Deadman Walking

It was seem odd to write a blog post at the end of a day teaching postcolonialism on the theme of…postcolonialism. But, then, I am odd.

Less flippantly, I just heard an interview with Kim Scott about his latest novel, That Deadman Dance (2011). Scott is the son of a native Australian father (from the Noongar people) and a white Australian mother, and was the first author of Aboriginal descent to win the Miles Franklin Award for best Australian novel (in 2000). That Deadman Dance won the prize again in 2011, for an historical novel with its genesis in an episode from late-18th-century Australia: a high-ranking English military visitor to Western Australia, having had a pleasant visit (we’re talking before a whole lot of colonial bloodshed, here, so it really was pleasant, for everyone involved), organised a salute to the local people from his soldiers; a local Noongar man joined in, aping the rifle flourishes with his stick, and a local dance was born; a twentieth-century visitor to the region reported an ochre-streaked, St-George’s-Cross-bedecked tribesman paying tribute to this ‘deadman dance’, well over 100 years later. (This sounds brilliant, by the way, and I now want to go and read it. But that isn’t why I’m writing.)

The author and his novel

The author and his novel

What caught my attention, quite apart from this excerpt from pre-colonial history that so inspired Scott, was his response to a question about his achievement in being the first writer of Aboriginal heritage to win the Miles Franklin (it’s not an award I’m familiar with, but it sounds like it’s on a par with the Governor General in Canada, which is a pretty big thing). He said, and I’m paraphrasing (it’s been a long day), what he wants to emphasise is not the extent of his achievement, but the fact that giving the prize to a native Australian took so long.

Which really made me think, about racism and literature and market forces: it’s not that writing by Aboriginal authors has only recently reached the required standard for the MFA, but that it took until the year 2000 – and it sounds late, but bear in mind that was nearly a decade before the Australian government made a formal apology for the treatment suffered by the ‘stolen generation’ – for it be viewed as socially acceptable for a native author to be awarded the accolade of ‘best Australian’.

Food for thought. The twenty-first century is by no means as forward-looking as we might like to think.

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