Amy Brown’s reflections in the archive

I had trouble sleeping last night because my two-year-old’s nightmares woke me every couple of hours between midnight and five. In between comforting him, I worried about the research project I’ve chosen for myself and the way in which I’m conducting the research: am I using the archives effectively? Is my question coherent? Am I the right person to be asking such a question? Mark Nicholls’ point yesterday, about the necessity of finding a particular relevance in the text to yourself rang clear and true in the small hours. Who am I to question the reception of Indigenous women’s writing in Australia? In the question there is an assumption that the reception has been inadequate and that my research will be able to ameliorate this inadequacy in some way. Ha! The chutzpah and ignorance (these were my thoughts at about 2am). But, behind the self-flagellation, there was an answer forming to Mark’s question (how does your research relate to you?).

The reasons why I want to learn more about Van Neerven’s stories are several fold:

1) I love reading them, but see how the language that is rewarded in the VCE Literature exam might not be fit to describing the ways in which they work. That is to say, what I feel is the collection’s “literary merit” is not well served by close attention to, say, audial effects and imagery. “To talk about Heat and Light,” Van Neerven said in an interview with Helena Kadmos last year, “you must talk about the form.” Yet, to understand the logic of the form—its allusions and references—knowledge is required beyond the cultural capital required to interpret canonical texts, and beyond my students’ (many of them first or second generation migrants to Australia) frames of reference. To appreciate is to understand, and to acknowledge the limits of one’s understanding.

2) I’m a migrant to Australia too. My home, Aotearoa, New Zealand, is a different country with different traditions and different relationships with its traditions to Australia’s. The idea of a manuscript being submitted by a white male academic on behalf of a Māori woman in 1982, and the cover letter of the submission stating that the work is the first by a “full-blood aboriginal woman” is shocking. The integration of te reo Māori and tikanga Māori (language and culture) into New Zealand culture at large – the media, publishing industries and education system, for instance – means that texts by Māori authors are not siloed, fetishized, ignored or misinterpreted to the extent that texts by Australian Indigenous authors seem to be. As a teacher in Australia I see it as one of my duties to replace my ignorance of Australian aboriginal languages and cultures with knowledge – as much as I am allowed.

3) During her PhD in creative writing at Monash University, a friend spent time in Central Australia with Warlpiri women, some of whom remembered her as a child with her geologist father, who was part of their community in the 1990s. My friend gave a paper at a conference that emphasised the ways in which knowledge is conceived of by the Warlpiri people, which might clash with Western understandings of learning, publishing and literary success. Communication, she stressed, is necessarily imperfect. Certain knowledge must be earned rather than just learned.

In the English classroom, successful communication is upheld as a fundamental principle; if we only learn to read, speak, write and listen properly then we will be more adept at what makes us human – empathy. What if this striving to understand, well-meaning as it is, is necessarily thwarted? This reminds me of a different case of cultural misinterpretation that took place in a Year 11 Literature lesson last year. The final task of the year was a personal essay, applying postcolonial theory to Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case and to the students’ own lives. One diligent, bright student struggled to begin. As I tried to buoy her up and persuade her that everyone’s perspective is worth writing about, she told me that the “personal” thing was fundamentally in opposition to the culture in which she’d been raised: she wasn’t comfortable writing about herself in this way. I am still trying to figure out whether my instinct, that this task was valuable to a seventeen-year-old Chinese-Australian student, was right, or whether I was in my own form of colonialism, forcing an assumption upon her.

And so it looks like it’s going to be a day of questions…Rather than continuing to dig in the archival boxes, I intend to read some more recent articles, reviews and interviews, and continue to tweak the parameters of the project to suit my capacities and requirements (as the person I am, teaching the students I teach).