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Not Your Story to Tell: The Potential Perils of a Whitefella Writing on Indigenous Issues.

Image: The summit of Mt Cuthbert in the Monadnocks Conservation, Darling Range (Source: Pete Mitchell).

Apologies, I have neglected this blog for almost a month. It is not as though I haven’t been contemplating literary things. I have been off grid. I’ve been indulging another passion – bushwalking. I had a 10 day walk across the Noongar Nation and Whadjuk and Ballardong country on the Bibbulmun Track.

Image: An echidna friend sharing the track near Mount Cooke. (Source: Pete Mitchell)

Bushwalking and creative writing aren’t that dissimilar (see my blog ‘Bushwalking and Writing, Are They Parallel Paths?’, May 25, 2023). The bushwalking was about 185km between Mundaring and Dwellingup. This gave me plenty of time to think about my writing. An added benefit, that I maximised by walking faster, was there was plenty of time to read if got into camp early. As such, I read three novels (a Kindle is lighter than three paperbacks) over the ten-day walk. Rachel Miller’s ‘Pheasants Nest’, Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ and R.F. Kuang's ‘Yellowface’ provided the evening entertainment. I was particularly keen to read ‘Yellowface’ as I am currently at a point in writing my next novel where a scene cuts across a significant Indigenous issue. 

Image: R.F. Kuang's 'Yellowface' book cover (Source: Goodreads).

In ‘Yellowface’ the protagonist navigates the complex terrain of cultural appropriation and authorship. The novel explores the ethical dilemmas faced by writers who borrow (or steal in this case) from cultures other than their own.

Kuang's narrative delves into the consequences of ignoring ethical boundaries, highlighting the personal and professional fallout that ensues when another’s cultural heritage is disrespected. In ‘Yellowface’ one of the central themes is the question of who has the right to tell certain stories. This mirrors the guidelines set forth by the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) on Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP). [Ref: ASA Resources & Guides - Australian Society of Authors (].

Image: An abstract representation of the Australian Indigenous Flag (Source: Indigenous promotions)

I was directed to the ASA guidelines by a writing colleague. The advice she provided was almost ‘if there is any Indigenous issue avoid it, it’s just too difficult’. The easy response would be to excise this specific chapter from the novel, but I strongly believe that writers have an obligation to deliberately face difficult issues head on. Of course, writers must respect the lived history of all others, but it is a shared history. Truth-telling is also something that must be encouraged, however confronting that truth might be. To only write from one perspective produces a sanitised, unrealistic filtered view of the diverse culture that we live in. A diverse culture should be celebrated.

Even in Kuang’s (a China born, US writer) fictional portrayal she writes from a white woman’s perspective. Is this intentionally ironic? By placing the protagonist’s voice at the forefront of the narrative, this novel uses her white perspective to show how easily minority voices can be overshadowed by whoever controls the cultural airspace. It is not an accident that to achieve this, Kuang found it most effective to speak through a white narrator.  Through ‘Yellowface’, readers gain an understanding of the moral complexities involved in writing about cultures that are not one's own and the necessity of adhering to respectful and responsible storytelling practices.

Image: Walking the track wasn't all fine weather. Hours of solid rainfall and thunderstorms at the top of Mount Wells. The creek though the camping area the track to the dunny! (Source: Pete Mitchell).

In the realms of creative writing, the lines of ownership, authorship and attribution of intellectual property can be difficult to define. This is particularly true when it comes to writing about Australian Indigenous issues. Writers must tread with the utmost respect and care. The Australian Society of Authors (ASA) published guidelines on Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) helps navigate these areas. The guidelines are invaluable to non-Indigenous writers who wish to engage with Indigenous topics respectfully and responsibly.

As writer’s, it is important that we don’t shy away from issues because they might be difficult, but at the same time we have an indelible responsibility (whether we recognise it or not) to treat Indigenous issues with respect and understanding. Importantly the issue should be assessed against Indigenous sensitivities, not through our own ‘vanilla’ lens.

