Aborigine Collection Portrays a People's Plight


PAPERBARK: A COLLECTION OF BLACK AUSTRALIAN WRITINGS. Edited by Jack Davis, Stephen Muecke, Mudrooroo Narogin, and Adam Shoemaker, Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 369 pp., $14.95 (paper) FOR too long, the Australian Aboriginal population has been represented by voices other than their own, if at all.

``Paperbark,'' the first collection of black Australian writings to cover such a diverse range of writers, eloquently expresses the plight of a people continually robbed of their dignity and homeland.

The introduction to the collection explains why this book of political essays, poems, short stories, true historical accounts, myths, a rock opera, and a drama exists:

``These examples represent the experiences of people who write because writing is one way of coming to terms with the struggles of daily life. ... Aboriginal writing can often be seen as a community gesture toward freedom and survival, rather than the self-expression of an individual author.''

Many works in this collection have their roots in an oral tradition, a tradition fundamentally important to the Aboriginal people, many of whom are still suspicious of the written word. Most of the stories were transcribed from their original oral forms to the written word during the last three decades.

Aboriginal legends and myths speak through a mixture of magical realism and nonlinear, surrealistic fantasy.

``Menpeel Nullum. They have placed us into this Grass Tree and ... l become your servants.'' Such is the cry of two maidens who are bound in the flesh of a tree in the mythical tale, ``Narroondarie's Wives,'' by David Unaipon.

In contrast to the mythical, magical tales there are stark, often-brutal accounts of the treatment suffered by the Aborigines under greedy, white colonists. ``Old Cobraboor,'' by Ellen Draper, a story based on a true event that took place during the late 19th century, was never before written down because of the nearly inhuman brutality it depicts. One scene describes a massacre over a single piece of gold.

Intermingled with poems by Banjo Worrumarra, Robert Churnside (Ngarluma), and Archie Weller are short stories about young Aboriginal men lost and unemployed in cities such as Perth and Broome, and of their families' struggles to deal with living in an alien society. Weller's poems ache with the universal longing to be heard, to be recognized and acknowledged as a people with a right to life and identity:

``Now in their trucks the whiteman comes / to squeeze my mother dry. / They take our laws. / They take our lives. / and now they take her too ... / The earth heaves. The skies' rain falls down. / The old men sing their songs / but my mother weeps rich black tears.''

Sprinkled among the stories, poems, and essays are the black-and-white line drawings of Jimmy Pike. His Aboriginal carvings and symbols serve as visual chapter headings, binding the varied written works in a non-Western perspective.

The songs performed in ``Bran Nue Dae,'' the first black Australian rock opera, are largely satirical and parody the current dependence many Aborigines have on tourism in Australia. ``Tourist Dollar'' is performed by such characters as ``Marijuana Annie'' and ``Uncle Tadpole.''

The title,``Paperbark,'' is a term chosen by many Aboriginal writers to indicate both their representative yet paradoxical role as chroniclers of a rich and varied oral heritage; it suggests traditional affiliation to their cultural roots. The authors of this collection sought to preserve the voice of the Aboriginal people and to give it an international forum.

``Paperbark'' includes an extensive bibliography of aboriginal writings in addition to the 36 black Australian authors. An unusually eclectic and important collection, it provides a cross section of an entire culture in danger of being lost forever along the song lines of the Australian outback.

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