The power of Aboriginal literature in the wake of Australia’s ‘No’

31 May 2024

So-called Australia has a long history of white voices being the ones who speak on First Nations stories, and how we’re represented. Thankfully, Blak voices have been emerging in academia and literature, and more stories are being told our way. These Blak voices are especially important now, Darby Jones writes, in the wake of a failed referendum, where 60% of the nation expressed their desire for our silence.

The power of Aboriginal literature in the wake of Australia’s ‘No’

Readers please be advised this article mentions racist terminology against First Nations peoples.

It’s the evening of October 14th, 2023, the day of the Voice to Parliament Referendum – the day the nation decides.

I know I’m in for what can only be described as a digital shitstorm – a barrage of sound-bytes and technicolour vignettes designed to divide and sensationalise. In an act of self-preservation, I silence the noise, block out the reportage by attending a friend’s housewarming party.

Enveloped in a grey haze of second-hand cigarette smoke, I converse with  colourful characters – bohemians and intellectuals who, like me, are harbouring hope. For a moment, I almost forget to worry. That is, until a sombre figure cuts through the crowd. They make their way over to a small group gathered in the corner. Shaking their head, they silently mouth the word “no”.


There is nothing left to say.

That night, I dream I’m standing in the middle of a busy city street. People push past me in every direction. The soundscape is deafening – a cacophony of car horns, sirens, and construction. A jet engine roars overhead. Perhaps the most unsettling sound is the persistent hum, a buzzing akin to a swarm of wasps. I place my hands over my ears, try to block the sound; then I realise that it’s coming from inside my head. I scream out in desperation, but no one looks up. I cannot make a sound; I do not have a voice.

In the dappled, early morning light of the next day, I watch a clip of proud Wiradjuri woman and Minister of Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, standing stoic while addressing the nation.

“To all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” she begins, fighting back tears. “I know the last few months have been tough… but be proud of who you are; be proud of your identity; be proud of the 65,000 years of history and culture that you are a part of, and your rightful place in this country. We will carry on, we will move forward, and we will thrive. This is not the end of reconciliation.”

My throat tightens. So moved am I by her words, so inspired am I by the dignity with which she addresses this crushing defeat that, in a thoughtless lapse of judgement, I open the comments section:

“We live in a democracy. Australia has spoken. Everyone is EQUAL”. 

I continue scrolling… 

“Try learning REAL history. They came from India. They were not the first. They need to start doing the right thing for themselves.”

And scrolling…

“Somebody get Linda a drink. It’s time for breath testing at Parliament house!”

I know I should stop, but I can’t. I’m trapped inside a doom scroll, desperately seeking one supportive comment – yearning for one shred of compassion. The blue light burns my retinas; my brain begins to rot. I roll out of bed, brew a cup of coffee, and brace for the day ahead – the entire duration of which, I wonder: how on Earth did we get here?

A history of colonial (mis) representations

The nation we call Australia is built upon colonial (mis)representations of Aboriginal people. These (mis)representations were – and often, continue to be – disseminated through literature penned by non-Aboriginal people. Terra Nullius was just the beginning, giving way to countless fabrications, such as the noble savage, the half-caste, the dying race – the list goes on and on. 

Through these innumerable (mis)representations, colonial writers constructed a Eurocentric world. That is, a world in which white bodies are socially centralised – a world in which coloured bodies are silenced and, if not entirely erased, relegated to the margins of society. Within the whitewashed parameters of this Eurocentric world, Aboriginal languages, histories, and cultures were – and in many cases, continue to be – discursively constructed through a colonial lens as inferior and unintelligible.

Take, for example, the story of Eliza Fraser – an English woman who, after being shipwrecked off the coast of K’gari (Fraser Island), claims to have been “kidnapped by Aborigines [sic] until her rescue and return to civilisation”. Fraser’s tale is rife with (mis)representations of Butchulla people – the vilest of which are reserved for Butchulla women, who – in the words of Mununjahli and South Sea Islander academic in her book Another Day in the Colony, Chelsea Watego – are portrayed as “promiscuous, vindictive, and bad mothers, […] far crueler and uglier in appearance than Aboriginal men and devoid of domestic skill or maternal instinct”. Throughout her story, Fraser’s voice is the only voice; she entirely silences the experiences of the Butchulla people, offering instead a solitary, sensationalised tale which, as it turns out, was proven to be a money-grabbing fabrication. By omitting the voices and perspectives of the Butchulla people, Fraser was able to proliferate her (mis)representation – her false portrayal of Aboriginality that invaded the psyche of a nation.

