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Aboriginal literature and land as an “organisational framework”

May 30, 2013

This was an essay that got me thinking a little differently about support structures around adolescents (and support structures in literature):

Kylie Valentine ‘Ruby Langford’s Everyday Songlines’ Australian Womens Studies Resource, University of Queensland http://www.emsah.uq.edu.au/rubyeverydaysonglines

Valentines’ focus on the importance of land has relevance (in terms of critical thinking) to New Zealand literary criticism and I like it! So:

In her reading of Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Valentine writes that she “sets out to examine the ways in which location is important to the structure of the text: the place of place, in other words. Second, it looks at the background to the importance of land in the book, especially the political significance of land in Aboriginal history and culture, and the political struggles around land in Aboriginal communities today. Third, some of the differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal storytelling in the use of land will be examined. I argue that because Ruby Langford has a knowledge of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal understandings of history, culture and land, her book is both an important contribution to the Aboriginal struggle for justice in Australia today and offers ways for non-Aboriginal readers to understand some of this struggle.”

“Australian white-authored autobiographies do not generally begin with an acknowledgement and foregrounding of the ways in which other people have seen the narrator, the “I”, of the text. Most start out and continue with the “I” at centre stage, to the point where we lose a sense of the importance of relationships with other people. Many, if not most, white-authored autobiographies do not locate the political nature of the production of the text, and its political function, as part of the main action of the book. Most autobiographies can be recognised as an unravelling of the lives of people into a straight-line chronological account, with the self at centre and all else peripheral, described only in terms of their importance to that self (what I thought about my mother, my school, my lovers, my coach, my co-stars). The autobiography itself becomes a memoir of that life, something to be added on to it, rather than becoming a part of the joys and struggles that make it up.”

Land as an “organisational framework” doesn’t replace organisational structures more familiar to non-Aboriginal readers: structures like the family, legal and political institutions and codes, and religion. Instead, land plays an important and foundational role in the way these structures are set up and understood. For example, where most “western” stories and histories are understood in terms of time (think of the importance of the division of the world into units of time from years to microseconds, the concept of “progress”, the importance of age and how long things and people have been around, the way years are calculated, the way history is taught), Aboriginal cultures paid less attention to time, and more to place. Or, as Tim Rowse has put it:

It was essential to the nature of every person that he, she or it belonged to a place. The world is a world of places; the persistence in time of the things of the world was of no account in the fundamental categories of Aboriginal thinking. (Rowse, 1994: 40-41)

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