Whose Story is It Anyway?

Writers are bower birds, so watch out what you say around them!  We’ll pick up on any old event or situation you name and immediately start plotting a story. We often find ourselves telling stories about the experiences of other people.  But hold on. Some stories are not yours to tell.

There is a controversial TV show running in Australia currently. It’s called First Contact, essentially a reality TV program masquerading as a hard-hitting documentary, wherein a group of six ‘white’ Australians are taken on a tour of several indigenous communities (including a prison community) to confront them with the reality of indigenous peoples’ past and present difficulties and indignities. It sounds powerful, but the show has come under fire for being too focussed on the white reaction to the black experience.

“It’s compelling, blood-boiling TV, but there’s no escaping the fact that the Indigenous stories here have been used as triggers for yet another narrative of white self-discovery.” — Ben Neutze , The Daily Review, November 30, 2016

To my thinking, Ben is probably correct.  The six ‘white’ characters are a mix of attitudes, the most blood-boiling being a bloke called David Oldfield, a thankfully-forgotten-until-now rightwing politician with very strident views on Australian culture as a whole.

I question the value of the show overall. Its audience, those who will sit through its rollercoaster of argumentative confrontations and neat warm fuzzies, are the type of people who are least in need to hear the content. It’s true, Australia is laced together with institutionalised racism and the heavy laws preventing racist behaviour are hotly debated—some say get rid of them because they drive racism deep underground, others say the laws are over-reaching, open to abuse and silly. Still others roll their eyes and make the simple statement that you cannot legislate on the way people think.

But all this got me once again thinking about the writer’s part in telling the stories of this nation.  I know a lot of writers who struggle with this one. Stories full of huge stakes, abhorrent secrets,  hidden atrocities, terrifying truths, dramatic ironies, tragedy, injustice, survival against all odds, deep hurt, ruin and redemption—my god, this is the very stuff of good stories!  A writer sees story elements like this lying around, the immediate instinct is to want to write that story.

I get it. I really do.

I also get it that there’s a deal of goodwill on the part of well-meaning non-indigenous writers to want to help Australia to move toward healing by helping black people get their story out. But.

Here’s the big but;  black stories, like black history, belong to writers who identify as part of that black culture. A non-indigenous person writing a black story is very. not. cool. There is the exception of a non-indigenous person asking permission to write a story from those who are involved in that story, following all the appropriate tribal protocols.

As a dear friend of mine put it: we need to back off and let them find their own voice, their own way, and in their own time. Look forward to a time when we can tell these stories as one healed nation, but that time is not now.

And yet we are still allowing—encouraging— non-indigenous writers to tell black stories. We are even celebrating it. Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, the story of the exile of a group of indigenous people from their tribal lands by her settler great-great-great grandfather, enjoyed non-stop accolades as a proper retelling of her great-great-great grandfather’s brutal actions. The Secret River was then turned into a stage show, written by a venerated Australian playwright. He received such acclaim for his efforts, and so very little was said about the lack of indigenous voice in the developing of the story and within the story itself. I personally asked him, face to face, did he think it was a problem for a non-indigenous person to tell an indigenous story. He said no. He felt Australia had moved past that phase. I doubt him.

At the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney in early 2015, I heard valued indigenous writers and leaders, one after the other, condemning the book and the production of The Secret River as serious misappropriation of black history.

It might have been Kate’sgreat-great-great grandfather’s actions, but it was not his story, and it certainly was not her story to tell and profit from.

Condemnations by the speakers at the forum were met with rounds of hoots and applause from the theatre industry audience, a good proportion of whom were indigenous. But that is the first and last I have ever heard of such a reaction within mainstream Australian theatre, literature or general culture.

Real writers, artists, want to be effective. They want their work to reflect the times, dig into the hard matter and create work that really makes a difference. But there are limits. There are inconvenient truths about culture and history, ownership and misappropriation.

Step back. Whose story are you telling? Is it truly yours?

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