three most important things you’d like to say to those who make racist judgments about indigenous people?
As I said earlier, many believe that government policies failed to improve the lives of the Aborigines in the past.
The first insight I would like to offer to those who continue to see indigenous people in terms of stereotypes is:
Accept the Aborigines in the same way you accepted many migrants coming from diverse backgrounds because they too have a lot to offer to our country. Their contributions to the Arts and Sports are there for all to see. Diggers of Aboriginal background also defended this country during WW2.
Aborigines are not good for nothing bludgers. What they need is a ‘leg up’ to education opportunities, not ‘a hand out’ because they know that Education is the key to realizing their aspirations. Noel Pearson, an Aboriginal Lawyer, is spearheading the drive to educate as many Aborigines as possible in Northern Queensland and Government/private enterprises are contributing to his drive. That is the way forward.
Tell your local MP that a prerequisite for reconciliation is for the government to apologize to the Aborigines for past injustices.
DONNA WILLIAMS: Many non-indigenous Australians have never been friends or had relatives who are indigenous Australians or who they’ve acknowleged as such. Help us put real people to that label. Give us a sense of some of your closest indigenous friends.
There is problem here because I, like many Australians met and talked to many Aborigines in capital cities and in the countryside but these were casual friendships. I never met Kevin Gilbert but he is my closest indigenous friend. In my mind he is the quintessential Tragic Hero.
Born in New South Wales in 1933 he was orphaned when he was seven and spent much of his childhood in institutions. He worked as a labourer during his teens, married at an early age and then, in 1956, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his wife. In prison he took advantage of the educational opportunities available there and developed an interest in art and literature. He was paroled in 1971 and in the same year his play The Cherry Pickers, written while in prison, was staged.
Kevin played a significant part in the 1972 Aboriginal Embassy, edited various Aboriginal periodicals, and became a leading advocate of Aboriginal interests, especially education, land rights, and sovereignty.
He wrote Because a White Man’ll Never Do It (1973), a study of Aboriginal land rights and Living Black (1977, a collection of interviews with Aborigines from all parts of Australia, giving a comprehensive picture of their position in society). Kevin introduced me to many Aborigines. Hearing the voices of many Aborigines drawn from all over Australia helped me understand their plight/ blight. More importantly his life journey is proof that education helped him exorcise his demons. The SBS is now screening a television series Living Black. He died in 1996
DONNA WILLIAMS: All Australians have different cultural relationships with indigenous Australians. Some of us have grown up with indigenous friends, family or neighbors. Many of us are migrants from varying numbers of generations ago from various parts of the world. Those of us from Anglo backgrounds going back to the 1800s have ancestors who either came here as opportunists presuming rights to land occupied for over 40,000 years by indigenous people, or were transported here from the poorhouses and jails of the UK. Every one of those cultural backgrounds will have a different sense of themselves in relation to indigenous history in this country. At what level do you feel we are all ‘Australians’? Do you feel non-indigenous Australians are still occupiers? What obligations do you feel we have to the traditional owners of this country and how far are we from living up to any of those obligations?
I’m sure there are many country folk who still feel they are the occupiers of this land. That is because we never signed a treaty with the Aborigines. We took their land and gave them nothing in return. While hostilities between us ended, officially, Aborigines in our jails are still fair game. More often we just ignore their existence.
Our first obligation to them is to apologize for past sins. We then have to appoint Aborigines to decide priorities for the Aborigines. I would like to see Noel Pearson as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs aided by Dr Henry as Secretary of the Department. Others might propose different names and that is fine because that is only my wish list.
Lastly I would like to question the assumptions we make for Aborigines. Is it fair for instance to assume that our houses/flats are suitable for Aborigines?
In my mind Aborigines and Red Indians see the interdependence of humans, the animals and the earth’s resources clearly. Even a casual read of Chief’s Seattle’s speech would convince any white man the indigenous peoples have an incisive wisdom we don’t have. There are many versions of the speech Chief Seattle delivered in Dec 1854 but here is one to look at:
‘Let a thousand flowers bloom,’ should be the defining characteristic for Australians.
DONNA WILLIAMS: You’ve bypassed the mainstream publishers and gone down the self publishing route.
Has that been an adventure? What have you learned from it?
I was invited to write the two science books John Wiley and Sons and the Academic Press published. Thus I knew no fiction publishers. Finding a publisher was a misadventure because some publishers took 9 months to respond! Another lost my MS.
I’ll never know the reasons for the rejections but I know that my book isn’t commercial, it’s a literary novel. It’s ‘dark book’ because it deals with unpleasant issues. It is sad to say that I lost some friends on the way and one of my close friends didn’t come to my book launch.
A longtime ago, I’ve learnt that if I had something important to say, I should use any means to get my work out there. So I self published my book and The Hon Kate Ellis, Federal Member for Adelaide, launched my book last February. Young and idealistic, she was the right person to launch my book. My book launch speech in on my websitehttp://www.nicholasfourikis.com
DONNA WILLIAMS: What do you think people might get out of reading Hollywood, Amarroo and where can they order it?
My book is a hero’s journey. My two lovers and Dr Parker, a country GP (General Practitioner), ignored the deep-seated prejudices of the time and stood by Rosalie for better or for worst. Without idealistic heroes there can be no progress. I’d like to think that my story would, in a small way, contribute to reconciliation.
Lastly I would like to thank Prof Peter Read from the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, ANU, who wrote the following endorsement for my book.
“You think outback Australia is racist? Try this novel of a Queensland
outback town set in the 70s. A rich and complex novel of deep north
racism as violent as Palm Island today, with a historical consciousness
worthy of Judith Wright or Thea Astley.”
Your readers can buy my book by sending a cheque/money order for A$26.50 to my address cited in my website. For readers residing overseas add A$5 for postage.
I thank you Donna
Your answers are moving and informative. I hope people dare to check out the book. Thanks for your time Nick.
… Donna Williams *)