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Posted on 3 May 2018 in Non-Fiction |

ANITA HEISS (Ed.) Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia will do much to aid the understanding and commonality between different Australian communities.

This collection of reminiscences of Indigenous childhoods begins with a moving and beautifully written introduction by editor Anita Heiss. In collating and editing these memories, she has again added to our understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal identity and the strong connection to land.

Collections invite dipping into. ‘Different Times’ by Doreen Nelson, a Noongar woman born in 1947, tells a story of growing up on the native reserves. This is a devastating personal tale of loss and hardship at a time of harsh and paternalistic government policies regarding Aboriginal people. Nelson’s story is redemptive. She is a woman who has found peace:

Still we have survived and continue to revive our culture each day by passing on our Dreamtime stories, songs and dances to our younger generation, but still a lot of healing has to be done.

After the second essay I read I had to stop and digest. ‘Black Bum’ by Celeste Liddle recounts the moment she first realised she was different at 15. Liddle is now a respected opinion writer and public speaker with a strong media profile. Her final paragraph really affected me:

If I am honest: as I push the boundaries of my thirties and head into my inevitable forties, I still feel like I am ‘growing up Aboriginal’.

Evelyn Arulen’s ‘Finding Ways Home’ is beautifully evocative as she describes her shifts to and from the Aboriginal world and her understanding that she lived in two worlds pressing in on each other’.

There is much beautiful writing in this collection, from the poetry of Arulen and Jack Latimer to the yarns of the elders who grew up in the inner suburbs of our big cities, recounting their knockabout lives

‘My Father’, a piece by Tony Birch, includes three poems as he tells of his early life: ‘As much as he likes to sing and dance, my father is an angry and violent man.’

In her introduction Heiss talks about the collective impact of the stories:

[It’s] not one of victimhood: it is one of strength and resilience, of pride and inspiration, demonstrating the will to survive and the capacity to thrive against the odds.

Redemption is a powerful feature of many of these stories, but other common themes also emerge. These are identity, connection to the land and to ancestors, and a palpable desire to make a peace with post-colonial white Australia.

Anita Heiss came to national attention as one of the nine Aboriginals who sued Andrew Bolt in 2009 under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act for two articles he published in the Herald Sun – ‘It’s So Hip to be Black’ and ‘White Fellas in the Black’, in which he had challenged their Indigenous identity. In 2012 Heiss published Am I Black Enough for You? a charming family history/manifesto about identity and pride in her heritage, including the Austrian connection through her father.

Intersectionality is another strong theme in the book. Celeste Liddle talks about her play Not One Nation, which dealt with intersectional identities ‘before that became a millennial buzz-phrase …’

If intersectionality extends to time and place, what do these stories mean to Australians today? In ‘Abo Nose’, Zachery Penrith-Puchalski, a Yorta Yorta man ‘half Koori and half Polish – black Poles, as my mum and dad lovingly referred to us’, writes about hearing an ‘Abo’ joke and how he reacts. Ian Dudley writes about ‘growing up beige’ in a family where his heritage is only discussed obliquely, and of his struggles to learn and pass on his culture. Jason Goninan, a Gunditjamarra man, is Irish on his father’s side. In ‘There Are No Halves’ he identifies as an Aboriginal ‘although this is not an easy path to take’.

In ‘Dear Australia’, Don Bemrose writes:

Dear Australia, I am a descendant of the Gunggari people of the Maranoa district near Mitchell, Queensland. I am a member of a rich living culture. I grew up with a loving, generous extended family on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and I have much to be thankful for.

His contribution is also angry, passionate and righteous.

In his articles Andrew Bolt tried to define Aboriginal identity by shades of colour and physical appearance. He claims to be indigenous to Australia and appears to have no pride in or connection to his Dutch heritage. Anita Heiss seeks to expand our consciousness of our connections to our family and our history. We can be Australian and still true to the identity of our ancestry, wherever our parents or more distant relatives came from. In this collection are shared stories of people that successive groups of migrants grew up beside and mingled with in the rural communities, towns and cities of Australia.

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia gives us important snapshots of Aboriginal life and is an important contribution to the continuing story of Aboriginal identity and its strong connection to the land. Many of the pieces allude to historical events and famous names. Enjoy the Burnum Burnum connection when you find it! These are stories that speak to all Australians: we should feel shame at the racism and the poverty, celebrate powerful voices and empathise with the authors. I shared the pain and the anger and reacted emotionally as I read. There are also, however, many accounts of resilience and hope.

The hope of many of the writers is that Australia will make peace with itself and Aboriginal Australians. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia will do much to aid the understanding and commonality between the different Australian communities.

Anita Heiss (Ed.) Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia Black Inc 2018 PB 368pp $29.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at

You can buy Growing up Aboriginal in Australia from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.