Understanding Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP)

The ASA ICIP encompasses the rights that Indigenous Peoples have and should have over their cultural heritage. This includes their knowledge, traditions, stories, and other cultural expressions. The rights are collective in nature, deeply embedded in the ongoing cultural and spiritual life of Indigenous communities. ICIP is not just about protecting material (physical) artifacts but also safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage that holds immense significance for Indigenous Peoples.

The Importance of Respect and Permission

One of the foundational principles of the ASA guidelines is respect. As a non-Indigenous writer, it is crucial to recognize that Indigenous stories are not necessarily available for everyone to use. This extends to considerations within Indigenous communities too. It is certainly disrespectful to assume that one Indigenous person or persons might be entitled to speak for others. These elements are part of a living culture that deserves respect and protection, even if this has not always been the case.

Before embarking on a project that involves Indigenous content, writers must seek permission from the relevant Indigenous communities. This is not a mere formality but a vital step in acknowledging the ownership and authority of these communities over their cultural heritage. Consultation should be genuine, and writers must be prepared to listen and engage with the community's views and concerns. And most importantly amend, edit or withdraw the intended work if it is likely to cause disrespect or harm.

Authenticity and Accuracy

Authenticity is another critical aspect emphasised in the ASA guidelines. Non-Indigenous writers must strive for accuracy in their portrayal of Indigenous cultures. This involves thorough research and, importantly, collaboration with the appropriate Indigenous Peoples. It is not enough to rely on second-hand sources. Direct engagement with Indigenous individuals and communities is essential to ensure the authenticity of the representation. Recognition that many unsavory events may have occurred in recent times and that Indigenous stories form a traditional and living historical record. It should also be acknowledged that written historical record of the times are most likely to be recorded though a ‘white’ lens.

Writers should avoid stereotypes and simplistic portrayals that can perpetuate misinformation and harm. Instead, they should aim to present nuanced, respectful, and well-informed narratives that reflect the diversity and richness of Indigenous cultures.

Cultural Sensitivity and Avoidance of Harm

Writing about Indigenous issues requires a high degree of cultural sensitivity. This means being aware of the potential impact of your work on Indigenous communities and taking tangible steps to avoid causing harm. The ASA guidelines stress the importance of avoiding exploitative practices and ensuring that Indigenous Peoples benefit from the use of their cultural heritage. This includes considering how Indigenous stories are framed and ensuring that they are not used to perpetuate negative stereotypes or to undermine recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. Writers should also be mindful of the context in which Indigenous stories are shared.


Acknowledging and Sharing Benefits

The ASA guidelines encourage non-Indigenous writers to ensure that the benefits of using Indigenous cultural materials are shared with the relevant communities. This can take various forms, including financial compensation, acknowledgment in the work, and ensuring that Indigenous voices are included and credited.

Acknowledging the source of cultural materials is not just about giving credit where it is due; it is also about recognizing the ongoing connection of Indigenous Peoples to their cultural heritage. This acknowledgment can help to build trust and foster positive relationships between non-Indigenous writers and Indigenous communities.

The Role of Non-Indigenous Writers

Non-Indigenous writers have a role to play in supporting Indigenous voices and promoting understanding and respect for Indigenous cultures. This involves amplifying Indigenous voices and stories rather than speaking for Indigenous Peoples. It is about being an ally, listening, learning, and using one's platform to support Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

Writing about Indigenous issues as a non-Indigenous person is a responsibility that requires care, respect, and a commitment to ethical practices. The ASA's guidelines on ICIP provide a valuable framework for ensuring that Indigenous cultural heritage is respected and protected. By seeking permission, ensuring authenticity, practicing cultural sensitivity, and sharing benefits, non-Indigenous writers can engage with Indigenous topics in a way that honours the rich cultural heritage of Indigenous Peoples.

Remember, it’s not your story to tell—unless you have the blessing and partnership of those to whom the story truly belongs. Writing with respect and integrity can contribute to a richer, more inclusive literary landscape that values and uplifts Indigenous voices and stories. Acting without respect and integrity perpetuates harm.

Image: Our flags. (Source: Flagworld)


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