Claire G. Coleman
The editorial team at Westerly were very lucky to meet Claire Coleman at this year’s Perth Festival Writers Week, and we believe that her discussion of her experience on writers’ panels is an important part of the conversation around how we approach and listen to each other. Claire has allowed us to share her essay from Westerly 63.1, which is available to buy here.
At Perth Festival Writers Week, in February 2018, I was privileged to participate in an all–First Nations panel on Indigenous Australian literature. There has been one in almost every writers’ festival I have attended and I have been honoured to participate in a few of them. It is important that these platforms exist so that Indigenous voices can be heard and so that people who wish to hear from us can have that opportunity.
Indigenous people being heard is what matters. That is something I spend a lot of time fighting for, and the focus of this essay. It should also be the focus of question time. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Question time is a challenging component of any panel on First Nations literature, simply because there are certain questions (and statements disguised as questions) that seem inevitable. In the green room before and after panels we talk about it, by email we talk about it, amongst ourselves we talk about it. It seems that every Indigenous author or speaker has had the same, or dreadfully similar, experience.
I dread question time, and I am sure others must as well, because someone, possibly well meaning, possibly offended, possibly defensive, feeling they are under attack, will say something offensive. Sometimes it is framed as a question, other times it is a statement that ends with the raised tone signalling a question where none exists.
I am never quite certain what compels people to ask such questions. I could assume that they are upset, offended or angry and waiting throughout the entire panel for an opportunity to say their piece. It makes me wonder why they go to the panel in the first place when they seem to want to talk rather than listen. I could also assume these questions exist, either intentionally or not, to take away our voices.
Many of those sorts of questions (or statements) include within them a rambling monologue implying that the questioner knows more about Aboriginality than the panellists, or is in some way more Aboriginal. Sometimes the questioner states they have been adopted into a tribe, are accepted into a tribe or ‘have a skin name’1, therefore they are now Aboriginal. It’s a side point, but I am sick of that bullshit too.
It happened at Perth Festival Writers Week. The panel featured authors Ambelin Kwaymullina, Paul Collis and I and was facilitated by Elfie Shiosaki from Westerly. Question time came and a white woman of post-retirement age raised her hand. She stood, holding a ratty A4 ringbound notebook. I remember that clearly, because my first thought was ‘dear gods, she wrote a speech’, and a speech it was. It was so rambling and disjointed that I was not certain then, I am less now, that there was even a question in there somewhere. It was only the similarity with other questions from other panels that fielded any clue to what she was saying at all.
She was clearly emotional. I could not tell from her face at that distance, at first, whether she was angered or saddened. Her statement was longwinded and accusative. We, the people in that panel, had somehow upset her equilibrium, her white-woman world. It took me a long time to realise she was angry and embittered because we, educated urban Aboriginals, professional Aboriginal authors, had the audacity to claim she was ignorant of Indigenous issues.
It might have been me who had set her off for what it’s worth. I had made a statement about ignorance that was not even aimed at her personally.
I believe she thought we the mixed-race, educated Blackfellas had called her ignorant, had complained about the invasion, did not think that whatever tiny thing she had last done to help us was enough. Her ‘Aboriginal friends’ from near her cattle station (on their stolen land I might add) were nice, did not call her ignorant, did not attack her or her husband, did not use a Western education to call her out on Indigenous issues. Implied in this sort of argument is the notion that urban Indigenous people and Indigenous people with paler skin are not ‘real’ Indigenous people; that only Indigenous people living ‘traditional’ lives in the bush are actually Indigenous.
The feeling of the other panellists and I, as we discussed by email over the next few days, was that she did not believe ‘real’ Indigenous people thought white people ignorant.
If you recognise yourself, if that was you or if you tend to do similar things in panels, I am not sorry if this article offends you. Acting that way at question time causes emotional distress for the panellists and almost certainly for any Indigenous person in the audience, and I can assure you that in the audience of a panel on Indigenous literature there will be Indigenous people. Such emotional distress can be dangerous after the long history of oppression and trauma the First Nations peoples of Australia have suffered.
