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Closing the Gap in Education?

If This Is Your Land, How Do You Teach Your Stories?

The Politics of ‘Anthologising’ Indigenous Writing in Australia

Adam Shoemaker

Monash University

This chapter is about ‘closing the gap’ between student and teacher, reader and text, Indigeneity and non-Aboriginal knowledge. It concerns Aboriginal people in Australia but – more particularly – the migration of their stories from (and to) different forms. Above all, it has to do with questions of access, choice and influence in what can only be described as the fraught world of Australian publishing.

The case study I examine here is the landmark publication, Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, a major and challenging work in scope, size and intent. The anthology was released in various locations around the world in July/August 2009, after over six years of preparation and editorial work. The editorial team, led by Professor Nicholas Jose and a talented group of (mostly) Sydney-based editors, tackled the concept of representing Australian writing by portraying it in the most inclusive possible way (Jose 2009). The end result was impressive and mammoth: a 1464-page hard-cover anthology that weighed over 1.7 kilograms and cost in excess of $1.5 million dollars to produce.

This is a major tome in anyone’s language. It is a significant cultural achievement for Australian publishing – and a diplomatic barometer of the times. For example, the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard (whose portfolio includes the fields of education, employment and workplace relations as well as social inclusion), launched the book at the Australian Consulate in New York City on 7 October 2009. More of that later; the significant point here is that the book became – on that night and subsequently – a diplomatic incident.

Even more: the anthology was co-published in the United States not by Macquarie or Allen & Unwin, but by the venerable American university literary text publisher, W.W. Norton. Norton anthologies are iconic in North America: the New York-based publishing house specialises in producing mammoth first-year set texts in literary genres, which find their way into compulsory reading lists in thousands of university syllabi in hundreds of colleges and universities the length and breadth of North America.

In one sense, then, the publication of this anthology is the literary equivalent of an Australian violinist debuting with the New York Philharmonic on her first tour overseas, or of an expatriate Australian actor landing a leading role in a James Cameron blockbuster straight after graduation from the Victorian College of the Arts or NIDA. Read one way, this is really ‘making it’. And, judged by the criteria that literary agents would employ, this was undoubtedly a first for Australian publishing.

So the questions then arise: What does all of this have to do with a comparative Southern Worlds Conference at Monash South Africa on the crucial theme of closing the gap in education, specifically Indigenous education? What is the role of such an anthology in the world of teaching and what is my role in analysing it?

Surprisingly, there is a single answer to these questions. Put simply, it is that the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature has the highest proportion of material written by Indigenous people of any such representative national collection ever published. Even more: this material is interpolated throughout the entire volume rather than being gathered – as is so often the case – as a kind of preface before the ‘collection proper’ begins. The contributions embrace work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from every region of Australia and range across all genres: from the diary to the petition; from oral poetry to drama; from children’s verse to the novel; and from journalism to polemic. Beginning with Bennelong’s letter of 1796, the Indigenous contributions are intentionally recuperative and restitutional. As the two editors of the ‘Aboriginal literature’ strand of the Macquarie PEN Anthology – Anita Heiss and Peter Minter – observe:

But just as the Crown’s acquisition of 1770 had made sovereign Aboriginal land terra nullius, it also made Aboriginal people vox nullius… For Aboriginal people, the use of English became a necessity within the broader struggle to survive colonisation. (Heiss and Minter 2009, 8)

Despite the overt W.W. Norton survey-style format, this is no typical anthology. It embraces a particular agenda, that of centralising Indigenous creativity at the core of Australian literary achievement. The question is, ‘Does it succeed?’

In a scathingly statistical mood, the launcher of the book at the British High Commission in late September, the redoubtable Clive James, observed that the anthology contained exactly 12.6 per cent of so-called ‘Indigenous content’. And he continued, shocking many of those in the audience (not least the Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom), by denouncing that fact. James was reported to have said that there were ‘far too many aboriginal [sic] writers included… when this ethnic minority is not noted for its literary tradition’ (ALR Blog 2009). According to the Evening Standard, all hell broke loose when James continued his critique with the words, ‘This tokenism was at the expense of good writers competing on a world stage who should have been included.’ And James ended with the words, ‘Don’t tell Kevin Rudd, the current Labour [sic] PM who has apologized to the aboriginals. He won’t like it’ (ALR Blog 2009).

