Aboriginal life writing and globalisation: Doris Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (continued)
by Anne Brewster
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In Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence Pilkington recalls with a searing irony one of the more farcical projects of land management in the newly federated states of Australia. In 1907 a fence 1,834 kms in length was built from the Great Southern Ocean to the coast of the top end for the purpose of preventing rabbits invading Western Australia from the eastern states. Of course it did nothing of the sort. In fact, in a kind of carnivalesque humour, Pilkington contends that there were more rabbits on the Western Australian side of the fence than on the South Australian side. In Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence , however, the fence, for three young girls, is 'a symbol of love, home and security' (109) those most coveted and most mourned entitlements for generations of stolen people. Molly, the oldest of the three and the leader of the group, succeeded in delivering the three to their homelands as she was equipped with a range of essential survival skills, those learned from her white father, an inspector on the fence (78), and those learned from her step-father, 'a former nomad from the desert' and an 'expert' in bushcraft (82).
This felicitous conjunction of knowledges reminds us of the various localised forms of modernity dispersed across the globe. It also puts the lie to the equation of Aboriginality with primitivism, a reified concept of tradition, and passive recipience in a one-way cross-cultural exchange; this opposition privileges the coloniser as the exclusive agent of change, the harbinger of modernity, and figures Aboriginality as something that can only deliquesce. Despite expectations and concerted efforts to the contrary, indigenous people have survived and indeed await non-indigenous people in the project of fashioning a virtual world of co-inhabited space where memories, histories, futures and subjectivities co-exist non-hierarchically. As Walter Mignolo suggests, globalisation foregrounds the fact that 'there are no people in the present living in the past (as the Hegelian model of universal history proposed), but that the present is a variety of chronological circles and temporal rhythms' (37).
The recognition of alternative co-national cultural, spiritual and metaphysical ideals and modes of self-identification necessitates an undoing of the dominant understanding of the nation state and the administrative normalisation of multiculturalism. Indigenous culture performs the lived experience of cultural pluralism. Indigenous people in Australia have long been a cosmopolitan culture, one which was indeed multicultural avant la lettre. The contemporary surge of anti-cosmopolitanism to which the One Nation party appeals finds expression in the rhetoric of a minoritised, injured whiteness. We live in a period where constituencies struggle to occupy the moral highground of the victim. In appropriating the rhetoric of disadvantage, 'post'-colonial EuroAustralia disavows the restabilising of race categories in Australia and the relicensing of racism (Perera and Puglese). While avowing a disaffiliation with the morally discredited policies of assimilation, John Howard, for example, ensures an ongoing reconfiguration of white power.
Ours has been dubbed a post-traumatic age (Felman and Laub). The discourse of Reconciliation has been mobilised in a number of different global contexts to enable social reconstruction and national renewal in communities recovering from large-scale violence. Personal testimony is the most commonly used vehicle (eg the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions), though this process does have its pitfalls such as the commodification of 'victims', the depoliticising and domestication of violence, the medicalising and pathologising of trauma, the substitution of the language of the individualised choice and rights for that of social justice (Humphrey); this last situation is particularly marked in Howard's political discourse around 'Aboriginal' Reconciliation. Nevertheless, in Australia, the very public performance of indigenous life stories has been symptomatic of shifting relations between majoritarian and minoritarian groups within the circumference of the liberal democracy of the nation (Perera and Puglese). It has often been remarked that the nation's boundaries are not only policed at its periphery (through war, immigration etc) but also at its centre. The local 'inside' of the nation is, however, increasingly being linked to the global 'outside' (McCarthy, 180) and now more than ever we are aware of the need for cosmopolitical systems of justice.
Anne Brewster is a lecturer in English at the University of New South Wales. Her publication and research interests include Aboriginal literatures, fictocriticism and explorative methodologies, American language writing, and Singaporean and Malaysian literatures in English. Recent books include Those who remain will always remember: An Anthology of Aboriginal Writing (co-edited with Angeline O'Neill and Rosemary van den Berg, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000), Literary Formations: nationalism, globalism and postcolonialism (MUP 1995) and Reading Aboriginal Women's Autobiographical Narrative (SUP in assoc. OUP 1996).
Biddick, Kathleen. 'Humanist History and the Haunting of Virtual Worlds: Problems of Memory and Rememoration', Genders, 18, Winter 1993: 47-66.
Brewster, Anne. Literary Formations: postcolonialism, nationalism, globalism, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995.
Bullock Alan et al eds. The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, London: Fontana, 1988.
Felman Shoshana and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, NY: Routledge, 1992.
Gratton, Michelle ed., Reconciliation; Essays on Australian Reconciliation, Melbourne: Black Inc, 2000.
Humphrey, Michael, 'From Terror to Trauma: Commissioning Truth for National Reconciliation', Social Identities, 6 (1) March 2000: 7-28.
Kumar, Priya. 'Testimonies of Loss and Memory: Partition and the Haunting of a Nation', interventions, 1 (2): 201-15.
McCarthy, Thomas. 'On Reconciling Cosmopolitan Unity and National Diversity', Public Culture, 11(1): 175-208.
Mignolo, Walter D. 'Globalization, Civilisation Processes, and the Relocation of Languages and Cultures', in The Cultures of Globalization, eds. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, Durham: Duke University Press, 1999: 32-53.
Olubas, Brigitta and Lisa Greenwell, 'Re-membering and taking up an ethics of listening: a response to loss and the maternal in "the stolen chldren"', Australian Humanities Review, http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-July-1999/olubas.html
Perera, Suvendrini and Joseph Pugliese. '"Racial Suicide": the re-licensing of racism in Australia', Race & Class, 39 (2), Oct-Dec 1997: 1-20.
Pilkington, Doris (Nugi Garimara). Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996.
Prichard, Katharine Susannah. Coonardoo, North Ryde: Angus and Robertson, 1986.
Reynolds, Henry. An Indelible Stain? Ringwood, Victoria: Viking, 2001.
Return to Part One of this essay.
In Australian Humanities Review, see also
- Kay Schaffer's Manne's Generation: White Nation Responses to the Stolen Generation Report
- Fiona Paisley's Race and Remembrance: Contesting Aboriginal Child Removal in the Inter-War Years
- Ros Kidd's review of Mission Girls: Aboriginal Women on Catholic Missions in the Kimberley, Western Australia, 1900-1950, by Christine Choo, and Loving Protection?: Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women's Rights 1919-1939, by Fiona Paisley
- Henry Reynolds's After Mabo, What About Aboriginal Sovereignty? and The Stolen Children Their Stories: an afterword
- John Frow's A Politics of Stolen Time
- Carmel Bird's The Stolen Children Their Stories
- Sue Stanton's Time for Truth: Speaking the Unspeakable Genocide and Apartheid in the 'Lucky' Country
- Re-membering and taking up an ethics of listening: a response to loss and the maternal in "the stolen children" by Brigitta Olubas and Lisa Greenwell
- Those two little words by Beth Spencer
- and Cracking Up by Hannah Fink
- The ABC Website has an interview with Doris Pilkington at: http://www.abc.net.au/arts/books/stories/s424264.htm
- Doris Pilkington's book, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, is now the subject of a major film, released in Australia in February 2002 and the USA in June 2002
- For more Aboriginal Life writing, see Magabala Books