I am speaking to whitey now; you made us. You took our land, you raped our ancestors and made our people feel so unwanted, so hated, that they felt it necessary to capitulate by marrying and bonking our oppressors. When our children were born mixed-race, you decided we were inferior even to our own people and tried to breed us whiter, breed out the black and took kids from their families to ensure you had power over them. You told us our culture was worthless and forced your ‘education’ on us. Some of us excelled at your education and those of us who do well within your system are now, in your minds, ‘not really Aboriginal’.
I have personally been upset by the sort of questions that get thrown at us during question time, and others I know have become genuinely unwell. The danger of emotional violence is often underestimated but should not be. I do not doubt fear of question time has caused people to avoid public speaking. Whether the intent of the questioning is to stop us speaking out or not is irrelevant; that is the potential effect.
Others in the audience are there to listen to the panellists, not to listen to a rambling statement from the audience at question time. They might have a question themselves, might not get a chance if a long statement eats up too much of the short time available for questions. Some panel chairs respond to ‘questions that are really statements’ by simply shutting the ‘questioner’ down. I believe they should.
I wonder if it is white privilege that leads people to believe that we, after talking about fields in which we are experts, should be forced to listen to their opinions. If not white privilege, maybe privilege in general and a sense of entitlement. That must be why I have seen more men do it than women, and it tends to be older men rather than young men. I have never seen a Person of Colour or an Indigenous Australian person do this. I have never seen a young woman do it either.
I have, on the other hand, seen non-Indigenous Australian People of Colour suffer from similar issues at question time. When People of Colour, when Indigenous people, have an opportunity to speak, when we assert our rights to be heard, question time is often used, intentionally or inadvertently, to reassert white privilege; to recapture the narrative. We fight so hard for the right to speak, yet when question time comes many white people do not take an opportunity to learn more, to ask us for clarification to increase their knowledge. They would rather attempt to teach us why they think we are wrong.
Later that same festival, I faced a questioner who asked the same question three times. He wanted me to fix all the problems in Indigenous affairs right there on the spot, give him an ‘end game’, a solution. I tried to answer but I expect he wanted to hear no answer that did not, in some way, involve magic.
It’s time to understand that Indigenous literary voices do disrupt whitefellas’ equilibrium of thought and the false narratives upon which Australia is built. That, however, is what we should be doing. The cultural paradigm of Australia, so reliant on colonial lies, needs to be disrupted so that the country, whatever it is, can mature. Rather than reacting to our words with angry statements and stupid questions, maybe it is time to listen. We have been living these truths longer than you have.
I am asking for something simple, really. We are giving up our time and entering a sometimes hostile environment to tell you about our world. Please respect the risk we are taking, please respect the time we have taken to learn what we are telling you about, to write our stories. I ask this, let question time be an opportunity for you to learn from us. You can debate, you can be angry, you can be rhetorical on your own time.
1 I have heard variations of ‘I have a skin name’ many times from white people as proof of their Indigenous credentials, and proof they are respected by the local Aboriginal people. If you are white and have a skin name, it does not mean that you know anything about Aboriginal society or have been initiated. In some ‘traditional’ Aboriginal societies, you need a skin name before you can even be spoken to. A skin name positions someone in the matrix of community and determines who can marry whom and even whom a person is allowed to talk to. You are given a skin name so people know where you fit; they cannot talk to you until they have fit you in. Please don’t think you have been afforded a special privilege or that you have been adopted in any way.
Claire G. Coleman is a Wirlomin Noongar woman whose ancestral country is in the south coast of Western Australia between Esperance and Albany. In 2016, she was awarded a ‘black&write!’ Indigenous Writing Fellowship. Her debut novel Terra Nullius was published in 2017 with Hachette Australia, and has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize and an Aurealis Award.