So literature can be – and is – highly political, especially where Indigenous writers are concerned. This is despite the fact that 87.4 per cent of the Macquarie PEN Anthology is faithfully devoted to non-Aboriginal poetry and prose and is entirely in English (with the exception of the rare translated word). Clearly, it is not a matter of inclusiveness, or representativeness, or even (dare I say it) Australianness that is being considered, but a particularly narrow invocation of literary culture. This is disturbing because, in so many other areas, Indigenous Australians are proportionally underrepresented in national life – from the percentage of Indigenous young people who graduate from university to the number of Aboriginal doctors in hospital wards or the ratio of Indigenous magistrates who preside over Australian courtrooms. Yet, for some, this 12 per cent contribution to the Macquarie PEN Anthology is simply beyond the pale. I argue that this should be a matter for celebration, just as we laud the fact that, in 2009, 82 players – or about 12 per cent of those competing at the highest levels of the Australian Football League – were from Indigenous backgrounds, with that number having risen astronomically over the past 15 years (AFL 2010). Or to quote an even more apposite example: ‘between 25 and 50 per cent of all working Australian visual artists’ (Ryan et al. 2008, 284) are Indigenous Australians and their work has created a signature export industry that is estimated to be worth as much as $500 million per year (Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd 2006), up strongly from a figure of $100 million to $300 million per annum in 2002 (Altman et al. 2003).

Of course, this anthology – and the teaching that accompanies it – can also be described as an export industry, as much as I dislike the commodification of literary works. The pertinent question here is: Without volumes such as this one, how will those in other nations – Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and many others – be able to teach with Indigenous people, about Indigenous cultures, in a way that advances first nations people socially, economically and educationally? What is our role? What is my role as an educator in this field? How do non-Aboriginal scholars ‘profess’ in this area in a way that is both ethical and liberating?

I submit that the Macquarie PEN Anthology shows us some of the ways to proceed and some of those to avoid. For the reality is that all of us who teach and research require tools with which to open minds. This anthology is one such tool. The manner of its creation, the critiques of its size (one critic said, ‘This massive tome… edited by Nicholas Jose and with a foreword by Thomas Keneally, is even fatter than William Shawcross’s Queen Mum’ (ALR Blog 2009)) all make it a fascinating and revealing test case for intercultural and cross-border education.

Even more: the trenchant criticisms of its Indigenous dimensions are suggestive of deep-seated controversy and debate at the core of the Australian literary community; for instance, the Melbourne critic Peter Craven (2009) wrote in his Australian Book Review assessment of the book:

This leaves the final glaring failure of the PEN anthology. It overflows with Aboriginal writing, much of which has no literary value whatever… the sheer quantity of Aboriginal writing included in this volume – much of it devoid of literary quality or even literary ambition – is an egregious mistake.

This review tells us as much about the predilections of Peter Craven as it denotes the inherent value (or otherwise) of the project. Expressed in another way, this book does not reflect the literary content – or image – of what Craven sees as a suitable national anthology.

In a similarly personal vein (but with an almost diametrically opposed line of reasoning), Robert Dessaix took the debate further at the Adelaide Festival Writers’ Week of March 2010. In a special session that focused on the anthology, he addressed the role of such literary collections in a globalised world of national erasure and abnegation. Put simply, his critique of the anthology was that it was attempting to define a fruitlessly unitary sense of Australianness in an era in which that was impossible. In Dessaix’s words:

Anthologies… like retrospectives… search for lost or unformulated unities. We had a country there for a while, post-war… The editors of the PEN anthology have left their run a little late to create an artificial unity… they wanted to give Australian literature the place it has been losing in a globalised world [but] in 2010 anthologies will have little discernible effect on Australian identity except in the classroom… [The editors] have done a marvellous job – I just doubt that it is a job that needs doing. (Dessaix 2010)

So for Dessaix it is not Indigeneity per se that is the problem, but the basic thrust and goal of the project as an anthology at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. And this is – above all – an educational issue, for even Dessaix admits that the role of such works ‘in the classroom’ is of a particular type and significance.