Wiradjuri writer and academic, Jeanine Leane, likens colonial (mis)representations such as Fraser’s to myths that continue to shape the way settler-Australians learn about and perceive not only Aboriginal people but the history of this nation. Collectively, these (mis)representations – these myths – form an elusive and invisible topography that Leane has come to coin the “settler mythscape” – a realm in which English language, history, and culture reigns supreme.

Breaking free from the mythscape

As it turns out, the key to our salvation may exist in this method of oppression itself: literature.

While I was studying Writing and English Literature at the University of Queensland, I was fortunate enough to attend a number of guest lectures by Professor Tracey Bunda, whose innovative scholarship reaffirmed my perspective on the power and potential of literature. In her book, “Research through, with and as Storying” (co-authored with Dr. Louise Phillips), Professor Bunda attests to the power of offering up “counter-stories” – a practice in which we tell our stories our way – to dismantle the preconceived ideas of Aboriginality borne from colonial (mis)representation. 

As she states, 

“the holding of stories in heads and hearts and the telling of these stories [is] fundamental to Aboriginal cultural and political survival. These stories, shared between and across generations, inform Aboriginal knowing and being.”

In 2023, I worked as an Editor Intern at “black&write!”, a groundbreaking Indigenous Writing and Editing project led by the inimitable Grace Lucas-Pennington. Since its inception in 2011, “black&write!” has produced some of the most powerful and influential Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature in circulation, such as Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight, Alison Whittaker’s Lemons in the Chicken Wire, and Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius

During my time at “black&write!” I got to contribute to the development and dissemination of similar counter-stories by working with emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. I  helped them not only tell their stories but share them with the world. It was during this time that I experienced the liberating, transformative, and life-affirming power of storytelling. I also got to witness what I consider to be one of the greatest years for Aboriginal literature, with the release of landmark titles including (but not limited to) Melissa Lucashenko’s Edenglassie, Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy, Daniel Browning’s Close to the Subject, Ellen van Neerven’s Personal Score, and Sharlene Allsopp’s The Great Undoing. 

Through their centralisation and celebration of Aboriginal languages, histories, and cultures, these titans of the literary industry offered up diverse and authentic representations of Aboriginality – powerful counter-stories that pierce the veil of the settler mythscape, paving the way for future generations of writers and storytellers.

For the past two years I myself have been a practicing storyteller, and a member of a small First Nations writing group. Once a month, we gather to discuss our projects, commiserate rejections, and celebrate successes. As fate would have it, in the month of October 2023, we were scheduled to meet the day after the Voice to Parliament Referendum – the day after 60% of Australia voted No.

At first, the four of us sat in silence, staring at the food we’d all prepared. We were in mourning—holding our own private vigil. We cried; we yarned; we listened. After a while, we ate, and then we began to write. As the sun began to set on that sombre afternoon, we finally found a way to ease the pain, to write against oppression, to make our voices heard, to rage against the silence. 

In a society where colonial (mis)representations of Aboriginal people continue to shape the consciousness of the nation, the counter-stories within Aboriginal literature offer up diverse and authentic representations of Aboriginal history and lives. When it comes to breaking free from the confinements of the settler mythscape, literature is a crucial tool in our arsenal. Through its transmission of cultural knowledge and its practices of storytelling, Aboriginal literature dismantles the preconceived ideas of Aboriginality borne from (mis)representation and reimagines a future in which the nation comes to know us not as we have been constructed, but as we are.

Some counter-stories:

“The Eliza Fraser Captivity Narrative: a Tale of the Frontier, Femininity and the Legitimization of Colonial Law.” Larissa Behrendt

“Let the Stories In: on power, privilege and being an Indigenous writer” Ambelin Kwaymullina

Aboriginal Representation: Conflict or Dialogue in the Academy.” – Jeanine Leane

“Cultural Rigour: First Nations Critical Culture”  – Jeanine Leane

“Staring Back”. Sydney Review of Books,  – Jeanine Leane

“Living on Stolen Land: Deconstructing the settler mythscape” – Jeanine Leane

“Other peoples’ stories” – Jeanine Leane

“Writing as a Sovereign Act” – Melissa Lucaschenko

Research through, with and as Storying – Louise Gwenneth Phillips and Tracey Bunda.  

Another Day in the Colony, Chelsea Watego

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