WHEN Sally Morgan's schoolmates told her she wasn't ``an Aussie,'' her mother said to tell them she was Indian. ``I don't know why Indian, but I loved it,'' Mrs. Morgan recalls. ``It was so exotic.'' But questions remained. Why did her mother refuse to talk about how they got to Australia from India? Why was her grandmother invariably absent when Sally brought her friends round? And why did her grandmother sometimes talk to trees?
Morgan was in her mid-20s when she finally got her mother to admit they were Aborigine.
The story of overcoming the shame of being Aborigine, a sadly common occurrence among indigenous people of Australia, is a book called ``My Place.'' Now in its seventh edition, Morgan's evocative story has sold more than 110,000 copies in a country where 10,000 copies is doing well and 50,000 is a best seller. It's about to be published in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Determined to give her own children ``some record of their past,'' Morgan spent seven years uncovering her family history, braving the tears and stubborn silences of family members. What she found was a tragic but not uncommon story: Her grandmother and mother had been victims of the dark side of the white colonization.
Both women were the daughters of Aborigine mothers and young white men seeking their fortune in the outback. By law, the girls had to be taken away from their mothers and raised separately. Neither the grandmother, Nan, nor the mother, Gladys, ever knew their fathers, and Nan never revealed Gladys's father's identity.
As a little girl, Nan had come to Perth to be a servant - white families preferred half-castes to pure Aborigines for servants - and had never seen her mother again. Gladys had been put in an orphanage and told she was lucky she looked more Greek than Aborigine. Both had tried desperately not to look Aborigine. Gladys went back to live with her mother as a teen-ager, but when she married a white man she again had to suffer ostracization.
Gladys raised Sally and her four other children in a poor suburb of Perth in the 1960s. Her husband, a war veteran, was in and out of mental institutions and finally died an alcoholic when Sally was 8.
Gladys worked in a florist's shop and took on part-time cleaning to make ends meet while Nan cared for the home. But all the while the women lived in fear of the authorities taking the children away, just as they had been taken away. The same law was in effect in Western Australia until the 1960s.
To piece together the story, Morgan tracked down old documents, talked to people who had known her family, and made the pilgrimage up to the farm north of Perth where her grandmother was born to one of the Aborigine servants.
Her mother's pleas to ``leave the past buried - it's too painful'' were ignored, although felt. ``I nearly did give up a few times,'' Morgan said in a rare interview in her home in suburban Perth. ``But I didn't want my children to be brought up in ignorance as I had.''
It was in the middle of her project that Morgan decided to write a book about it. As she admits now, ``I was angry. Angry at the injustices done my grandmother and mother and angry that most Australians don't know anything about that side of our history.''
But not having written anything before, Morgan thought she would have to pay someone to publish it. An editor at Fremantle Arts Centre Press (a small, high-quality publisher in Western Australia) thought otherwise. ``We knew we had a hit, we just didn't realize how big a hit it would be.'' The first edition ran 5,000 copies and sold out immediately.
Morgan says the book came along at the right time. ``Australians today are more aware of Aborigine issues.'' In fact, Australians are beginning to try to purge a collective guilt they feel from what Foreign Minister Gareth Evans recently described as ``a great wrong, the cruel oppression of the Aborigine people.''
A black-skinned people who came to Australia overland from Asia in prehistoric times, Aborigines were divided into 600 tribes, each with its own language and territory, by the time the European settlers arrived 200 years ago. The Aborigines did not cultivate the land: They hunted and gathered food.
According to Aborigine mythology, man is part of the earth, which was created by the ``dreams'' of our ancestors. These dreams are complex myths that tell the story of every rock, stream, tree, and animal, thus immortalizing the landscape. Each Aborigine male has his own ``dreaming,'' to which he is initiated in a special ceremony. Still, today those who have been initiated go ``walkabout,'' trekking across the countryside, along the path of their dreaming. These paths are also known as ``songlines,'' because the ancestors are said to have ``sung'' the earth into existence, and each ``dreaming'' has a specific melody attached to it which Aborigines learn as children.
This rich, mystical heritage has until recently been ignored by white Australia.
Unlike the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, Australia never signed a treaty with the indigenous people. The white man disinherited the Aborigines, a nomad people, who depended on the land. They were herded into reservations and forced to live off government handouts, if they weren't killed first.
The official version of events was that Australia was an empty continent until Captain Cook set foot in New South Wales in 1788. But with the emergence of articulate spokesmen over the past 20 years, the Aborigines, who now form only 1 percent of the population, are bringing their story and their 18,000-year-old culture to public attention.
And the public is responding. Apart from ``My Place,'' several other books related to Aborigine culture or history are being published and read. Politicians like Gareth Evans are starting to speak to the issues: ``Our duty today is to acknowledge the truth of our history and redress it.''
There are, in fact, thousands of Australians with stories similar to those of Morgan's family. But she says many continue to cling to whatever fiction they have invented to escape from the shame they associate with being Aborigine.
``Lots of Australians have tended to think of Aborigines as subhuman,'' Morgan explains. ``My book shows we have the same emotions as everyone else. Let me give you one example: I've had lots of letters from teen-agers who said that before they read the book, they were racists without knowing it.''
As for political statements about the plight of the Aboriginal community today, she refuses to be drawn out. ``I stay away from rhetoric. What I hope is that through writing, attitudes will change. And once attitudes change we can start talking constructively.''
Even Roberta Sykes, an Aboriginal activist in Sydney who advocates a more militant approach to raising public consciousness, acknowledges the effectiveness of ``My Place.'' ``A lot of people who normally turn a deaf ear to anything to do with black people empathized with Sally Morgan's story,'' she says.
Take, for starters, Morgan's own family. At first upset by Sally's persistence, by the time the book was published her two brothers and one of her sisters were working on Aborigine-related issues. Sally's grandmother died before the book was finished, but she was finally able to talk about being black without shame.
As for Sally's mother, it was a cathartic experience. And in the end it was she who insisted on naming the book. ``My mother went to bed early for weeks so that she could dream the title, but she'd always forget it by the morning. It came to the point where I was making excuses to the publisher, because I was too embarrassed to tell them the truth.''
But changing attitudes also involves publicity, and that doesn't come comfortably to Morgan, who refuses most interviews. ``People think I had my success all planned out, but the truth is I have no ambitions. I just want to enjoy what I do and spend the time with my kids.''
Enjoying what she does has made her so busy that her husband, Paul, an art teacher, has taken the year off to help around the house and with their three small children. Apart from being writer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia, Sally Morgan is working on the oral history of an Aboriginal grandfather, which she hopes will be used as a textbook to illustrate the Aboriginal side of Australia's history. She is also writing a series of children's stories with an ``Aboriginal feel'' for Penguin Books.
But isn't it strange that a woman who is only one-eighth Aborigine and who lives in suburban Perth with her white husband should call herself Aborigine?
``Not at all,'' says Morgan. ``It's logical. In three generations there hasn't been any positive input from the white side of my family. Of course I'm going to identify myself as black.''
And what about her children? What kind of heritage is she passing on to them? ``I don't want to force anything on them. It's there if they want it. Children are smart, they pick up a lot from what Paul and I talk about.''
One thing Morgan does not want her children exposed to is publicity. But of course she can't stop youngsters from talking at school.
``My nine-year-old son came home the other day and said to me, `Mum, some people find you interesting. They don't know you're a boring old mother.''