My point is that we should not shy away from such controversies in our teaching and research; indeed, they often provide the springboard for deeper understandings of race relations and Indigeneity, of the migration of cultures locally, domestically and internationally. They also give us a more nuanced appreciation of generational change in the academy and in the world outside the campus.

I have to confess that there is a personal dimension too. As an editor myself (one who co-edited the first national anthology of Indigenous Australian writing in 1990 and edited the literary and photography anthology, A Sea Change, published in association with the Sydney Olympic Games in 1998), I think that Peter Craven is reaching towards a partly valid conclusion but gets bogged on the road towards it in his racialised analysis of the Macquarie PEN Anthology.

Briefly, my own critique relates to editorial policy. The general editor of the work, Nick Jose, together with Peter Minter and Anita Heiss, has chosen to opt for a thoroughly genre-exploding, chronological treatment of the panoply of Australian literature. As a concept, ‘inclusiveness’ has been elevated to the status of a literary arcadia, with over 300 authors represented in the collection. This is ‘so far so good’ – as far as it goes. In the general editor’s words:

The first and foremost aim of this book is to make available to readers and students a sampling of the range of Australian writing, putting striking works from recent times together with works from the past that have become less familiar. By ordering the material chronologically… and by encompassing a jostling variety of genres and styles, including letters, journals, speeches and songs, we intend that the anthology show the phases of change and development in Australian literature. (Jose 2009, 2)

This embrace of differing genres sounds marvelous, but is actually undercut by the manner and presentation of the excerpted works. For example, as influential critics such as Katharine Brisbane (2009) have pointed out, it is wildly unfair to maintain that a principle of editorial inclusivity has been operative when set alongside the fact of exclusivity that applies in the case of Australian theatrical literature. As Brisbane points out, ‘among the 300 authors represented – and twice as many extracts – 10 plays have been chosen. Some 27 of the 300 wrote for the stage and might have been considered. Scores of equal contenders have been rejected’.

The truth is that Australian writing for the theatre has witnessed huge breakthroughs over the past 50 years. It was the plays of David Williamson that broke into the West End of London in the 1970s and the plays of Jack Davis that did the same a decade later. It was (and continues to be) theatre that has acted as a catalyst for the cross-over influence of Indigenous writing in nearly every capital city of Australia over the past 35 years: from Bobby Merritt’s The Cake Man in the late 1970s to the work of Leah Purcell (Box the Pony) and Josie Ningali Lawford (Ningali) in the late 1990s to the continuing directorial breakthroughs of Wesley Enoch in recent years. Indeed, in her wonderfully evocative speech launching the Macquarie PEN Anthology at Admiralty House in Sydney, the Australian Governor-General, Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce (2009), noted that in July she had seen Sam Watson’s biographical play, Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country, and observed: ‘In the line it draws between past and present, we felt the electric thrill of a literary culture that is alive and flourishing’.

The cross-fertilisation of genres evidenced by the migration of plays such as Jimmie Chi’s Bran Nue Dae from the stage in 1990 to the screen in 2009 (directed by Rachel Perkins) is yet another index of the importance of drama by, about and for Indigenous people in this country. Finally, the inherently episodic nature of writing for the stage lends itself particularly to anthologisation. Given the explicit orientation of the Macquarie PEN Anthology in the direction of Indigenous literature, it is difficult to understand why more extracts of Australian theatre – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – are not included in this collection.

