A few yearsago while creating a WebQuest for high school students I came across the work of singer and songwriter Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman. What struck me was that Ruby had died without me ever having discovered the special power of her voice, her music, her lyrics. I read some work by Aboriginal writers; I’d read poems by Jack Davis and Kevin Gilbert, heard Archie Roach’s mesmerising rendition of Davis’s poem John Pat, and listened to stories of the tragic efforts of David Unaipon. I’d come across Indigenous Australian women writers, too, had been moved by Oodjeroo‘s powerful poems while she was still known better as Kath Walker, and had read Sally Morgan’s My Place with fascination. But the truth was I knew more about Aboriginal culture from the perspective of non-indigenous writers such as Katherine Susannah Prichard, Dame Mary Gilmore, the Jindyworobak poets and Thomas Kenneally – even from singer-songer writer Paul Kelly and Paul Keating’s acclaimed “Redfern Speech” – than I did from Indigenous writers themselves.
That fact strikes me as incredible now, but it goes to show how easily and quickly talented artists can be overlooked within their own time and culture. When looking to provide an autobiographical link for Ruby, I was stunned to discover she isn’t listed on the Australian Women’s Register. What stunned me more is that even the Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing challenge has even managed to get a mention on the register, but not Ruby…
In the early hours of this morning, I finished reading PM Newton’s The Old School, a brilliant crime fiction novel, which I hope to review at some point on my book blog. Set in Sydney during the time Keating spoke at Redfern, Newton’s story touches on the fraught question of the genocide of indigenous men, women and children in the early days of settlement, as well as ongoing issues of alcoholism and homelessness which has challenged the resilience of many of the descendants of those original tribes. The fate of one of Newton’s characters – referred to as “Mabo” in the novel – reminded me of Ruby Hunter’s song, Down City Streets. Ruby died too soon for me to hear her sing live, but it has been a privilege for me to discover her words, to be able to listen to her voice, and to be moved by her personal story of courage as she battled to overcome homelessness and addiction, to create a life where she touched so many.
What better way to celebrate Australia Day than revisiting one of her songs?
(Lyrics for Down City Streets can be found on page 16 here.)
For more on Indigenous Australian women’s writing, see the guest post by Dr June Perkins on Aboriginal women’s writing, as well as a list of author Dr Anita Heiss‘s top 10 fiction reads by Indigenous Australian women, to be posted on Australia Day on the Australian Women Writer’s blog.
Have you read any books or authors you could recommend?