Australian literature’s great silence

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the systemic racism in Australian society; a new study suggests that we must question the very white stories told in our classrooms

Dr Alexander Bacalja, University of Melbourne

Dr Alexander Bacalja

Published 5 October 2020

The Black Lives Matter protests have drawn attention to issues of race in Australia.

Statues honouring divisive historical figures have been defaced or toppled, both here and in the UK, while TV shows and movies that include racist stereotypes have been cancelled.

The aim of the study is to better understand the types of texts that are being set for study. Picture: AAP

Some argue that in order to combat systemic racism effectively, we need to pay greater attention to the stories we read.

There have been increasing calls for a decolonisation of bookshelves to rid them of racist and colonial-era literature that tends to privilege white, male works from the ‘motherland’, and to replace them with works from BIPOC authors (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour).

These calls can be linked to the decolonise the curriculum movement which has its origins in higher education, where academics and students have attempted to make symbolic and real gestures that break with colonial ways of doing things.

Conservative commentators have pushed back, afraid that so-called great works of literature from white authors will be replaced with less worthy works.

Their argument is a simple one that makes no effort to hide racist undertones: great literature is white literature. To replace it with BIPOC perspectives would be to expose young people to something which is less worthy and a threat to their literary education.

The stories we tell ourselves

In just a few months, students all over Australia will sit their final year examinations where they will be required to discuss Australian literature.

Less than two per cent of texts from Victoria’s senior English curriculum included works by Indigenous writers. Picture: Getty Images

In Victoria, despite dozens of texts appearing on the senior English lists from which teachers must select stories for their students – there is just a single text from an Indigenous creator.

The almost total exclusion of these works effectively bans them from classroom discussion and study.

Curriculum expert and Emeritus Professor of Education at Charles Sturt University, Bill Green, tells us that curriculum is important.

It is the “story we tell ourselves and our children about ourselves and our world as it was, as it is now, and as it will be”.

Our new study sheds light on the nature of the English curriculum in the Australian state of Victoria and explores how it might support or resist decolonising the curriculum.

Diversifying the curriculum

Our analysis looked at ten years of text-lists from the senior Victorian English curriculum between 2010-2019.

With the support of experienced secondary English teachers and literature academics, our aim was to better understand the types of texts that are being set for study.

Larissa Behrendt’s ‘Home’ was one Indigenous literary work that featured in the ten years of text-lists from the senior Victorian English curriculum. Picture: UQP

Of the 360 texts across the ten-year sample, we found only a single novel by an Indigenous author, Larissa Behrendt’s Home, and only one other literary work from a First Nations writer, Jack Davis’ play No Sugar, which appeared multiple times.

Less than two per cent of texts from Victoria’s senior English curriculum included works by Indigenous writers – and when film was taken into consideration this increased to only four per cent.

Other studies have also found that Australia’s colonial legacy is an enduring spectre on what stories are validated by teachers. This legacy has not evolved in line with increasing student diversity in classrooms, nor in response to an explosion of award-winning Indigenous literature created over the past two decades.

What and how we read

There is a temptation to respond to these findings by arguing that we should remove literature which stereotypes or whitewashes Australia’s past from text lists and replace these with works from a golden age of Indigenous story-telling.

This would be a mistake.

We absolutely need more Indigenous literature in schools. But, settler literature reveal “slices of settler consciousness of and about Aboriginal people”. Removing these works from classrooms makes it even harder for our students to critique the stories they tell about Australia’s past.

Reading Australia has now produced teaching resources for Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Young Dark Emu’. Picture: Getty Images

Once we have more Indigenous literature in the classroom, teachers will have an essential role to play – especially in terms of shifting the conversation from what we read, to how we read.

Rather than the unconscious celebration of so-called great works, critical literacy reading skills can help students to understand how literature positions them in particular ways, question the ideologies that are presented and investigate which voices are privileged and which are silenced.

Recent research looking at the narratives of white nationhood addressed this very challenge.

A classroom of girls from predominantly Asian backgrounds struggled to contest or reject the norms of ‘Australian-ness’ because these norms were so closely tied to how they saw themselves.

Decolonised ways of teaching and learning literature helped these students develop a cosmopolitan sensibility – an understanding of the Euro-centredness of Australia’s past and a rejection of an Australian norm that is white, male and English-speaking.

Resources to support these kinds of reading are becoming increasingly accessible.

Reading Australia produces free high-quality teaching resources of a wide range of Indigenous texts. The latest focuses on Bruce Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu and includes activities that can be done at home.

Wayne Blair directed the film ‘The Sapphires’ and the TV series ‘Redfern Now’. Picture: Getty Images

Furthermore, the countless award-winning literacy awards for Indigenous authors in recent years provides a rich array of work to choose from, across all forms.

In terms of literary works, there’s Tony Birch’s The White Girl and Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country; Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a collection of short stories edited by Anita Heiss; Wayne Blair directed film The Sapphires and the TV series Redfern Now; and there’s Ali Cobby Eckermann’s collection of poems, Inside My Mother.

The whites tell the story of this land

Recently, in his book, Talking to my country, journalist Stan Grant reflected on his schooling experience. He describes what anthropologist WEH Stanner called the “great Australian silence”, a time when “the whites told the story of this land”.

Almost sixty years on from that description, there’s still a great deal of work to do.

The Mparntwe Education Declaration by Federal, state and territory education ministers, says it will value “the local, regional and national cultural knowledge and the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

Bookshelf decolonisation won’t eliminate the deeply ingrained and enduring ideas about Australia’s past.

But, rethinking which stories are embedded in the English curriculum, is just one way we can challenge the status quo and help students develop new critical lenses with which to see our world.

This article was corrected at the request of the author on 20 October, 2020.

Banner: Getty Images

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