The editors’ approach is similarly flawed because of the attempt to include too much, too briefly. The choice of extracts has been so exacting – just a few pages from classic works like Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life or Sally Morgan’s My Place, and the juxtapositions so sudden that the sum-total effect is one of discordant fragmentation. Even more: those Indigenous contributions that are written versions of originally oral storytelling material suffer the most in this mistranslation on the page. The book is so segmented that reading it is like travelling down a suburban road with scores of intellectual potholes and speed bumps obstructing the journey. I believe it is this to which the critics are responding when they target – unfairly – the Indigenous extracts in the collection.

In short, it is not a matter of weak Indigenous writing but one of frequently staccato editorial practice in this anthology. This gives the reader the uncomfortable sensation of skipping across the surface without ever really landing inside the works themselves. Ironically, despite its massive overall length, the contributions to the anthology are – within themselves – almost all too short and abrupt. This renders the collection even more open to criticism, in that it is more akin to a superficial survey than an in-depth tribute. Finally, this feature is equally a liability when the collection migrates to the teaching environment in other countries: in Canada, in Germany, in Korea, in New Zealand.

But what of South Africa? How would this book be received there? Indeed, would it even be published in that country, when it is so culturally specific, so massive and so expensive in relative terms (the list price is A$69.95). And how is such anthologised literature perceived in a country in which the black majority now rules a fast-changing democracy? It is fascinating to speculate which tools, which readings and which intellectual sources will be the most appropriate when it comes to teaching about black and Indigenous education internationally and in this nation. It is entirely possible that only the online extracts from this volume will be used in Durban, Dakar or Denpasar.

Ironically, in the end this chapter is not about an anthology per se. It is about a country’s desire to represent itself; about a book that displays an Australian Government coat-of-arms on its title page, along with those of its major university and corporate sponsors. Thus the anthology looks and feels at times like a gargantuan writers’ festival prospectus rather than a publisher-initiated project.

Finally, this is a case study about the means by which the academy enters into an often fraught public space. It is about reading, about politics, about education and about learning across cultures. Surely it is a comment on the insertion of governmentalism into the project: at the launch of the anthology at the Australian Embassy in Washington, Julia Gillard felt she had to defend the book against its critics. As reported by the Melbourne Age on 9 October 2009:

The debate about the quality of the Aboriginal entries has raged in Australian literary journals, blogs and forums, but Ms Gillard was determined to deal with it upfront and move on when she launched the US version of the book in Washington DC on Wednesday. [The minister said,] ‘This is an anthology for its time. Like any great historical text it will – and in Australia already has – stirred a fierce debate and feeling concerning its composition’. (Davies 2009)

But, as we know, migration and reception of meaning change everything. As the report continues:

But there were mutterings about the omission of writers such as Geraldine Brooks, a best-selling Australian writer who won America’s highest literature award, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in 2006, for her novel March. Others remarked on the omission of Ruth Park, popular overseas as well, and Colleen McCulloch, who has been wildly successful in the US. (Davies 2009)

So there it is. Clearly, if there is a gap to be closed in the area of Indigenous Education, works like this one will – in part – help to generate the productive debate that leads in that direction. Conversely, it will also be the critique of works like this that emphasise the fact that Aboriginal words, Aboriginal narratives, Aboriginal forms of storytelling cannot and should not be artificially constrained by a strictly predetermined anthology format. It is one step from anthologising words to anthologising (or regimenting and controlling) the lives of Indigenous peoples themselves. We are well aware of the disasters that this attitude has caused in the history of race relations in all southern societies.


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Brisbane, K. 2009. ‘More drama over the PEN anthology’. Crikey, Tuesday 3 November. Accessed 11 November 2009. Available from:

Bryce, Q. 2009. ‘Address by Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, AC, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, on the occasion of Launch of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, Admiralty House, Sydney, 30 July’. Accessed 14 March 2010. Available from:

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Ryan, M D; Keane, M; Cunningham, S. 2008. ‘Australian Indigenous art: Local dreamings, global consumption’. In Cultures and Globalization: The Cultural Economy, edited by Anheler, H K; Isar, Y R. London: Sage Publications.

Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen