By Patsy Trench

When asked what it was like in the current climate to be an indigenous voice, writer Tony Birch replied: ‘Being an Aboriginal in society is like being a fireman in the bush, rushing from one to the other desperately trying to put out all the fires.’

Birch is also a historian and a teacher, and as a writer with Aboriginal heritage he has at times been expected to represent the entire Aboriginal community. He has even been accused of ‘not being Aboriginal enough’. In his case all he aims to do is represent his community.

The current government is doing terrible things to the Aboriginal people in closing down communities in West Australia, as an example. It is necessary to raise the consciousness of young Aboriginal people, but he has what he terms an ‘open-hand’ policy: ‘If we’re going to have change we have to form alliances. We must go beyond the culture of victimhood and invite people to listen to our stories. Accept good will. Don’t fight negativity.’

Kate Grenville had misgivings, as a non-indigenous writer, about appearing on this panel. She was brought up on an ‘airbrushed’ version of Australian history – there was no mention of guns or massacres. When she came to write The Secret River she needed to know what it would have been like for her convict ancestor ‘taking up land’, but she did not feel she could write with a true indigenous voice. ‘Our lot had taken everything from the Aboriginal people’, she said. ‘So to try to tell the story from their point of view would be the last insult.’

So she left what she termed an ‘indigenous-shaped gap’ in the book; a gap that, in answer to a question from Michael Walling, was wonderfully filled in the stage adaptation at the Sydney Theatre Company by its adaptors, in particular the Aboriginal director/ choreographer Stephen Page.Walling mentioned a sculpture outside Brisbane courthouse called ‘Witnessing the Silence’, which lists all the massacres experienced by the Aboriginal people. When it was vandalised – as all memorials to the Aboriginal people are, apparently – the press took no interest.

This silence is dangerous, said Tony Birch. When he told his students about the atrocities committed against Aboriginal people in the past they were so ashamed they wanted to ’disown their history’. But concealing the past is not the answer, he said. ‘We owe them the dignity to tell their story.’

Grenville’s books were excellent teaching tools, he said. His own daughters had studied them at school. They helped his students open up, they found them ‘confronting but not threatening’.

‘It is the public secret we all know’ but don’t talk about, he said. The suppression of these stories – of any story other than the ‘official’ one – is a sign of an insecure country.

Tony Walling is the director of the forthcoming ‘Origins Festival of First Nations’.

Patsy Trench is a London-based Anglo-Australian writer and teacher of theatre.

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