Flash Fiction Authors offending Australian Aborigines

I don’t normally trawl the interwebs for short fiction because publishers and authors send Dark Matter more than sufficient items for review. However, Dr Sean Williams, a respected Australian author, made this comment on Facebook:

What, is it Offend Indigenous Australians Week in the SF flash fiction community at the moment?

So I headed to Sean’s links to see what was happening.

One link was to Dreamtime by Phyllis A Duncan. Phyllis is an American author and her bio doesn’t mention visiting Australia much less living here. Apparently Phyllis feels entitled to co-opt Indigenous Australian culture without following the guidelines set for writing in their culture. She says:

The hiss-crack of static has a familiar sound, as if some alien with thinned aboriginal blood has sent its song into space toward this speck in the sky. We are kindred spirits, that alien dreamwalker and I, for am I not the alien here, my face the only dark one among the pale?

The non-Australian author is saying that the dark person in his own homeland is an alien because he’s the only dark one among white people.

[splutter]

Country. If she doesn’t get the concept of Country, not “the” country, not “a” country, not “a piece of land” but COUNTRY according to Australian Aboriginal culture then she should not be writing in this culture.

Meanwhile, in Dreamtime by Matthew Harrison, a captain of a spaceship treats a member of his crew like shit. He treats the telepathic Aborigine like a prima donna. This is the guy whose role is to communicate with Earth lightyears away, without whom they’re isolated in the deep black. Meanwhile the (presumably) white captain is nurtured by a subordinate woman who really should have told the captain to get his head out of his ass and start being a team player because every member of the crew is essential and telepathy is complex.

How the fuck did this “captain” qualify for his role if he doesn’t understand his crew and their needs? Is he a poor man’s version of Mal Reynolds who bought his ship and gathered a rag-tag crew together? Obviously he doesn’t like the telepath; is the telepath the equivalent of Simon? Pardon the Firefly references but I’m struggling to make sense of the story.

Harrison’s solution is the white captain playing the didgeridoo because that helps the Aborigine. Ooo, isn’t the white captain awesome. And so special that he can learn to play the didgeridoo after looking at it one time. Not to mention: white person playing a sacred instrument fixes the Aborigine.

Someone get me a bucket.

Both of these stories feature the worst kind of colonial-style cultural misappropriation with complete disregard for the culture and theft occurring.

UPDATE

For more information about how to write Indigenous Australian culture, the Australia Council has this guide.

More protocols for working with Indigenous artists including writing are available from the Australia Council here.

Anna Yeats, the publisher of the flash fiction magazine has apologised; she deeply regrets any offence caused. Anna is investigating ways of building bridges and using this incident as a learning experience for us all, helping the entire community learn more about writing Indigenous culture and cultural appropriation in general.

I haven’t heard from Phyllis Duncan whose flash fiction was published on a different website with the same name as Anna’s Every Day Fiction. It appears Phyllis has removed her story without comment.

Background

Please note: for a while the locals were called “Australian Aborigines” then that was deemed insulting because every country has its own aborigines.

Then they were called “Indigenous Australians” but that term was co-opted by the patriarchy. Y’know, the patriarchy that sent Australia’s armed forces to invade Indigenous communities and is currently trying to remove Aborigines from their land. Again.

Last year I interviewed Keelen Mailman who assured me that “Australian Aborigines” is, again, the correct term. Like the Queer community, they’re reclaiming and reframing the title. However, different people want to use different terms so I do my best to use the terms preferred by the people to whom I am talking. It’s confusing.

In addition to the nationwide terms “Australian Aborigines” and “Indigenous Australians” each people group has their own culture and name. 

4 Comments

  1. I published “Dreamtime” at Flash Fiction Online, and as such, I accept responsibility for the offense the story has caused. That was never our intent. Ignorance is not an excuse and your criticism is just. Thank you for taking us to task. We were insensitive and it makes my stomach hurt thinking that I’ve had a hand in downplaying anyone’s culture. When we chose to publish “Dreamtime”, my editorial staff and I saw a beautifully written, lyrical story. Our own personal biases and our lack of understanding of the Australian culture led us to this place. I would never excuse another publication for hiding behind the “I didn’t know” excuse. We hurt people.

    If you and your readers will help me, I’d like to make this right. Or at least better. I didn’t know. And I’m going to take a guess that a portion of our readers didn’t know either. Education is always better than going back to our little bubbles of not-knowing. I know this isn’t a topic that can be summed up in a link or a single blog post. It would take me a lifetime to understand and wrap my head around the complexities we’re dealing with here. But please help me try. I would sincerely like to use this as an opportunity to enlighten our readers so next time, when that next story comes through, whatever the culture is, we’ll all stop and consider. Where do I go for resources? Where can I point my readers?

    Thank you for bringing this to light. I’ll take my licks. And it won’t happen again.
    Sincerely,
    Anna Yeatts
    Publisher, Flash Fiction Online
    flashfictiononline@yahoo.com

    1. Thank you for your heartfelt response.

      Below I address everyone and, in my closing comments, I turn once more to speak to Anna directly.

      The Australia Council has guidelines for writing Indigenous culture and characters.

      I’m interested in hosting a discussion here on this topic. There’s been a vibrant conversation on Facebook but seeing that conversation and participating in that conversation depends on people’s privacy settings and friendships. If you want to bring it over here, folks, you are welcome.

      In email Anna invited me to write a guest blog for her website to help inform people and to build bridges. At first I said I couldn’t because I’m white; I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate person for the job. I’ve provided Anna with a list of suggestions from which to start looking for a suitable writer. However, Anita Heiss (Indigenous Australian, academic and activist) said it’s ok for a white person to step up to the plate for this one. So we’ll see. I’m already thinking about a follow-up to this post but I would like to see Indigenous Australians participate in this discussion. It’s too easy to become the colonial megaphone drowning out the voice of the affected and disaffected.

      And I’m awed by my own ignorance on this topic. My foray into Indigenous issues over the past few years has emphasised how little I know.

      A few years back, before the apocalypse, I was a counsellor. One of my clients was an Aborigine woman who identified as a lesbian. We got on well because I didn’t impose stuff on her, I ASKED about stuff. I came from a place of “conscious ignorance” so I asked her to tell me, to teach me. My attitude was that change came from the client and the client needs to be in control. This worked in the counselling relationship. I still believe in empowering others, giving others a voice, lifting others up to reach great heights… Never more so than with cultural appropriation issues. And discrimination. But that’s another story.

      I will now get off my soap box.

      I will look for someone to speak on behalf of their people for a post on Dark Matter as well. If I can’t find anyone who can, or anyone affordable who is willing (read: writes for free), I’ll put together a post with some general guidelines on cultural appropriation.

      [Turning back to speak directly to Anna once more]
      Thank you so much for your concern and your focus on making this a constructive learning experience. You are an example to us all.

      warm regards
      Nalini

  2. I think Anna has already said everything that can possibly be said by an editor who has caused unintended harm. All that’s left for me is to add my apology on behalf of Every Day Fiction.

    We are working to determine whether the story should be removed altogether or appended with an editorial apology and caveat to readers. Nalini has kindly shared resources above which should prove invaluable in that regard.

    (I also regret that there was an error in the link to Mr. Harrison’s website, causing it to redirect back to our author system. It wasn’t our intention to conceal any information.)

    Sincerely,

    Camille Gooderham Campbell
    Managing Editor
    Every Day Fiction

    1. Thanks for your response.

      Murphy’s Law obviously struck regarding the website. I went digging in an attempt to discover if Matthew identifies as an Indigenous Australian.

      cheers
      Nalini

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