Often around Invasion Day, NAIDOC Week and other significant times in the Australian calendar for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, news outlets and book sellers will publish lists of recommended reading. I thought I’d steal the idea and share my recommended reading list. I know it’s quite long but don’t be put off. Even if you just pick one book, that’s an important step as an Australian. Our education system does not do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories and experiences justice, so it’s up to us to do the work to learn and understand. So, here are my recommendations.
Note: The same list is under the recommended reading (Indigenous Australia) tab on my blog.
Talking To My Country by Stan Grant
Grant was inspired to write this long letter to his country following the racist booing of Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes. It is a deeply touching book, a powerful call to action, a succinct explanation of so much of what is wrong with Australia and how it needs to change, written in Grant’s eminently readable prose.
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
This book lays out a stunning array of evidence that Aboriginal people in what we now call Australia have been practicing agriculture and aquaculture, building houses, and doing many other activities associated with so-called civilised people for tens of thousands of years. The popular belief in Australia is that Aboriginal people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but the evidence points to something quite different. This book is a must-read for all Australians, because it corrects many of the popular misconceptions we have about Aboriginal people which we then use as the justification for dismissing their land and rights claims.
Van Diemen’s Land: An Aboriginal History by Murray Johnson & Ian McFarlane (non-Indigenous authors)
A must read if you are a Tasmanian or are going to be spending any significant period of time in lutruwita/Tasmania. This book is the culmination of years of work and teaching by Johnson and McFarlane which charts the history of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people from before the British invasion through to the present day. Significant elements of this history include the Black War, the Black Line, Wybalenna, and the resurgence of Tasmanian Aboriginality led by figures such as Michael Mansell. It’s tough reading at times, this being a book about invasion and violence, but it’s also a vitally important account of a history which has been swept under the carpet for far too long, perhaps due in part to the assertion that Tasmania’s Aboriginal people have died out (newsflash, this is far from true).
Beyond White Guilt by Sarah Maddison (non-Indigenous author)
A highly informative discussion of the issues stemming from the British colonisation of Australia. Maddison highlights the importance of confronting our past and making changes in the present which will help to remedy the injustices which Indigenous Australians have faced and continue to face. This is a book written largely for non-Indigenous Australians, encouraging us to ‘unsettle ourselves’ by reimagining our country, national identity and future.
Why Weren’t We Told by Henry Reynolds (non-Indigenous author)
This is a wonderfully accessible and engaging book about Australia’s history, the parts of our history they don’t teach you at school. The book’s triumph is in the way it relates our history to the present, illustrating how the past informs current attitudes, policies and practices. In doing so, it helps you to understand your own experiences in the present day in a historical context.
My Place by Sally Morgan
Considered an Australian classic, My Place is about Morgan’s life experiences and her journey to understanding her family history and culture. This leads her to explore issues such as the attempted assimilation of Aboriginal people into white Australian society through the institutionalisation of children; the rape of Aboriginal women by white men, often leading to pregnancy; the years of labour done by Aboriginal men and women on stations and properties without adequate, if any, remuneration; and much more.
Wandering Girl by Glenyse Ward
This is a memoir by an Aboriginal woman who grew up on Wandering Mission (hence the title) under the care of German missionaries. Once she was old enough, she was sent to work for a white family as their black servant girl. Most of the book is about her experiences in this white household and the horrendous racism of her employers. As a reader, you find yourself well and truly on Ward’s side as she finds ingenious ways to subvert her employers and assert herself.
Am I Black Enough For You? by Anita Heiss
This book is a joy to read. Not only is it well-written, but it’s also very funny and entertaining. Heiss’s sharp wit and infectious personality burst off every page. But this book is more than fun, it also has a serious side. Heiss is the daughter of a Wiradjuri woman and an Austrian man, so she her story tells us a lot about race relations in Australia and the various ways in which discrimination can be experienced.
Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann
This book is another at times confronting memoir, written by another remarkable woman. The author was part of the Stolen Generations, taken from her family at birth and thereby disconnected from her culture. The book follows her journey to rediscover her Aboriginal roots, find her family, and heal herself. This book has very short chapters, making it very easy to read, and also includes panels of poetry every now and then as the author is an acclaimed poet.
Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara
Marie Munkara grew up in a strict Catholic family. She always knew she was different (i.e. adopted) but has never been able to learn much about her true family as her adoptive parents would simply say that the past was best left in the past. All they’d told her was that her mother didn’t want her. Then, as a 28-year-old, she discovers a link to her true family. Keen to know more, she follows this lead and begins a remarkable journey that challenges and surprises. Her account of this journey is both touching and funny, as it is an account of two worlds colliding – the clean, strict world of her childhood and the chaotic, frighteningly different world inhabited by her blood relations in the Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land.
Riding The Black Cockatoo by John Danalis (non-Indigenous author)
Growing up, Danalis’ family had an Aboriginal skull on the mantelpiece. It was only through an Indigenous writing course that Danalis began to realise how bizarre and inappropriate this was. This book is the story of his inner journey to this realisation and his physical journey to return the skull to its Wamba Wamba descendants. This is a very honest book which I absolutely loved and is a very accessible read.
Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
I have read this novel twice and will probably read it again, which should tell you how good this book is as I’m someone who rarely rereads books. Terra Nullius is genius because it takes the story of the colonisation of Australia and twists it into a new form, creating a narrative which is simultaneously new and all too familiar. Coleman also has an incredible knack for writing seemingly disconnected strands of narrative and then weaving them all together, something I find supremely satisfying as a reader. You go from wondering “where is this going?” to aha moment, “I see where this is going”. This book will certainly make you think.
Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko
Through its thoroughly engaging narrative, this novel explores many of the issues Aboriginal people face, including the difficulty of claiming native title, the loss of language and culture due to colonisation, and the complexities of Aboriginal identity. Words from the Bundjalung and Yugambeh languages are mixed into the prose, and the novel has a sharp focus on the land and natural world – the birds, the trees, and the weather all feature quite prominently.
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
A much grittier novel than Mullumbimby, Too Much Lip deals with some fairly difficult themes including crime, incarceration, sexual abuse, and so on. The characters are all too real, people who are far from perfect and are just trying to survive. Sadly, the difficulties faced by the characters are similar to those faced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. This book provides an important insight into their struggles, all the while highlighting their resilience and strength in the face of adversity.
The White Girl by Tony Birch
I have written of my love for Tony Birch’s writing before, both his novels and short stories. This is his new book and it is absolutely fantastic. The book explores the lengths a Grandmother will go to in order to keep her granddaughter and protect her from the authorities. The book is set at a time when it was common practice for lighter-skinned Aboriginal children to be removed from their families and placed into care or foster homes in order to assimilate them into white Australian society. This book is so well written and an achingly beautiful reflection of the power of familial love.
Ghost River by Tony Birch
This book is set in Melbourne, Collingwood or Abbotsford specifically. The Yarra River plays a prominent role in the novel, almost becoming a character of its own. But it’s the two boys, Ren and Sonny, who give the book its substance. The novel follows their adventures in their thoroughly working-class suburb populated by a suite of interesting characters – crims, corrupt cops, the homeless ‘river men’ and so on. This is a gritty book, well written and well worth a read.
Blood by Tony Birch
This novel is narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy, Jesse, unusually mature for his age because life has forced him to grow up. His mother Gwen is neglectful, and his younger sister Rachel has needed looking after, a job which has fallen to him. Moved around from house to house and city to city, the kids are forced not only to fend for themselves, but to protect themselves from Gwen’s boyfriends, many of highly dubious character.
The Promise, Common People, Father’s Day and Shadowboxing, all by Tony Birch
Tony Birch’s short stories are fantastic. Set in Melbourne, his stories feature gritty, often troubled characters who are just trying to get by in life. Each story sucks you in and you become invested in it such that when it ends you are devastated. But then you start reading the next story, and immediately you’re invested in it.
Home by Larissa Behrendt
This novel starts off late in the twentieth century with a young woman who is visiting the traditional land of her Aboriginal grandmother for the first time, but the majority of the action is set much earlier in the century when her grandmother was a girl. The novel follows the grandmother’s life experiences as she is taken from her family, placed in a home, sent to work for a wealthy white family, marries and has a family of her own. While being a really engaging work of fiction, the novel touches on so many of the injustices Aboriginal people in Australia have faced and continue to face, making it educational at the same time.
Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison
This novel is about a young girl who, when she leaves her home town in rural Victoria to take on a law degree in Melbourne, begins to discover who she really is. Adopted at birth, Kirrali gradually begins to understand her Aboriginal heritage as she connects with her biological parents and meets others who have embarked upon similar journeys. A really heart-warming read that is hard to put down.
Bitin’ Back by Vivienne Cleven
At once funny and deadly serious in its subject matter, this book explores life in a small town for single mother Mavis Dooley and her son Nevil, who wakes up one day and tells his mother he is now Jean Rhys, a woman who wears make-up and dresses. Mavis is mystified, but determined to hide her son’s new identity from the town, resulting in a series of hilarious yet revealing encounters that tell us a lot about issues of identity and belonging.
Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
This book won the David Unaipon Award in 2013. It is a lovely collection of short stories which, like all good short stories, completely draw you in, only to spit you out the other side. You become totally invested in each character’s life and fate, only to be left hanging and wondering what did happen next. What I particularly loved about the collection was that many of the stories feature gay or queer characters, characters who sadly remain quite rare in works of fiction.
Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane
This book won the David Unaipon Award in 2010. Like most winners of this award, it was a great book. Based on the author’s experiences as a child, Purple Threads is the story of an Aboriginal childhood in rural Victoria, with all its challenges and triumphs. Identity is a significant theme in the book, as the young protagonist tries to figure out who her father is and therefore who she is.
Dancing Home by Paul Collis
This is yet another winner of the David Unaipon Award (2016). Very different from Purple Threads, this book focuses on the exploits of recently released prisoner Blackie, who is determined to get his revenge on the corrupt cop who sent him to prison, as well as reconnect with his grandmother’s country. These two aims, while they may seem antithetical to one another, are symbolic of the way in which Aboriginal people can become wedged between the white world and its institutions, and the Aboriginal world. This is not a book for the faint-hearted – drugs, swearing and violence abound.
Bloke by Bruce Pascoe
This is a fantastic novel, written by an incredibly versatile and knowledgeable writer in Bruce Pascoe. Most famous for the factual Dark Emu, What I love most about Pascoe’s writing is the way he weaves nature into his narratives, particularly birds and bird calls. Bloke is a book about a young man (Jim Bloke), a fisherman and diver who gets caught up in illegal business dealings (not his fault); escapes to La Paz, Bolivia with his girlfriend, the wonderful Giovanna; is extradited to Australia and scapegoated for the illegal operations; finally finds his family thanks to some blokes he meets in prison (he grew up an orphan); and on it goes – I won’t keep listing because it will reveal too much. It’s well worth a read, that’s all I’ll say.
Mazin Grace by Dylan Coleman
While this is classified as a fiction book, the story is based on Coleman’s mother’s life and experiences living on the Koonibba Lutheran Mission in South Australia in the 1940s and 50s. The story is told by a young girl on a quest to figure out who she is, specifically who her father is. Aboriginal English and Kokatha language are woven through the story, giving it a really authentic feel and linguistically reflecting the multi-faceted identity of the narrator who finds herself living between two worlds – the Aboriginal and the white.
Sweet Water… Stolen Land by Philip McLaren
This frontier novel focuses on events in the lives of two families, one black and one white. It is an incredibly powerful account, albeit fictionalised, of how Aboriginal people’s lives are turned upside down by contact with white settlers, as well as being a fascinating exploration of the psychology of white missionaries. This work’s great triumph is in the way it exposes the violence and immorality of white men on the frontier, particularly the missionary and one of its main characters Karl Maresch. It reminded me of Kate Grenville’s historical novels The Secret River, Sarah Thornhill and The Lieutenant, all of which focus on the same time period and themes.
Silly Birds, Mad Magpie, Kookoo Kookaburra and Cunning Crow by Gregg Dreise
This series of four picture books is wonderful. The illustrations are so beautiful that every page is like a work of art, and there is a strong moral to each of the stories, each based upon an Aboriginal saying. For example, Kookoo Kookaburra is based on the following: “Kindness is like a boomerang – if you throw it often, it comes back often. If you never take the chance to throw it, it never comes back”.
Stolen Girl by Trina Saffioti and Norma McDonald
This is the story of an Aboriginal girl who is taken from her family and sent to a children’s home. We share her heartache and grief at being separated from her family and land, and placed in a foreign, loveless world, before she finally finds a way to escape.