A New Oodgeroo
Updated: Nov 10, 2019
As an immigrant to Australia (I'm white, so I gather I can call myself an immigrant, not the more PC 'migrant) I had no preconceived notions about Aboriginal writing. I was surprised when kids groaned at the idea of studying an Aboriginal play/novel/film/poetry.
Then I read it.
20 years on, I groaned too at the idea of teaching it. Aboriginal writing set for study tends to be single-issue stuff about the Stolen Generation and the cultural genocide. It's heartbreaking. It's a wound that won't heal. It's testimony that needs to be heard. And it's ususally really, really mediocre writing.
I sighed and avoided writing a sample essay for Oodgeroo's poetry for ages. Then I had to, and I found that I'd been wrong - at least about the seven poems set for Standard Module B.
At first glance they seem too plain, the language too simple, the ideas too descriptive to be worthy of the hard yakka we'd like to think English really is. We mentally earmark them for ESL or low-interest, low-ability classes, or we use them because we've got an old folder of 'context stuff' marked Aboriginal Spirituality or Stolen Generation. We don't treat them as poems which can, if necessary, stand apart from its context and be worthwhile studying as literature.
(Caveat: I realize that not everyone thinks like this; I'm simply saying what I've heard at the three independent girls' schools I've taught in, in inner Sydney).
Writing the sample essay for Standard Mod B I realized I was quite wrong about Oodgeroo's writing, and the value of linguistic simplicity in literary texts. Most Standard students will take the usual approach of simile-and-onomatopoeia identification, believing that this is analysis. But they are actually interesting poems, deceptively simple, elegant works of which much or little can be made. Oodgeroo makes linguistic simplicity and spareness of line work very much in her favour. Even the less-brilliant ones like 'Sunrise on Huampu River' are saved from being poor because they are clear and uncluttered, firm statements of things in the world, the attempt to represent them in with parsimony, and to convey tersely the reaction to these things. Compare that to the complexity of something like Robert Gray's 'Journey North Coast' - it's so complex that it's impossible to see what he's really getting at, and when the poem fails, it fails hard because the opacity pulls it down further.
Oodgeroo's clarity occurs not only at the level of idea, but syntax too: she uses an uncomplicated sentence structure, and clear noun+adjective pairs that play no linguistic or semiotic games but simply allow you to look through the word to the experience, getting as close as you can to the Dasein of the thing. It's this admirably clear grasp of the thing in the world that she has set her eye on, and her clear and untroubled awareness of what her own mind is doing as this happens. This, I think, is Oodgeroo's gift, and perhaps that of much indigenous writing - a clarity about what the writer is doing, and an untroubled sense of craftsmanship that we only see in really great, really certain, people.